With the mercury expected to rise to 105 degrees by the end of the week, the white tents in Tornillo, Texas — a morally jarring new twist in the rise of America’s immigration gulag — went up just in time for Father’s Day weekend.
Inside the white canvas tents rising like a mirage in the hazy heat of the Rio Grande Valley, there are no fathers. Instead, the first of what officials say will be as many as 400 or so children — mostly teenage boys for now — are already detained inside the air-conditioned makeshift tents. It’s a sign of the Trump administration scrambling to figure out what to do with a growing number of migrant children in custody, including as many as 2,000 forcibly removed from their moms and dads under a new “zero tolerance” policy toward migrants seeking to flee poverty and violence in Central America.
“As a Hispanic and as a father I feel we’re under attack,” Victor Rodriguez, a 55-year-old factory worker who lives near the Tornillo tent city, told the Dallas Morning News. “I cannot imagine children with European backgrounds facing the same thing. This isn’t right.”
I just went into the #Juarez Valley for the @TexasTribune to make photos, behind the border fence, of the #immigrant children who have been placed inside the new #tentcity at the CPB facility in #Tornillo. #BorderStories #OnAssignment pic.twitter.com/JmMevp4FUI
— Ivan Pierre Aguirre (@i_p_a_1) June 16, 2018
Even with the new tent city, and with shelters for children and the county jails helping to detain their parents already overflowing, the new Border Patrol chief for the Rio Grande Valley is telling the Washington Post that he expects the pace of family separations to double in the coming weeks. “We are trying to build to 100 percent prosecution of everybody that is eligible,” Manuel Padilla, Jr. told the newspaper. “We are not there yet, but that is our intent.”
The mercury in the Rio Grande Valley isn’t the only thing that’s about to boil over. A series of shocking reports over the family separations that have come with the “zero tolerance” scheme announced earlier this spring by Attorney General Jeff Sessions — a mother alleging her young child was taken from her while she was breastfeeding, sobbing kids being told at one packed shelter they’re not allowed to hug each other, a grief-stricken dad committing suicide after his son was forcibly taken — have taken the immigration debate out of the political realm and into a new, dark place. In the 242nd year of the American Experiment, how can such official cruelty be morally justified?
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) June 16, 2018
On CNN on Saturday night, the 8 p.m. news hour began with these words from anchor Ana Cabrera: “Something disgraceful is happening…something that can be stopped.” At a White House briefing late last week, journalist Brian Karem gave up trying to get press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to explain the border policy to, instead, lash out, in exasperation, at whether at long last she had no sense of decency left. “You’re a parent.” Karem exclaimed. “Don’t you have any empathy? Come on, Sarah, you’re a parent! Don’t you have any empathy for what these people are going through?”
Just moments earlier, Sanders had turned to what struck many as an odd place to find a moral defense of taking children away from their parents: the Bible. “I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law,” President Trump’s top press aide said in response to a question. “That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible.”
Sanders made those comments after Sessions, earlier in the day, had also cited Scripture in insisting that what our government is doing at the border is very godly indeed. The attorney general went before the friendly audience he could find — law-enforcement officers in Indiana — and told his “church friends” that the Bible backed up Trump’s draconian policies.
“Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution … 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 the government for his purposes,” Sessions said. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves … and protect the weak and it protects the lawful.”
There you have it: A political party that relies on Jesus to help get elected turning its back on the charity and goodwill of the Gospels and reinventing the Bible as spreading the good news … of law-and-order. It’s not surprising that such words would come from Sessions, who fled his small Alabama town during its time of 1960s civil-rights upheaval to attend a small, mostly-white Bible college. As several experts pointed out, the passage from Romans 13 that Sessions invoked to support family separation for immigrants was often cited by Southerners in the 1840s and 1850s to morally justify slavery, which of course also ripped kids away from their mothers and fathers.
“This is the same argument that Southern slaveholders and the advocates of a Southern way of life made,” John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, told the Washington Post.
Jeff Sessions: "If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you."
— The Marshall Project (@MarshallProj) June 11, 2018
It’s a Biblical crutch to defend a policy that is born of prejudice and crass political calculation. The prejudice comes straight from the top, from a president with little patience for the details of health care or nuclear disarmament but who obsesses over the tally of monthly border crossings, berating his Homeland Security secretary and ranting about “shithole countries.” As the New York Times noted this weekend, the family-separation practices that had been rejected by Trump’s Republican and Democratic predecessors as inhumane were now pushed by aides like Stephen Miller, whose entire career has been built on stirring up xenophobia and white nationalist hatred. “The message,” Miller insisted to the Times, “is that no one is exempt from immigration law.”
The irony is that this comes at a time when many men and women of faith — as well as supporters of an ethical humanism not necessarily rooted in religion — are wondering why the Far Right in American politics has been allowed to redefine morality as restricting women’s reproductive rights or returning Christian prayer to public schools — even as we increasingly ignore the advice of Jesus to tend to the poor, the desperate, and to people who don’t look like us.
Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopalian Church, told MSNBC this weekend that there’s no Christian justification for taking toddlers from their mothers and that the current policies go against every teaching from Jesus about loving our neighbors, even our enemies. “Love of neighbor trumps everything,” the bishop said. “That is fundamentally Christian — and American.”Many other top spiritual leaders — the U.S. Catholic Bishops, even some top evangelicals — have also sharply criticized the Trump “zero tolerance” policies.
Recently in the space, I wrote about the ongoing Poor People’s Campaign, led by the Rev. William Barber, the North Carolina minister on a mission since the dawn of the Tea Party era to define lack of health care, cuts to the safety net and restrictions on voting rights as fundamentally immoral. In a speech last year, Barber noted that the struggle for America’s soul is drenched in the crusades against slavery, against Jim Crow laws and in the efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Caesar Chavez.
They saw that patriotism is far more than blind allegiance. They understood faith had to be deeply rooted in the moral principles of justice, love, mercy, care for the stranger, and concern for life, as the highest value. They knew that America, like every nation, needed prophets rather than priests for the empire if a nation is ever going to repent and mend every flaw, if the nation’s successes are ultimately going to be noble and divine.
This, increasingly, is our fight today. What is morality, and whose God is it, anyway? Will we, as a civil society, put our faith in the heartless rigidity and exclusion preached by Jeff Sessions, or in the social gospel of loving our neighbors and comforting the poor, the sermonizing of William Barber. Awful as they are, Trump’s immigration policies have helped remind us of one thing: That the American question — even for those who don’t believe in a higher power — has always been a moral question.
Father’s Day 2018 feels like the perfect day to recommit ourselves to the ultimate family values — keeping families together, and helping those in need. Take a few moments to call your member of Congress, make a donation for legal defense or humanitarian aid, or plan a march — for the sake of America’s soul. You don’t have to reach much deeper into the Book of Romans — past the favorite verse of Sessions and his fellow white nationalists — to find an expression of the higher order that could make America a nation of moral law, what we need it to become: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”