Homo homini lupus est: trauma and child abuse in U.S. refugee policy

Terrified children kept in cages disturbed the world. And then, president Trump, on camera, resumed his cynical show, smiled, and signed an executive order to keep refugee families together. Español

Danica Jorden
21 June 2018

Families of fathers facing deportation, community organizations, and allies, gathered outside Immigration Court at 26 Federal Plaza in NYC on June 15, 2018, to raise their voices calling for an end to deportations. Photo by Erik McGregor/Sipa USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Four men with red-brown skin and dirt on their clothes carry an enormous dog to the vet under the noon sun of a heat advisory day. The index is 105 F and climbing, and the weather forecasters are warning of “dangerously hot weather” for at least the next few days.

“Looks like heat stroke,” the receptionist shrugs, and the assistants don’t appear hopeful. An offer of Spanish translation is met with disinterest by the staff. The men and the Great Dane-mastiff-something mix -- unresponsive, folds of slack skin hanging heavily -- are told to go “in back” and disappear through a thick door.

Earlier this week, the local school board announced its most promising graduates, picking out not even a handful. One is going to receive a “full ride” to an Ivy League university, another a $10,000 per year scholarship to the best school in the state. And one, in the space allotted to future plans, is going to install floors and hope he can remain in the country.

Two years ago, that student, Willian Ayala Esperanza, whose maternal surname means Hope, left his family in El Salvador and made his way with a friend to the U.S. southern border, where he presented himself and petitioned for asylum and the right to join a family member in the United States. Another “unaccompanied minor” in the Central American Kindertransport, he was held in a detention center for months until he was released.  The law still allows – allowed -- minors of any status to enroll in school, and he has been studying while working and sending remittances to support his parents, awaiting a judge’s decision that will determine if he can stay, legally, or be deported. The school quickly recognized him as a prodigy, but he refused, his teachers say, the offer of a college-level math class in order to concentrate on learning English.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) governs U.S. immigration.  DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, whose name doesn’t mean hope but reflects her parents’ love of their immigrant roots, said a few days earlier, "Illegal actions have and must have consequences. No more free passes, no more get-out-of-jail-free cards."

The children are being kept in cages, or as the Department of Homeland Security prefers, “cage-like” conditions.

She has been defending the government’s new policy of separating accompanied refugee children from their parent asylum seekers. The children are being kept in cages, or as DHS prefers, “cage-like” conditions, where congressional officials and reporters have witnessed things such as youngsters struggling to change the diaper of a baby they don’t even know, and where the official rule is “No hugging.” At least one separated father has committed suicide.

While the dog is being treated, Donald Trump, president of the United States, is on the television, decrying previous policies that have allowed young persons to apply for asylum and study in the meantime.  Speaking to a business group, he declares, “As a result of these loopholes, roughly half a million illegal immigrant family units and Central American minors have been released into the United States since 2014 at unbelievably great taxpayer expense.”

DHS is not hurting children, he says, it is protecting them. “Child smugglers exploit the loopholes and they gain illegal entry into the United States, putting countless children in danger on the perilous trek to the United States.” Lamenting lax laws on the other side, he concludes, “Try staying in Mexico a couple of days, see how long that lasts,” which is inexplicably met with applause.

What would deter someone under threat from leaving a region with the highest murder rate in the world?

It’s not loopholes but hurdles and insurmountable barriers that thousands of families are trying to cross as they negotiate an obtuse refugee system that is increasingly using trauma and punishment as a deterrent. But what would deter someone under threat from leaving a region with the highest murder rate in the world? What would stop children from attempting to join their families, or parents sending their children out of a war-zone, or attempting to return when they’ve been deported without their American-born kids, who have sometimes been fostered or adopted by strangers?

“I hate people like that,” says a woman about the men with the dog. What? “Leaving a dog outside in this heat.” But it looks like the men have been working in the sun, too. “They have a choice. You always have a choice.”

We saw that movie. We know the story. We see the signs. We’ve lived through it, or at least heard about it from people we know who were there. People still living and bearing the scars in Israel, in Alabama, in Bosnia, in North Dakota, in Rwanda. People who were, are, stigmatized because of the way they look, the language they speak, the job they do, their orientation, their ability or disability. People who are being treated as less than human.

It’s been studied and analyzed and laws have been put in place and the signs are supposed to be recognized so that it never happens again.

It’s a day later, also noon, also hot if not hotter than the day before. Breaking news, the TV announces. President Trump, with Secretary Nielsen by his side, is signing, on camera, an executive order to keep refugee families together. “We’re going to have a lot of happy people,” he smiles.

Over at the vets, they don’t want to say if the dog made it. But the stony look on their faces tells the story.

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