Fabiola Santiago

Taking their kids away at the border is heartless — and won't stop desperate parents

South Floridians gather to protest separation of immigrant children from their families

Protestors demanded that the Trump administration keep families together, that Congress defund ICE and Border Patrol, and that Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam shut down the Miramar ICE detention facility.
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Protestors demanded that the Trump administration keep families together, that Congress defund ICE and Border Patrol, and that Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam shut down the Miramar ICE detention facility.

In U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' warped understanding of parenthood, parents fleeing rampant violence with their children are smugglers.

And the way to punish them for trying to save their children’s lives is to rip crying and scared kids from their arms — and jail parent and child in detention centers thousands of miles away from each other while parents await criminal prosecution.

“If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” Sessions said recently. “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border."

He doubled down Tuesday when pressed about the policy's morality by a conservative radio host who admitted he was "disturbed" by the separations: "We’ve got to get this message out. You're not given immunity.”

This evil and abusive "zero tolerance" policy, however, isn’t going to stop illegal crossings into the United States. The Washington Post has reported, in fact, that the number of immigrant children held without their parents surged 21 percent since last month to 10,773 children.

It's not going to stop as long as President Donald Trump and his administration ignore the depths of desperation that drives immigration. It's not going to stop when, instead of engaging in problem-solving with our neighbors, the president resorts to insults and calls the lands from which people are fleeing "shithole" countries.

It's not going to stop because there’s nothing a parent wouldn’t do to save his or her child’s life, and these Central American parents knocking at our door aren’t any different. When their children are targeted by a vicious gang, their choices are to stay and see them die on the street or to flee in search of safe haven. No matter how treacherous the road. No matter how high the wall and how ugly the greeting.

Their flight is heroic and courageous.

The response of the Trump administration is inhumane and should be disturbing to every parent in America.

It would generate tremendous outrage, I dare say, if the children involved were blue-eyed kids with ringlets of golden hair charmingly draped around their faces instead of brown ones carrying in their countenance the horrors they’ve experienced. And, should I also mention that the separation policy spearheaded by Sessions is disgusting and reminiscent of the slave era when families were torn apart and sold separately to slave owners? It is that, too.

This administration inflicts even more trauma on vulnerable children — not because this wealthy country can’t take them, but for the sake of catering to divisive politics. We deserve the world’s condemnation for this abuse of international conventions on the treatment of immigrant children. Let's all raise our voices.

In South Florida, we’re intimately familiar with the story of children fleeing — at great cost — to the safe harbor the United States used to be.

For the sacrifices fearful parents make for their children, look no further in the history of U.S. immigration than the secret Pedro Pan exodus of the 1960s from Cuba that brought more than 14,000 unaccompanied children to our shores.

When it became clear that Fidel Castro’s government was taking an irreversible turn toward communism, parents began sending their children alone to the United States with the help of the Catholic Church. In Miami, Father Bryan Walsh secured visa waivers and the children’s placement with either a relative who could care for them, at a camp run by the church, or with American families who welcomed them. Needless to say, when the program began in 1960 it had the endorsement and support of the Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower administration — and that the Pedro Pan children grew up to become some of Miami’s most successful citizens.

Like the Central American parents now, the Cubans were right to be fearful that, along with the confiscation of businesses and private property, the state would also take ownership of their children's lives. And it came to pass. Children were forced to endure Communist indoctrination in every school and to labor in agriculture through the required escuela al campo. As a result, more unaccompanied Cuban children arrived on these shores through the Mariel boatlift and during the rafter exodus of 1994, when they were first held along with more than 35,000 other refugees at Guantánamo camps. After enough people loudly complained, they were processed and resettled throughout the United States by the Clinton administration.

Despite the welcome and support, and the fact that most of the kids reunited with parents years later, Pedro Pan adults easily tear up at the telling of the story of separation from all they knew and loved. Imagine what these Central American children, in far worse conditions and with half a country turned against them, are going through.

It’s unspeakable — and we, Cuban Americans, should raise our voices the loudest against this Trump policy.

"Where is our collective outrage over the treatment of these children?" writes Adriana Comellas-Macretti in a social media call to Cuban Americans to speak up. She's a former Pedro Pan child who left Cuba at 12 in 1962 with in a group of children traveling alone. A Republican Party activist in Florida who didn't support Trump, she finds his administration reprehensible.

"This is beyond politics," she says. "It's about human compassion. I can only fathom how different the lives of my Pedro Pan brethren would have been if we would have been treated like this! I challenge US to raise our voices against this travesty, it's inhuman and it MUST stop NOW!"

Most concerning is that congressional representatives who showed up at some of the border detention camps where this travesty is playing out were denied entry by the administration. I thought only dictators to the south of us did that. But we're getting to the point where this country will need international human rights monitors on the ground.

The United Nations human rights office has demanded that the United States “immediately halt” the family separation, which “runs counter to human rights standards and principles.”

The Trump administration response via its U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, daughter of immigrants: “Neither the United Nations nor anyone else will dictate how the United States upholds its borders.”

If it sounds familiar, it's because I've spent the last six decades hearing the same thing from the Castro brothers: Sovereignty trumps human rights abuses.

Why doesn’t the Trump administration want Congress or the public to know what’s going on inside immigration detention facilities?

Because there's plenty of ugliness to hide when you punish children in search of safety.

Follow me on Twitter, @fabiolasantiago