On the recording you can hear their voices. Children. Who knows exactly how many. There is one crying hard. The exhausted, exhausting sobs of a desperate, scared little person. Another one is calling for his ‘Daddy’. Another, sounds like a girl this time, wails for ‘Mommy’. This is the US–Mexico border. These kids are in Trumpland now, and no one knows when, or if, they will see their parents again.
Since April, the Trump Administration has separated almost 2000 children from their parents when the families attempted to cross into America, seeking asylum, and a better life for their children. President Donald Trump has tweeted that the separations are, variously, Democrats’ fault, Congress’ fault, not really happening the way ‘fake news’ is saying, and a way to force lawmakers to give him the hardline immigration deal that he wants.
This is America, concerned citizens say in the online comments, how can this happen here?
The stories are horrific. A child ripped from its mother’s breast as it fed. Another just eight months old, alone in a federal ‘facility’, workers prohibited from touching the children, unable to soothe or console. Parents lied to about what was happening, not even given a chance to say goodbye. The vast majority of arrests for the misdemeanor crime of illegally crossing the border.
But these are people seeking asylum. It’s not illegal to seek asylum.
If it does, maybe that’s because this is an ethical erosion that began in Australia almost two decades ago (although some would argue the Keating Government’s decision to begin immigration detention is the real jumping off point). It’s one that started with the lies of the Children Overboard affair, and culminated in our current situation, the deaths of genuine refugees on our conscience and as a direct consequence of the policies of our nation, as men, women and children rot in offshore detention. Children born in Australia denied their birthright of citizenship. Children begging for help for their sick mother. This is our legacy now.
How does a rich, democratic nation with boundless plains to share end up spearheading cruelty of such horrific proportions? One step at a time. One lie at a time. One dehumanising act at a time. Lying about the motives of those who seek our help. Calling them criminals. Implying they’re bad parents who would use their children as tools for sympathy or assistance. Australia paved the way with this behaviour. We started it.
We said to the world: Look, we’re going to be cruel. We’re going to use brutality to deter people from asking us for help. We’re going to use the lives of innocent human beings—some of them infants—to wedge politics in this nation and win an ugly domestic battle.
We made that a thing rich, democratic nations do. We showed the unscrupulous and power hungry how effective othering can be. We gave them a roadmap to cruelty and pain. The Trump Administration is more than happy to use it.
Sarah-Jane Collins is a Brisbane-bred writer and editor who recently completed an MFA at Columbia University. She currently lives in New York City, after stints in Sydney and Melbourne.