BY KATE VIEIRA
University of Wisconsin, Madison
I am not an expert on the effects of the forcible separation of children from their parents.
I believe the experts. I believe the American Association of Pediatrics president who says that the policy, in that it affects children’s brain chemistry, causes irreparable harm. I believe the scholars of education, history, psychology, sociology, and other fields who have delineated the effects of inflicting this particular trauma on children, named the practice unconscionable, and called for immediate reunification. I believe the wails of the children themselves, that if they are not haunting their captors, should be haunting the rest of us.
I write this post as a scholar of immigration and literacy who listens to people’s migration stories—the stories of those who have had to leave their loved ones and the stories of those who have been left. I write to offer my views on the role of stories in this humanitarian crisis.
The Official Story
The official story is the one composed by the Trump administration, who in a cruel upping the ante of this country’s shameful history of unjust immigration practices, instituted a policy of separating children from their parents to deter both asylum seekers and potential labor migrants. This official story is underdeveloped in relation to plot and context and human complexity. It can be summed up, as bad stories often can, in one brute, unimaginative, if-then clause: If you don’t want your children taken, then don’t come here.
In fact, this story is so poorly composed that if it weren’t written down in papers—in the visas, green cards, passports, in the laws that grant or deny the right to be treated as a human in the United States—we would probably ignore it. But we can’t. Because this story, whose meanings are now indelibly branded into the tender developing consciousnesses of children, is backed up by an army of one of the most powerful nations in the world.
For example: look at this flyer (pictured below). Look at Step Three. It is a response to the question posed in bold font: How do I locate my children? ¿Cómo ubico mis hijos?
|From the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website:
Three actions follow. They are presented logically, as if it is a reasonable thing to be separated from one’s children by armed officers. There are ifs. There are thens. There is syllogistic violence, and I feel the panic heating my neck, and I feel my nerves fly loose. How do I locate my children? The ones you have taken. The questions are given a non-answer by an unsympathetic narrator with a baleful bureaucratic gaze.
The official story represented here seeks to tidy up the ragged edges of wrong. It seeks to replace human identity with government identification. It seeks to stamp as legitimate a hostile textual regime which is also a hostile racial regime, in which the right papers supposedly equal the right kind of person, a regime for which hostile might be too mild of an adjective.
As a scholar of words, I believe the correct word is “evil.”
The official story is never the only or last word, no matter how much terror it inflicts. There are other stories underneath. Human beings are smart and we are also loud, by which I mean this textual/racial regime was not invented yesterday, nor was human resistance to it. There are stories of how African American slaves risked dismemberment and death to learn to write. With their knowledge, they sometimes authored passes to escape to freedom in the north. There are stories of how, under the Chinese Exclusion Act, some families developed paper sons to avoid deportation, conceiving of whole villages and personal histories with such thorough novelistic imagination that they became almost true. There are stories I heard during my fieldwork with Brazilians in Massachusetts, who despite not having legal papers, studied to attain church papers in the form of missionary cards, which authorized them to preach. They were legal, they told me, in the eyes of God. After all, they said, it’s not God who makes borders.
Children are smart, too. And children are also loud. In the op-ed that the president of the American Association of Pediatrics wrote for the LA Times about her visit to a border facility for children, she told of a weeping toddler who was not allowed to be physically comforted. What she left out of the op-ed but subsequently shared on NPR was that the other children in the room were eerily quiet. Perhaps they already knew there was no audience for their story. No touch to acknowledge their pain.
Under unjust neoliberal economic policies and punitive immigration laws pre-Trump, parents and children were regularly separated (though not forcibly as a part of state policy) in the course of labor migration. In my fieldwork, I have been told of children being sent ahead for safer passage. I have been told of children left behind with family members, receiving remittances from parents abroad as they waited for reunification. One family told me of a child who died waiting for her mother to save enough money to send for her.
Listening to these stories, I have often thought of my own white enough, documented, middle-class, single-mom hustle. The birthday parties. The price of milk. From where I sit, I can only imagine the historical conditions of violence or poverty or both, can only imagine the hopes and dreams and years of planning, can only imagine, God, the nauseating risk, for parents to dare to approach the US border. From where I sit, it would be unethical not to imagine. Especially now, when familial separation is not only a byproduct of an unjust policy, but is in fact the policy itself.
For many of the young children being held captive, whose voices we have heard, their words right now are these: Mom. Also dad. Sometimes aunt. These words are the beginnings of their stories.
Once this policy has ended (and please, it is time to act), educators, social workers, psychologists, family and community members will be tasked with helping children, and eventually their children, sort through the layers and consequences of the evil they have endured. In doing so, we can learn from educators working in creative literacy programs with incarcerated youth. And we can learn from our Latin American brothers and sisters, like those in Colombia, who have been helping children develop narratives to overcome the trauma of their country’s decades-long civil war and to project a peaceful future. The job of adults, these scholars and activists teach, is to accompany children, to hear and hold their stories, to help turn their cries into a collective call for peace.
I am not an expert on the forcible separation of children from their parents. I am a scholar of literacy and immigration. What I know is this: It is a moral imperative to write a better story.
Kate Vieira is the Susan J. Cellmer Distinguished Chair of Literacy in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and a 2018-2019 Fulbright Scholar in Colombia. https://www.katevieira.com.