If you want to understand the crisis unfolding on the U.S.-Mexican border, one photograph, featured on the front page of the New York Times last week, captures it in its stark inhumanity.
A two-year-old Honduran girl sobs as her mother is frisked by a gloved officer. The girl wears a long-sleeved pink shirt, dark jeans, and pink sneakers – without shoelaces. Her mother was forced to remove them, along with her own, before the two were separated. The girl would be taken to a shelter, the mother to prison. Their shoelaces were removed to prevent them from attempting suicide.
The photo captures a moment that has happened thousands of times in the past six weeks: as migrants and refugees with children cross the border, the parents are arrested and their children taken away, with no plans for reunification. Some parents have been told that officials are taking their children to be bathed, only for the children to never return. Deportation swiftly follows. For many, reunification has not happened. It might never happen.
Last month, Marco Antonio Muñoz, a Honduran man whose children were taken, killed himself in his holding cell.
Despite President Trump’s repeated assertions to the contrary, these forced separations are administration policy, imposed to punish and deter those who cross the border without authorisation. It is part of the Trump administration’s larger plan to make America great by abandoning its core principles.
The image of America as a place that welcomes immigrants and refugees has often been more aspirational than real. But the aspiration has been an important piece not only of America’s reputation around the world, but of its self-conception. An open nation. A generous people. A promised land.
The Trump administration has rejected that notion from the start. On the campaign trail, Trump called for a Muslim ban, then brought aboard personnel like senior advisors Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to implement his exclusionary vision for the country. The travel ban, repeatedly challenged in court, has had a massive effect. Refugee resettlement has been slashed by 75 per cent. European refugees are admitted at four times the rate of African and Latin American refugees, and five times the rate of Middle Eastern and North African refugees.
What’s happening at the border is new, too. For most of US history, migrants could cross the southern border freely. In the mid-20th century, new restrictions were added, but border crossings weren’t a big deal. Crossing the border without authorisation was (and still is) a minor crime – literally, a misdemeanour. Being in the country illegally isn’t a crime at all, but a civil violation. You could technically be arrested for an unauthorised crossing, but unless you were involved in serious criminal activities, you were let out on bond and able to move freely with your family.
As the border has become increasingly militarised over the past few decades, that’s changed a bit – but not much. Under the Obama administration, generally only migrants with criminal records were incarcerated and fast-tracked for deportation. And refugees were treated in accordance with international law: allowed to apply for asylum and settle in the country as they awaited the adjudication of their status. When masses of unaccompanied minors approached the border in 2014, the Obama administration set up facilities where they could be housed until they were united with family or moved into foster homes.
The Trump administration has upended all of that. By creating a “zero-tolerance policy” that requires all border-crossers – even asylum-seekers – to be immediately imprisoned, they have created a situation in which all children are taken from their parents. (For humanitarian reasons, children cannot be held in detention centres in the US.) And they are doing so intentionally.
Sessions has vigorously defended the policy, as has chief of staff John Kelly, who calls it a “tough deterrent”. Trump himself seems mostly interested in using the policy as leverage to get a border wall. Even First Lady Melania Trump has argued that, while she "hates" that families are being torn apart, she believes people must "follow all laws".
Now, the US has never acted perfectly toward migrants, refugees, and non-white families. Indigenous children were taken from their families and placed in boarding schools, or given to white families for adoption, well into the 1970s. Immigrant families could lose their children in the late 19th century for un-American activities as banal as cooking with garlic or drinking wine with dinner. Enslaved children were regularly sold away from their parents, with little regard for the anguish that separation inflicted.
Nor, despite the lofty words etched on the base of the Statue of Liberty, have the poor, tired, huddled masses always been received with open arms. For much of the 20th century, the US narrowed its immigration laws until the nation’s golden door opened almost exclusively to white Europeans.
But despite those limitations, the aspirational ideal of the United States has been that it is a place where the “homeless, tempest-tost” refugee can build a new life in a country that recognises all people are created equal. At the very least, it was to be a shining city on a hill, an example to the world.
The example today, though, is not of a poor immigrant building a life for her family, but of a mother whose shoelaces have been taken so she might survive until she is returned to the war zone she escaped. That may not be the American dream. But it is America today.