PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — This Is Who We Have Become

Sometimes, things can be just too painful to read.

I had that feeling as I was reading “Lilac Girls,” the work of historical fiction by Martha Hall Kelly that tells the real life story of New York sociality Caroline Ferriday, who championed a group of women known as “The Rabbits” who survived the horrors of Ravensbruck, a Nazi concentration camp for women.

Early in the book, there is a scene of a woman having her baby ripped from her arms as she enters the camp depicted so vividly that I had to put the book down and take a step away. It wrenched my soul at the casual cruelty that happens when “the other” ceases to be human.

So, I decided to scroll through Facebook before I returned to my novel. Bad decision.

After a few moments, I came across the New York Times article from June 16 with the disturbing headline “The Youngest Child Separated From His Family at the Border was Four Months Old.”

It tells the harrowing story of Constantin Mutu, the child of Roma parents who were being persecuted in Romania and sought to enter the U.S. through Mexico to legally seek asylum. Through a series of tragic and unfortunate events, the mother, Florentina, and her 4-year-old, Nicolas, were separated from Constantin and his father, Vasile. When Vasile got to the border, he presented himself to the immigration officer and told them he had been separated from his wife and other child and they were all seeking asylum.

The U.S. ICE agents took the baby and shackled Vasile’s arms and legs and dragged him out of the room as he screamed, unable to understand what they were doing or why they were taking his baby.

It was months before Constantin was reunited with his parents, which only happened because of the outcry against the Trump administrations family separation policy, a policy Trump defended vociferously. Today, Constantin, traumatized by being removed from his parents and placed in foster care, cannot speak or walk even though he is now over 18 months old.

This is who we’ve become.

We have become a nation that has resorted to Gestapo tactics to rip children out of the hands of their parents.

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, the desire to inflict punitive action toward children seeking asylum continues, with the news the Trump administration will use Fort Sill, an Oklahoma military base that was used to detain Japanese-Americans during World War II, to house 1,400 unaccompanied migrant children captured at the border.

Yes, we are a nation that is putting children in concentration camps.

And make no mistake about it, they are concentration camps. A concentration camp does not have to be an extermination camp. That is not how they started in Germany. According to historian Andrea Pitzer, author of “One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps,” the definition of a concentration camp is “ mass detention of civilians without trial.”

Waitman Wade Beorn, a Holocaust and genocide studies historian and a lecturer at the University of Virginia agrees, saying, “Things can be concentration camps without being Dachau or Auschwitz. Concentration camps in general have always been designed — at the most basic level — to separate one group of people from another group. Usually, because the majority group, or the creators of the camp, deem the people they’re putting in it to be dangerous or undesirable in some way.”

All of this is happening as the coffers of the people who run the for profit shelters that house unaccompanied minors grows.

Last month it was revealed that Comprehensive Health Services — which runs the massive Homestead Shelter in Florida, where there are beds for 3,200 children — was awarded a brand-new, no-bid contract worth $341 million. By the time this contract ends in November 2019, it will have received over half a billion dollars from the federal government.

That works out to $775 per child per day at a shelter where they canceled English classes, physical activities like soccer, recreation like table tennis and access to legal aid for the children housed there.

Oh, and by the way, John Kelly, Trump’s former chief of staff who championed this policy, just joined the board of Caliburn International, the parent organization of Comprehensive Health Services.

Meanwhile, in one of the most ignorant foreign policy moves by an administration rife with so many, the U.S. has cut aid to the Central American countries from which so many of these children and mothers are fleeing. Rather than working to improve the safety and quality of life so that mothers don’t feel their only option for survival is to risk the trip across Mexico to seek asylum, we are making things worse.

As a nation, we are filling concentration camps with desperate children, pouring money into the accounts of the people who run them and taking money away from organizations that would seek to improve impoverished homelands of those who are seeking asylum and relief.

Last week, I silently marched five abreast down the streets of Washington, D.C., to White House with 500 faith leaders, all clad in our liturgical garb. I carried a sign that was made by T’’ruah, a Jewish organization focused on human rights, that said, “This is what “Never Again” looks like.”

Anyone who continues to support this administration will forever be tainted with the scourge that results from this kind of policy. Just like the folks who stood by and did nothing when their neighbors were being hauled away in Germany, people are complicit in their inaction and tacit support of horror.

There is no neutrality in the face of evil. And ripping children away from parents and putting them in cages and concentration camps is evil.

Sometimes, things can be too painful to read. But they are more painful if we read them and do nothing. Because this is what “Never Again” looks like.

3 thoughts on “PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — This Is Who We Have Become”

  • Cynthia Nelson June 17, 2019 at 8:26 pm

    Thank you for continuing to shine a light on this horrendous action by our government. We have witnessed so many atrocious decisions made by those in control that actions like this are becoming normalized. But this. is. not. normal.

  • Therese June 17, 2019 at 10:29 pm

    Thanks Paula.

  • DE Green June 21, 2019 at 6:40 pm

    I have become ashamed to carry the flag of this country knowing that WE are doing such horrendous acts and just hiding them. What in God’s name has given these people the belief that they have a right to do what they are doing? This is a living nightmare and I cannot abide the awfulness that continues without any stopping.


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