It’s Not Political

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Do you know what an orphanage with a whole room full of babies sounds like?

It’s utterly silent.

When babies learn that no one is coming to get them, they stop crying.  But don’t mistake this silence for a sign that all the babies are content and everything is ok.  The first night my 17-month-old daughter spent with our family after her adoption, she slept in a crib right by my bed.  I woke in the middle of the night to the startling presence of her two midnight-black eyes looking unblinking at me through the crib rails.  She was pouring sweat in a chilly hotel room and nearly hyperventilating.  Not knowing what else to do, I placed my hand on her chest and felt her heart pounding, a terrified little drum racing its way through the night.  She didn’t cry.  She didn’t make a sound.  Instead, she pushed all her fear and all her anxiety way down deep inside and white-knuckled her way through the night, not knowing yet that this new woman sleeping on the other side of the rails could be trusted.

Scientists have an explanation for what happened that night in the hotel.  Little bodies are no different than big bodies, and when they are exposed to scary things, the same thing happens to them that happens to us.  Their pupils dilate.  Their hearts race.  Their breathing speeds up.  And cortisol, the stress-hormone we all need in healthy doses, sky-rockets.  This is all fine and good if there’s a real threat… for example if you’re a caveman being chased by a T-rex, cortisol might just help you make it to your cave in time.  Or if you’re a mama whose baby just fell in the water on the other side of the pool, cortisol is what propels your lightning-fast reaction to fish her out.  But for children who are in chronically-traumatic environments, toxic levels of stress become the norm.  Expose them to this long enough or at just the “right” stage of development and their brain chemistry is permanently altered with all sorts of long-term negative health effects.

So what are we grown-ups supposed to do when we know kids are being exposed to really traumatic things?  Well, first we try to stop it.  We get them to safety.  We meet their needs.  We give them language to process their experiences.  We try to help them heal.  There’s a whole emerging field called “Trauma-Informed Care” that helps bridge neuroscience and child development and crafts concrete responses to the troubling and difficult behaviors and coping mechanisms that kids with a trauma history sometimes exhibit.  In fact, TCU’s Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development in Ft. Worth is one of the global gold-standard centers for such research.

So we know what grown-ups ought to do.  Do you know what grown-ups shouldn’t do?  Knowingly turn our backs on children in traumatic situations.  Do you know what we really shouldn’t do?  Do you know what’s particularly inhumane and grotesque and grievously wrong?  Silently and complicity allowing politicians of any persuasion to convince us that traumatizing children is an acceptable bargaining chip in a complex immigration debate.

In today’s contentious and polarized world, it may seem just about impossible to have a discussion about immigration without talking about politics.  But that’s exactly what I think needs to happen.

I love West Texas.  I’m a born-and-bred Panhandle plains girl and the Midland-Odessa area has been my home for 7 years.  People from other parts of the country think we all think alike out here, and in many parts of the country we’d be painted with a broad, flat, bright red paintbrush.  And for the most part, that may capture the dominant political persuasion.  But you know what it doesn’t capture?  It doesn’t capture our individualism and free-thinking mindset.  It doesn’t capture the fact that most of us really don’t like any politician – red, blue or purple – telling us what to do. And something else it doesn’t capture is the depth of our compassion.  I’ve been witness to people in this community providing access to clean water for millions of people in Uganda.  I’ve been witness to local people showing up in refugee camps in the Middle East and Asia with bags of rice and jugs of oil so other mamas can feed their babies.  I’ve watched my own little girl receive hundreds of hours of free speech and occupational therapy because locals care about funding a place like Midland Children’s Rehab Center.  There is no limit to the compassion West Texans have, especially for vulnerable children.  Just like there’s no limit to our “don’t tell me what to do” state of mind.

Which is why we need to turn our attention 4.5 hours down the freeway to Tornillo, Texas and all it currently represents.  A tiny little blip of a town outside of El Paso, it’s been selected as the new site for a 360-bed tent camp to deal with the influx of children being separated from their parents at the borders.  This is where this essay could derail… we could get completely lost in the weeds in a conversation about whether this is Trump’s problem or Obama’s, and whether we should blame the Republican executive branch for enforcing this law or blame the Democrats for failing to work with Republicans to “fix immigration.”  We could get into a heated argument about whether or not we think a first offense illegal border crossing should be prosecuted to the fullest extent possible.  We could get ourselves all worked up about the difference between asylum-seekers and drug runners; between those just looking to make a quick buck in the land of opportunity and those fleeing starvation.  At least 5 of us would probably smugly fold our arms across our chest, lean back in our chair and say something along the lines of: “I just don’t understand why someone would put their kids in this sort of situation to begin with.  Just do it legally!”

You get my point.  And I think that’s exactly where politicians want us.  They want us all wrapped up in partisan politics – pointing fingers and yelling at each other – so they get to keep playing their political games, pitting us one against another and ensuring that they stay in power and we all ignore the elephant in the room.

And what’s that elephant?  Well she’s really quite small, actually.  Easy to overlook even.  Certainly she can’t be heard above the din of all our yelling, especially since she may not even speak that much yet.  And chances are, she has those same midnight-black eyes that pierce your heart.

“But the first child who caught the prominent pediatrician’s attention during a recent visit was anything but happy. Inside a room dedicated to toddlers was a little girl no older than 2, screaming and pounding her fists on a mat. One woman tried to give her toys and books to calm her down, but even that shelter worker seemed frustrated, Kraft told The Washington Post, because as much as she wanted to console the little girl, she couldn’t touch, hold or pick her up to let her know everything would be all right. That was the rule, Kraft said she was told: They’re not allowed to touch the children.(emphasis mine)

Our current enforcement efforts have resulted in scenes like this, as documented by a June 16 article that first appeared in the Washington Post about a pediatrician’s visit to one 60-bed Texas shelter for migrant children separated from their parents.  Did you know in the world of “ways to harm a child,” withholding nurturing touch is a form of child abuse with observable psychological and physiological impacts?

Can you imagine this little girl’s cortisol levels?  Do you think they are toxically high? Is it possible for a bureaucratic agency trained to police a border to know in the span of a few weeks how to best care for a massive influx of traumatized children suddenly in their care?

All immigration debates aside, we have state-sanctioned child abuse and called it law enforcement.  We have state-sanctioned child abuse and called it a deterrent.  We have state-sanctioned child abuse and even have politicians telling us it is Biblical justice in full effect, the righteous and right outcomes of good, law-abiding people just doing what they’re supposed to do.

You know what else is righteous and right?  Following God’s commands even when they go against the laws of the land.

My fellow West Texans… this is happening in our back yard.  And in this community, we have the people with the political weight, resources and influence to let our politicians know that yes we want them to fix immigration.  But there has to be a way we can get tough on immigration without traumatizing 2-year-old children.  And we cannot allow Washington heavyweights to turn this into a “liberal vs. conservative” debacle and pit us against one another.  Nor can we allow them to convince us our proper place is to put our heads down and respectfully say “yes sir” every time a political leader in our own party tells us what to think or who to fear. That wouldn’t be very West Texan of us.

We may be red, but we don’t have black hearts.


5 thoughts on “It’s Not Political

  1. I’ve thought about this article for several days now. At first I was in total agreement. But the more I read and talk about it, the more I’m conflicted. What about reports of a majority of these kids not even being with their true parents but being trafficked across the border and abused along the way? What about accounts of paramedics and border agents that treat & help so many of these kids with various sicknesses and disease? And the media is at the front of this, which makes me terribly distrustful that we are getting the truth about what is going on – like Time and other outlets pushing pictures like the little girl crying and finding she was actually with her mom the whole time? your heart is incredible and I see you have so much compassion and have taken in a child…there is no way I’m being negative toward you. But I’m just struggling with this issue. I also have compassion toward children. I’m involved in ministry to the poor and to children, many of them not legal – I don’t care if they are legal, if they are here and need help I want to help them, and my heart is broken by some of their stories. But something is not sitting right with me to just jump onboard with saying we as Americans are the primary abusers of these children. Especially reading accounts of service people who are taking care of them and actually taking them from traffickers and treating their illnesses – that is something that I cannot deny must be happening – I know many paramedics and service people and I know many of these professionals have hearts to help. I question that many, maybe even a majority, are truly nice families just seeking asylum while the American people and authorities primarily mistreat them. There are so many sides and so many things that need to be fixed about immigration, but I can’t in good conscious just agree that the American people are the root of the problem and the ones primarily terrorizing these children. I am open and happy to hear if you chose to respond, and not angry at all, just truly trying to wrestle through this and find the truth.

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    1. Hi Tisha:

      I’m so grateful you left a comment and were honest about your struggles! I get it… I really do! I really value having open and courteous discussions where we can honestly and respectfully share our opinions… it’s so hard to do on a subject like this, so thank you for bravely sticking your toe in the water. I sort of want to respond to your comment in parts, so I’m going to copy and paste it and hopefully reply to most of what you brought up… because there’s a lot of good stuff in it!

      I’ve thought about this article for several days now. At first I was in total agreement. But the more I read and talk about it, the more I’m conflicted. What about reports of a majority of these kids not even being with their true parents but being trafficked across the border and abused along the way?
      I know there are reports of kids being trafficked, but I don’t find evidence that it’s the “majority.” In fact, this piece by the group FactCheck.org is helpful in characterizing the full picture: “Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen claimed that in the past five months, there had been a “314 percent increase” in adults trafficking children to the border, “fraudulently claiming to be a family unit.” That sounds like a big increase, but not when such cases are placed in context.
      The raw numbers behind the increase — which the Washington Post reported and DHS confirmed to us — are 46 suspected fraudulent cases in fiscal year 2017 and 191 suspected cases for the first five months of fiscal year 2018 — that’s October 2017 through February 2018. That’s a 315 percent increase.
      Those figures are a tiny fraction of the total number of family apprehensions at the border. There were 75,622 family unit apprehensions in fiscal year 2017 at the Southwest border, so the 46 suspected cases of fraud were just 0.06 percent of all family apprehensions.
      For the first five months of fiscal year 2018, there were 31,102 family unit apprehensions. The 191 suspected fraud cases would be 0.61 percent of that. The Post attempted to show how small of a percentage that is in a bar chart. It’s a nearly imperceptible sliver.” See the whole piece here: https://www.factcheck.org/2018/06/more-bogus-border-claims/

      So the VAST majority of the apprehensions do not seem to raise border patrol authorities’ suspicions regarding the safety and well-being of the child. The policy of removing children from adult custody when the adult was a suspected trafficker goes all the way back to Obama and maybe further back, so we have been and should continue trying to protect those children from trafficking when trained professionals suspect its at play. But I believe there’s strong evidence the current administration is using the easily agreed-upon evil of trafficking children to justify separating vast numbers of children from their parents. We cannot allow them this justification.

      What about accounts of paramedics and border agents that treat & help so many of these kids with various sicknesses and disease?

      I’m grateful for the help they are offering… I regularly see pictures of border agents passing out bottles of water, etc. That makes me proud to be American. But I will say from a scientific perspective, the damage of trauma (as I discussed in my essay) is just as toxic and dangerous and deadly to children as hunger or poverty or thirst or disease… and providing compassionate responses to the latter while causing the former is not helping children in the end.

      And the media is at the front of this, which makes me terribly distrustful that we are getting the truth about what is going on – like Time and other outlets pushing pictures like the little girl crying and finding she was actually with her mom the whole time?

      I hear you on this. I really do. It’s so hard to know what is true, and I don’t pretend to have a corner on it. I do my best to read sources on both sides of the aisle — staying away from inflammatory rhetoric on either extreme as much as I can — and I take comfort in the fact that I’ve seen evidence of major publications coming back and correcting reporting inaccuracies. In some ways, I think it’s really unfortunate that story behind the “face” of the issue — that little girl in the red — is an example of a not-bad outcome. (I mean, I’m grateful for her!) But I do think in a way it provides cover for people on the far right of the subject to say “see, it’s all made up.” But even the administration has admitted to separating over 2,000 kids from their families the last few weeks and have reunited only 500 of them. That’s the number they’ve owned up to, not the one the far left is accusing them of. So maybe the little girl in the red had a “happily ever after” ending… but what about the 1500 still in custody? They still exist, by our own administration’s admission. (And they are also admitting that they’ve not kept good records connecting parents to their children; the reality of the haphazard way this policy has been implemented sends cold-chills down my spine. In Michigan, where Bethany Adoption Services has a migrant child foster care program, they’ve confirmed the youngest child in their care is 3 months old taken from parents at the border. It’s not like that child can speak up and say where they’re from. It’s horrifying to think about how impossibly difficult it might be to unscramble this egg.)

      But something is not sitting right with me to just jump onboard with saying we as Americans are the primary abusers of these children.

      Truthfully, I don’t mean to imply that we are the “primary abusers” of these children. I think much responsibility should be placed on the countries-of-origin as they do not have peaceful and just societies where families can pursue a decent life. I think there are some families who probably are “using their kids” as a “get out of jail free card” so they can illegally enter the country — and I support humane and appropriate immigration policy changes to try and prevent those kinds of situations.

      But what I do think is that we have gravely hurt children in this immigration debacle. Maybe we aren’t the “primary abusers,” but in our response to the illegal decision their parents made, we are secondarily abusing them. In some ways, what I expect of our nation reminds me of parenting my two young girls. I’m always telling the older one, “Listen – I know your little sister is frustrating you, but you’re the older one and so it’s up to you to be a good example and respond kindly.” Two wrongs don’t make a right, correct? And using the “wrong” of crossing the border to justify terrorizing small children will never be ok.

      We need to BE the nation we like to believe we are… a nation of hope and possibility; a “city on the hill” for the world. I think one of the reasons this is so confusing to all of us is it feels so incredibly antithetical to the character of our nation that we’re left wondering if it could possibly be true. I’m sure it’s not ALL true; but there’s enough evidence coming from both sides owning up to the reality of it that we have to acknowledge there is much truth in the mix. And we must be careful to heed the lessons of history and of human nature — we can so easily find ourselves in places and spaces we never expected to be. We don’t end up supporting the Nazis overnight… it starts slowly and subtly and I’d imagine with a lot of “this couldn’t possibly be happening” incredulity.

      Anyway – I’m rambling way too long. We absolutely MUST fix immigration. There needs to be clear paths of opportunity for people. In so many cases these days, people who aren’t rich or highly educated or from a well-developed country have few entry points, and we’re only making it more and more difficult. (Or we will if the current administration gets its way.) Some experts are suggesting one reason we’ve seen the massive influx at our borders is that we’ve basically slowed our refugee program to a halt – so people who might have applied for refugee status in the past are now coming to pursue asylum cases. There are multiple reports of them trying to claim asylum at official ports of entry and they are being told “we’re closed.” (Which violates our own and international law.) So then they cross illegally and turn themselves into a border patrol agent — formerly a legitimate way to begin an asylum claim — and are instead arrested. I’m not arguing for open borders. But there has to be a better way than this.

      I welcome more thoughts and conversation! I truly enjoy “civil discourse,” and you definitely seem like someone interested in the same thing! Have a great weekend.

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  2. One more thing Tisha – I truly don’t mean to imply that the children are being openly harmed by our immigration officers/authorities/etc. I definitely believe that everyone is doing their best to provide safe and appropriate care within the constraints they have! But separating kids from parents and not enabling them to have communication is harmful in and of itself. Even when you know it’s truly in the best interest of the child (like in cases of abuse), its still incredibly emotionally and psychologically damaging

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  3. Thank you so much for your informed and civil response. Honestly, I researched crime rates for immigrants and border trafficking and really was surprised there was not a higher percentage. I have to agree that the rate you put as a reference seems reasonably verifiable and that was eye opening to me, so thank you for that clarification. It seems most families truly are seeking a better life and I am all for that and all for keeping families together in that situation.

    I understand that the separation of families has stopped but if it were still happening, for the sake of our conversation, I would have to agree with you at this point fully that in the case where the action is simply a first time illegal crossing misdemeanor and there are no other offenses, we should definitely keep the families together. I differed on this before because I thought there were many more in abusive and fraudulent situations. In the case of more serious crimes, such as subsequent/multiple illegal entries, crime, drugs, trafficking, fraud, etc. I do still think the authorities have to uphold the law and incarcerate the adults, which unfortunately requires separation from children. Although this is traumatizing for children, I don’t think we can turn our heads or call it abuse from the authorities. It is truly the fault of the parent at that point. Our immigration laws have not been respected or upheld for a long time. I believe this has contributed greatly to the problem as people expect to cross illegally and get away with it, and many do.

    I also agree that our immigration policy does need reform so there is a path more accessible to those who are not well educated or wealthy but who have clean records so they have better options to cross legally and participate in our country. Even so, until reforms are in place I believe immigrants should be expected to follow the process of the law. Going to ports of entry and claiming asylum is a legal option. I did find reports of immigrants being told the entry points were closed as you said, but it seemed it was more that they were being told to come back because they would have to wait days due to the amount of families being processed. I’m sure there is a lack of resources at many of these ports compared to the amount of families coming through. I would think long waiting times, even days, would be expected at times like this at the border and although it is unfortunate I would think it would be worth the wait to those seeking asylum. Of the articles I found on this, it seemed to me the problem was blown up to make it seem like we are illegally turning people away when the issue is really wait time and lack of resources.

    So, that is what I came to about the legal/moral issue of separation of families. Your response really helped me understand better who was coming through our borders and showed me some things that I was not clear on.

    I think we got much closer on this issue than we were before. We may not agree on all points, but I appreciate your heart, input, and knowledge of this situation. And, I think it is great that you acted on your convictions and raised your voice and something was actually done! I know it is not complete and there is much work to be done, but your voice was heard on the separation issue and even influenced my thoughts on it. We may not be perfect, but that is a great thing about this country.

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