Americans have been rightfully horrified at the conditions for children of asylum seekers near the southern border. Reports of families torn asunder, squalid conditions, and lack of basic care have turned the stomachs of even some of the most fervid Trump supporters.
So whose fault is it?
Well, mostly the federal government’s. Detention centers under both Obama and Trump have been inhumane institutions, and the system needs serious reform. The government has not needed to separate children from their families, but if family separation had to be the policy, the administration could have created conditions more like foster homes and summer camps than prisons and animal shelters. (RELATED: Cory Booker Helps Asylum Seekers Cross The Border From Juarez)
But the parents of those children also bear significant blame.
These migrants, mostly from countries like Honduras and Guatemala, certainly know full well by now the conditions that await them and their children. Yet they choose to come anyway.
And here’s the key point: in decades past, would-be Americans were largely Mexicans quietly sneaking across the border. They were still putting their children at risk, including the possibility that they would someday be deported to a country they do not remember (see under: Dreamers). But they were hoping to avoid detection by the U.S. government and to blend into the underground world of illegal immigrants.
That’s not true anymore. Today’s would-be Americans are asylum seekers. They cross the border and immediately turn themselves in to Customs and Border Protection officers asking for refuge in the United States. They know perfectly well that the United States separates the families of asylum seekers. Reports of suffering children whose parents are awaiting asylum have been reported in Spanish media as much as in English media for months. And yet they still deliver themselves and their families to U.S. authorities.
That’s a choice. And it’s unconscionable.
Saying parents are complicit is not “blaming the victim.” The victim in this case is not the parent; it’s the child – who is completely innocent. Any reasonable comparison of who suffers worse – parents seeking asylum or their children – would conclude it’s the children. That’s the group that is worst-off, feeling abandoned by those they love and barely getting their physical needs met, much less their emotional needs.
Children of asylum seekers don’t understand the geopolitics of immigration. They don’t know what a refugee is or the long odds of being granted asylum. They don’t know the evolution of border policy from Obama to Trump. They just know they have limited access (in some cases) to showers and hot food, and that they miss their parents.
The asylum-seekers are, therefore, not families facing the perils of illegal immigration as a team. They are parents facing agreeing to face discomfort while their children experience something closer to torture.
Yet the shared responsibility of parents and government is virtually never heard among critics of the border crisis. Charles Blow’s New York Times column “It’s the Cruelty, Stupid” had no recognition that cruelty comes from the family as well as the government. USA Today penned an editorial lambasting the Trump administration and gently critiquing the Democrats for not helping, either. But the role of parents was unmentioned.
Politicians are hardly better. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, perhaps the loudest voice against the border conditions, could make a big difference in stemming the tide of suffering children if she would address would-be migrants – in English and Spanish – “I’m going to try to make the system more humane so your children don’t suffer while you wait a response to your asylum application. But in the meantime, don’t come.”
The Democratic presidential candidates offered much the same. When former U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke visited the border last week, his campaign trumpeted that he was meeting “individuals and families directly impacted by Donald Trump’s cruel and inhumane policies.” No word whether he confronted the families about their role in their children’s suffering. (RELATED: Border Patrol Refutes Ocasio-Cortez Over ‘Toilet Water’ Claims, Gives Video Tour Of Facility)
And Sen. Bernie Sanders complained that “authorities in charge of these facilities have demonstrated cruelty and indifference” – as if the parents bore no responsibility for their children’s suffering.
The suffering of children is the most pressing problem at the border, and the administration can reform the way those facilities are administered and reconsider its family separation policy altogether. In the meantime, politicians and media sources that complain about the border can, every time they discuss the problem, implore parents not to make it worse.
And asylum-seeking parents can begin to express the most basic parental instinct: to protect their children. If that means delaying or abandoning asylum-seeking or finding another destination, so be it. But voluntarily handing their children over to be caged and uncared for? No.