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Bearing Witness to America’s Cruelty

Don’t turn away from the Trump administration’s devastating immigration policy

Photo: John Moore/Getty

In the weeks after my daughter was born, I felt cosmic. Giving birth to a child seemed like some kind of initiation, the key to a new understanding of humanity. My one body had been split into two lives, me and the little stranger who had arrived through me, who could not eat or rest without nuzzling into my chest and nursing herself to sleep. I felt (so I thought) connected with every mother on the planet, any woman who’d ever been the starting-point and sustenance for a new person.

It was probably the hormones; I was blissed out on oxytocin from nursing, high from lack of sleep. For that matter, I was also probably high on Percocet, which the doctors had prescribed to help me heal from a C-section. I can’t know what motherhood is like for everyone on the planet, not least because most mothers have problems I’m protected from by virtue of being white, American, and more or less middle-class. But, in the moment, that solidarity with other mothers felt important. Even if it wasn’t strictly possible, it felt like a goal worth building your life around.

I thought of that communion last Thursday, watching CNN’s Brian Karem plead with Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “Come on, Sarah, you’re a parent,” Karem said. “Don’t you have any empathy for what these people are going through?”

Karem was responding to the news of the Trump administration’s new policy separating parents and children at the border — a policy which is applied even if those families are attempting to immigrate legally, by applying for asylum. (According to Anne Chandler of the Children’s Border Project, asylum-seekers are being turned away from the designated entry point, then charged with criminal offenses when they try different entry points.) His plea capped weeks of nightmarish headlines.

From reporter Chris Hayes, we heard about one-year-old babies being crammed into car seats and driven away from their sobbing mothers. Colleen Kraft, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told NPR that she saw a two-year-old girl screaming for her mother, and was told that federal regulations prohibited the staff from soothing her. Antar Davidson — a former employee of Southwest Key, which operates the facilities — says he quit when he was instructed to stop three detained brothers, aged 6, 10, and 16, from holding each other. Marco Antonio Munoz, who was separated from his three-year-old son while crossing the border, hung himself in a Texas isolation cell; he’d reportedly been put in isolation because “after being told he would have to be separated from his family Muñoz ‘lost it’ and as a result physical force had to be used to take the child from his arms.” An anonymous Honduran woman claims she was handcuffed for “resisting” when her baby was physically torn away from her as she breastfed. (Homeland Security officials later disputed that story, which was reported by CNN; the lawyer from the Texas Civil Rights Project who recounted it said “I know what I heard from this lady. She told it to me in tears. I have no reason to doubt the traumatic event she experienced.”)

I know these stories because I can’t stop reading them. On some days, they’re the only thing I can concentrate on, outside of caring for my own daughter. It’s not my beat; I cover what editors generously call “women’s issues.” But I can’t shake the feeling that this story, for as long as it goes on, will be the only thing that matters.

It’s hard to know how to bear witness effectively, in part because — for me, and for many white liberals like me — doing so often means admitting that you haven’t always paid attention. At Rewire News, Tina Vasquez writes that the mass outcry over the Trump administration policy is frustrating, in part because it erases the problems with immigration policy in the Obama era — leaving immigrants who were deported under Obama to feel doubly harmed — but also because it’s brought a flood of well-meaning but under-educated commentators onto the immigration beat, promulgating confused and misleading stories on social media.

“White liberals, in particular, with large platforms and access to information, are failing to educate themselves not just on the basics of the news reports they purport to be responding to with their ‘activism’ and ‘resistance,’ but on the very basics of the immigration system,” Vasquez writes. The resulting confusion harms the broader cause and makes effective mobilization harder than it should be.

So, yes: The US immigration system is complex, and you shouldn’t try to write like an immigration reporter if you aren’t one. Reporters like Vasquez — and Dara Lind, and Aura Bogado, and many others — have put in the work and should be the voices guiding this conversation.

It’s also true, however, that life in the Trump administration tends to bury even the best reporting. Every week is an onslaught of abuses and outrages and scandals, which makes it extremely difficult for any one problem to command attention for long. I’ve worked on or pitched countless stories that would have sparked mass outrage a few years ago — the domestic gag rule that defunds Planned Parenthood, Jeff Sessions turning away domestic violence survivors seeking asylum — only to see them reduced to a blip in the news cycle, buried by something even more outrageous by the time the story is ready for publication. Major stories, like the anti-gun activism of the Parkland teens, dominate the headlines for a few weeks and then disappear, casualties of the accelerated cycle. The result is that people find it easy to tune out stories they don’t want to hear.

But if you can find a way to tune out a headline about your government torturing babies, you can tune out anything. Holocausts happen that way, with well-meaning people deciding to prioritize self-care and stay away from things that aren’t their business. So what I keep coming back to is the obligation to bear witness; to keep our eyes open and fixed on the horror, to not let it fade into just another piece of background noise.

That doesn’t mean pretending expertise, or absolving yourself for moments in the past when you didn’t listen — white ladies wouldn’t have to cry and post outraged updates on social media if we hadn’t let things get this bad in the first place. It does us no good to be defensive about that now.

It also doesn’t mean remaining paralyzed by horror, obsessively refreshing your social media feed to find the latest awful headline. You can protest. You can take action with the Families Belong Together campaign. You can call your Senators and representatives. You can signal-boost and share the work of the aforementioned immigration reporters — and immigration lawyers, and organizers, and many others. You can give to the legal advocacy organizations fighting these unjust policies. The Women’s Refugee Commission has resources to help you volunteer locally and even foster children separated from their parents. There is always something to do.

But you can’t stop being horrified. You can’t look away. An administration that can keep frightened little boys from holding each other, or let a motherless baby scream without comforting her, is an administration that is no longer constrained by human decency — or, for that matter, under the human rights guidelines of the UN. Any marginalized community ought to be horrified by the knowledge of how ruthless the Trump administration plans to be with the human lives it deems lacking in value. A country that can quietly live with the knowledge of child internment camps — unlicensed “tent cities” in the sweltering Texas heat; wire cages where detained children learn to change each other’s diapers; hollowed-out Wal-Marts with Trump murals on the walls, where boys in bar-code wristbands sleep four to a room — is a country that is past saving.

That early, cosmic feeling of connection to other mothers was sentimental. But I felt the story about the breastfeeding woman in my gut, with the accumulated muscle memory of a thousand feeds, a thousand nights watching the baby’s eyes flutter shut as she nursed herself to sleep. Nursing is supposed to be the place a baby feels safest; it’s a place where two people separated by childbirth can remember they once occupied the same body. That baby lost its mother at the very moment it should have felt most secure. If solidarity between mothers means anything, it means acknowledging the depth of that violation. It means that we cannot rest until she has that baby back in her arms.

Author of “Trainwreck” (Melville House, ‘16) and “Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers” (Melville House, ‘19). Columns published far and wide across the Internet.

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