When I was 4 years old, I was taken away from my parents. We were refugees from Vietnam, fleeing the end of the war in 1975. With 130,000 other Vietnamese, we were put into refugee camps. To leave, we needed American sponsors, but no sponsor was willing to host my entire family. One took my parents, one took my 10-year-old brother and one took me. Memory for me begins here, howling with fear and pain as I was taken from my mother, too young to understand that I would be returned to her in a few months.
I thought of this experience when I read the words earlier this month of Attorney General Jeff Sessions regarding his intent to separate children from undocumented parents at the border — possibly even sending those children to detention camps on military bases. “If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” he said. “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
Sessions is a law-and-order man who believes he is protecting our country. I’m a man, a son, a father and a writer who worries about our nation losing its soul.
The intent of this policy is punitive. In practice, it will undoubtedly lead to shattered families. As Democratic Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke says, “You are either for separating children from their parents or you are against it. I am against it.” Me too.
The controversy over this policy should not be reduced to a partisan issue, or even to a debate about undocumented immigration. Sessions’s child-removal policy actually extends the callousness of current American penal practices. As Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said, “That’s no different than what we do every day in every part of the United States — when an adult of a family commits a crime. . . . If you as a parent break into a house, you will be incarcerated by police and thereby separated from your family.”
Nielsen inadvertently points to how removing children from their parents has been a longtime bipartisan practice of American society. Democrats and liberals who condemn contemporary Republican policy might want to consider how the Clinton and Obama administrations also sanctioned the removal of children from parents, both undocumented immigrants and those in prison for other crimes.
The war on drugs, tough-on-crime sentencing and mandatory minimum sentencing — all of which featured prominently in the Clinton administration — have led to rates of mass incarceration in the United States that are almost unrivaled worldwide. More than 2.3 million Americans are in some type of correctional facility. If they have children, they have been separated from them, and the chances of them losing their children to the state are high. More than 5 million children in the United States have had a parent in jail, and the impact is disproportionately high for black and Latino children.
As a nation, we have had little significant debate on the morality or efficacy of such policies. Perhaps this is because the removal of children from parents is not new in U.S. history. Indigenous children were sent alone to Indian schools to become assimilated into American society, and slaveowners separated slave children from slave parents to sell either, or both.
Comparing them to undocumented families today may anger many contemporary Americans. Like Sessions and Nielsen, they would argue that undocumented immigrants have broken the law, and that the law allows these removals.
It was legal for slaveowners to sell slave children, too. But was the practice just? Was it humane?
Hiding behind the law is so persuasive that it can lead those who have benefited from humane policies to endorse inhumane ones. Take some of my fellow Vietnamese immigrants, for example — such as Tri Ta, mayor of Westminster, Calif., which has more Vietnamese Americans per capita than any other U.S. city. Mayor Ta, along with the city’s Vietnamese American vice mayor, Tyler Diep, voted for a successful Westminster resolution against California’s sanctuary state stance, which protects undocumented immigrants.
“The Vietnamese boat people came to the United States legally,” Ta said. “My family and I went through the process.”
Vietnamese people came to this country not only because it was legal but because it was humane. Congress decided that the United States owed a moral debt to the South Vietnamese, who had fought a war that was largely driven by U.S. interests. Would Ta be so willing to endorse legality if the United States had not welcomed the Vietnamese?
My removal from my parents was a benevolent act that led me to being housed for several months by a generous American family. And yet being separated from my parents hurt enough for me to remember it vividly more than 40 years later. I can easily imagine the kind of damage a prolonged removal, under much more adverse circumstances, would do to a child. Or to a parent, since I am now the father of a 4-year-old myself. I say I can imagine it, but the pain of losing my son is actually unimaginable.
I wonder whether whoever decided to take me from my mother considered her pain. Maybe they only saw her alienness and her lack of education, which happened because she was born poor and a girl. Perhaps they never saw that in Vietnam she had been a successful businesswoman. But even if she hadn’t, what difference should that have made? Are people who are less successful not human or deserving of the right to hold on to their children? Our answer to that question says everything about us.
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