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We may be going through one of those moments that will cause us lasting shame. Years from now we will look back and wonder, "What were they thinking?"

Separating children from their families. Locking up people who are neither threatening nor dangerous. Imprisoning people who are fleeing life-threatening violence, looking for a safe place to work and raise their families.

I visited one of these immigration prisons in Texas. It is a massive, concrete fortress with sparse, narrow slats for "windows." Several hundred women are being held there as they await hearings on their immigration petitions. Many are fleeing unspeakable violence. Some are mothers whose children have been taken from them by our government. The facility is run by a private firm and has been the subject of sexual abuse lawsuits. Some women call it "la perrera," the dog pound. "They treated us so horribly, as though we were animals," writes one mother who didn't know the whereabouts of her two children for 21 days. Local officials are unhappy with the situation and those in charge of the facility have voted to end the management contract with the private firm.

Some of these women legally presented themselves at the border requesting asylum as refugees. Some of them crossed the border illegally, an act that's considered a misdemeanor along the lines of disorderly conduct, reckless driving or possessing marijuana, so it is an exaggeration to call them criminals, emotionally connecting them with bank robbers or other serious criminals, as some have done.

If a person is deported and then re-enters illegally, then they can be charged with a felony.

Mental health professionals are sounding warnings of the profound developmental damage that can happen when children are forcibly separated from their parents. Their trauma can be life-long. Some of these children will never be able to form trusting bonds of affection, even as adults. Many will have post-traumatic stress disorder and other forms of anxiety.

We are doing this. We are doing this because desperate people are fleeing for their lives and because the bureaucratic processing for legal immigration from Central America is backlogged 17 to 23 years. They are seeking refuge. We are kidnapping their children.

There is an old story about an ancient Greek city debating whether to exterminate the entire population of a vassal city for failing to pay its tribute. One of the city fathers objected, saying that simply increasing the severity of punishment will never solve crime. "One thing I know," he said, "as long as people are poor, hungry, and oppressed, they will continue to do what they feel they have to do to stay alive, and all your threatened punishments are not going to deter them." (quoted by Beatrice Bruteau, "Radical Optimism," Page 74)

Much of the instability and violence in Central America is fueled by our nation's appetite for illegal drugs. Our drug use is financing violent cartels and organized crime. Those criminals are preying on innocent families, forcing their youths into gangs and raping mothers and daughters. When these families flee, we arrest them, and now we are taking their children from them.

We've done these kinds of things before. In World War II we locked up loyal Japanese-American families inside internment camps, including orphaned infants who were as little as 1/16th Japanese. In the 1950's, U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy ruined the lives of hundreds of innocent Americans with his paranoid rants against "spies" and gay people. Here in the South, Jim Crow laws forbade black citizens from voting or sharing public facilities with white people. As a nation we carry these shames as part of our history.

Exaggerated fear fuels injustice. And in each of these shameful episodes, racism played a major role.

What can we do? Refuse to take the fear bait.

Immigrants are not a threat to us. We especially need immigrants right now in a full-labor market. Immigrants drive new business and economic energy, and immigrants have lower rates of crime and violence than native-born citizens.

Americans are not a fearful people. We are hopeful and creative. We are generous and strong. We can resist exaggerated fears that trigger our ugliest reactions. We can reclaim our heritage as hopeful, creative, generous and strong international leaders.

Commentary on 08/07/2018

Print Headline: Nothing to fear

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