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.