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What we learned from Donald Trump’s attempt to split up families as a weapon in his war on migration

2018 June 20
by Paul Vallely

Two compelling images this week told the story of the ordinary folk caught on the current tide of international migration. The first was of a tearful two year old girl from Honduras, wailing as she was separated from her mother in United States border camp. The second was a film of a joyful group of Africans, singing and dancing as their ship, the Aquarius, finally berthed in Spain after being buffeted around the Mediterranean by other European countries who did not want them.

Rich world opinions are deeply divided on migration. In Italy the interior minister in the new right wing government has asked for a census to be taken of all gypsies living in Italy so that the “irregular ones” could be deported even though those with Italian citizenship would have to be allowed to remain “unfortunately”. In America President Trump declared: ” The United States will not be a migrant camp [or] refugee-holding facility. Not on my watch.” The African migrants fell foul of this hardened Italian approach

The Trump administration in May introduced a policy of separating illegal immigrants from their children, even, apparently, breastfeeding babies. In a series of characteristically barefaced lies, the President blamed this policy on the Democrat political opposition. So many of even his staunchest supporters declared his “zero tolerance” policy to be cruel, immoral and un-American, that Mr Trump was forced into a U-turn. Even so the mindset betrayed by his adoption of this tactic in the first place is revealing of the Trump mentality. So was the fact that his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, cited Scripture to support the strategy, quoting St Paul in Romans 13 on Christians duty to obey lawful government.

The quotation was, of course, a historically decontextualized in exactly the same way as it was by those who used it to support slavery, the Nazis, and South African apartheid. But that was lost upon Trump supporters advancing arguments like this: “If a woman steals and is put in jail she is separated from her children by the state as a result of her bad decisions. No different for illegal immigrants. They break the law, they are separated from their children.”

The analogy does not hold. When a citizen is jailed there are likely to be family networks who will look after the children – a spouse, grandparent, aunt, family friends and so on. But for an immigrant, especially an illegal one, that network is not there. The child is doomed to the care of institutions or strangers, and research shows the outcome of this is often problematic.

Nor does this argument apply on grounds of proportionality. Societies strive to make punishments fit the crime; so only for a serious offence will a mother be jailed. It stretches credulity to suggest that it the offence of attempting illegal entry to a country merits the removal of children as a punishment. Most gravely, the child is innocent of any offence, and yet is being penalised in a way could be utterly traumatic.

Another quotation from St Paul might be salutary. “Harden not your hearts”, he writes in Hebrews. Those who are tempted to see dark-skinned refugees and migrants as somehow lesser beings would do well to watch the video of the uplifting outburst of jubilant song and dance of the people from the Aquarius as they landed reached dry land.

an updated version of my Church Times column

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