As a kid, I was never very good at falling asleep. I came into the world screaming, and my parents joke that nothing much has changed. Eventually, they had to teach me to sleep by letting me cry. Instead of coming in every few minutes, they sat patiently outside my bedroom door until I fell asleep on my own. My mom said it was one of the hardest things she’s ever done. Still, she could burst through that door any second if she wanted to. She could grab me in her arms and know that, despite the tears, I was okay. She had a choice. For the families crossing the border right now, they do not have the ability to comfort their crying children – because they don’t know where they are. The forced separation of mothers and fathers from their children at our country’s borders is horrifying and inhumane.
As part of the RAC’s Machon Kaplan program, I attended a Family Unification Rally in Washington D.C. Here, the reality of family separation for refugees and asylum seekers at the border became painstakingly clear. With the implementation of the Trump Administration’s zero tolerance policy, children can be taken away from their parents when they cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Many parents are told that their children are going for a bath only to find out hours later that they have been taken for an unspecified amount of time. Information is scarce, resources are lacking, and the overwhelmed process is deeply concerning.
Congresspeople, medical professionals, and local activists spoke at the rally and called for immediate reunification of currently separated families. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal shared her experience talking to over 175 mothers in a detention center she had to force her way into. Every woman she talked to had lost at least one child. The mothers shared heart-wrenching stories of appalling conditions and confusion. They did not know where the children they risked their lives to protect were, or whether they were safe and cared for. More than anything else, they radiated fear. Another speaker, a family doctor, addressed the phenomena defined as toxic stress. Toxic stress is extreme and repetitive strain that causes damage both physically and mentally. She explained that family separation correlates to toxic stress and will likely have permanent effects on the children taken from their parents.
This is an issue that transcends boundaries, both literally and metaphorically. At the rally, I saw signs from religious organizations, environmental advocacy groups, politicians, economists, and families. The woman to my right was a veteran, and the man behind me had a shirt that read “Texas dads against the patriarchy.” No matter where someone stands politically, we can all come together in the interest of protecting vulnerable children.
Separating families will not change the circumstances that led parents to seek asylum in the first place. It will, however, cause irreversible harm to children and parents and create an increased potential for significant human rights or legal violations. We should not have to wonder if the basic needs of children are being met. Kids do not belong in tent cities, cages, or prisons. Families belong together, and no imaginary line in the ground should challenge that basic human right.
For the entire rally, more than two dozen kids ran around in the back. Siblings squabbled, a bright-eyed toddler blew bubbles to the wind, and a mom fed her eager babies, applesauce dribbling down their chin. These kids cared about snacks and playground time. As a camp counselor, I couldn’t help but turn around and smile every time I heard a giggle or a shriek of joy. I hope that none of them will ever wonder if they will see their parents in the morning.
We have an obligation to speak up and act out. Do your part to end the practice of family separation. This is a defining moment in our country’s history – which side will we be on?
Iliana Eber is a student at Colby College majoring in government and anthropology. She is a passionate advocate for social justice issues and is deeply involved on campus and in the local community. This summer, she is participating in the Machon Kaplan summer internship program and interning on Capitol Hill for Senator Gillibrand.
This piece originally appeared on the RAC's blog.