(June 27: Below you’ll find the original text of a post suggesting that Independence Day parade-goers should find a way to protest family separation at the southern border. Thankfully, the practice of family separation has been halted, and while family reunification has been slow and poorly organized, a federal judge has ruled that all children separated from their parents must be reunited by July 27. While I think we need to be ready to hold the country to its own ideals and to standards of moral decency and justice, and while this is not the only protest-worthy problem in the country at present, we can take some measure of satisfaction in a relatively prompt improvement upon the situation as it existed only a week ago.)
July 4 is two weeks from today. On a typical Independence Day morning, my family and I would walk a few blocks to our local parade route and enjoy the celebration with many others in our community. When we lived in Carol Stream, Illinois, we would walk north on Kuhn Road to Lies, where we’d scramble for candy, encourage gymnasts, and cheer every float alongside a very diverse crowd. Now in Wheaton, Illinois, we head west on Wakeman to Main Street, where we scramble for more candy, celebrate the first-responders, and chat with friends across the street from a crowd of refugees and other new immigrants. That’s on a typical Independence Day.
This year may not be a typical Independence Day.
At the southern border of the country whose founding ideals will be championed on July 4, we have “tender age” detention centers for babies and toddlers separated from their migrant families. Over the past few months, thousands of children have been separated from their parents because the Trump administration has chosen to embrace a “zero tolerance” policy that prosecutes — typically for misdemeanors — all adults caught crossing the border without an inspection. If those adults who are detained for prosecution are traveling with minors, their children are taken from them (because other rules prevent children from being detained) and herded into tents and cages and abandoned Walmarts. It’s likely that many of them will never see their parents again.
The Trump administration has embraced these practices — practices that were, by all reliable accounts, too cruel for the past two administrations, which worked within the broader complex of rules to keep families together — for two reasons. First, they want to deter migrants from coming to the southern border, and they’ve guessed that if word gets out that parents caught at the border will lose their children, then that may stem the tide. Second, they want to use the practice as leverage to get the immigration policy reform that they want. In other words, they’re committing this cruelty to send a message and to bargain.
While children are being caged, everyone from the President to some Immigration & Customs Enforcement officials are hard at work to dehumanize migrant families. The President said that if we don’t stem the tide of migration, immigrants would “infest” the country, and it wasn’t by any stretch the first time he had likened immigrants to animals. Attorney General Jeff Sessions described parents traveling with children as “smuggling children,” like one might smuggle other contraband. Corey Lewandowski treated with open contempt the situation of a 10-year-old girl with Down Syndrome who was separated from her family. An audio recording of children crying after separation from their parents bears witness to an ICE official’s mockery — “well, we have an orchestra here.” Every legal and bureaucratic justification we offer for our cruel and unjust treatment of migrant children, every step toward dehumizataion, every injustice that we hide in plain sight invites us to consider parallels with some of the most atrocious and vile regimes of the 20th century.
This should not be happening in our country. It’s not that the United States is or ever has been perfect — the reality is far from it. It’s not even that we haven’t separated families before (cf. slavery, kidnapping of Native American children, Japanese internment camps — notably, we don’t have a history of systematically separating white children from their families). It’s that separating children from their families, dehumanizing people, offering cheap and cowardly bureaucratic justifications, and watching all of the cruelty unfold before us in public simply in order to deter people and gain bargaining leverage is against every ideal we celebrate on July 4.
So if this practice of family separation is not resolved by July 4, I’ll still head to the parade. But when I get there, I’ll take a knee in silence. I may have some handouts or signs that invite others to join me or photos of kids in cages for people who want to know why I’m kneeling. Maybe I’ll have an FAQ for people tempted to misconstrue — perhaps deliberately — my actions as “anti-military” or “anti-first-responder” or some nonsense like that (in the same way that the actions of NFL athletes have been deliberately misconstrued), as if the 4th of July is about celebrating those things, anyway. No — the 4th of July is about celebrating founding ideals that have always seemed out of our reach, but seem now to be eroding alarmingly quickly. On Independence Day, I won’t take that failure — or the cruelty or injustice — standing up. I don’t think you should, either.