By Congresswoman Julia Brownley

Originally published in the VC Star.

We have now seen the President of the United States — not once, but twice — use children as hostages to extort immigration legislation from Congress that is contrary to our values, and therefore destructive to our democracy.

Experts have long recognized the trauma caused when a child is separated from their parent. That is why, despite some very challenging home environments, social workers do everything they can to keep families together. In fact, the trauma of being separated from a parent is so harmful that the President of the American Academy of Pediatrics said to do so proactively is “a form of child abuse.”

But that’s exactly what President Trump chose to do. He decided to rip children away from their mothers and fathers in order to punish those parents for attempting to enter the United States under our asylum laws. And despite the President’s words to the contrary, it was indeed a choice. For his first 15 months in office, he made the choice not to separate children from their families. Suddenly, on the advice of extreme members of his administration, he took this cruel new course. When he realized the “optics” were not reflecting well on him, he blamed the Democrats, and then signed an executive order to attempt to stop the separations he himself had started.

Whatever one thinks about the decisions made by the parents, under ordinary circumstances we cannot as a nation support the traumatization of children to teach lessons to their parents. But these parents did not come here under ordinary circumstances. They came seeking asylum. These parents risked everything to flee from countries with tremendous violence and gang activity. Gang activity largely borne out of American consumption of illegal drugs and ineffective foreign policy.

I understand that frustrations over our nation’s immigration challenges have drawn out very strong emotions and have led some to support extreme measures. But we must keep in mind that the reasons people want to come to America are the very same reasons America is the most successful democratic experiment in the history of humankind.

We were founded, as a shining city on a hill, with a legal system that is fair and just, with a right to equality that allows hard work to create a better life for our children, and with an embrace of diversity. Often, these immigrants are fleeing their country because they lack the very constitutional rights we sometimes take for granted, like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, an independent press, and an independent judiciary. These tenets of our democracy are as essential to the success of our nation as they are a beacon for others around the world to come here.

During economic and demographic upheaval, and in times where our national security is threatened, these core principles of our democracy have been bent or broken. The United States Naturalization Law of 1790 only permitted citizenship for “white persons of good character.” The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 preyed on fear and ugly stereotypes as a cynical tactic by corrupt politicians to further their careers. The Immigration Act of 1924 banned Japanese immigrants while allowing large numbers of Irish, German, and British immigrants. Sadly, our nation’s leaders, in order to “protect us,” have sometimes lost sight of the very values and ideals that made us strong to begin with. History does not judge moments like these well.

Immigration policy is a three-legged stool that requires consistency with our values, an expanding economy, and secure borders. A policy without all three will, by its nature, fail. That is why I believe legislation that keeps families together, provides fair treatment under our law, is blind to race, national origin, and religion, and provides shelter to those fleeing from oppression, violence, and war, is necessary for a sound immigration policy that is consistent with our values as a nation. These values will not only stand the test of the time, but they will attract good people who work hard to improve their quality of life, while at the same time, improving ours.

It’s not an easy challenge, but it’s a challenge we must meet to stay true to who we are as a people and why we succeed as a nation.

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