By Dr. Joseph Chuman
Now that the summer is here we all look forward to a break from the demands of our usual life. Yet, political realities roll on and, speaking of myself, continue to impinge upon my mental space. The horrors of the moment that loom over us make me feel that all other activity is bought at the expense of not confronting those realities that threaten our freedom and democratic way of life. It never seems enough, but I have responded to invitations to speak at rallies denouncing Donald Trump’s dark and grotesque immigration policies. For my summer column, I have included the text of a speech I gave to a public audience in Ridgewood on June 23. It doesn’t make for pleasurable reading, but I feel that given what we confront, reality, however unpleasant, must have the last word. As an Ethical Culture community, we need to hang together. My best wishes to you all.
“Un-American, horrid, abhorrent, cruel, evil: Words do not extend far enough to capture the emotional reaction engendered by our government’s policy of snatching young children out of their mothers’ arms, of tearing families apart, of putting small children, frightened and traumatized, into cages, and infants and toddlers into so-called “tender-age” facilities.
It has been the centerpiece of Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, in accord with his abhorrent and racist scapegoating of immigrants and his aggressive strategy of divisiveness in order to sow political chaos, augment his immigration agenda, and appeal to his political base. Not since the era of slavery have we witnessed this type of destruction of families. And never before have children been held hostage to stoke a political agenda.
With Trump, the Republican Party has quickly morphed from the party of “family values” to the party of “white nationalism.” It is a movement in accordance with the rise of authoritarianism and nationalism that makes no reference to freedom or democratic principles, and places Trump in the company of dictators and autocrats, whom he clearly admires.
The reality of children ripped from their parents at the border by immigration agents has been heartbreaking and is unspeakably cruel. Trump’s policies are built on demagoguery, scapegoating and lies that appeal to the worst underside of those constituting his political base. Trump has referred to immigrants as “rapists and murderers” and “animals.” He has asserted that they are violent criminals who endanger the safety of the American public and that their presence among us is an “infestation,” as if they were vermin.
The ugliness of his rhetoric is unhinged, and his scapegoating unprecedented in the history of the American presidency. But his policy pronouncements are also built on lies.
The majority of those coming to our southern border are seeking asylum and fleeing extraordinary violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, nations with the highest homicide rates on the globe. Despite Trump’s assertions that they are leaving their home countries for economic reasons or seek to game the American immigration system, they are fleeing for their lives. They have been traumatized by the threat of death and the dangerous thousand-mile journey through Mexico. They are confronted by terrorism on both ends, so to speak: Certain death at the hands of vicious drug gangs and the terrorism enacted by the Trump administration, separating them from their children upon entry to the United States.
Vulgar and dishonest slander
Beyond the slander of immigrants in the most vulgar and dishonest terms, he has repeatedly asserted that they are breaking American laws, and thereby has criminalized the asylum process. But those entering this country seeking asylum are not breaking the law. They are acting in conformity with long-standing American legal norms. The United States has ratified the 1967 Protocol to the 1951 Convention on Refugees that places the nation in accordance with international law and the Convention, which governs the rights and procedures pertaining to asylum-seekers. The federal Refugee Law of 1980 further confirms American conformity with international norms. It has been long-standing American practice to admit those seeking asylum, with their disposition to be decided by an immigration official or by an immigration judge.
Trump’s policy of separating children from their parents for the moment was a step too far. In response to an outpouring of public pressure, Trump stated on June 20 that he was rescinding that policy that he himself had created. We should find some satisfaction that it remains possible, however rare, to get Trump to respond. But no one concerned with the preservation of American values and committed to fundamental decency and humanity should be fooled, and we cannot rest. The policy leaves in place pervasive violations of human rights and abhorrent practices.
The rescission of the separation edict looks forward, and not backward to include the 2,300 children already separated from their parents. Their fate remains uncertain. In many cases, their reunion with their parents may take many months. In cases in which the deportation of their parents is expedited and children are left in facilities in the United States, unification may take years, as the location of parents and children and bureaucratic complexities at state and federal levels impede the process. Numerous health experts affirm the trauma that results from separating children from their parents. When extended for long periods of time, this separation reinforces the trauma already experienced from the violence the adults and children have experienced that made flight necessary, and can be far-reaching and life-long.
Impulsive and ill-planned edicts
Not only have Trump’s edicts been cruel, they have been impulsive and ill-planned. If there were more time, we would need to address other abuses, such as the surreal condition of 5-year-olds having to defend their own asylum cases in immigration court alone, without adult or legal support. Of Jeff Sessions rescinding the right to apply for asylum for those fleeing drug gangs or domestic violence. Of the mass, expedited trials of dozens of asylum-seekers simultaneously without any legal help, caught up in a system they cannot negotiate or understand.
Furthermore, with an unemployment rate of only 3.8%, America needs an influx of more immigrants, not fewer. The economy is not a zero-sum game. Immigrants and refugees bring new skills and energy that strengthen the economy for all. We cannot let false facts be a rationale for xenophobia and shameful policies that leave us all diminished.
The system is riddled with injustice and abuse. And the lives of human beings hang in the balance. The rescinding by Trump of his family separation order should be a source of inspiration and give us some hope. But we cannot rest. These are very dangerous times. With constant resistance at every point, we need to have faith that this nightmare that has come over American society will end. But there is no determinism in this. The fate of our freedom and democracy is up to us. It is in our hands. May the resistance continue and let us be unrelenting!
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.