Tonight I listened to this recording of children crying helplessly for their parents at a detention center on the southern border of the United States and remembered the feeling in my gut the very first time I heard the sound of an animal being slaughtered. I was nine or ten and sitting in my mom’s minivan as we rolled slowly over the speed bumps on our way into the mall parking lot. A crowd of anti-fur activists was blocking the entrance to the department store — Bullock’s, maybe — playing a tape on loop of a living animal being destroyed.
Involuntarily, my eyes salted with hot tears, which I attempted to wipe away with the backs of my hands so my mom wouldn’t notice I was crying. My face was hot and red, and a crank deep in my belly was prying open a fissure I’d never felt before: a nausea like a gush of lava was rising up in me as my eyes continued to fill mutinously with tears. The shame of being human. The horror of what we do.
I wanted no part of it.
I’m familiar with that reaction now: the revulsion that geysers through me, the vision that blurs with nervous tears when I face down that anxiety. But I don’t think I’ve felt that way from an audio recording since the very first time — until tonight. The aural blitz of another living thing’s suffering, disconnected from the present moment — from the speed bumps at the mall, from the New York Times tabs open on the desktop. The wail of an invisible child, disembodied and held in no one’s arms, of a little voice gasping for her father over and over.
The child became every child I taught in a classroom or a sandbox, became my goddaughter and my cousins, became the child I was and the child I hope someday to have. The child was no outlaw. The child was in exile. She was a refugee from her country and we forced her into exile from her mother’s body.
Were you a child?
When home was the body of someone you loved: the crescent of your mother’s chin, the down of her breasts, the lap bar of her arm. When your universe was your father’s singing voice, his hand taking your smaller one in his.
The uniformed agents said they were going to take the children for a bath and then they took them from their parents and didn’t bring them back.
Once, a group of uniformed agents told hundreds of filthy, half-dead travelers they were to be given nice, hot showers after days inside a windowless cattle car. Maybe they felt hope for the first time in days when they were locked inside a communal shower and gassed to death with hydrogen cyanide at Auschwitz.
How far are we from this?
Today, Masha Gessen published an essay about the new task force formed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) to find naturalized citizens who ‘should not have been naturalized in the first place.’ Gessen points to the troubling assumption implicit in the creation of this force: “that America is under attack by malevolent immigrants who cause dangerous harm by finding ways to live here.”
Are these children — whose only home is the warmth of their parents’ bodies, who have faced god-knows what odysseys to reach this country — the face of depraved fugitives?
Are their parents?
We are imprisoning newcomers seeking nothing but a better life. We are kidnapping their children.
We are deporting people who have built those better lives here. We are sending them back to nowhere.
We are erasing the stories of people who have documents allowing them to be here. The new USCIS task force of attorneys is seeking out citizenship applications with falsehoods on them. Gessen calls the distinction between a lie and an innocent mistake “fuzzier than one might assume.”
Here is my great-grandmother Clara’s Petition for Naturalization:
Here are things that are untrue:
- Clara lived on Crest Lake Drive. (It was Crestlake Drive.)
- Clara was born in 1892. (Clara was born in 1894.)
- Clara was born in Elisagrade, Russia. (Clara was born in Elizavetgrad which, at the time of her naturalization, was actually called Kirovohrad.)
- Clara’s daughter was Lillian. (She was born Lea.)
- Annie’s birth date was February 28, 1919. (It was February 2, 1919.)
Was Clara a liar? How could there be so many innocent mistakes? Shouldn’t her naturalization be revoked?
Should we dig her up and send her back to Russia? To the place where she watched neighbors murdered in front of her during a pogrom? To the countryside that was decimated during the second world war, where her relatives disappeared into the ether of history?
Here is the Manifest of Alien Passengers Applying for Admission on June 5, 1920 in Detroit, Michigan:
Lines 1-6 are my little family: Clara, age 28; her children George, Sam, Joe, Lea, Annie, from 1 to 7 years old. There is no nearest friend or relative. My great-grandfather is somewhere between Hamilton, Ontario and Dayton, Ohio. Clara is alone with five children, unable to speak English fluently. On that day, she kept each of her children firmly beside her.
When I think of what they would have said if they had been separated.
If my grandmother had been taken from her mother at three years old. If Annie, who was breast-feeding, had been taken from her mother. If the children had been divided from one another in addition to being taken from their mother.
My grandmother was an immigrant. She came here at three and was naturalized at 24. I never heard her call herself anything but an American.
She devoted her life to helping refugees come to this country — because of the life she was able to have here. Away from the pogroms in the shtetls faced by her parents and grandparents, with two feet planted firmly in American soil, she looked right out to the horizon line and wrote her story.
We are not giving these children a chance. We aren’t giving them a reason to love this country. We are instilling them with fear and terrorizing them by ripping them away from their parents — the parents who courageously brought them here to start a new life. To dare to dream a better future for their children, the way all of our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents did.
I cannot abide the anguish in the children’s voices on that recording. I cannot bear the things we humans do to one another. Can we stop it? Can we get busloads to the border? What do we do to feel proud to be Americans once again?
Here is a living document from Slate on how you can help fight family separation at the border.