Because we are all different people coming from different backgrounds and carrying along different kinds of cultural baggage, we Americans are naturally going to respond in different ways to the phenomenon of families caught trying to cross the southwest border illegally being separated when parents are incarcerated in prison and their children are handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services to be watched over or, at least ideally, placed in foster care until their parents’ cases are adjudicated. And even thought the President’s executive order of earlier this week appears intended to ameliorate the situation with respect to future families, there are apparently no plans to reunite families already separated. Nor is it clear precisely what the effect of the President’s order will be even if the courts to uphold its legality with the respect to the now-famous Flores decision of 1997 according to which children may only be kept in detention for a maximum of twenty days. In other words, the fire is slightly less hot than it was earlier in the week, maybe, but the pot is definitely still in serious danger of boiling over.For me personally—as well, I’m sure as for all Jewish souls like myself whose lives are lived out against the backdrop of the Shoah and its aftermath, the sight of crying children being forcefully taken from their parents and sent off to be detained in special facilities set up to house them is not only emotionally upsetting but viscerally repugnant. More than 2,300 children have been separated from their parents since the zero-tolerance program went into effect in May. Some, the fortunate ones, have been placed in foster care. (This number includes 239 children, some as young as 9 months of age, who have been sent to the New York area.) Of some of the less lucky, we have heard lots: the 1500 boys housed in that Walmart store in Brownsville, Texas, for example. But of the others of those being housed by the government, we have heard almost nothing other than some vague references to at least three “tender age facilities” where babies and toddlers are being kept.
Of course, children in our nation are routinely separated from their parents when their parents are incarcerated after being sentenced in court to prison. But in such cases the parent facing incarceration has the time to arrange for the child to be looked after and cared for, and the possibility of the government losing track of where exactly that person’s child is being housed is nil. Yet that appears too to have happened in this case, as admitted the other day by Steve Wagner, an official at the Department of Health and Human Services, when he testified in the Senate in April that his agency had lost track of 1,475 children who had been apprehended crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on their own and subsequently placed with adult sponsors of various sorts. These are specifically not children taken from their parents. But it does not bode well for those who have been taken from their parents’ watchful supervision in these last weeks since the zero-tolerance policy has gone into effect.The whole situation feels intractable. But while some aspects of the situation feel like details in need of working out—how exactly to determine any specific individual’s application for refugee status, for example—the question of whether the enforced separation of families, including families with very young children, should be permitted under any circumstances does not feel that way at all to me. In the end, either we are a nation that can countenance doing irrevocable harm to children or we aren’t.
One of our Shelter Rock physicians, Dr. Steve Goldstein, showed me a remarkable essay the other day published by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University under the directorship of Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, the director of the center. The essay, entitled “Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain,” explains how subjecting a child to toxic levels of stress can actually affect the child’s brain in ways that may well be irreversible even should the child be eventually restored to a stable, caring environment either with his or her own parents or in some other setting. You cannot, it turns out, simply subject a young child to traumatic levels of stress and then suppose that the child will return to normal later on when things calm down. Some damage, it turns out, risks to be permanent.I have to say, I felt bowled over by reading this—amazed both at how little I knew about the topic and also by the fact that this information, at least so far, has largely failed to inform the whole discussion about the question of separating children—most of whom don’t speak English and who barely understand what it happening to them—from their parents and incarcerating them in facilities that were neither built nor designed to house children and which are staffed by overwhelmed officials unable to communicate even poorly with most of the children in their charge. (To read the essay, click here. It’s only seven pages long and it will affect your thinking on the matter dramatically. For Dr. Shonkoff’s most recent statement about the potential damage to children forcibly separated from their parents, issued just the day before yesterday, click here.)
And then there was Attorney General Sessions’ remark the other day that he perceived himself to responding to, of all things, a biblical mandate in pursuing the zero-tolerance policy that leads to the separation of children from their parents.The Attorney General was speaking to a group of police officers in Fort Wayne, Indiana, when he first mentioned the biblical passage that he identified as the source of his motivation to punish the children of illegals (or, more precisely, would-be illegals) with separation from their parents, specifying to the officers that he had in mind the passage from the New Testament that opens the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Leaving aside the question of why a federal official would base himself on a passage from Christian Scripture rather than the Constitution when determining policy, the choice itself is an interesting one. The text in question reads as follows: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
Those lines have their own place in our nation’s history. They were used by loyalists to argue against the colonial Americans who were preparing to go to war to gain freedom from Britain in the eighteenth century. And they were last cited in Congress in 1850 in support of the Fugitive Slave Act, possibly the most odious piece of legislation ever to be enacted by our American Congress. But my question for the Attorney General is not about his grasp of history but, since he opened the door himself, about his personal beliefs: does he really believe that there are no governments at all other than those that God in heaven has established? I don’t think so. I doubt any of my readers do, particularly those who endured life under the Nazis (who did not, after all, seize power violently but who came to power after winning the most seats in the Reichstag in the election of 1932). And I can’t believe Attorney General Sessions thinks that either.
As it happens, I know a few biblical verses myself. My Bible imagines a slave escaping from a brutal master and says, “You may not return a fugitive slave to his master after he has escaped from that master and sought refuge with you.” My Bible imagines people naturally inclined to mistrust foreigners and says, “You may not oppress or make anxious the stranger for you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.” My Bible features two Egyptian midwives, women with neither power nor status, refusing to harm Israelite children merely because the king of Egypt has commanded them to do so, and says of them, not that whatever the government commands is by definition just, but that “God granted great favor to the midwives and made them the matriarchs of their own burgeoning clans” in recompense for having resisted the government’s command to harm children.That “…for you yourselves were strangers in Egypt” trope repeats over and over in the Torah. All instances are interesting, but one stands out in particular to me: “The stranger shall be to you as the citizen, and you shall love the stranger in your midst just as you love your fellow countrymen for you were strangers in the land of Egypt just as surely as I the Lord am your God. Do not pervert justice!” I suppose we all have our favorite verses.