TWO compelling images this week told the story of the ordinary folk caught on the current tide of international migration. The first was of a tearful two-year-old girl from Honduras, wailing as she was separated from her mother in a United States border camp.
The second was a film of a joyful group of Africans, singing and dancing as their ship, Aquarius, finally berthed in Spain after being buffeted around the Mediterranean by other European countries who did not want them.
Rich-world opinions are deeply divided on migration. In Italy, the interior minister in the new right-wing government has asked for a census to be taken of all gypsies living in Italy so that the “irregular ones” could be deported, even though those with Italian citizenship would have to be allowed to remain, “unfortunately”. The African migrants fell foul of this hardened Italian approach.
In the US, President Trump declared: “ The United States will not be a migrant camp [or] refugee-holding facility. Not on my watch.”
The Trump administration has introduced a policy of separating illegal immigrants from their children — even, apparently, breastfed babies. In a series of characteristically barefaced lies, the President has blamed this policy on the Democrat political opposition.
So many of even his staunchest supporters declared his “zero tolerance” policy to be cruel, immoral, and un-American, that the President was forced into a U-turn. Even so, the mindset betrayed by his adoption of this tactic in the first place is revealing of the Trump mentality. So was the fact that his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, has cited scripture to support the strategy, quoting Romans 13 on Christians’ duty to obey lawful government.
The quotation is, of course, historically decontextualised exactly as it was by those who used it to support slavery, the Nazis, and apartheid. But that is lost on Trump supporters who advance arguments such as: “If a woman steals and is put in jail, she is separated from her children by the state as a result of her bad decisions. No different for illegal immigrants.They break the law: they are separated from their children.”
The analogy does not hold. When a citizen is imprisoned, there are likely to be family networks who will look after the children: a spouse, grandparent, aunt, family friend, and so on. But, for an immigrant, especially an illegal one, that network is not there. The child is doomed to the care of institutions or strangers, and research shows that the outcome of this is often problematic.
Nor does this argument apply on grounds of proportionality. Societies strive to make punishments fit the crime; so only for a serious offence will a mother be jailed. It stretches credulity to suggest that the offence of attempting illegal entry to a country merits the removal of children as a punishment. Most gravely, the child is innocent of any offence and yet is being penalised in a way that could be utterly traumatic.
Another quotation from the New Testament might be salutary. “Harden not your hearts,” says the Letter to the Hebrews. Those who are tempted to see dark-skinned refugees and migrants as somehow lesser beings would do well to watch the video of the uplifting outburst of jubilant song and dance of the people from the Aquarius as they reached dry land.