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  • Jan Flynn

Why I’m Crying On Vacation

It’s not the vacation. I’m having a wonderful time, visiting family while on a leisurely road trip through the Northwest. I get to see my beloved grandnieces and grandnephews, children who are thriving and happy and delightful and safe.

But the news has found me, and I’m sick at heart. USA Today, Vox, the Washington Post and the New York Times reveal that, while I’m enjoying the kids in my extended family, other people are losing their children, and it’s being done in my name. Yours too, if you live in the U.S.

I thought, and possibly you thought too, that the abomination of family separation at the border — the infamous “zero tolerance” policy — had been done away with. Public outrage was so overwhelming that even this administration had been forced to recognize its cruelty. There was an injunction. The policy was halted. We took care of it.

But I was wrong. Despite the injunction, kids — even babies — are being taken away from their desperate parents or siblings. Now they languish, traumatized, in conditions that are unsuitable at best and horrific at worst.

Some of them have been sent to detention thousands of miles away from their parents. And — this is the part that causes my chest to feel as though it’s about to split open — the government has yet to develop a method for tracking where these kids are. They are lost in a vast bureaucratic machine, a system heartless enough to shatter families but one that doesn’t think it worthwhile to record where it’s put their children.

I know you’re tired, burnt out from trying to respond to one outrage after another. It’s summertime, and we all need a break. But there are times when outrage and grief and righteous anger are called for, are necessary, if we want to remain sane. If you haven’t yet read Michelle Goldberg’s opinion piece in the New York Times, “The Terrible Things Trump Is Doing In Our Name,” I urge you to do so. Actually, I’m pleading with you. It will make you feel bad, and I’m sorry for that. But it’s worse not to know.

Meanwhile, I offer you part of a post I wrote in January, when the public outcry about family separation was in full swing. It’s hard, I know it is, but we need to find our voices again:

Can we turn out attention back to the real crisis on our border?

I’m talking missing kids. Kids our government forcibly separated from their families and then failed to keep track of their locations. And, as the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services reported on January 17, there may be thousands — thousands — of such children that have not been counted.

In the bland language of government reportage, the HHS report notes:

As of December 2018, HHS had identified 2,737 children who were separated from their parents and required to be reunified by a June 2018 court in the Ms. L v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) litigation. However, this number does not represent the full scope of family separations. Thousands of children may have been separated during an influx that began in 2017, before the accounting required by the court.

The report goes on to say that the total number of children separated at the border is “unknown.” And nobody knows how many of these kids have yet to make it back to their families. Here’s the thing: way before the infamous “zero tolerance policy” was put into place, children were being seized at the border and taken away from their family members. And then, through a Byzantine web of government agencies, not all of whom appear to be able to communicate with one another, the children got sent, well, somewhere. We’re just not sure where. HHS and ORR are working on it. Or, hopefully they are now that the government is open for business again.


Most of these children were from families who were seeking asylum. That is, people who ran towards border agents rather than away from them, so desperate were they to secure some measure of safety for their kids. And, let us agree to repeat this truth out loud and as many times as we have the opportunity:

It is legal to seek asylum from the United States of America.

These people are not breaking the law. They’re trying to save their kids’ lives. And then we take their kids, and cage them, and sometimes lose them.

If you are a U.S. citizen and your stomach churns at the thought of this being done by your government, in your name, I am sorry to tell you it gets worse.

The current administration may not prioritize accounting for the whereabouts of children in its custody, but it sure can figure out how to use them as bait. One reason government shelters are still overflowing with kids, some of whom have been detained for months, is that their family members or other potential sponsors already in the U.S. are afraid to come forward, lest they face arrest and deportation themselves. Last April, ORR signed a memorandum of agreement with ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement), a draconian policy that directed ORR to share information it gathered on sponsors — addresses, fingerprints, etc. — with ICE. The purported reason for the data-mining was to ensure the children’s safety, but it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that since July, using the information gleaned under the memorandum, ICE has arrested at least 170 potential sponsors.

On January 22, Angelina Chapin reported in HuffPost that immigration advocacy groups filed a class action lawsuit against HHS and ORR. Her article is a tough read — tough as in heart-breaking, nauseating, enraging — but this is one of those realities from which we mustn’t turn away.

“The lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of more than 10,000 children detained in Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters, is a list of horror stories compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Legal Aid Justice Center and a D.C.-based law firm,” Chapin writes.

Later in the article she notes, “The lawsuit tells the story a man from Guatemala who applied to sponsor his 17-year-old son, submitted fingerprints to the ORR in September and was deported three days later. After four months in detention, which involved being transferred to a high-security facility, the boy attempted to kill himself, according to court documents.”

There are plenty more horror stories where that came from.

If you have kids, or have ever had kids in your life in any way, you don’t need me to point out the tragedy, the cruelty, or the certainty of long-lasting, massive trauma proceeding from these abominable policies. You and I don’t need to belong to the same political party or church or socio-economic stratum to agree that this is no way to treat children, especially children whose lives have already been thrown into chaos because they’ve had to flee corrupt and dangerous regimes in their native countries. The kind of regimes that we have always believed America is better than.

I have to believe that you and I can agree on that. The question is, now what do we do? How do we make this right?

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