The only reason a government should ever take children from their parents is to protect them, either from violence or other immediate and profound danger. That’s why I was taken from my parents at a young age, despite the effect it would have on me.
Separating families as a deterrent to improper entry into the country is evil. By the way, “improper entry” is not my terminology. It’s that of the federal statute that makes crossing the border into U.S. territory without permission a misdemeanor civil infraction.
The Department of Health and Human Services still has thousands of migrant children taken by Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s border patrol as part of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.
I know what you’re thinking. Unconscionable. Evil. These words begin to lose their meaning in an age of endlessly outrageous presidential transgressions. I don’t want to suck all power from adjectives once reserved to describe rare and extraordinarily bad actions, but I haven't been able to stop praying and thinking about the tiny souls being abused by "zero tolerance." I think it’s because I've experienced some of the same kind of fear.
As child development specialist Susan Hois notes, “Separation from or loss of parents due to death, divorce, incarceration or removal to foster care will have a major impact on the child’s psychological development and possibly on his/her cognitive and physical development as well.”
That was certainly my experience.
I was a first-grader in 1973. My sisters, Barbie and Bevie (twins), were 4. Our brother, Michael, was 3 on the day we were taken from our mom. Still sleepy-eyed, my younger siblings had just awakened from naps as I arrived at day care from elementary school in the early afternoon, looking forward to Kool-Aid and graham crackers. But a woman in a crisp, dark suit appeared at the door of the playroom. She was from something called “the state.” She’d come to take us to something called a “shelter.”
“Where’s Mommy?” I demanded.
The woman, trying to soothe, said, “Your mommy’s sick.”
Now in her 70s, Mom recently explained that shortly after seeing us off that morning, she’d tried killing herself. Barely 30 at the time, she was trying to get through college. Her ex-husband, my father, had beaten our door down the night before.
Whenever I awoke to my mom’s screams, I’d sprint past Daddy and run downstairs to a neighbor’s apartment. The neighbor would call police as my mom fought to survive.
Now, as the four of us stood in the hallway of the day care, I tried to figure out what the woman was saying to the front-desk lady. They spoke urgently and in grown-up terms that I couldn’t fully understand.
“Can we have snacks now?” I asked.
“They’ll have lots of snacks at the shelter.”
I’ll never forget my tiny siblings’ wide eyes when I asked her, “What’s ‘the shelter’?”
It was a sprawling residence with several large rooms: an institutional kitchen, several bedrooms, two TV rooms, and an office. It smelled overwhelmingly of pine cleaner. The bedrooms were sterile and austere. I was afraid of the unfamiliar scent of my pillow and the scratchy bedsheets. I tried to prevent my mouth from touching either at night. The loudness of the other kids — all older — scared me too.
Michael, my 3-year-old brother, was in a separate bedroom from mine with toddlers and a baby. I considered it my job to protect him, but how could I when we were separated? Our sisters were in another wing of the shelter.
A few days in, I became determined to find out if or when our mom was coming to take us home. My need to know felt physical. It resided in my stomach. I sneaked into the office.
“Can you call Mommy and tell her Michael and Barbie and Bevie and me are at the shelter?” I asked a woman at a desk.
“Go watch TV,” she said.
Defeated, I found a spot on the carpet in front of the television with a dozen other kids. I was relieved to see my sisters there. Seeing me, they broke into red-faced, snot-and-tears bawling.
What we’ve all been watching in Texas and other border states has churned up that and other painful memories and feelings in me that have throbbed heavily in my heart and soul for months now. But you don’t need to be a survivor of child separation to understand that separation from a parent is frightening.
Let me be clear, it would be wrong for me to conflate my separation story with the deplorable experiences migrant children have suffered in American detention. By contrast, infants, toddlers — children and youth of all ages — who trudged an incredibly arduous path to America seeking safety, asylum, and refuge are victims of a policy that was deliberately built by Donald Trump to hurt migrant children as a means of deterring immigration by their parents.
Our time in a state shelter was benign except for the separation from one another and our mother. It was especially mild compared to what could have happened if our shelter had employed staff like any of the 14 or more Customs and Border Patrol agents charged with possession of child pornography, child rape, or sexual assault — one of whom worked at the infamous Casa Padre shelter in Texas. Some children nabbed by ICE who’ve finally been reunited with their families had been denied showers and had head lice upon their return.
We didn’t fare as well during our experience with foster homes, but that’s another story.
My siblings and I were eventually reunited with my mother. Many years had passed. We’ve each rebuilt varying degrees of closeness with her. Separation takes a toll.
We’ve struggled with addictions, mental and emotional disorders, relationship issues, and more. My brother struggles with chronic homelessness. I fear the children separated from their parents, siblings, and other family members at the border will too face some of these demons for the rest of their lives.
THOM SENZEE is founder and moderator of LGBTs in the News, America’s longest-touring LGBT panel series and author of the All Out Politics syndicated column.