President Donald Trump has taken another chapter from the Russian playbook, and most Americans don’t even realize it. The horrific actions being taken by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on our country’s southern border – separating young children, some as young as a few months old, from their parents, even parents following the legal U.S. asylum-seeker process – has no model in our history and should have no place in our national behavior.
But the Trump administration’s policy – for that is what it is, there is no legal basis for this action – has its roots in authoritarianism and nationalism, and it is based on a model that dehumanizes human beings for political gain. Shame on him! As of Monday under the Trump zero-tolerance stance, more than 11,000 immigrant children are being held by U.S. Homeland Security, (Both unaccompanied minors and close to 2,300 young children force-ably separated from their parents at the border) being warehoused in border states. While the Department of Human Services is doing its best, situations like this tend toward questionable settings. Oversight is being prevented, and neither the media nor elected officials can really see what is going on.
Many leaders are lining up to condemn the actions as illegal, immoral and cruel abuse of children – which it is. In fact, the United Nations has already condemned the U.S. for this as a violation of human rights. Some are reaching back to examples of the deportation of Jews and separation of children from parents during the Holocaust. Others remind us of the incarceration of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent during World War II.
But using children as political pawns has a much more recent example. In December 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin suddenly stopped Americans from adopting children in Russian orphanages. American parents and more than 1,500 American families, were unable to adopt the children with whom they had already been matched. A couple thousand children who had already met their future parents were affected. The move had more than one political layer, among them, punishing the U.S. after Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, which highlighted Russia’s human rights violations. While technically there was a transition period, many adoptive families who were in Russia awaiting final court dates when it happened went home without their children.
It was cruel, calculated and completely in keeping with Putin’s role as a dictator. It was meant to exert power and control over people and situations. The more vulnerable the actors – and what’s more heartbreaking than the vulnerability of young children who need their parents – the more it appeared to please Putin.
I know this story personally because Putin made his move two weeks after I became national chair of the nonprofit adoptive parent community known as Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption, Including Neighboring Countries. I still serve in this role, and I am regularly in contact with birth country embassies. The cruelty exhibited by the Russian government was calculated and political, the grief achingly deep. The trauma to the children and families continues and may never heal.
Let me be clear: what is happening on our border is child abuse. I’m familiar with childhood trauma and post traumatic stress because I raised a daughter adopted from a Russian orphanage.
The Trump administration is repeating the Russian model – for what appears to be the same authoritarian reasons. Just as alarming as this power move are these unanswered questions: Where are the babies and the toddlers? Where are the girls? Why can’t our congressional representatives see where they are? Already we are hearing they can’t keep track of where the children are going, so how on earth will the parents find their children? In my experience, especially where private contractors are being brought in and where these children are emotionally terrified, I predict that there will be even further child abuse and sexual abuse, and children will disappear.
What is interesting is the stance of the country’s evangelical community toward Trump and this horrible situation. While they were up in arms over the Russian decision regarding adopted children (joining so many of us who were appalled at children being warehoused in orphanages and demanding action) as Americans, action was not ours to take. But now, action and outrage is ours to take.
The thing is, evangelicals don’t seem to be overly excited (yet) about the cruelty, lawlessness and inhumanity of this administration or outraged at the intolerable situation where screaming children are being taken from their parents’ arms on our own border. Why?
I’m a proud Episcopalian, and I know what I call this. I call this Christian nationalism, which is false Christianity.
“These kids are taken from their mothers’ arms, trapped in cages. People, is this how you would want your children treated?” asked Michael Bruce Curry, presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church. “Trump doesn’t have empathy; he lacks a soul and lacks a heart. He’s fundamentally a black hole. I would say to him, ‘My God man, Matthew 25 … “As you do unto the least of these, you have done it unto me.”’ If it doesn’t look like love, it cannot be claimed to be Christian.”
Pay attention folks.