My fifteen-year-old daughter is living in Mexico this summer as part of a study abroad program run by a global organization called CIEE. Our teenager is staying with an abuela named Lidia who opened her home and her heart to our American high school student. Last weekend, one of Lidia’s grandchildren had her first communion, and my Jewish daughter accompanied the family to church to celebrate.
I open my phone and see the photos my daughter texted me of the colorful, home-cooked meals that she is eating in Merida and the kind faces of the people who are surrounding her. I open my computer and see images of migrant children from Mexico being detained in filthy camps here in the United States.
I sent my child alone to a foreign country without me, secure in the knowledge that she would be cared for and protected by the people around her, confident in her ability to grow and be independent until we see each other again when she returns home. The Mexican people have fed her, educated her, and welcomed her.
Mothers and fathers trapped in terrible circumstances come with their children to the United States as a last desperate measure, in an attempt to escape violence, poverty, persecution, and despair. Those that survive the journey are in for a cruel reception. Upon arrival, children are separated from their parents and stripped of their humanity. It is an ominous warning to those of us who live by the two words that emerged after the Holocaust as a moral imperative: Never Again. This cannot happen again.
Americans who accept the detention camps have pulled a masterful stroke in recent days. They have successfully shifted the focus of the public to arguing about the definition of the camps and whether or not they can be likened to concentration camps, thus dividing people – especially Jewish people — and triggering painful feelings on all sides. Meanwhile, the camps exist. Meanwhile, the children languish without soap and warm beds and the reassuring touch of their parents. The American people are so distracted by the labels that they aren’t talking enough about the actions that are happening on our watch.
The horrors of what happened to the Jewish people in WWII are incomparable. Innocent humans were systematically ripped from their homes; gassed, executed, and cremated – it is an evil that almost defies comprehension.
And yet, it didn’t start with mass executions. There was much that happened in Germany in the 1930’s leading up to the Nazi atrocities that preceded Hitler’s genocide. First came discrimination and scapegoating, a slow and steady path of German desensitization to the mistreatment of the Jews.
As a Jewish person witnessing what is happening in America’s detention camps, I worry that we are sliding along the slippery slope that drowns the words Never Again. My husband and I have been discussing the complex situation that faces Jews when the detention camps are called “concentration camps.” The reality is, children are dying in these camps. Death by neglect is still death.
“To truly embrace the words ‘Never again’ doesn’t just mean for the Jewish people,” he observed. “It means Never Again for any people anywhere.” Then he concluded that the camps are unacceptable.
As an adoptive parent that works with families built through adoption and foster care, I am particularly distraught about the practice of family separation at the border. Removing children from their parents causes real and lasting trauma into adulthood. One of my own children was in foster care as a baby before joining our family, and she still manifests the effects of being removed from her family in her infancy.
Unlike the children in the camps, at least my daughter was well-fed, clothed, and held each day. Her foster mother comforted her when she cried and took her to the doctor when she was sick. I think of the children in the immigration camps who have the double whammy of family separation compounded by severe neglect, and the future for those children is bleak. Our government is enacting policies that will traumatize a generation of children.
My husband and I have seen how the effects of early trauma can play out, years later. The children detained in these camps will not escape unharmed. They will suffer profound anxiety and depression, attachment issues and emotional disregulation. They will carry this trauma throughout their lives, affecting their children and their children’s children. Seventy years from now, long after current government employees are gone, there will be Americans that bear the scars of the camps.
We can do better than this. It isn’t about politics or how or why these children are in America. It isn’t about keeping our borders safe from these infants, toddlers and teens. It’s about our humanity. It’s about our ability to imagine our own families in these circumstances. I have visited Auschwitz and Dachau, and I remember feeling utter despair at the thought of children existing in those conditions.
I think of my kids and how the youngest one might have a meltdown when she is hungry or tired, knowing that her needs will eventually be met. The scariest part of seeing the children in the U.S. camps is the absence of meltdowns. The dull acceptance of their conditions; the lethargic toddler lying quietly on the floor – these are the signs of children who have accepted that their needs will not be met. This is where trauma begins, and the meltdowns that eventually come much, much later are far more dangerous.
* * * *
Carrie Goldman is the author of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter
To continue receiving posts from Portrait of an Adoption, simply type your email address in the box and click the “create subscription” button.