During the Christmas season, the Trump administration announced one of its most cruel and inhumane policies to date: a plan that would separate parents from their children when they are detained at the U.S. border for possible illegal entry. At a time when Christians around the world are celebrating the birth of a child who was nurtured to save the world, this administration is taking actions that would deny children their most fundamental needs to thrive.
I can’t get out of my mind the image of José Demar Fuentes and his one-year old son, Mateo, who was taken away by Customs and Border Patrol officials and turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in November. While Mateo, I hope, is being fed, clothed and housed, two of the three principles for supporting his most basic developmental needs, according to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, are being violated: first, supporting responsive relationships between the child and his parents, and second, reducing sources of stress in the lives of children and families.
It is well-known that families have been fleeing horrendous, life threatening circumstances in the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. In the face of grave physical harm and death, they are choosing an arduous and dangerous path heading north to “life” for their children. Here they hope to be able to better support their children in the ways that the Center on the Developing Child describes are critical to their children’s development, reducing daily stressors, providing the opportunity for their children to acquire core life skills, and simply loving them.
The Trump administration’s intent in detaining these family members and literally ripping children away from their parents is to further deter migration. However, it neglects the basic instinct in all living beings to protect and save one’s young. The only thing this policy accomplishes is the imposition of further pain and suffering on parents who have already been faced with a terrible choice between tremendous risks in a wretched journey and greater harm or death.
Christians this week hear the story of a family who similarly made a grueling journey away from their home to escape persecution, and we celebrate the life of a child who was born in the most crude and meager of circumstances. Yet under the Trump administration’s latest and perhaps harshest immigration policies and tactics, instead of loving and revering the child seeking protection at our borders, we are harming children and terrorizing families.
The courts had previously ruled that Department of Homeland Security policies that detain families indefinitely without bond or with an impossibly high bond, with the objective of discouraging future border crossings, are not legal. Under the new proposed policies, which are already being enacted in José and Mateo’s case, we will do even greater harm by no longer making an effort to keep families intact so that they continue to nurture and provide love and comfort to their children while their future lives and safety hang in the balance.
In this Christmas season, can we see the face of Jesus in the child at the borders and welcome the family, as did the three kings, in this prosperous country, where we extol the values of love, life and freedom from suffering?
Carolyn J. Heinrich, Ph.D., is the Patricia and Rodes Hart professor of public policy, education and economics at Vanderbilt University.