Public Comment

A Mother Speaks for Migrant Children

Carolyn Norr
Saturday June 16, 2018 - 09:59:00 AM

My boys are almost four and six-and-a half now, and sleep in their own bunk bed. But sometimes, they wake up, startled by some bad dream, or thirsty, or needing reassurance. Always, when they do, they call, “Mama!” and I wake from my own sleep to soothe them. Now, when they do, a thought comes to me, as I smooth my child’s hair and tuck him back in: that our government is moving to deny this type of reassurance to some children as a matter of policy. That our government has made a conscious, intentional decision to refuse some mothers the basic human right to comfort and protect their children, their toddlers, their babies.

The memory that comes to me when I wake is of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen announcing last week that every person who arrives at the US border without documents will be treated as a criminal, which means that their children, even as young as a year old, will be literally torn from their arms. This has already happened to more than 1900 kids. A baby was torn from her mother as she breastfed; the mother was handcuffed for resisting. Children are being kept in cages, parents can hear them screaming but are unable to comfort them. One father we know of took his own life when he was unable to stop them from snatching his toddler. ICE is planning tent cities to house the children stolen from their families.

There is no justification for this kind of terrorism. 

The argument, such as it is, for inflicting this nightmare on kids and parents, is that its cruelty will be a deterrent. That refugees and asylum seekers, hearing word that such a fate awaits them in the United States, will simply decide not to come.  

Besides being a mother, I have been a teacher and youth worker in the diverse city of Oakland, California for the past 15 years. I hear from the children I have worked with, stories that stay hidden, usually, and only come out shakingly, kids blinking back tears. I hear the violence and fear, the wars, the rapes, the abuses, that drive families to leave their homes, to leave everything, to flee.  

I think about a poem I once read, by Warsan Shire: “no one leaves home/ unless home is the mouth of a shark/it’s not something you ever thought of doing/until the blade burnt threats into/ your neck.” From the stories of the children I have worked with, I know this feeling explains why their families immigrated. 

Faced with impossible choices, families will choose the version of impossible they hope will give their children some chance to survive. It’s why my some of my ancestors came here from Ireland during the Potato Famine. It’s why other ancestors of mine rode in trains and crowed ships to escape the desperate poverty and violence they faced in Eastern Europe. I wonder if that is how Jeff Sessions and Kirstjen Nielsen imagine their own ancestors arriving here. 

Health care professionals and scientists tell us that kids enduring the trauma of forced separation have lifelong consequences. A trauma like that literally re-wires a growing brain. But as a mother, I don’t need hear that from a scientist. I know, in the deepest part of my heart, that this policy is a form of torture. 

There was a time in the history of our country when families arriving on our shores were forcibly separated as a matter of policy. It was a common practice during the slave trade, designed to break people, to undercut their humanity, to damage them forever. Most of us can acknowledge, by now, shameful travesty of slavery. Yet our new policy treads dangerously close to embracing a key tenant of that era: that some people, some parents, some children don’t deserve what we want for our own families. That some people don’t deserve their humanity. 

I can only hope as a mother, as a great-great-grandchild of immigrants, as a teacher, and as an American, that our own humanity is not so damaged that we will sit back, and allow this to occur to kids in our country. I can only hope that we will speak up in our politicians offices, to the streets, wherever we can, so that no child is calling “Mama!” in the night, and having their call, by our government’s intention, go unanswered.