Democracy Dies in Darkness

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Laura Bush: Separating children from their parents at the border ‘breaks my heart’

June 17, 2018 at 8:45 PM

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ProPublica obtained audio from inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, where children can be heard wailing as they ask for their family members. (ProPublica)

Laura Bush is a former first lady of the United States.

On Sunday, a day we as a nation set aside to honor fathers and the bonds of family, I was among the millions of Americans who watched images of children who have been torn from their parents. In the six weeks between April 19 and May 31, the Department of Homeland Security has sent nearly 2,000 children to mass detention centers or foster care. More than 100 of these children are younger than 4 years old. The reason for these separations is a zero-tolerance policy for their parents, who are accused of illegally crossing our borders.

I live in a border state. I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.

Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso. These images are eerily reminiscent of the internment camps for U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history. We also know that this treatment inflicts trauma; those who have been interned have been twice as likely to suffer cardiovascular disease or die prematurely than those who were not interned.

Americans pride ourselves on being a moral nation, on being the nation that sends humanitarian relief to places devastated by natural disasters or famine or war. We pride ourselves on believing that people should be seen for the content of their character, not the color of their skin. We pride ourselves on acceptance. If we are truly that country, then it is our obligation to reunite these detained children with their parents — and to stop separating parents and children in the first place.

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Columnist Elizabeth Bruenig takes issue with the way Attorney General Jeff Sessions is using scripture to justify separating families at the border. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

People on all sides agree that our immigration system isn’t working, but the injustice of zero tolerance is not the answer. I moved away from Washington almost a decade ago, but I know there are good people at all levels of government who can do better to fix this.

Recently, Colleen Kraft, who heads the American Academy of Pediatrics, visited a shelter run by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. She reported that while there were beds, toys, crayons, a playground and diaper changes, the people working at the shelter had been instructed not to pick up or touch the children to comfort them. Imagine not being able to pick up a child who is not yet out of diapers.

Twenty-nine years ago, my mother-in-law, Barbara Bush, visited Grandma’s House, a home for children with HIV/AIDS in Washington. Back then, at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, the disease was a death sentence, and most babies born with it were considered “untouchables.” During her visit, Barbara — who was the first lady at the time — picked up a fussy, dying baby named Donovan and snuggled him against her shoulder to soothe him. My mother-in-law never viewed her embrace of that fragile child as courageous. She simply saw it as the right thing to do in a world that can be arbitrary, unkind and even cruel. She, who after the death of her 3-year-old daughter knew what it was to lose a child, believed that every child is deserving of human kindness, compassion and love.

In 2018, can we not as a nation find a kinder, more compassionate and more moral answer to this current crisis? I, for one, believe we can.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Message at the border: ‘No vacancy’

James A. Coan: The Trump administration is committing violence against children

Cartoons: Tom Toles and Ann Telnaes skewer the Trump administration’s border policies

Kathleen Parker: I don’t recognize this country anymore

Eugene Robinson: Trump and Sessions have created prisons for Spanish-speaking children

U.S. Border Patrol agents arrive to detain a group of Central American asylum seekers near the Mexican border in McAllen, Tex.
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A two-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents before being sent to a processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Border Patrol agents detain a group of Central American asylum seekers.
A Border Patrol spotlight shines on a mother and son from Honduras.
A Border Patrol agent looks for groups of asylum seekers crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico.
Border Patrol agents ask a group of Central American asylum seekers to remove hair bands and wedding rings before taking them into custody.
Border Patrol agents watch over a group of undocumented immigrants after chasing them through a cane field.
A Honduran mother holds her 2-year-old as Border Patrol as agents review their papers.
Border Patrol agents take a group of Central American asylum seekers into custody.
Central American asylum seekers wait for transport while being detained by Border Patrol agents.
An undocumented immigrant is given water by Border Patrol agents after she was apprehended in a cane field.
Central American asylum seekers are taken into custody by Border Patrol agents.
A boy and father from Honduras are taken into custody by Border Patrol agents.
Photo Gallery: U.S. Border Patrol agents are detaining people trying to enter the country.
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