A nation with zero tolerance for children

Immigrant children suffer enough hardships — often fleeing from violence in their home countries and facing grueling physical challenges in their quest for a better life — that one might assume that surely the last brickbat to be tossed their way would be the Bible. Yet no fewer than two of the Trump administration’s highest profile figures have in recent days invoked scripture to somehow justify a zero-tolerance policy that separates children from their families when they are caught attempting to cross the U.S. southern border.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions referred to Romans 13 in a speech Thursday to law enforcement officials in Fort Wayne, Ind., quoting the Apostle Paul’s instruction to “obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful." White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders doubled down on that, telling reporters later that day that while she wasn’t aware of the attorney general’s quote, the Bible was clear on following the law and that is what the Trump administration was doing at the border. “I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law,” she said. “That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible.”

To justify what the U.S. is doing at the border in taking babies from the mothers with biblical text is an outrage not only on sheer human rights grounds but as a violation of Christian faith. But don’t take our word for it, listen to what a growing number of clergy are saying about the Trump administration’s border policies. “Immoral” is the most commonly used word. From the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting last Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale, where there was talk of withholding communion to anyone involved in the zero tolerance program, to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Dallas where a pro-immigrant resolution was passed: “any form of nativism, mistreatment, or exploitation is inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ,” it reads.

It’s also a corruption of Romans 13 — a passage at one time used to justify 19th century slavery — to ignore its most famous instruction: “...and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” Ripping apart families for no other reason than because it’s seen as a cruel kind of deterrence to anyone seeking to cross the border without proper documentation isn’t love and it isn’t neighborly.

And make no mistake, Mr. Sessions isn’t simply seeking to enforce the law. There is no law on the books mandating that families be separated. What’s new is the administration’s policy of prosecuting everyone who attempts to cross the border, even those seeking asylum (the parameters of which Mr. Sessions has been closing). Thus when a parent is put in jail, the federal government is responsible for their children. And that’s why the administration has been scrambling to set up facilities to handle them, including “Casa Padre,” the converted Walmart Super Center in Brownsville now home to nearly 1,500 boys as young as 10.

This isn’t about politics. A growing number of Republicans are voicing their objections, too, and many of the Christian groups like the Southern Baptists opposed to the practice are generally supportive of President Donald J. Trump. But they are also capable of recognizing when authorities violate the basic moral underpinnings of the United States. Does an “exceptional nation” really have to resort to monstrous behavior? How many more suicides like that of Marco Antonio Muñoz, 39, a Honduran father who killed himself in a Texas jail cell last month after his wife and 3-year-old son were taken from him by border patrol agents, will we tolerate before following a more humane path?

This has been shameful from the beginning. Trying to find justification for this policy in the Bible doesn’t make it tolerable, it just makes it all the more sanctimonious, the kind of false piety you expect in a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel. Empathy toward others doesn’t make us weak. Migrants aren’t numbers, they are people who need protection. We’d take credit for that last instruction, but Pope Francis said it first. “These persons, our brothers and sisters, need ‘ongoing protection,’ independently of whatever migrant status they may have,” he recently observed. He made no mention of Romans 13.

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