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The shame in the Trump administration’s family separation policy

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Colorado Springs residents show up to voice their opinion: Families belong together. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Colorado Springs residents show up to voice their opinion: Families belong together.
Sin vergüenza. At the family level, this expression is reserved for those rare moments when a mother catches her child doing something terribly wrong, such as taking something that doesn’t belong to him or her, or telling a lie. It means “without shame.” When a mother says this in a stern tone of voice, the child instantly knows he has breached a taboo. It’s a civilizing statement. Socially, in Spanish households during the years of military dictator Francisco Franco (1939-1975), a sin vergüenza leveled at a person serving the fascist regime was as low as a person could get. Party leaders who behaved shamelessly not only were vile, they knew that they were vile. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent term in the English language that quite expresses the gravitas of a sin vergüenza.

In the summer of 2017 amid much secrecy — and only disclosed in recent media coverage after immigration attorneys interviewed so-called “unaccompanied minors” who it turns out really weren’t unaccompanied — the White House, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security launched a “zero tolerance” pilot program to deter the border crossing of asylum seekers from the Northern Tier countries of Central America. Knowingly derogating from a 1997 federal court order known as the Flores Decree, this action would impose criminal penalties on parents, separate minors from their parents, deport the parents, and hold minors in detention for more than 20 days. Without shame.

The so-called purpose of this derogation of the Flores Decree to keep minors in detention was “law and order” under the aegis of “Making America Great Again.” These babies, little children, teenagers and their families have fled some of the worst murder rates and political corruption documented in the world — worse than Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. And Gen. John Kelly, who through most of July 2017 was head of the Department of Homeland Security and is now White House Chief of Staff was not ignorant of these facts.

Before coming to DHS, he was head of U.S. Southern Command in Miami, a place where I used to work. What did I do there? Measure and report to the top brass on social disorder and political instability. When I left, someone took my place. Throwing sticks at the suffering of human refugee flows won’t solve this problem in the Northern Tier. General Kelly knew what the ground truth was in Central America long before he came to Washington. Without shame.

Kelly’s replacement at DHS, Kirstjen Nielsen, lied before the American people when she said she was not aware of the family separation policy. She was Kelly’s chief of staff when the pilot program was enacted. She, like Gen. Kelly, thought using the force of government to take something that did not belong to government — children — would be an effective deterrent in the El Paso pilot program begun last summer. However, the deterrent program was clearly failing. The refugees kept coming. And so did the secrecy of the criminalization of asylum seekers, the taking of children from their parents, and their prolonged imprisonment in secret detention sites. Without shame.

Another architect of this policy: Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions was once considered too racist to be attorney general of Alabama. Let that sink in. Yet he’s good enough for America? He had the nerve to say that the Bible agrees with his enforcement of the family separation policy. I guess when he read the story about the Israelites escaping Egypt, he took the Pharaoh’s side. Without shame.

And then there’s another architect of this failed policy of child abuse, endangerment and human oppression, one much closer to Trump himself: Senior Policy Advisor to the President Stephen Miller. Miller, reviled by many in the Jewish community, is the descendant of Jewish immigrants, who under Miller’s policy today likely would not find asylum in the U.S. Without shame.

And with all of the above, came no-bid contracts for austere prison warehousing and adoption agencies for these “unaccompanied minors” who, let’s remember, were really not unaccompanied. They were coerced into that status after arriving here with their parents, after abandoning their homes, after fleeing neighborhoods rife with gang violence, extortion, rape and murder, and making a most perilous journey north. This is the force of a racist, hostile government taking something that doesn’t belong to it — children — and farming them out to prison contractors for profit and for trade on the New York Stock Exchange. Not since the 19th century have brown-skinned children been stolen from their mothers and fathers under the auspices of government law and policy, then traded for profit in these United States of America. Without shame.

Then there’s Donald Trump. He began his campaign for president calling people from south of the border rapists and murderers. For a guy from New York City, he acts more like a defiant governor from the Jim Crow South. The Blue Wave threatens to overturn Congress in this year’s midterms, leading to his impeachment and possibly prison. He must hold Congress. Criminalizing brown-skinned refugees is his way of stirring up votes for fellow Republicans. Trump is a very desperate man, a malignant narcissist who’ll stop at nothing to consolidate his power and fortune. Without shame.

We should admire these refugees from the Northern Tier for their courage, endurance and faith. Instead, our government adjudicates the parents as criminals, hides their children from the American people for an entire year, and lies about the family separation policy when questioned by an inquisitive free press.

This presidential administration has done some vile things all right, but none as low as family separation. Sin vergüenza. Without shame.

Terri K. Wonder is a retired military social scientist from the Army Civilian sector who lives in Manitou Springs with her husband, three cats, nine vegetable plots, and a peach tree. She was given a Superior Civilian Service Award while deployed in Iraq, 2008-2010.

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