A Response to People Who Want to Punish Illegal Immigrant Children

Earlier this month, the Trump administration announced a zero-tolerance policy to combat illegal immigration from Central America that features the tactic of separating children from their families at the border and imprisoning adult illegal immigrants without a clear plan for reuniting them with their children. This is the most extreme policy seen to date, and one that has been spawned (if interviews with John Kelly are to be believed) exclusively from the desire to punish illegal immigrant families and send a message of deterrence to potential border crossers.

So far, we have no idea how many families have been impacted by this policy choice, but it is likely thousands, and it will likely be more thousands before the end of the year. I should also note that children from asylum seekers are being swept up in this net.

Let’s not mince words, this policy is abhorrent. It is the very definition of cruel, unusual, and disproportionate punishment dreamt up by xenophobic people with way too much power and no real compunctions about inflicting suffering on fellow human beings. No matter what your political orientation, it should be easy enough to state, unequivocally, that inflicting deliberate trauma on a child in order to punish their parents is morally, legally, ethically, religiously, and logically wrong to do.

If you thought that would be an easy sell, you’d be wrong. I’ve seen way too many social media posts by American citizens who seem to think this policy is just fine. Some of them are even quite gleeful about it.

So here’s a response to those folks: You are actively supporting a massively evil endeavor. And I’m going to tell you exactly why it’s evil, and why what you are doing is wrong.

The Evil of Cruelty

Separating children from their parents without good reason is cruel. Deliberate cruelty, particularly to children, is evil. I shouldn’t have to defend that statement; if you disagree you’re either a sociopath and you don’t deserve to hold an opinion on the subject, or you’re following a radically different moral code that is at odds with American society.

But there’s a caveat, isn’t there — “without good reason.” The only reason given by the defenders of this policy is that separating children from their parents with no avenue of recourse and no guarantee of return will serve as a deterrent. But there is no consensus of evidence that increasing severity of punishment deters crime, and no consensus in general that deterrence as a whole is successful in reducing crime. Accordingly, either the officials behind this are lying to us or they are resting their case on false premises. Either way this policy is built on a false argument, which makes the act evil.

The Evil of Disproportionate Punishment

We have a Constitutional Amendment (the 8th, if anyone’s interested) that specifically prohibits cruel and unusual punishments, including those where the punishment does not fit the crime. The first violation of the law against illegal entry into the United States is a misdemeanor offense. A misdemeanor is not a felony; it’s not indicative of grand crime sprees or horrendous acts of villainy; it’s a traffic ticket, or a minor theft. We do not take children away from their parents for a traffic ticket. We should not take children away from their parents for illegally entering the US.

Again, this is intended to be a deterrent. But the government is not empowered to use any and all means to deter crime. We do not cut the hands off of thieves; we do not chemically castrate DUI drivers; we do not burn down the homes of people who get noise violations; we do not cut out the tongues of people who eat on the metro. We do not do these things because they are cruel, they are unusual, and they are disproportionate to the crime. That makes them evil in the eyes of the law and society. This policy of child separation should rightly be judged as evil in the eyes of the law and society.

The Evil of Unjust Punishment

Children are not considered responsible actors. They are (generally) considered dependents of their parents. They are not recognized as criminally liable in many respects — particularly when they have no part in the decisions that led to a crime. In this case, children are being punished for crimes in which they could not possibly be considered culpable. Because what else do you call it to rip a child away from their parents against their will, send them into an institutional home, and expose them to the chaos of the American foster care system, other than punishment?

Again, let us keep in mind that this is deliberate. These children are being deliberately traumatized, deliberately put in bad situations, deliberately kept from their parents, deliberately lost. This is all in service to the supposed purpose of deterrence. Someone who cannot be judged to have done wrong is being punished in order to apply pressure to other people who might consider breaking a law. This is unjust. It is morally detestable. It is evil. It is the act of a kidnapper, or a lynch mob, not of a just government.

The Evil of Waste

Government exists in a grey realm of cost/benefit analysis. Put bluntly, there is only so much money, only so much time, and only so much energy to go around. This policy is sucking up a tremendous amount of money, time, and energy. It is over-stressing the judicial system, which was barely scraping by in any case. It is costing the Department of Homeland Security time and effort, in addition to lots of money. And it is monopolizing the political capital of a large number of public officials.

All of these people and institutions have better things to do. They are important. Their time is important. Their money is your tax dollars. And it is all being wasted on cruelty. All of this time, effort, and treasure is being spent on a policy that has no basis to work, degrades our nation, and deliberately harms children. It could be spent on things that would actually make us safer, more prosperous, and better prepared to process new residents and citizens. Instead we’re wasting everything, including our moral standing. This is evil. This is wrong. This is poor politics and poor custodianship of the nation.

Summary: You’re Being Evil if You Support This. Sorry.

The road to Hell, it is said, is paved with good intentions. I would add that its guard rails are blind adherence to law, and its lane dividers are damned souls who howl “I was only following orders!”

We are citizens of a democracy. We do not get to say “It wasn’t my fault!” Either we own a part of every decision made on our behalf, as citizens, or we submit to the mad decisions of our rulers, as subjects.

If you are a subject, you share less of the blame, but you live in a tyranny. If you are a citizen, you are morally responsible for the decisions made in your stead. This is one of those times. Jesus Christ, people, it’s not even a difficult one. If you support this policy, you support deliberate, calculated, systemic child abuse. You are now a little more evil then you were before you made that choice. It’s that simple.

We do not have a good reason to be separating children from their parents. There is no law that specifically requires this. We do not have a good rationale for the philosophy behind this policy; there is no good standard of consensus that deterrence even works. We do not live in a nation where our government is permitted to do anything and everything in the name of national security; we have the 8th Amendment. And, god damn it, we are supposed to be the sodding good guys. Remember?