Women hold children as they stand in protest of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen as she testifies to the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 15, 2018. The group was protesting a Department of Homeland Security practice of separating families seeking protection at U.S. borders, including those who are fleeing persecution in their home countries. Credit: Jacquelyn Martin | AP

“Capturing family members, especially children, is a tried-and-true instrument of totalitarian terror.” Masha Gessen, a writer for The New Yorker, wrote this about the long Russian history of taking children from their parents, from Joseph Stalin to Vladimir Putin.

The Trump administration has imported this terrorism to the United States. Hundreds of children, some of them toddlers, have been taken from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

This situation is so horrific that the United Nations has stepped in, warning the U.S. government that its family separations violate international law. The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, called the separations “ immoral.”

When Sen. Jeff Merkley showed up at a detention center in Brownsville, Texas, the police were called and he was turned away.

The U.S. has used this tool before. The government forcibly removed Native American children from the families and brutally separated children from their families as part of the slave trade.

Most Americans likely believed the U.S. had advanced beyond these horrific chapters in American history. Seeing them repeated is heart wrenching.

Thankfully, some lawmakers are standing up against these separations.

Last week, Sen. Angus King joined 31 Senate colleagues in introducing legislation to prevent the Department of Homeland Security from taking children from their parents at the border. Ten members of Congress protested the policy at the Customs and Border Protection headquarters in Washington on Wednesday.

Many of the separations involve immigrants who are seeking asylum. These migrants are not entering the United States illegally, as the Trump administration has said, and they are protected by U.S. and international laws. Refugees who are fleeing violence in Central America and fear for their lives are instructed to present themselves at southern U.S. border stations to apply for asylum. The expectation is that they will be protected, not harassed or terrorized.

Earlier this year, a women fleeing violence in Honduras crossed an international bridge into Texas to make her case for asylum to U.S. immigration officials. Her 18-month-old son was taken from her. It was months before they were reunited.

Another mother, from Brazil, was detained for nearly a month after seeking asylum. Although she has been out of detention for weeks, while her application for asylum is being processed, she has been unable to see her 14-year-old son who is being held hundreds of miles away.

A father from Honduras killed himself in a Texas jail last month after being separated from his wife and son. The family had asked to apply for asylum.

In May, the Department of Health and Human Services was holding nearly 11,000 migrant children, a 21 percent increase since April. The administration is talking of constructing tent cities to house these children, and an old Walmart in Texas has been converted to a shelter holding 1,400 immigrant children, many of them forcibly removed from their parents.

“We are writing to ask that you reverse course on your inhumane decision to separate children from their parents at the border,” King and the other senators said in a June 7 letter to President Donald Trump. “This policy has traumatized children who are fleeing extreme violence. Our government has a humanitarian duty to the children and families seeking asylum in the United States to end this policy immediately.”

Rep. Chellie Pingree co-sponsored similar legislation in the U.S. House. Sen. Susan Collins warns that families from Central America expose their children to great risk by crossing the southern U.S. border illegally.

In another heartless move, the Trump administration this week said it would no longer consider asylum applications from those fleeing domestic abuse or gang violence.

In a separate policy, the U.S. Justice Department said it would begin prosecuting everyone who crosses the border without authorization. If parents are to be prosecuted, they must be held at criminal detention facilities, which usually requires separation from their children. This will tear more families apart, and it will also overburden U.S. courts.

Previously, border agents returned first-time offenders to Mexico without prosecution. Contrary to assertions from the Trump administration, immigration to the U.S. from Mexico has declined in recent years, with more Mexicans leaving the U.S. than arriving here.

Trump administration officials say family separations will deter immigration to the United States. Treating asylum seekers like criminals and taking away their children is inhumane, un-American (re-read the words engraved at the foot of the Statue of Liberty) and, as the United Nations has said, violates international human rights laws.

America must be better than this.

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