American Family Values in Times of Deportation

At the core of the American myth is a simple premise: you are neither your mother nor your father. Your rights and your freedom are not tied your lineage. You can make your own choices, define your own education, and reinvent yourself in any of our 50 states. If you are born different or seek to be unique from your parents, you are granted not only that right but also moral support from a society that will not penalize you or them based on who you are or choose to be.

This ethos of acceptance and mobility, despite inevitable kitchen table arguments, explains what made the American family great. In the cold and colorless lands of our ancestors, where domestic life and religion skewed authoritarian, parents could ignore their children’s cries. In America, we were forced to bear the imaginative ideas of our renegade offspring much like our new form of government required us to listen to our neighbors from other places.

The fact that family estrangement is the exception and not the rule in a nation of choice teaches us a lot about the nature of love. No small part of our country’s narrative has been the celebration of family independence that contrasts sharply with the deterministic feudalisms of Europe, Asia, or Latin America. Most recently, interracial and same-sex marriage became legal in this country today because enough children stood up to their parents and said, “I’m different but I still belong to you.” Great art, music, athleticism, and scientific ideas have flourished in America because children have been able to say, “my vocational calling is not the same as yours, Dad.”

This is what makes the immigration and deportation actions occurring now so downright un-American. Trump’s rhetoric, combined with this startlingly abstract and purposely divisive approach to immigration enforcement has an immediate and dehumanizing effect. The pain he inflicts goes well beyond 820,000 residents with criminal records. It communicates to the children of good, faithful, hard working, tax-paying, necessary, contributing, long-term residents of this country that the qualities that make them different from their parents are precisely what shapes the possibility their mother or their father will be taken away.

In the schools where I work, I see pre-teens and college-bound young people, some born here and others who have never known any land other than ours, who are in tears today because of this wholly unnecessary and preventable situation. It is essential that we directly repudiate the blanket deportation supporters who, with no sense of history or imagination, feign a sad look on their face and say, “well unfortunately, there are going to be some heartbreaking cases.”

It is important to keep in mind that the voters and elected officials who support Trump’s willy-nilly approach to immigration enforcement are precisely the same individuals who destroyed each and every attempt for decades to pass sensible, comprehensive immigration reform. These are the same Congressional leaders who could re-propose such legislation right now. These are the voters who could be stopping Trump and urging their representatives to pass immigration reform immediately.

Decades of Congresses, driven by xenophobia from both parties, put us here. The business and government cronies that benefited most from the necessary influx of cheap labor have borne no cost or responsibility for stonewalling change. Millions of voters who rewarded this obstruction by consistently reelecting non-compromising representatives now act as though only a strongman can save us from people whose primary crime is growing, preparing, and serving our food, mowing lawns, or building houses.

We will be remembered for our silence at a time when the nation is pinning economic blame, not on Wall Street, Silicon Valley, or automation, but on one particular type of worker, one type of criminal, one type of family.

Few Americans would dispute that the most regrettable period in our past included slavery — a system of cheap, forced labor, institutionalized physical violence, landlessness and dehumanization. But even at that time, the most disturbing and memorable moral atrocities revolved, not around death or war, but around individual cases of family separation. Few Americans look worse today, retrospectively, than the native-born man with political power who, with little reflection, divided up families and sent mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters in different directions.

That analogy is flawed, but it is contains an image worth remembering. If you think Trump’s approach to immigration is the only real answer right now you deserve a place in history alongside so many other callous men and women who ignored human suffering from positions of power and influence. Indeed, if you think this kind of division is necessary, you may not be that different from the parents who look their own child in the eyes and say, “you don’t belong here.”