A Salvadoran migrant with his children outside the shelter House of the Migrant. US President Donald Trump implemented a policy separating immigrant children from their parents.
He’s standing at a table outside our local coffee shop, at a table of regulars. Some of them I know vaguely, him not at all. He’s in the Joburg winter uniform – jeans and a down jacket. His hair is styled. One of the other guys at the table says to him, in appeal, “They were keeping them in cages!”
“They shouldn’t have entered the country illegally,” he retorted.
It’s not possible for anyone who has a phone, an internet connection or a social media profile to have no idea what the guy is talking about. There hasn’t really been any other news story or conversation this week.
I’m halfway across the road when this conversation snippet drifts to me. My husband is already at our car. I consider turning around and unleashing a stream of invective on this person, but what difference will it really make? His friends are already doing their best.
But here’s what I would have said… perhaps what I SHOULD have said.
I should have said that many of the people crossing the border into America are seeking a better life. And let’s be perfectly clear here, “a better life” does not mean that they won’t have to delay buying a new car until next year. A better life means that they are hoping that they will be able to feed their starving children. A better life means that perhaps they won’t be murdered in their beds by gangs. A better life means that perhaps they will be able to work for a living, rather than be endlessly stuck in a spiral of poverty and underemployment.
I should have said that their journey would have begun a long time before Trump implemented his zero-tolerance policy that’s been ripping families apart. They have left everything they’ve ever known in the hope of a better future. They knew they faced risks, but probably never imagined that their children would be ripped from them and caged by cruel representatives of an uncaring state with a lunatic at its head.
I should have asked the man if he was so upstanding a citizen that he’d never broken the law. I should have asked him whether the death penalty was a suitable punishment for speeding. If he acknowledged that this was not the case, I should have asked him why, then, he believes that having your children ripped from your arms, possibly permanently, is really an appropriate punishment for those committing a desperate act to help their families. “It’s the law” is never a justification for human rights abuses.
I should have said to him, do you think that the South African government, with all its flaws, is wrong in its policy of dealing with families who cross OUR borders? According to Africa Check, pregnant women, mothers with minor children and unaccompanied minors should not be held at the Lindela Repatriation Centre, but should rather be referred to the Department of Social Development. (I can’t say how effectively this process is actually carried out, but at least our policies ostensibly support keeping families together.)
Would this clearly privileged, smug person like to take it up with our lawmakers – suggesting to them that a more effective way of dealing with the problem of illegal immigrants would be to rip their children from them, put them in cages and prosecute them so that they may never be reunited?
I should have asked him, do you really want to defend the policies of Donald Trump, a man so arrogant, so self-centred, so completely insensitive to the anguish he is creating, that despite the calls of human rights watchdogs from around the world, he continued to defend his policies until 2 000 families were separated? And now that Trump has finally been pressured into reversing his policy (where families are concerned), would coffee-shop man like to continue to defend the application of a law that leaders from around the world have condemned outright?
There’s a Facebook post doing the rounds, and it says, “If your response to children being ripped from their families at the border is: ‘Were they entering the country illegally?’ then we don’t have a difference of politics. We have a difference in morality.”
And that is the argument that the man at the coffee shop was proving. It’s not about politics, it’s not about the law, and it’s not about opinion. To separate children – some not yet one year old – from their parents is not a matter of policy, it’s a matter of morals. And you, sir, seem to be sorely lacking in this essential element of human nature.