America’s Crisis of Conscience

Published : 22 March 2019, 02:46 PM
Updated : 22 March 2019, 02:46 PM

Featured image:
© Brendan Smialowski/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Turning Point: The Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy on immigration, which requires that any person crossing the border illegally be prosecuted, results in the separation of thousands of children from their families. 

The audio went live at 3:51 p.m. on June 18, 2018.

Obtained from a source who risked being fired for releasing it and published by ProPublica, the investigative journalism nonprofit, the recording captured 10 Central American children pleading with agents and consular workers at a United States Customs and Border Protection facility.

The children had been separated from their parents and families as part of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy of prosecuting everyone apprehended crossing the United States-Mexico border illegally. The audio is seven minutes and 47 seconds of children crying. Again and again, over and over, "Mami!" and "Papá!" A 6-year-old Salvadoran girl begs someone to call an aunt whose number she has memorized. Over their cries, a Border Patrol agent can be heard joking. "Well, we have an orchestra here," he says grimly, chillingly. "What we're missing is a conductor."

All of us, to varying degrees, display ignorance about some of the world's problems. Sometimes we are simply unaware of the suffering of those around us. Other times we are willfully ignorant, choosing, for one reason or another, to deny or ignore some difficult or painful reality. We all have our reasons and our alibis.

But in certain moments that ignorance, whatever its nature, is shattered. Sometimes we are harshly exposed to a truth so unassailable, a sound or image so arresting, that we are unable to shake it from our minds and memory. It is an experience so excruciating that it achieves a most elusive thing — a transformation that politicians, pundits and marketers spend their lives chasing: a shift in how we see the world, an ethical epiphany

That is what happened when ProPublica published these seven minutes and 47 seconds of audio.

Why? Because all of us — every human on the planet — respond to the cry of a child. It is hard-wired in us. What sound is more primal, more wrenching, more vivid, more capable of cutting through the noise to connect us to something deeper? What sound is more effective in dispelling the dangerous myth of tribalism and reminding us of the essential truth of our common humanity?

That recording — those seven minutes and 47 seconds, along with the spotlight trained on the migrant children by journalists, the unprecedented public opposition of two former first ladies and a groundswell of grass-roots condemnation — was truly a howl heard round the world, a spark that turned our simmering debate on immigration into a conflagration. And from the standpoint of justice, the fire was welcome.

Gallup surveys from July, at the height of the family separation crisis, found that the American people considered immigration to be the most important problem facing the country, only the second time it has topped the list in the polling firm's history. Later polls also showed that opposition to the family separation policy had achieved the seemingly impossible in our polarized political climate: It had crossed party lines, becoming the source of bipartisan outrage.

Two days after the audio was published, President Trump himself yielded to the pressure, issuing an executive order that committed the federal government, at least in many cases, to keeping families in custody together.

Within a week, a federal judge ordered the administration to reunite separated families — a ruling that did not end the suffering. As of this writing 140 children — including some under the age of 5 — remain separated from their families.

Sadly, reports indicate that some families continue to be separated.

At least one child, a 20-month-old Guatemalan girl named Mariee, died after falling ill in federal custody. And even those who have been reunited with their families may suffer long-term consequences from the trauma they endured.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has shown no signs of backing down on its larger ambition of curbing immigration — legal and illegal alike — and dismantling America's traditions as a refuge for the world's tired, poor and huddled masses.

What is required, then, in 2019 and beyond, is not only a reversal of an immigration agenda sharply at odds with this country's highest ideals, or an end to the hateful and divisive rhetoric deployed on its behalf. What we need is something more: a shift in our hearts, an expansion of our capacity for moral understanding.

"I'm terrified at the moral apathy, the death of the heart, which is happening in my country," James Baldwin once remarked about another crisis of conscience in America in the 1960s.

We, too, must fear apathy as we face of our own crisis of conscience. The migrant children and families who are lawfully making their way to the United States today are similar in virtually every respect to those who have arrived in this country — and contributed so much to its success — since our earliest days.

Why can't we see that these newcomers possess exactly those values and attributes — perseverance, self-reliance and an inspiring determination to give their children a shot at a better life — that we have always esteemed as quintessentially American?

The fundamental question we must answer as we wrestle with immigration in this country is not — and never has been — about a particular set of immigrants themselves.

The question is not, "Who are they?" The question is, "Who are we?"