It has been argued that people are more upset about separating illegal immigrant parents and children than they are about American children being ripped from parents and placed into foster care. This foster caregiver weighs in.
“In the United States, to stay is an end in itself and not a means: to stay is the founding myth of this society.” —Valeria Luiselli
In 1985, fifteen-year-old Jenny Lisette Flores was fleeing El Salvador to live with her aunt in the United States. She was captured at the U.S. border, strip searched, and interrogated. Jenny had no criminal history and was not deemed a threat by border patrol. She was detained for over two months while awaiting her deportation hearing in a facility that housed both sexes who were sometimes forced to share living spaces. Her case caused a ripple effect in immigration policy.
In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that Jenny had not been mistreated during any part of her detainment, but the case was sent to a special counsel. Before the final ruling, a settlement was reached, now named the Flores Agreement and used henceforth regarding immigration practices.
The final 1997 Flores Agreement stated that children needed to be held in the “least restrictive” setting appropriate to their age and special needs to ensure their protection and well-being. It further states that “juveniles will not be detained with an unrelated adult for more than 24 hours.”
Jenny never reached her aunt.
The first images of brown children locked behind fences within an abandoned Walmart appear. The children, immigrants from South America, are being detained separately from their families who came to the U.S. border seeking asylum. The separation of children from their parents comes after a reported increase in the number of illegal immigrants entering the country. The separation of children from their parents is a deterrent, a public lynching that will send a message to others hoping to flee to America. The separation of children from their parents is cited as necessary because the parents have committed the crime of coming to the country illegally. The separation of the children from their parents is not only necessary, politicians argue, but biblical.
“In varying degrees, some papers and webpages announce the arrival of undocumented children like a biblical plague,” says Valeria Luiselli in her book Tell Me How It Ends, published just one vast year ago. Luiselli began volunteering as a Spanish translator for children seeking asylum in the U.S. when she became grossly aware of the hideous inconsistencies in a country founded on the truth of immigrations. “Beware the locusts!” she writes of the perceived fears of natural-born U.S. citizens. “They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen—these menacing, coffee-colored boys and girls, with their obsidian hair and slant eyes. They will fall from the skies, on our cars, on our green lawns, on our heads, on our schools, on our Sundays. They will make a racket, they will bring their chaos, their sickness, their dirt, their brownness. They will cloud the pretty views, they will fill the future with bad omens, they will fill our tongues with barbarisms.”
On social media sites, I witness the breakdown of interpersonal relationships as people take sides. An argument bubbles and erupts saying that people are more upset about the separation of illegal children from illegal parents than they are about American children removed and placed into foster care.
As a foster parent, the irony is disorientating. Foster parents are the enablers of family separation; children removed from mothers and fathers for the crimes they have committed.
When I get the call about Chloe, I’m told she’s a very pretty girl. It’s one of the first things Brenda says to me.
“We have an emergency placement. She’s almost seven and she’s very pretty.” Brenda is calling to ask if I can take this placement, even if just for a night.
I run through my normal list of questions: I ask about food allergies and known traumas and whether the pretty girl is in daycare or school. Brenda answers me in turn; she’s a proficient and well-meaning woman. She again reiterates the girl’s physical features.
“She’s very quiet. Just sitting here going through some toys. You’ll love her.”
Chloe rings my doorbell an hour later. She is pretty. She has blonde hair pulled into a bun, but it seems barely contained; pieces cling to her face that are soaked with tears and heat. She is thin in a way that indicates she will always be thin, her features delicate and bird-like. Her eyes are the color of tide pools: translucent pale-green.
Later, when I am helping her take a bath, her hair, weighted with water, reaches her waist. As it dries, it curls and shrinks into ringlets that barely reach her shoulders.
The next day, I take her to the clinic. It’s a mandatory part of foster care. A child must visit a physician within five days of a new placement.
In the room, Chloe is nervous. She is worried she will have shots. I assure her that she won’t, but she doesn’t trust me yet. The doctor enters, all smiles and stickers.
“So, you’re here for a foster care screening?” he asks. I nod, and he turns to his computer, “Well, we’ll use a coded language then.”
He asks how long I’ve had her for and if I know why she’s in care. He does speak in code, saying simply, “Do you know why?” I tell him, using a clinical language, that I’m not aware of any traumas and was told only that the living conditions were deplorable.
“There has to be more than that,” he mutters. He kneels in front of Chloe. “So, you’re staying with her,” he starts, gesturing at me. Chloe nods. “She’s like your temporary mom right now, right?” I wince at his word choice. I think Chloe does too.
The doctor begins by looking in her ears, her mouth. He’s listening to her lungs and heart when he says, “God bless you.” He turns his head to look at me from his stethoscope. “I mean you,” he says again, “God bless people like you.” I shrug and mumble thanks. Ten minutes later he diagnoses her with perfect health and tells her she’s lucky to be with me. We leave the clinic. Chloe and my nine-year-old daughter are covered in Disney princess stickers.
I go to the internet. I want to know what I’m talking about. But I’m no pundit, and my education isn’t founded in political science or American history. When anything controversial happens, it seems everyone is suddenly an expert. The nuances and the social implications and the fine lines between the codifying happening on the legal documents. The legal language. It’s all within intellectual reach after only a moment or two of shallow, and probably poorly-based, research.
When people attack and push and lay out their findings, they cease to speak the tongue and heart of empathy. Imagine remembering that behind every statistic is a person.
When people attack and push and lay out their findings, they cease to speak the tongue and heart of empathy. Imagine remembering that behind every statistic is a person. Luiselli helped me imagine a mother choosing the clothes her child would wear before the long trek to seek asylum in another country. A pair of sturdy denim pants. A long-sleeved shirt to cover the arms of her small child. The potential burns they will encounter as they cross the desert.
There are gaping differences in the lives of immigrant children being removed from their parents and those of kids in foster care. To say that they are similar is to erase their individual existences. It invalidates the pain that any child faces when they are torn away from their family.
A woman I know, who at one point had her children removed from her home and for several years fought to regain custody, shares that if people didn’t want their children taken away, they shouldn’t commit illegal acts in the first place. I see this rhetoric repeated and blasted in bombastic and aggravated tones across the news, across the nation.
“The attitude in the United States toward child migrants is not always blatantly negative,” writes Luiselli, “but generally speaking, it is based on a kind of misunderstanding or voluntary ignorance.”
Chloe was literally ripped away from her mother. I find this out weeks after she has come to my home.
Originally, I’d been told that she was removed because she was living on a pig farm. Then it was a pig sty. The story changed with each mouth that told it. I struggled to find the truth. Luiselli said, “Telling stories doesn’t solve anything, doesn’t reassemble broken lives. But perhaps it is a way of understanding the unthinkable. If a story haunts us, we keep telling it to ourselves, replaying it in silence while we shower, while we walk alone down streets, or in our moments of insomnia.”
I learned that Chloe’s mother sometimes did drugs. She was dropped off with an unrelated caregiver so that her mom could go to a doctor’s appointment. Chloe was left there for several days. Her mother was on a bender and when she came to she couldn’t remember where she’d left Chloe. The police were called to help find her daughter. Alternately, her mother remembered where she’d been left, went to get her, and was walking home with Chloe when the police rolled up, lights flashing, radios chirping.
This is the most current story, but that doesn’t mean it is the most accurate. It doesn’t contain the nuances of Chloe’s life before mine. The paths she and her mother took to arrive here today. It doesn’t explain the pain of their separation or diminish the amount Chloe cries at night for her mommy.
These are internment camps. If I could do something I would. Children are being ripped apart. It’s technically not a cage. Babies are crying themselves to sleep at night. Those are not the real recordings of children in the detention centers. It’s more like a day camp than a holding facility. Define the word cage. Define the word ripped. Define the word illegal. Define the word child, mother, brother, sister, father. Define the words until your mouth is dry, as dry as the dust that clings to the boot of the border patrol officer who is leading a girl away from her mother.
Yesterday, I had a visit from the social worker. She foresees Chloe being with us for quite some time. She doesn’t give us an exact timeline, no one can, but she says that she isn’t prepared to release Chloe back to either of her parents until they receive extensive counseling and chemical dependency help.
I do not tell Chloe these things. When she asks if she’s going to see her mother again soon, I tell her yes, she will see her mom at their next visit. When she asks when she’s going to move home with her mom, I tell her that I don’t know, because I don’t.
In the car one day, I ask Chloe if she ever thinks about being a part of our family. We idled at a red light, in a network of other cars like a beehive. I glanced back at her. She lowered her head in shame and said yes, she did want to be a part of our family.
“But I still want to see my mom,” she stated.
“It’s okay to want conflicting things,” I reassured her, and myself. Because as much as I imagined the day I would pack up her clothes and the things she’d received from the time she spent with us and waved at her as she became an object shrinking and layered in the dust of the road, I envisioned a picture that would hang on my wall someday: our new family in a courthouse standing beside a judge.
Later, I’m talking with my daughter’s great-grandmother. We are discussing the rhetoric being blasted across the internet and the news. The goal of children in foster care is to reunite them with their families, and this is not the case for the immigrant children. Luiselli writes that, “The children who cross Mexico and arrive at the U.S. border are not ‘immigrants,’ not ‘illegals,’ not merely ‘undocumented minors.’ Those children are refugees of a war, and, as such, they should all have the right to asylum. But not all of them have it.”
We are lamenting together, ashamed at our comfortable lives; we feel helpless to help. My daughter begins to ask questions. She wants to understand the situation. I tell her, as simply as possible, without using terms that categorize. As much as I want my daughter to understand, I also want her to have the capacity to make her own informed decisions. I don’t want her to regurgitate my own political ramblings.
So, instead of the politics, we discuss the humanity of kids being taken away from their families and kept in buildings that resemble the pound where we got our family dog.
My daughter is distraught. She has, almost immediately, placed herself and her sister into the scenario of the immigrant children. She is practicing empathy. We talk for several minutes while I explain asylum laws and the normal process for families crossing the border illegally. She asks to call our church pastor and tell him about this. She believes, beautifully, that strong, good men create change.
I warn her, and feel bad for doing so, as passionate as she is, that many people, even people at our church, won’t share her beliefs. There are those who are unbothered by the separation. This troubles her almost as much as the separation of children itself. But she nods gravely and dials the pastor’s number.
They talk on the phone for several minutes. When she gets off, she tells me that our pastor plans to make an announcement on Sunday, asking the church to spend the week in prayer over this specific matter.
I tell her that I am proud of her, and I am. My chest is aching with love. In just a few minutes she has done more than I have in the weeks since it followed. She is under the belief that an injustice has been committed and that she, who cannot do much, can ask someone with more power and more authority to help those in need. It’s the epitome of what our government is supposed to represent. Those in power advocating for the lesser voiced.
She is under the belief that … she can ask someone with more power and more authority to help those in need. It’s the epitome of what our government is supposed to represent. Those in power advocating for the lesser voiced.
Our history is rooted in hypocrisy and pain. The 2018 census found that there are 34.5 million Americans who list their heritage as primarily or partially Irish. Irish is the second most common ancestry in America.
In 1849, a group of native-born Protestant men worked to restore America to a land they once recognized as their own. While their formal name was the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, they were frequently referred to as the Know-Nothings, because they claimed innocence when questioned about their politics. They rejected and terrorized the Irish. They were buoyed by the war cry “Americans must rule America.” The Know-Nothings seemed to have forgotten their heritage; the newness of the word America, as well as their own immigrant beginnings.
In a letter to Joshua Speed, Abraham Lincoln wrote: “As a nation, we begin by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and with the base alloy of hypocrisy.”
What Abe said sticks with me. Luiselli echoed these thoughts, saying, “To stay is the founding myth of this society.” This pretense of maintaining a strong nation’s borders, a nation founded on immigration, erases any opportunity for empathy, for understanding. It is less about right and wrong than it is about remembering that our ancestors were once all strangers in a new land.
One morning, my daughter wakes before her sisters. She finds me on the couch and plops herself next to me. We cocoon ourselves in blankets and then she collapses into tears. She admits that she’d heard me talking to Chloe the night before. She’d heard Chloe’s cries for her mom, her desperate questions of when she would be returned to her family.
“It just must be really scary for Chloe,” my daughter cries to me on the couch. “Kids need their parents.”
“Numbers and maps tell horror stories,” Luiselli writes. “But the stories of deepest horror are perhaps those for which there are no numbers, no maps, no possible accountability, no words ever written or spoken. And perhaps the only way to grant any justice—were that even possible—is by hearing and recording those stories over and over again so that they come back, always, to haunt and shame us. Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalizing horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.”
[Header Image: Photo Courtesy of Rajah Bose]