On Father’s Day this Sunday, we might stop for a moment to consider Marco Antonio Muñoz who was separated from his wife and three-year-old son while attempting to apply for asylum at the Rio Grande border. When the frenzied father learned that his family would be separated and his child was torn from his arms, he became “disruptive and combative” and was removed to another facility where he hung himself.
Imagine what it must have felt like to make the arduous trek from Honduras with a wife and child from near anarchy and violence to “the land of the free,” only to discover that the doors of refuge were in reality prison gates that would not only entrap a fleeing family but dismember it. While the fate of Marco Muñoz is singularly tragic, it is emblematic of a greater nightmare inflicted on thousands of families seeking refuge from the turmoil of their own lands. Stories abound of children terrified by being wrenched from their parents’ arms; of mothers and fathers traumatized at not even knowing where their children have been taken.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has sought to justify the Trump Administration’s ukase of taking children from their parents by arguing that criminals are naturally separated from their children when entering jail. But even criminals know where their children are, and can be visited by them. Moreover, people without papers are not therefore criminals. Some of them are refugees seeking asylum.
Then there are the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants, most of whom have been here for many years and have lived decent and productive lives. They may be considered illegal but they are not criminal although they’ve been criminalized by Trump in order to make them prey to his obsession in hunting them down and driving them out. Even legislation to protect the Dreamers — brought here as children and aspiring to the American Dream — is struggling to gain passage in a Republican-led Congress after Trump arbitrarily undermined the status of DACA.
It might be helpful to remember that a bipartisan bill offering a path to citizenship for the undocumented favored by most Americans was blocked only a few years ago by Nativists who use obstructionist tactics. Those same nativists are now counting on people’s short memories to insist on the illegality of those same people. The crocodile tears that Nativists shed about illegal immigrants jumping the line have now been exposed as disingenuous by the Trump regime’s penchant for restricting legal immigration as well, together with reducing refugee entry to a trickle.
Trump’s apologists point out that previous presidents — Bush and Obama — detained families. But separating them as a punitive policy is a strategy that springs from the malign intent of the current administration. The White House chief of staff John Kelly brazenly acknowledged as much be calling such action a “tough deterrent.” By removing their children the U.S. border authorities are subjecting them to a form of torment, calculated to alter their behavior or, worse, simply serve as a threat to others who may be considering a similar path.
In pursuing these policies, the Department of Homeland Security is working in a grand American tradition. As we remember, slave families in the ante-bellum South were terrified by having their children, siblings or spouses “sold down the river.” The anguish of those bereft of their kin was of no consequence to the white masters. Similarly, Native-American children were plucked from their families to be assimilated into the white man’s culture in “Indian schools,” to be “civilized.”
Slaveholders invoked the Bible to justify their system. So did Jeff Sessions earlier this week in defending his own ruling. "Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution,” he declared. “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” he intoned, noting further that "orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves.’’
By this reasoning, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela would have been out of line. But Bull Connor, the British colonizers and apartheid South Africa would have been in step with the Good Book.
Sessions’s nostrums notwithstanding, Jesus instructed his followers to “suffer little children”—not “make little children suffer,” and the separation of families has struck some vital nerve. It turns out that many Americans, and many believers, know that family values do not entail breaking up families, and the week has seen protests across the country by people who have had enough of Trump’s cruel and malignant policy.
The Southern Baptist convention, which includes a chunk of the President’s evangelical base, this week called for immigration reform that stresses “the priority of family unity.” In a searing rebuke to the Trump agenda, the convention declared any form of nativism “to be inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference, denounced Jeff Sessions’s edict denying asylum for women fleeing domestic violence, asserting that “asylum is an instrument to preserve the right to life” and that separating children from their mothers “is immoral.”
For Christians and Jews, Scripture is explicit on the issue of treating the outsider, as in Numbers 15:15: “There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger. It shall be a law for all time and throughout the ages. You and the stranger shall be alike before the Lord.” Such admonitions are repeated throughout the Bible. One can only wonder what reception Homeland Security would give to a refugee mother, father and small child fleeing persecution on their way to Bethlehem.
Perhaps one way of celebrating a day for fathers is to pause for a moment and give thanks for how fortunate we are and to remember a three-year-old who may now grow up without one.
Jack Schwartz is a former book editor of Newsday.