On Fathers and Family, and Keeping Families Together

Fatherhood is complicated. For Father’s Day, I wrote about the many challenges, including those that face the family in general, on my Jamaica Gleaner blog post here. We know that often families struggle to stay together and to maintain some sense of cohesion. Poverty, crime, violence, separation, and ill health (including mental illness) can tear families apart from the inside, no matter how hard they try, even in the ordinary course of things.

Last December: A new policy approved by ICE would separate families detained at the U.S.-Mexico border and target parents who try to retrieve their children from immigration detention centers. (Photo: @NIJC/Twitter)

Sometimes, also, families are cast to the winds of social and political change, over which they have little or no control. For Caribbean societies and increasingly for many others, migration is often a factor. In the United States, an acute situation has arisen that Jamaicans must be aware of, and that has echoes of the Windrush story in some ways. This is about families being pushed and pulled in different directions by the State: by couldn’t-care-less politicians and paper-pushing bureaucrats and baton-wielding enforcers of the law (if, in fact, it is the law, and I did think seeking asylum was perfectly legal). Reporters are being denied access to facilities where young children are being held without their parents. Nearly 2,000 children were taken from their parents in the space of a few weeks.

My friend and Jamaican writer, Pamela Mordecai just tweeted: What are the many church leaders doing or saying about this situation? If it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he would be marching. Well  I have found some reaction here. There need to be loud and persistent protests.

Here is the text of my friend Dr. Anne C. Bailey’s latest blog post, which you can find here.

A boy and father from Honduras are taken into custody by US Border Patrol agents near Mission, Texas. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

Keeping Families Together: Who we are vs. Who we were

On May 29, Dora * was pulled over by the police in a routine traffic stop in Albany, New York. Never did she imagine that in spite of the fact that she has a valid work permit, no criminal record and is a law-abiding taxpayer that she would that evening be sent to jail.  Furthermore, she would be separated from her two children who had traveling with her in the car.

Her immigration status was “pending” and she regularly reported to an immigration office in Buffalo. Maybe it was her accent or the fact that she recently missed one appointment, the policeman called ICE (the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and they sent her to the county jail first, then to a detention center.

For 48 hours, she could not make contact with anyone – not her mother, not a lawyer, no one.  Her mother, Mary*, who is advocating for her says: “They can ship you anywhere they want because it is federal (jurisdiction). You have no access to your relatives.”

And in fact, her daughter, Dora, was not allowed phone calls for the first three days of her detention.  Fortunately, she had been able to call an aunt who came and picked up her kids, but they too had no contact with their mother for several days since the beginning of this incident.  Their grandmother is now doing everything she can to unify this family.  I said it before in a previous post,” #Where are the children“, and I will say it again.

This is not who we are.

I am a U.S, citizen and have been for many years. I am also an immigrant. I came to New York City from Jamaica when I was 12 with my mother and my sixteen-year-old brother.   We came here at a time when things were very difficult in Jamaica. Many people were leaving, not necessarily because they wanted to, but because things were very difficult politically and economically too. We came legally and stayed here legally, though our status was for many years “in progress” as my mother’s place of employment was our sponsor.

Mulberry Street, Little Italy, New York City.

I remember our first days here. I was wide-eyed at this place called New York City. The big buildings, the bright lights, the hustle and bustle on the streets – a far cry from my native Jamaica yet fascinating in a different way. I remember I hadn’t wanted to leave Jamaica. I had just completed my first year of secondary school and was looking forward to the next. That next year, however, would be spent first with extended family and then secondly with our sponsor in these unfamiliar surroundings.

The one thing that kept me going was my family. My mother and brother were “home,” and so I could reason that I hadn’t really left home. I brought home with me. It is in this context that I cannot imagine what it would have been like to have been separated from the only two people who made a big city less daunting.

Thankfully, I did not have to imagine such things because up until a few weeks ago, the policy regarding immigrants was always to keep families together. Immigration was a civil matter, not a criminal one. Previously, families who crossed the border seeking asylum, for example, were allowed to stay together in shelters until final decisions were made regarding their status.

That does not mean that the system is not broken. That does not mean that urgent change is not needed. Certainly, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been talking about this for a long time, but sadly, it has been mostly talking. Immigration reform has not happened.

In that void has arisen these knee-jerk reactions which have led us to family separations – whether it is DACA kids who were brought here by their parents as children, those fleeing violence and seeking asylum at the border or even those immigrants who have legal rights to be here but are wading through the process like Dora.

As a citizen, I am proud of the fact that in the face of an often confusing and burdensome situation, prior administrations, both Democrat and Republican, did their best NOT to separate children from their parents.  They worked towards the most humane solutions, albeit stop-gap solutions.

As a result, children and families were not traumatized. Those who developed previous policies remembered that as a country we have championed human rights abroad and thus have drawn lines in the sand regarding certain actions.

The separation of children and parents has been met with protests. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Because that is NOT who we are.

It may have been who we were as I shared in my book, The Weeping Time, which documented the harsh and devastating reality of antebellum slave auctions, but it is not who we are now and that is what matters.  I truly believe that one day America will be remembered not so much for its computers or its robots or its driverless cars, but for its commitment to human rights.

Dora and her two children deserve to stay together.  Whatever is decided about their future, it is a future which they must be allowed to face together.   That is the only humane thing to do from any standpoint, but particularly from the standpoint of a nation that has long prided itself as a champion of human rights.

*Actual names are not used but if anyone is in a position to help this family, please send me an email at freedomlives4@yahoo.com


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