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Children ripped from their parents: what will you do?

Many of us are horrified to read reports that our government is separating children, including infants as young as one year old, from their parents at the border with Mexico. We read the details, and we are outraged: a father who committed suicide after his 3-year old son was torn away from him, one mother seeking asylum who was separated from her 18-month-old son for two months, another mother seeking asylum who could hear her 7-year-old daughter “frantically screaming” from the next room as the two were separated. But we may also feel helpless. What, after all, can any one of us do to stop this?

It is natural to feel overwhelmed and powerless in the face of such government action. The reality, however, is that each of has choices we can make, and actions we can take, depending on our specific circumstances and roles.

Members of Congress are the people best positioned to make a difference. They could hold hearings and conduct an investigation (it is well worth noting that the reports we are seeing must be verified, and that there has been confusion about some of the facts). Once they sort out precisely what is going on — and there should be a sense of urgency here — they could take legislative action. So far, there has been little action from elected officials. But those few who have acted have begun to make an impact. For example, when Senator Jeff Merkley. an Oregon Democrat, tried to visit one immigration detention center for children recently and was turned away, his efforts generated press coverage that brought renewed attention to this crisis. (Sen. Merkley separately gained access to a processing center where children were being held, and said the holding area looked like “a dog kennel”.) Rep. Pramila Jaypal, a Washington Democrat, similarly brought public attention to this crisis when she visited a detention center near Seattle and reported that women there told her they had been denied clean water and subjected to verbal abuse. One woman told her that a Border Patrol agent said: “You will never see your children again. Families don’t exist here. You won’t have a family anymore.”

Donald Trump has smugly lied by claiming that laws passed by Democrats force the separation of children from parents. Attorney General Jeff Sessions insists that it is necessary to separate children from their parents when they are detained at the border. Anyone serving in this administration has a choice to make: If they remain in their jobs without saying anything, then they are supporting Mr. Trump’s lie, and endorsing Mr. Sessions’ claim that the administration’s policy is necessary. Administration officials could send a strong message by calling out the lie, denouncing the policy and resigning from their posts.

Elected leaders cannot act alone. They depend on subordinates willing to carry out orders — in this case, orders directed to ICE and other government officials to separate young children from their parents. Many of the people who carry out these orders are undoubtedly “ordinary" people in the sense that, outside of their work, they likely treat their neighbors and co-workers with kindness and do not intentionally seek to harm others. They should be moved to face the contradiction between what they do at work and the people they imagine themselves to be.

Journalists can play an important role by investigating what is going on and refusing to engage in “stenographic reporting” that uncritically repeats the government’s position without comment. Dara Lind has explained in exacting detail why the Trump administration’s cruel policy makes no sense; work like hers is essential.

Business leaders are positioned to stand up to the president, if they choose to do so. This is a moral question, so one might conclude CEOs of leading companies will see no upside in speaking out. But some took action based on moral principle last year, after Mr. Trump’s words of support for white supremacists and neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville. CEOs could, and should, do so again now.

As for the rest of us, we may not have the direct ability to influence action in the way that others listed here do, but that doesn’t mean we are helpless. We can contact our representatives in Congress and the White House to express our outrage and demand action. We can make voting decisions based on how elected officials do or do not respond to our calls for action. We can engage in non-violent mass action — like Americans did at airports last year when the travel ban was implemented and as many are doing now across the country to protest the separation of children from their parents. We can support the ACLU, which is taking legal action to reunite families, and other organizations working to help these families.

A complaint filed in court by the ACLU seeks to reunite a mother and 7-year-old daughter who have been separated for almost four months. The complaint describes the daughter as sitting “all alone in a Chicago facility, frightened and traumatized, crying for her mother and not knowing when she will see her again.” A federal judge rejected the Trump administration’s effort to dismiss the case, writing that “These allegations sufficiently describe government conduct that arbitrarily tears at the sacred bond between parent and child… [the conduct, if true] is brutal, offensive, and fails to comport with traditional notions of fair play and decency.” The judge is surely correct.

What will we do about it?

Chris Edelson ( is an assistant professor of government in American University’s School of Public Affairs. His book, “Power Without Constraint: The Post 9/11 Presidency and National Security,” was published in 2016 by the University of Wisconsin Press. Erran Carmel is a business professor at American University and a former dean of its Kogod School of Business.

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