A recurring feature of the past decade has been shame-faced governments apologising to (and often financially compensating) parents for the forced removal of their children in the name of one abhorrent social policy or another.
In 2010, the then prime minister, Gordon Brown, expressed regret for the 50-year programme that saw 130,000 children from deprived backgrounds shipped to the colonies for a “better life”. Last year, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $600 million in compensation would be paid to 16,000 aboriginals snatched from their families for adoption by non-indigenous families as part of the country’s “Sixties Scoop” initiative; the money was intended to help them deal with ongoing mental disorders, substance abuse and suicide.
Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar recently apologised to the sons and daughters of Magdalene Laundry mothers forcibly removed and handed over for illegal adoption between 1946 and 1969; and right now the British government is facing demands for an apology and a public inquiry into children removed in similar circumstances in the UK. All of these leaders imply such practices, which were institutionalised child abuse, belong to a dark corner of history when the world was less civilised and policy-making less enlightened.
And yet similarly reprehensible acts are being carried out right now in the US; under the guise of a zero tolerance approach to “illegal” immigration, the government is separating undocumented children at the Mexican border and taking them, disorientated and alone, to warehouse-like detention facilities, before putting them in foster care. The US administration claims they will be reunited as soon as possible after their parents have been dealt with and their sentences served; but some of those working within the immigration system claim the onus is on the families to fight for their children’s return. Isolated in a foreign country, with poor language skills and no financial resources, who would rate their chances against a hostile, intransigent bureaucracy? With co-ordination between the different agencies poor, some parents are said to have been deported before they could find out where their offspring were being held. But even where families are eventually reunited, there will be a psychological legacy, particularly with very young children for whom even a short period of separation is traumatic.
The stories that have filtered out in recent days are too painful to dwell on: a baby ripped from its mother’s breast; exhausted parents who can hear their children screaming in another room; asylum seekers too distressed to give an adequate account of themselves in subsequent court hearings.
In some cases, parents appear to have been told their children were being taken away to the toilet only for them to disappear. In others, the prospect of an expedited reunion has been used to put pressure on those involved to plead guilty. Last week the Washington Post reported on Marco Antonio Muñoz, a Honduran man, who killed himself after his three-year-old son was physically torn from his arms.
What became clear earlier this year is that these are not outliers involving a small number of over-zealous border agents; they are the direct and deliberate product of official US government policy.
At first, the administration sought to deny this. Then, as the number of reports grew, it claimed it was trying to protect children against people smugglers; they were being taken away, it was claimed, so DNA tests could be carried out to ensure the adults with them really were their parents as opposed to traffickers.
In April, however, Attorney General Jeff Sessions came clean and admitted the policy had changed. Where once undocumented immigrants caught at the border would have been taken to a detention centre before facing an immigration judge, they were now to be prosecuted in the criminal courts. Since minors cannot be held in a federal jail, this meant them being wrested from their parents. Customs and Border Protection figures from 7-21 May, show 658 children were split from 638 adults in the “prosecution process”.
The shift was part of a zero tolerance approach (not dissimilar in its goal to Theresa May’s hostile environment policy) in which gratuitous pain is inflicted in the hope it will act as a deterrent. It’s nonsense, of course. If you are desperate enough you will take your chance however poor the odds; we already know this from the number of child migrants who have drowned in capsized boats in the Mediterranean.
Despite this, the government appears to be willing to defend the policy against all-comers and by any means. For Sessions, this meant quoting Romans 13 – that bit about how the laws of the government should be obeyed because “God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” That this passage has fallen out of favour because it was used by southerners to defend slavery went – whoosh – right over Sessions’ head. A couple of weeks ago, state department spokesperson Heather Nauert cited D-Day as evidence of the US’s strong relationship with Germany, so it’s safe to say history is not this administration’s strong suit. Even so, the invocation of religion to justify the unjustifiable – gun laws, anti-abortion measures and now apparent human rights violations – is not a good look; especially as most Christians will confirm the best-known Biblical removal of babies from their parents involves Herod’s slaughtering of the newborns, while the best-known refugees are Mary, Joseph and Jesus, who fled to Egypt to escape him.
Nor does the administration have any truck with the notion that Christianity might involve qualities such as compassion and selflessness. Asked if she had any “empathy” with the these families, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders looked as if the word might ring a very distant bell before accusing the reporter involved of trying to secure himself more air time.
If Trump is beyond embarrassment, there are others within the Republican Party who are not. Some of them insist a bill due to come before the House of Representatives next week would put an end to the separation of families. It might too; but only by offering up another unpalatable alternative.
What the bill does, according to its critics, is remove restrictions on how long families can stay in detention centres, allowing them to be held indefinitely. If they can be held indefinitely, the logic goes, there will be less reason to separate them.
As US President Donald Trump hero-worships a dictator and congratulates himself on having solved the North Korea “problem”, he is presiding over the kind of social scandal we might have supposed was consigned to the past. In 20 years, perhaps, another chastened US leader will stand before the nation to publicly acknowledge the damage done and to apologise. Such nostra culpas have their place. What we really need, though, is not endless retrospective hand-wringing, but for Trump et al to remember history so they can stop repeating it.