Lynn Hall column: Separation anxiety: Compassion comes through for immigrant children

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 5, 2018

I spent a lot of time working on a column about our government’s policy of separating children and their parents who were illegally crossing the border from Mexico. Every day there were more stories and photographs of these family members and it was incredibly heartbreaking. But after recent news, it seems that for the moment the separation policy has been suspended.

As a child who suffered separation anxiety and now as a parent, it was difficult to imagine first, the youngsters who found themselves taken away by strangers with no idea where they were going or for how long, and secondly, the panic of a mother and/or father watching this happen and being totally helpless to stop it. I used to panic when I lost sight of one of my children in a large store, even if it was for just a moment.

As the reports of the separation policy were making daily headlines, I was reminded of a book I read when I was probably in my early 30s.  The book was Sophie’s Choice by American author William Styron. One of the characters was a Polish woman, the mother of two children. During World War II, she and her children were sent to a concentration camp. Upon arrival, she was ordered by the Nazi guards to decide which of her children would live and which would die. She had to make that choice or both would be killed.

I had to put the book down for a while because it was impossible to get past the idea of a mother having to make such a choice. This was the most repugnant scenario I could imagine; pure evil on the part of those inflicting this pain and absolute hell for the woman who found herself forced into that kind of position. As a mother, it was devastating, and I assumed it would be for any parent.

It’s true that U.S. security personnel at the border where not asking parents to choose whether a child would live or die, but they were taking children away from their parents. Put yourself in the shoes of that mother or father standing by helplessly as your terrified child is pulled away from you. It was beyond cruel, and thankfully the photographs told that story. I wonder if any of those individuals who were assigned this task were sickened by what they were doing.

But reason and compassion have prevailed. I put aside my first column — the one where I expressed a sincere hope that people would continue to voice their opposition — and started over.

The policy has changed, but we must not forget that there are still children to be reunited with their families. It would be a tragedy to leave them in limbo, and the problem isn’t fixed until they are back with their parents. It would also be nice if those in position of leadership would stop trying to perpetuate the idea that everyone who wants to come to America is a criminal.

But for now, it seems appropriate to say thank you to everyone who stood up and said this is not the America we want to be. In this highly divided country, people came together to express their disgust toward the administration’s policy of “zero tolerance” toward illegal immigration using children as hostages. While our top law enforcement officer, Jeff Sessions, far-right political activist and White house advisor Stephen Miller, Kirstjen Nielsen, head of Homeland Security, and the likes of Ann Coulter and Laura Ingram defended the policy, the majority of Americans were appalled. Despite Ingram’s lighthearted description, I doubt this was anything like a “summer camp” experience for a frightened young child. I’m not even sure how to address the so called “Biblical” justifications.

While the policy-makers touted the advantages of this horrific practice, pediatricians, child psychologist, religious leaders, mothers and fathers, and even some in Congress were outraged. Sessions was called out by his own church for supporting this sort of evil. Republicans and Democrats, in some cases, put aside their differences momentarily to call for an end to the policy.

And now it appears to have been easily reversed with the stroke of a pen. There is no easy way to assess the damage this sort of trauma can leave. If the administration’s goal was to create a large number of future terrorists, then this policy may prove to have been successful in years to come.

But for today we celebrate reason and compassion and the good that can be accomplished when we come together. Let’s not forget, we are a country made up of immigrants from all around the world. I guess it’s a good thing the Native Americans were more welcoming back in 1492.