For more than 143 years, the words on our Statue of Liberty have promised, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. ... ”
In our time, to our shame, the Trump administration has, in effect, twisted those words to warn brown-skinned immigrants that if they dare to come to our country we will hurt them and take from them their precious children, their hopes for the future and the better lives that America has always promised — and we won’t give them back.
Only our federal courts have stood in Trump’s way, ordering his henchmen to return these forlorn and sobbing children to their parents.
By last Friday, the Trump administration, after kicking and screaming for weeks, told the court it had gathered up 1,878 of the more than 2,500 children it had taken and transported to New York, Pittsburgh, Seattle and a bewildering number of other locations far from our southwestern borders.
Even so, at least 700 Central American children are still waiting here in the United States, alone and bereft without their parents, including 431 whose mothers and fathers have already been deported south.
Immigration attorneys say the evidence is overwhelming that many of those who were rushed to deportation unknowingly signed forms they did not understand, including papers they thought stated that they wished to be reunified with their children.
Some Central American migrants are illiterate. And many migrants from the highlands of Guatemala, where several dialects are spoken, do not speak Spanish.
“They gave me a paper to sign in English, which I didn’t understand, because I believed their word,” says one father who is now back in Guatemala, though his daughter is still here in America. “There were others there who also signed, thinking that they would get their kids back. We were about 10 together. They tricked us and told us not to worry. I wouldn’t have signed anything had I known. It was all a lie to get us out of there.”
Trump’s “zero tolerance policy” has been, throughout, a bungle of historic proportions.
In New York where, on the night before the court’s deadline for getting the families back together, the Trump administration raced to get 80 children on planes to the border, white vans drove the children from one airport to another, finding that their flights hadn’t been booked. Changes in the government’s last-minute instructions whittled the list down to 14 children, and then down to only nine who could get on the planes. Disgusted, New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo described the ordeal as “a night of gross incompetence and purposeful chaos.”
Immigration attorneys working at family detention facilities, volunteers helping to arrange shelter and travel for newly released families and other observers say reunifications have been plagued with chaos.
“The government would like the public to believe it successfully met the July 26 deadline; nothing could be further from the truth,” said Efrén C. Olivares, a director of the Texas Civil Rights Project. “Here in south Texas, chaos dominates the government’s family reunification efforts.”
The chaos is painful, but the heartache is abominable. We Americans have always told ourselves, and the world, that we are a shining light on a hill, an eternal symbol of what is good and fair, but the Trump administration has given the lie to that ideal.
(Bomboy is a local author, former teacher and past Ford Foundation Fellow at the University of Chicago and in Washington, D.C.)