14 June 2018

Children in the hands of an angry politician

Sign at today's "Families Belong Together" rally.
Today's debates about separating children from parents at the U.S. border reminded me of a particularly sad moment of our time in Russia. In December 2012, Russians were debating a proposed ban on American adoptions of Russian orphans. This ban was supposedly a righteous slap in the USA's face in return for the hated Magnitsky Act.

Some of the most passionate opponents of the proposed adoption ban were outraged that political considerations would trump children's welfare. See my blog post, "Don't sign this bill," for some samples of their arguments. In following the family-separation debate in the USA, it was this aspect -- putting children at risk for the morally dubious sake of political messaging ("a tough deterrent," in John Kelly's words) -- that felt so painfully familiar to me after living through those awful Russian debates. Despite my usual resistance to comparing countries on some kind of a moral scale, I truly had felt that the USA would never do something remotely comparable.

The current outrage over border separations does not lend itself to nuances. Neither did the Russian debate. Setting the Magnitsky connection aside for a moment, there truly had been abuses of Russian orphans in the USA. In one case, a Quaker pastor sexually abused an adopted girl. The case that may have inflamed Russian anger the most involved Dima Yakovlev, an adopted child who died after being left in a car in nearly 90-degree weather for nine hours. Another notorious case involved a boy sent back unaccompanied to Russia by his adopted mother, with a note: "I no longer wish to parent this child." Some of the more serious and systemic criticisms of foreign adoptions of Russians were summarized in this post from Global Voices. These arguments and scandals need to be weighed against the tens of thousands of apparently routine adoptions.

The American border situation is also more complex than the slogans we carried today at Eugene's "Families Belong Together" demonstration. For example, it's interesting to consider some of the details in Jeff Sessions's speech at Fort Wayne, which the Department of Justice Web site entitled "Attorney General Sessions Addresses Recent Criticisms of Zero Tolerance By Church Leaders." Among other statistics, Sessions cites these:
... [I]n 2009, the Department of Homeland Security reviewed more than 5,000 initial asylum screenings. By 2016, only seven years later, that number had increased to 94,000. The number of these aliens placed in immigration court proceedings went from fewer than 4,000 to more than 73,000 by 2016—nearly a 19-fold increase.
If these statistics are true, this increase in scale is a genuine problem. I would totally agree that such a major increase merits a worthy response. What is NOT a worthy response, given the human stakes involved, is the shortcut rhetoric of Sessions's next sentence: "This cannot continue."

Exactly what cannot continue? Why can't it continue? The whole tenor of this speech is that a permissive Obama regime essentially invited a flood of fake refugees and asylum seekers, but Sessions does not respect either those "aliens" or his audience enough to persuade us that the dramatic increases are all based on fraud. Nor does he offer such alternatives as opening more processing locations (I'd bet they would be a lot cheaper than a full-on wall), increasing the role of nonprofits and church organizations, improved services at U.S. consulates in the originating countries, and so on. No, we are supposed to be so alarmed by the increase that we suspend our critical faculties.

To be fair to the Justice Department, it is the Congress that  has failed repeatedly to enact immigration reform, forcing the executive branch to cope with the resulting confusion and logjams, and making the whole system incredibly vulnerable to alarmist politicians, even as farmers and other employers beg for more workers. But there is no emergency at the border, nor will there ever be one, that requires treating families with cruelty. That is a policy choice, and no biblical admonition from Sessions to obey the authorities "because God has ordained them for the purpose of order" can cover this wicked and disorderly reality.

The Russian prohibition of American adoptions gave a chilling insight into the souls of Russian power politicians. Now it's our turn.

"Families Belong Together" demonstration earlier today.
Eugene's 3-term former mayor Kitty Piercy speaks.

In that Fort Wayne speech, Jeff Sessions acknowledges his religious critics. He says, "I have given the idea of immigration much thought and have considered the arguments of our Church leaders. I do not believe scripture or church history or reason condemns a secular nation state for having reasonable immigration laws." Notice the complete disconnection between the two sentences. Church leaders, including some usually associated with the evangelical right wing, are not condemning a secular state or its "reasonable" immigration laws, they are taking very specific aim at the Justice Department's enforcement practices.

Have you sensed an unusually high public resonance with this issue? I wonder what it would take for Jeff Sessions or Donald Trump to wake up to the possibility, however unlikely it might seem to them, that for once they have completely misjudged the spirit of the times.

In any case, whether or not they ever catch on, it is more important than ever "not to become weary in doing good" (Galatians 6:9) . As Dahlia Lithwick says, "It's all too much, and we still have to care."

Vox.com's summary of the family separation controversy.

Perpetual war watch: A rising generation of Americans has never known peace.

Ilya Budraitskis on 1968: a revolution too early to judge.
It has been cultural distinctions, amplified by the microdosed spirit of 1968, that have enabled today’s European right-wing populists to attack multiculturalism and political correctness on behalf of the common people, for these notions now stand for nothing except justification of the status quo, thus causing growing dissatisfaction at the grassroots.
Once found innocent, historian Yuri Dmitriev is ordered to be retried.

Heidi Haverkamp: Church is the perfect place to cry. (Someday I will write my own post on the "gift of tears," and how I learned to embrace this gift by reading Catherine de Hueck Doherty's book Poustinia.)

This isn't the first time I've ended with an Otis Spann video. I learned about him when I was a teenager, hiding my blues addiction from my parents. Sadly, I got to know his music only a short time before he died. Never had a chance to see him live, even though I lived in Chicago.

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