Shoes are left by people at the Tornillo Port of Entry near El Paso, Texas, on June 21, 2018 during a protest rally by several American mayors against the US administration's family separation policy.
Brendan Smialoski—AFP/Getty Images
August 3, 2018 5:00 AM EDT
Holtzman, who served as a U.S. Congresswoman from 1973–1981, is co-chair of Herrick’s Government Relations Group.

As a member of the Advisory Council to the Department of Homeland Security appointed during the Obama presidency, I squirmed at now President Donald Trump’s hostility to immigrants and refugees. His policies of refusing to find a path to citizenship for the Dreamers and mass deportations that ripped longtime productive residents of this country from their families and communities were inhumane and hurt U.S. citizen children and spouses.

I thought of resigning from the Council many times. But my belief that my presence might make a difference kept me from doing so — until I learned that the Administration was separating children from parents at the Southwest border. That policy reflected such depravity and lawlessness that I simply couldn’t associate myself any further with the Administration. I readily joined three colleagues on the Council who were planning to resign for the same reason, although I sent my own letter of resignation in addition to signing theirs.

What is so astonishing to me is how much this country has changed since 1980, when I was privileged as chair of the House Immigration Subcommittee to co-author with Senator Ted Kennedy the Refugee Act of 1980. The Act — which was adopted without serious controversy — created a framework for the regular admission of refugees to the U.S. The immediate stimulus for the bill was the huge exodus of boat people leaving Vietnam. Though the memory of the Holocaust played a role, too, particularly the knowledge that the U.S. could have rescued so many people from the hands of the Nazis but did not. The Refugee Act marked our commitment as a nation to welcoming persons fleeing persecution anywhere.

In those days, the U.S. accepted large numbers of refugees — about 750,000 arrived from Vietnam; 600,000 entered from Cuba; and hundreds of thousands of Jews and their relatives came from the Soviet Union. The thought that the U.S. is frightened today by the presence of an additional 2,000 or so children and parents from Central America is laughable and appalling.

In those days, the U.S. also showed world leadership on refugee resettlement. For example, America understood that it bore a special responsibility for the refugees fleeing Vietnam because of its long involvement in the Vietnam War. Obviously, we could not absorb all the refugees, but our government worked hard to get resettlement solutions for all. First, it persuaded the countries neighboring Vietnam to which people fled in small boats not to push those refugees back out to sea, where they would confront pirates, drowning and other terrible dangers. (I know because I participated in speaking to those countries.) Then, the U.S. organized a world conference in Geneva, where countries agreed to accept specific numbers of refugees. The U.S. was able to induce other countries to act because it took the largest share. Our country’s leadership turned the boat people crisis into one of the most successful refugee resettlement programs ever.

Now, in response to the influx of (mostly) women and their children fleeing horrific violence in Central America, the U.S. government can think only of building a wall and unlawfully separating children from their parents — something I call child kidnapping, plain and simple — as a deterrent to keep others from coming to the US. How far we have we fallen.

And how easy it would be to do the right thing. The U.S. needs to start with recognizing that it once again has a special responsibility for a dire situation, this time in the Northern Triangle. We overthrew the democratically elected government in Guatemala, which was replaced by one right-wing government after another, including one that committed genocide against the indigenous population. In Honduras and El Salvador, we similarly propped up right-wing governments that did nothing for their people, leaving them without effective governance in place. The fact that gangs have been able to terrorize the population with impunity is a result.

More must be done as well. We should reinstate the Central American Minors Refugee/Parole Program, established under President Obama and cancelled by the Trump Administration, whereby people could apply in their home countries for admission as refugees to the U.S. without facing the perils of the overland trip. Second, we should try to get Canada and other countries in South America to accept refugees from the Northern Triangle countries, reducing the burden on us. To do this, we would have to agree to take a substantial number of refugees from the Northern Triangle countries as well. And then we should work to improve the governance in these countries, perhaps by involving the United Nations and nearby countries, such as Costa Rica.

Unfortunately, the chance of any such enlightened response toward refugees from the Northern Triangle seems remote. These countries probably fall into Trump’s stated “shithole” category. Plainly, the hostile attitude toward the refugees persists. For example, 463 parents may have been deported without their children. Apparently DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen feels no responsibility for reuniting those with their parents, instead making the flimsy excuse that the parents wanted to leave them behind. While possibly true in a small number of instances, given the fact that many of the parents do not speak English, or even Spanish, but their indigenous language, it is more likely that a significant number of the parents had no idea of what was happening or how to get their children back. They may even have been coerced into leaving. In any case, Nielsen has a very poor record of truth-telling. On June 17, she insisted that “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”

And the racist, contemptuous attitude of the Administration keeps showing. Just recently, before a conservative audience, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made a joke — a joke! — about separating children from their parents. (He also briefly joined in a chant of “Lock her up!”)

Most Americans, fortunately, have found the separation policy abhorrent. Those of us who do, need to press the Administration to find a more humane and more comprehensive solution, like our country has done in the past. But if the Administration continues the enforced separation policy, I hope that the courts will enforce their decisions, which have required reunification, by holding the Secretary and others in contempt if necessary. Congress should be called on to act by holding hearings and adopting censure resolutions. None of us can sit idly by when our government stoops to such racist, malign behavior.

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