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Episode 4: Beware the Beginnings: Child separation and resisting “civility” in ugly times

By Derrick Crowe
June 21, 2018

Imagine for a second that our government started torturing people when they crossed the border without documentation or when they presented themselves with children at a border crossing seeking asylum. Imagine that we not only tortured the parents who brought the children with them — but also the children themselves as a way to terrify potential asylum seekers and border crossers.

Imagine the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, defending that kind of atrocity with rhetoric like, “A big name of the game is deterrence…the big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States, and this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.”

Imagine if Jeff Sessions were defending that policy with statements like, “As Romans 13 says, ‘rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.’ Terror is a biblical tool used by the state and ordained by God in the service of law and order.”

One hopes that that kind of policy and that kind of defense would be received with the scorn it deserves from all sides of the political debate. One would hope that the national newspapers of record would not waste column inches calling for civility in the face of an atrocity like that.

One would hope that the nice old lady and her husband at the coffee shop in Republican territory would speak up to say that it’s wrong to torture and damage people to teach people to respect the law and obey the government. We would hope her husband wouldn’t say something like, “If you don’t want to get tortured, don’t come here!”

Less than a week ago, I sat in a cafe in Ft. Stockton, Texas, just a short drive from Trump’s child internment camp in Tornillo, listening to a group of older white folks wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, chastising the families who were being detained. “Make your own country better. If you don’t want to be separated from your kids, don’t come here!” they said.

A few short days later, The New York Times published a piece originally titled, “In the Era of Trump, Incivility Spreads in a Divided Nation.” My social media feed filled with friends wagging fingers at people on the left who called the child separation a Nazi policy or compared Trump to a Nazi.

They did this despite the fact that just a few hours earlier, Trump had used the term “infest” to refer to undocumented people coming to this country, and despite the fact that our attorney general had, in the words of The Rev. David Simmons, begun publicly interpreting the bible like a Nazi when he used Romans 13 to assert that the family separation policy was biblical.

Amnesty International Americas Director Erika Guavara-Rosas said on June 18:

“This is a spectacularly cruel policy, where frightened children are being ripped from their parent’s arms and taken to overflowing detention centres, which are effectively cages. This is nothing short of torture. The severe mental suffering that officials have intentionally inflicted on these families for coercive purposes, means that these acts meet the definitions of torture under both US and international law.”

“There is no question that President Trump administration’s policy of separating mothers and fathers from their children is designed to impose severe mental suffering on these families, in order to deter others from trying to seek safety in the USA. Many of these families come from countries experiencing generalized violence and grave human rights violations, including Honduras and El Salvador. This is a flagrant violation of the human rights of these parents and children and is also a violation of US obligations under refugee law.”

The president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Colleen Kraft, said that Trump’s family separation policy “amounts to child abuse” after she toured one of these detention centers.

She said:

“I can’t describe to you the room I was in with the toddlers. Normally toddlers are rambunctious and running around. We had one child just screaming and crying, and the others were really silent. And this is not normal activity or brain development with these children.”

She said these facilities will cause a brain-development-inhibiting condition called “toxic stress.”

“It disrupts their brain architecture and keeps them from developing language and social, emotional bonds, and gross motor skills, and the development that they could possibly have.”

Now a lot of people are trying to deflect criticism of this policy by labeling its opponents hypocrites. They say that this is not a new policy or that it’s very similar to Obama-era policies. That’s a lie. According to Denise Gilman, the director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas Law School:

“The idea that this is simply a continuation of an Obama-era practice is ‘preposterous…There were occasionally instances where you would find a separated family — maybe like one every six months to a year — and that was usually because there had been some actual individualized concern that there was a trafficking situation or that the parent wasn’t actually the parent.’”

According to NBC News, Gilman said that,

“Once custody concerns were resolved, ‘there was pretty immediately reunification…There were not 2,000 kids in two months — it’s not the same universe.’”

And don’t be fooled by Trump’s recent so-called “fix” for this crisis either.

According to CBS News:

“Though President Trump declared that the executive order he signed Wednesday would ‘solve’ the problem of family separation while parents are prosecuted for illegal border crossing, the order is really only good for 20 days…The order does not override the 1993 Flores v. Reno Supreme Court case, which says that detained migrant children cannot be held in government detention facilities for more than 20 days.

“Essentially, this means that after the 20-day mark, children may still be separated from their parents.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) currently separates most families when they are apprehended for illegal border crossing, Reid notes. But now, with the executive order, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will take custody of the entire family. However, at the 20-day mark, under the Flores consent decree, the department will have to release the children from custody.”

“The executive order does not undo or diminish Sessions’ zero tolerance policy, which has caused the spike in parent-child separations at the southern border.”

I don’t have much to say to the minority of Americans who support Trump’s family separation policy. People who will rationalize this kind of atrocity are not reachable, and I think the only way you beat them is to signal social ostracism for anyone thinking of joining them and then driving them out of public life by out-organizing them.

But to my friends who are worried about the breakdown in civility and who squirm when the word “Nazi” gets thrown around, I will say this: The problem is not that the rhetoric is intense. The problem is that the situation is intense.

Peter Hayes is a historian that writes about how the Nazi atrocities happened. He quotes a German aphorism: “Beware the beginnings.”

There is a reason that the Anti-Defamation League just put out a video with survivors of Hitler’s Germany talking about the pain of being separated from their parents.

There’s a reason that ADL head Jonathan Greenblatt said “there are disturbing parallels” with Nazi policies “that have touched a nerve.”

There’s a reason that even Michael Cohen, Trump’s ethically challenged lawyer, drew parallels to Nazi policies when he resigned yesterday, saying “As the son of a Polish holocaust survivor, the images and sounds of this family separation policy is heart wrenching. While I strongly support measures that will secure our porous borders, children should never be used as bargaining chips.”

The reason is this: Trump’s family separation policy fits into a pattern of vile racism and other attempts to legislate that racism into law, alongside his constant praise and admiration for authoritarians and dictators.

So yes. When I see a president who called Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, even though immigrants are far less likely to commit crimes than non-immigrants; who stated a Mexican-American judge couldn’t be fair about the border wall because he was a Mexican; who lied about blacks being responsible for most of the murders of whites; who implied moral equivalence between white supremacists and protesters in Charlottesville; who made the infamous “shithole countries” remark; who constantly links immigration to MS-13; who uses phrases like “animals,” “infest,” etc. about undocumented people; who campaigns on a Muslim ban and then moves to implement it; and who after all of that then implements a policy that assumes that asylum seekers are child traffickers and separates families and puts young children in cages and starts housing the kids in tent cities in triple-digit heat, yes, I compare the president to a Nazi and say that these are proto-Nazi policies.

Trump has said he wants his people to “sit up at attention” when he speaks. He half-jokes about wanting to serve for longer than the allowed two terms in office. He praises Phillippines President Rodrigo Duterte for extrajudicial killings for drug suspects, calling it doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.” He praised Turkey’s Erdogan as “getting very high marks” after Erdogan cracked down on Turkish media and political opponents. He did everything but call for the public beating of critical journalists in the 2016 campaign.

He’s an authoritarian at heart and he’ll become an authoritarian in reality the moment he thinks he can get away with it.

The only thing that is constraining him at the moment is not the milquetoast, civil opposition he’s faced inside Congress so far, but the willingness of his opponents at the grassroots to punch him in the mouth. Trump sort-of backed off of this policy not because Pelosi and Schumer managed to appeal to his reason, but because brave people refused to let his DHS secretary enjoy Mexican food in polite society while creating internment camps for kids and because it was clear we were going to escalate grassroots pushback.

So to my squeamish friends who worry about the tone of Trump’s opponents: If talk of Nazis disturbs you, root out the Nazis, and save the tone-policing for moments when we aren’t separating 10-year-old kids with Down syndrome from their parents for no other reason than to terrorize other immigrants.

Beware the beginnings.

Derrick Crowe is the creator of “Rise Like Lions with Derrick Crowe,” former congressional candidate, democratic socialist, and political organizer. Become a supporter of his work at https://patreon.com/derrickcrowe