We recently heard this from Attorney General Jeff Sessions: “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”
Then, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly explained, when confronted with this heartless-sounding approach, that the “children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.”
I will avoid the obvious historical comparisons.
This declaration, yet another from the Trump administration indicating a complete misunderstanding of who we are as Americans, took me back 50 years, to when my parents heard that there were migrant worker families picking vegetables in Bixby, a little town near Tulsa.
We loaded up bags of used kids’ clothes and new toiletries in the VW bus and drove there on a Sunday. I hoped there would be kids to play with. Our family of seven girls was an automatic kid party, wherever we went.
I was 8, so I asked four of my six sisters what they remembered about that time.
Several small houses were situated closely together, sharing a dirt yard full of old cars. Mom took the bags of supplies, and knocked on the nearest door. We awkwardly stood in the red dirt, where we eventually made eye contact with kids.
My sister Kris and I learned the names of two girls, despite a language barrier. I thought they were our age, but when we went back closer to Christmastime and gave them a present of very special dolls, they seemed embarrassed, as they were apparently more mature.
They always invited us to lunch. They served home-made tamales in homes with dirt floors, my sister Clare remembers. Since my mother considered it a commandment to invite guests to eat, and in return, never refuse an invitation to eat, I looked forward to lunch with them.
My parents have been gone for five years, but the administration referring to these families in terms of separation and “whatever,” emphasizes Mom and Dad’s sincere generosity and humanity.
Think of the Europeans entering this country, which was already populated, and staking their claim to it. No one met them at the shore and separated them from their children, removing their hopes of a future.
If Mom were alive, she would have called immediately. “Did you hear that?” she would ask. “Children taken from parents?”
On one of our visits, someone handed a guitar to my father, but he pointed to my most musical sister, Mary Jo, and told her to “play something.” I’m sure Dad was clueless that it might embarrass a teenager, but he knew his oldest child would give it a try.
She picked up the guitar and played the only song she could think of, “Downtown.” None of the audience seemed familiar with it, yet enthusiastically applauded her.
Families attempting to enter a new country, legally or not, means they are leaving home. They could be desperate, probably out of money and ideas, and are throwing themselves on the mercy of a country. If that is the case, we should exercise that mercy.
The one thing we should not be doing is separating children from their parents. They traveled here together, in order to stay together. Maybe they will get jobs, ones that Americans “won’t take,” like picking fruit, or maybe as journalists, lawyers or chefs. It’s not a crime to be poor or out of options.
I’m glad I asked my sisters what they remembered about these migrant guest workers, because Katie, who was 10 and definitely the most shy, told me something I never knew: She was assigned to write a school report about her Christmas.
She described our season with the migrant families, playing with the kids, bringing them supplies and eating tamales. She didn’t write it to brag; she probably didn’t want to disclose that most of our family’s presents were practical or educational items like underwear, pajamas or books. Her teacher read only her paper out loud, and showered her with praise, embarrassing her beyond belief.
I wonder if Mr. Sessions is capable of being that kind of embarrassed. Because he should be.
Reach Ellen Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org