The Nightmare Is Now: Stolen Children in a Country of Cages

Amid the widespread outrage over a recently released audio recording of immigrant children crying for their parents at the border, there has been great discussion of the larger historical legacy of child separation in the United States. Those are important conversations, and they should continue. But we must also discuss the fact that those cries are not just an echo of this country’s history, but also an echo of an unexamined present. No person of conscience could hear those cries of “mamá” and “papá” — the cries that a border patrol agent jokingly referred to as “an orchestra” — without feeling called to action. But we must remember that the frightened pleas of the children ripped from their parents echo the cries of children across the United States who have been robbed of their parents through deportation raids, or by local police who play the role of slave catcher for the state.

Understanding these connections is not about pulling the current crisis out of focus. It is about recognizing that this travesty is not occurring in a vacuum — and that you cannot understand a crisis by examining one frame of a story. This administration is snatching children at the border and holding them for ransom to fund Trump’s wall, but it is also criminalizing their parents. With the political tide turning against heavy sentences for “nonviolent drug offenses,” the prison-industrial complex is hungry. Prison contractors have long seen immigration detention as a growth industry. This isn’t just about walls or border politics or immigration laws. It’s also about cages, and how those who profit from them can keep them full.

Amid all the discussion of freeing those children, we aren’t talking nearly enough about the fact that their parents are being criminally prosecuted, or what that means in the larger context of the carceral state. With an alarmed public demanding reunification, some Republicans are conjuring their own “solutions,” with legislation calling for more family detention centers (a vile form of incarceration that active communities have long fought to dismantle). Meanwhile, the president has announced plans to sign an executive order that would “keep families together” by indefinitely detaining parents and children together. With so much public emphasis on the separations themselves, the risk of family separation being replaced with catastrophic solutions is real.

Let’s also keep in mind that narrative efforts that divide children seized by border control from other immigrants around the country, who are likewise faced with separations, incarceration, and a climate of panic and fear, are already being weaponized against other vulnerable people. Those who would separate families, cage parents and children — and extract profit and resource in the process — believe we can’t care about more than one thing, more than one place or more than one group of people at a time. We can prove them wrong by seeing and discussing historical connections and by exposing this country’s system of cages for the continuum of bondage that it is.

Children whose parents are caged in county jails and state prisons have also cried out for their parents. Children who’ve been thrust into carceral “homes” within the foster care system have likewise cried out. And the cries of children whose parents have been murdered by the state are unending. We must challenge our communities to broaden their empathy and remember that they, too, have turned away from the cries of children, and that, to paraphrase Dr. King, it’s time for all of us to atone for our silences.

The context of this crisis isn’t simply historical, it is current, and acknowledging this does not have to bring the children at the border out of focus. It can put their plight in a larger context, and without that context, there can be no strategy that doesn’t come at the expense of others. For years, the right has successfully played our communities against one another, internally and externally, as we quarrel over who is “innocent” and who is not. It’s time to stop playing into their script and to start writing a new page.

So, let’s say it together this time: We will fight for every child and to empty every cage. We will take this thing on in its totality, and this time, we will leave no one behind.