By Marc H. Morial
“The new policy is the latest example of harmful actions by the Department of Homeland Security against immigrant families, hindering their right to seek asylum in our country and denying parents the right to remain with their children. We can and must do better for these families. We can and must remember that immigrant children are still children; they need our protection, not prosecution.” — American Academy of Pediatrics, Statement Opposing Separation of Children and Parents at the Border, May 8, 2018
I am the lucky father of three beautiful children. It has been my life’s work and great pleasure to play a part in their development into keen, compassionate and successful individuals. And but for the “right” documents and legal status, Marco Antonio Muñoz and his wife could have experienced that same, singular joy of parenthood. Instead, Mr. Muñoz, a Honduran father who came here seeking asylum as he crossed the Rio Grande with his wife and three-year-old son, was taken into custody and separated from his small family. According to news reports, “they had to use physical force to take the child out of his hands.” After a night in the Starr County Jail, guards found Mr. Muñoz lying on the floor of his jail cell, unresponsive. The deputy’s office reported his death as a “suicide in custody.”
The inhumane separation of desperate families risking their lives to reach and cross our southwest border is neither arbitrary nor aligned with our nation’s core, espoused values on the sanctity of family. As of May of this year—this is America—and is formal American policy enforced by the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, also known as the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy.
Previously, adults apprehended at the border would be charged in civil court, detained in immigration facilities and potentially face deportation back to their country of origin, unless they qualified for asylum. The new policy prosecutes adults caught crossing the border as felons in criminal court, including those who qualify for asylum. Felony criminal charges sends these adults to prison, and for those who crossed with their children, it triggers the tragically common place forced family separations. This new, vicious twist in the Trump administration’s immigration policy is abysmal, ahistorical and abhorrent.
Staying true to his campaign promises, Trump has doubled down on immigration in all of its forms, particularly from origin countries of color. The zero-tolerance strategy follows a litany of actions and policies—such as the decision to end DACA and protect DREAMERS from deportation, reducing the numbers of refugees accepted into the country, and ending temporary protected status for Haitians and Hondurans—intended to punish those deemed unfit or undesirable, purge our communities and narrow legitimate avenues of settlement and entry into the United States. But the last time I checked, our nation was in the business of welcoming those seeking to better their lives, not weaponizing their children as deterrents to economic opportunity (that benefits all) and an escape from violence, chaos or natural disaster.
It is no small irony that the party that has traditionally monopolized the “family-values” moniker is the very same one orchestrating this now-daily trauma at our U.S/Mexico border. Heart-breaking stories, like the story of Mr. Muñoz, are not accidental, they are the byproduct of an inhumane, anti-family, value-deficient policy—and there are many more stories in the vein of Mr. Muñoz’s story to tell.
This weekend, many of us will celebrate Father’s Day. We should especially recognize the privilege of being able to do so when our government is engaging in the forced separation of families and the traumatizing of innocent children torn from their loved ones, penned into camps or sent to live with strangers. Children belong in the loving arms of their parents, not locked behind the cold bars of cells.
The National Urban League has joined forces with sister civil rights organizations to call for an end to family separation. If you agree that destroying families should not be a priority of the government that represents you, get angry, get engaged—tracking the votes of your representatives on the issue of family separation and comprehensive immigration reform, and be sure to hug your loved ones a little tighter.