By Greg Smith
I was shocked when I saw the May 29 New York Times headline that read: “Were Migrant Children Taken from Parents, then Lost by the U.S.?” Once the shock wore off, all kinds of emotions began welling up: anger, disbelief, bewilderment and more. How could the United States government lose an unaccompanied minor, and in this case, almost 1,500 unaccompanied minors?
Turns out, as both the Times and other news outlets have since reported, the government didn’t really lose anybody. Rather, they “lost track of” some unaccompanied children, meaning the Department of Health and Human Services—which oversees the care of these children—was unable to account for 1,475 of the 7,635 children placed with sponsors when the department called to follow up on them.
Why? There are a number of reasons I’m sure, but some speculate that many immigrant sponsors may have simply refused to answer a call from the U.S. government. Now imagine that!
But as disturbing as “losing children” sounds, what’s even more unsettling about the headline is the part that says children were “taken from the parents.”
Especially since this part IS true!
On May 7, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” policy whereby migrant adults illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border would, without exception, be criminally prosecuted for illegal entry. To be fair, Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, has operated under a form of this policy at least since the Obama Administration.
But significant and heart-wrenching changes are now in place. First, whereas officers in the past had the discretion to decide whether or not to prosecute, now such discretion is no longer an option. Crossing the border equals guilty, even for asylum seekers.
And second, though previously the government didn’t pursue criminal prosecution, now migrants crossing the border outside official entry checkpoints are criminally charged and referred to the Department of Justice, which is mandated to accept as many of these cases as possible.
Under this new scenario, by law, accompanying children are automatically removed from their parents’ care—sometimes literally removed from their mother’s or father’s arms—and handed over to a waiting officer, with no guarantee of when terrified parents and their wailing children will see each other again. Parents are then taken one direction, children taken in another, sometimes to facilities several states apart.
Trauma heaped upon trauma for today’s immigrant families, many of whom are already deeply scarred from threats and acts of violence in the countries they are fleeing. Are we as Americans—are we as Christians—really unaffected by that?
Though in no way comparing my experience with that of these immigrant families, I remember the day when my two sons, ages 7 and 4, suddenly jumped on to an overcrowded airport tram taking passengers between terminals, leaving Sue and me behind. As I saw their two small faces looking through the glass at us while the doors closed behind them, their calm mom began yelling instructions for what they should do next, while their panic-stricken dad froze and imagined every horrible outcome possible. (If I think about it too long, a tear may again come to my eye after 25 years—yes, I was THAT scared!)
I do not pretend to fathom the terrors immigrant parents must feel when seeing their children taken away. I only know the panic I felt when I couldn’t reach out and pull my boys back to the safety of my arms.
I also know what it is like to experience the merciful embrace of God. And I know what I hear when I read Jesus’ heart in Matthew 9:13, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
Dare we attempt to listen to God’s beating heart calling us to extend the mercy of our Lord to our immigrant neighbors by speaking out on their behalf and on behalf of their children, by pleading with elected officials to change harsh and punitive policies, and by lifting these families in prayer before the God of all mercies?
Greg Smith serves as CBF field personnel alongside his wife, Sue, in Fredericksburg, Va., where they lead LUCHA ministries. Learn more about support their ministry at http://www.cbf.net/smith.