On Sunday, a day we as a nation set aside to honor fathers and the bonds of family, I was among the millions of Americans who watched images of children who have been torn from their parents. In the six weeks between April 19 and May 31, the Department of Homeland Security has sent nearly 2,000 children to mass detention centers or foster care. More than 100 of these children are younger than 4 years old. The reason for these separations is a zero-tolerance policy for their parents, who are accused of illegally crossing our borders.
I live in a border state. I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.
Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso. These images are eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history. We also know that this treatment inflicts trauma; interned Japanese have been two times as likely to suffer cardiovascular disease or die prematurely than those who were not interned.
Americans pride ourselves on being a moral nation, on being the nation that sends humanitarian relief to places devastated by natural disasters or famine or war. We pride ourselves on believing that people should be seen for the content of their character, not the color of their skin. We pride ourselves on acceptance. If we are truly that country, then it is our obligation to reunite these detained children with their parents — and to stop separating parents and children in the first place.
People on all sides agree that our immigration system isn’t working, but the injustice of zero tolerance is not the answer. I moved away from Washington almost a decade ago, but I know there are good people at all levels of government who can do better to fix this.
Recently, Colleen Kraft, who heads the American Academy of Pediatrics, visited a shelter run by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. She reported that while there were beds, toys, crayons, a playground and diaper changes, the people working at the shelter had been instructed not to pick up or touch the children to comfort them. Imagine not being able to pick up a child who is not yet out of diapers.
Twenty-nine years ago, my mother-in-law, Barbara Bush, visited Grandma’s House, a home for children with HIV/AIDS in Washington. Back then, at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, the disease was a death sentence, and most babies born with it were considered “untouchables.” During her visit, Barbara — who was the first lady at the time — picked up a fussy, dying baby named Donovan and snuggled him against her shoulder to soothe him. My mother-in-law never viewed her embrace of that fragile child as courageous. She simply saw it as the right thing to do in a world that can be arbitrary, unkind and even cruel. She, who after the death of her 3-year-old daughter knew what it was to lose a child, believed that every child is deserving of human kindness, compassion and love.
In 2018, can we not as a nation find a kinder, more compassionate and more moral answer to this current crisis? I, for one, believe we can.
Laura Bush is a former first lady of the United States.