Our week began with yet another profoundly disturbing chapter in the Trump Administration’s treatment of immigrant and refugee children. The New York Times reports that hundreds of underage Latino youth are being taken under the cover of darkness from their foster homes and shelters across the country and shipped off to a “tent city” in Texas near our southern border. These children will no longer be able to attend school, their access to legal services to pursue their immigration claims will be dramatically reduced, and their new settingswill not be licensed and monitored by the state child welfare authorities who ensure the safety and education of children who have been separated from their families.
The justification for these nighttime evacuations is that the government has run out of space in appropriate facilities. There is no choice, we are told, but to subject these children to the trauma of being torn, yet again, from places where they enjoyed some minimal level of normalcy and being taken to (what must be properly called) an internment camp. Yet the current crisis is not a result of increased immigration – since the numbers of those crossing the border have remained steady – but the predictable consequence of the Trump’s Administration’s draconian immigration policies. These policies have reduced the willingness of relatives to come forward for fear of their own deportation, thus lengthening the time it takes to place these youth with caregivers. The Trump administration apparently anticipated the consequences of these policies, yet made no preparation to deal with them.
This latest episode comes at the same time that hundreds of Latino children, who were forcibly taken from their parents by the Trump administration earlier this year, still remain separated from them months after a court ordered deadline for reunification. In most of these cases, the Trump Administration has deported parents, while keeping their children; it now claims that it cannot locate the parents. Children were taken from parents seeking asylum without any thought, much less a plan, on how, when and under what circumstances they would be reunited.
As a parent, I have often asked myself these past months: “what makes it possible for government officials, many of whom are parents themselves, to inflict such cruelty on children?” I have concluded that the answer lies in the ability to create emotional distance between themselves and the objects of their policy. Establishing physical distance is one way of distancing yourself emotionally: you make decisions in Washington DC that others, hundreds of miles away, execute. You don’t have to witness the wails of children and the sobs of parents as they torn from each other at the border; you don’t have to hear motherless children crying themselves to sleep at night; and you need not confront the fear on the faces of children as they are told moments before they were to go to bed that they are being sent to an internment camp. (Why others would “follow orders” to execute these policies is a separate, no less troubling question.) Emotional distance is also achieved by denying the humanity of the objects of your policy: Latino immigrants and refugees become “animals” who “breed” and “infest.” The greater the emotional distance, the less the empathy; the less the empathy, the easier it is to treat other people’s children in ways that you would never allow your own children to be treated. Racism is central to this process.
My thoughts on what makes cruelty by the power elite possible returned to me last week as I watched Brett Kavanaugh’s appearance before the Senate’s Judiciary Committee. Kavanaugh’s testimony was the capstone of ten days of revelations. After the harrowing tales of sexual assaults told by Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick, the reports of Kavanaugh’s binge drinking by college roommates, friends and acquaintances, and Kavanaugh’s own contemporaneous words in the Georgetown Prep High School yearbook, the portrait of the man that had begun to emerge was one of entitled wealth and privilege that left the damaged lives of others in its wake. One moment of Blasey Ford’s entirely credible testimony added a particularly telling piece to that picture: when she recounted how she could never forget the uproarious laughter shared by Kavanaugh and Judge as Kavanaugh assaulted her, one saw in bright relief a toxic masculinity that bonded and found pleasure in the domination and humiliation of others. Deborah Ramirez’s account of sexual assault also involved laughter at her degradation by Kavanaugh. The commonplace truth that rape is not about sex, but power, is starkly evident in the survivors’ accounts of Kavanaugh’s assaults on them.