As a nation we value and ascribe importance to the family unit. We recognize the family’s crucial role in nurturing children and socializing them to become responsible, productive adults who contribute to the well-being of our society. The family provides the nurturing love and support a child needs to develop a healthy personality, including the ability to get along with others and to have a positive outlook on life. We even have policies specifically written to support family life. A prime example is aid-for-dependent children programs, with the founding principle that children benefit from having their mothers home providing care, rather than away from home because of financial necessity.
How is it, then, given our history of family-friendly and child-supportive policies, we have become so callous in regard to the problems and needs of immigrant families that we forcibly seize children from their parents and detain them in separated facilities? Granted, the migrants enter as illegal aliens, but simple human decency cries out against this practice. Separating children from parents certainly is agonizing for the parents, but for children it can be a trauma from which they may never fully recover. Life has given adults social, psychological and legal tools to weather and recover from such ordeals. Children have none of these.
I focus on this issue and empathize with these children because of a similar early-life experience. Though my experience was not nearly as grievous, it gives me some understanding of these children’s plight. Readers of some of my past columns probably know I was born in Germany. My family — father mother, sister and I — came to the U.S. in 1952 when I was 7, sponsored by a farmer in western Nebraska. Processing in Germany for the move was extensive, requiring stops at three different facilities, all former military bases. Just as we thought everything had been completed, I became ill. My parents brought me to the camp hospital where a doctor examined me, then handed me over to a nurse, who immediately whisked me away to a room on the second floor. Two other children, a boy and a girl about my age, were also brought in. We changed into hospital gowns and were put to bed.
That first night in the hospital was terrifying. Once admitted into the doctor’s examining room, I did not see my parents again. I had no words of assurance from them that I was not gravely ill, that I would soon be better and that I would soon be back with them. The nurses were cold and stiff and did little to put us at ease. When I asked if I could see my parents, I was told they could not come up. Days came and went, and from snippets of comments I overheard from the nurses I wondered if I was making any progress. I feared my illness was serious and I wondered if I would ever get out. The nurses’ authoritarian demeanor discouraged asking any questions.
I was in the hospital one week. I was never told my parents came by each day to check on me. In retrospect, I understand why I was quarantined. My sister had measles just before out-processing began, and I caught the disease from her. The camp’s medical staff moved quickly to prevent the disease spreading, but they could have been more humane and child-friendly in the process.
What must it be like for children who are forcibly separated from their parents by military-like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents with guns? The children are conveyed to facilities akin to prisons and allowed outside only a couple hours each day. They are consigned to an authoritarian world for which they have neither the legal nor the social knowledge or skills to navigate. I had to endure only a week of this hopelessness. Most of the immigrant children are locked away for one to two months, each day an eternity, before they are reunited with their parents or are otherwise placed.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions granted that children should not be separated from their parents, but he insists it is the consequence of the existing law. After apprehending illegal immigrants, ICE agents separate children from their parents, and within 72 hours transport them to a facility operated by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The administration claims that the care received at the HHS facilities, including food, health care and education, is far superior to what these children had in the past and even better than many children of U.S. citizens. Owing to the lack sufficient facilities, the administration is now considering housing the children in tents on military installations. That is unconscionable.
Sessions adamantly points out that if illegal immigrants to the U.S. don’t want to be separated from their children “they should not bring them.” Advice that falls on deaf ears of parents living in poverty in a crime-ridden society with government graft and corruption offering no future for their children. Congress needs to do its job and pass a comprehensive immigration bill, and the federal administration needs to be more humane in implementing immigration laws. Also, Sessions should realize those who will suffer most from the separation are not the parents, whom he chastises, rather their children. They have no voice and no choice.
Pete Korsching is an Iowa State University Emeritus Professor, a Nevada resident and a freelance columnist for the Nevada Journal.