The ongoing humanitarian catastrophe unfolding at the US-Mexico border has, at long last, motivated the staid and steady purveyors of “on-one-hand-but-on-the-other-hand” journalistic “balance” to forego their usual milquetoast approach to matters of consequence.
The corporate news media have been pulling no punches in their coverage of children being forcibly separated from their parents and caged like dogs. They have been calling the president of the United States a liar, out loud and in broad daylight, for the first time since this garbage barge of an administration put to sea. They are calling the whole thing “child abuse,” and justly so.
The news broadcast on Monday night badly frightened my daughter, who saw everything unfolding on the television. Too young to understand the gulf standing between her security as a white US citizen and the shattering insecurity endured by the migrants she was seeing, she spent the remainder of the evening convinced Donald Trump was going to come and take her away from us. She slept with Mommy and Daddy that night, and was still jumpy in the morning.
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Seeing these images unnerve a non-immigrant child who is 2,000 miles away from the scene of the crime gave me a new and galling perspective on the incalculable psychic trauma experienced by all the children who are closer to the vortex of our president’s racist policy.
Satsuki Ina is a psychotherapist who works at detention centers like the ones currently imprisoning the children taken from their migrant parents. Ina, who is of Japanese descent, was born in the Tule Lake Segregation Center in California during World War II after her parents were arrested for being Japanese.
The camp was, in fact, a maximum-security prison with more than a thousand armed guards and eight battle tanks. When Ina’s father spoke up to demand his Constitutional rights as a citizen, he was charged with sedition by the US government and taken away to a different prison camp in North Dakota. She did not see him again for years.
In an interview with Splinter News, Satsuki Ina explained, as a psychotherapist and as a survivor of government detention, the effects of the detention/separation experience on children:
One of the worst traumas for children is to be separated from their caregivers and then placed in what they’re calling “temporary detention facilities.” But it’s indefinite detention—they have no idea how long they’re going to be held. They have no idea if they’ll ever see their parents again.
That level of anxiety causes tremendous emotional stress, and we know from the research in neuroscience that constant release of these stress hormones can affect a child’s ability to learn, a child’s ability to self-manage, to regulate themselves. This kind of treatment has consequences for a lifetime for a child. The trauma effect is pretty severe when there’s been captivity trauma.
Trump and his defenders have been quick to blame immigrant parents for bringing their children north. It’s a facile bit of pushback that underscores the galloping ignorance of those at the highest levels of government and highlights a generalized ignorance within the population of just exactly what is going on at the border and beyond.
People don’t expose their children to the risks of a long, perilous and uncertain journey at a whim. Most of them do so because the circumstances in their home countries are intolerably dangerous; Honduras, for one example, has one of the highest murder rates in the world for a country not at war, because of unchecked gang violence and the aftermath of generations of deeply damaging US policies in South and Central America.
For these parents, the choice between staying, going north and leaving their children behind in a cauldron of peril, or going north together as a family, is no choice at all. By bringing their children to the US to seek a better life far away from the mayhem at home, they are making the most responsible choice they have available to them, one that has been made time and again throughout our history.
White people in the US, whose European ancestors brought their kids along when they risked an Atlantic Ocean crossing to escape famine and war in countries like Ireland and Germany, should be greeting these migrant families with respect born of familiarity, not with violent disdain. When officials like Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen refer to the victims of Trump’s new border policy as “alien children,” however, dehumanizing them becomes far easier. When the president calls them “animals” who “infest” the country, it becomes easier still. Alien, animal, different, not us: dismissed.
This is not an accident.
“When thousands of Japanese Americans were being removed from their classrooms, from their jobs, and their neighborhoods, there was no outcry,” said Satsuki Ina in her Splinter News interview. “No one instituted any kind of protest. And there was no press or organized effort to stand up for the Japanese-Americans because it was war time. We are currently in a war-like situation in that immigrants are seeking safety, and they have been characterized as criminals and rapists.”
Donald Trump can end this monstrosity today with a single phone call. He won’t, because he fears looking weak in the eyes of the people he rode to power by stoking their nativist hatred. He won’t, until he is forced to. We must be that force, today, right now.
This situation has me so furious, as a father and as a human being, that I have literally found it difficult to think straight. I know this much, however: How we choose to deal with the immigrant families at the border will define us, for good or ill, generations hence. There is no escaping this. We stand upon the fulcrum of history as the weakest among us dangle on the edge of despair.
This is what fascism looks like. We must fight it. We cannot fail these children. We cannot fail ourselves.