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Migrants Believed America Would Protect Kids Fleeing Violence. They Were Wrong.

Migrants had reason to believe that the American government would protect them.

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The federal government has begun reunifying the families they separated in a failed attempt to deter migrant families heading north to avoid the systemic violence perpetrated against both adults and children by Central American and Mexican gangs. To say that the reunification effort has been chaotic is to be generous. It has been incompetently managed. In the face of a deadline it won’t hit, the Department of Homeland Security agency has announced, in the manner of a petulant child, myriad excuses (declaring some families “ineligible,” a bizarre bit of newspeak) and disassembled on the substance of the plan. What has become clear is that faith of migrants, many of whom signed documents they could not read now being used to legally justify dealings in bad faith, had more faith in America than they should have. They believed politicians accountable to American voters would protect children. They were wrong.

The point here isn’t just that the government seems to have turned away potentially thousands of people with legitimate asylum claims both directly and through means of intimidation. It is that the government has behaved — and continues to behave — in ways that make clear that politicians are indifferent to the plight of children. The prime example, Congress pushing a bill eliminating standards of care in family detention centers. What does such a bill say other than that America does not care for her neighbor’s children? Nothing. And, sadly, this statement has historical precedent.

About eighty years ago, in 1938, as Jews from Germany and Austria were being marched towards concentration camps and death, the United States received a record amount of visa applications from those trying to escape violence. The United States opted to stick to its immigration quotas, essentially dooming hundreds of thousands if not millions to death. The important thing to remember here is that public opinion was on the government’s side. Some 84 percent of Americans said that they did not believe that the immigration cap should be lifted.

Even a bipartisan refugee bill drafted by legislators that would have allowed 20,000 innocent Jewish children into the country went nowhere. Why? The politics were bad. The issue was not that politicians were not being held accountable by voters, but that voters were demanding that politicians behave heartlessly. It’s easy to lay moral failures at the feet of those operating within a representative system, but sometimes the guilt lies with the electorate. In the late 1930s that was the case. It may well be the case again.

For those who do not live in America, the promise of the place is palpable. Opportunity lives here. Equality lives here. True democracy lives here. But democracy — true or not — is not righteousness. When the people demand heartless policies, they get them. When the people accept carelessness, they get exactly that. Though polling suggests that most Americans find the separation of immigrant children to be an affront, there is a groundswell of hostility towards migrants. Many Americans, it seems, just don’t want these people to be their problem. But many of these people are children and opting to overlook their needs or mistreat them because it is easy will be a source of ongoing shame in the future. We know how these things look in the rearview.

The ACLU has filed a complaint in courts that many migrants were deliberately misled about certain forms they were signing in regards to family reunification. According to their immigration lawyers, some parents claim they thought they were signing paperwork that would allow and help them reunite with their kids — however, the forms they signed actually signed away their reunification rights. Many of those parents can’t read English. Some of them were flat-out illiterate. They trusted the idea of America and her representatives. They are now suffering for it.

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The fact of the matter — beyond the fact that the United States has behaved recklessly in regards to the lives and wellbeing of innocent children — is that the people who came to the border of the United States didn’t expect the federal government to conduct themselves in such a manner. They couldn’t imagine such a thing. Many Americans couldn’t either. Now that harm has been done, no one can claim naivete.

You are what you do and, more specifically, you are what you do for or to kids. If America is willing to hurt children, America’s need to dispense with any ideas of exceptionalism or demand change en masse.