Levine: Cruel and unusual punishment at the border

Staff file photo by Dan Henry / Deborah Levine

According to immigration lawyers, children as young as five are in court going through the legal process. They are being expected to prove to a judge why they should not be deported. Separated from family and lacking legal counsel, the cruelty of their situation is magnified by anti-immigration comments: "They brought it on themselves" and "they had it coming".

Anyone who's been forcibly separated in childhood from their family knows the indelible mark it leaves. In a small way, I resonate to their dilemma personally. When I was five, we lived on an island whose sole hospital isolated young patients from their loved ones. The children's surgery ward was a series of cots where children were wheeled out and mysteriously reappeared unconscious hours later. The cots had bars on them like small prisons.

We had no idea of what happened to our fellow patients and ongoing fear about our own fate. If our parents had tried to explain their absence and our incarceration, it was lost on us. No matter the issue, including having my tonsils removed, we were kept in the hospital for days without ever seeing or hearing our parents. The staff treated us as if we were invisible, and while some were kind, others were not.

In the middle of the night, I sobbed so hard that the doll I was cuddling fell through the bars and onto the floor. Crying miserably, I screamed for the nurse to retrieve my only source of comfort. She walked very slowly toward me and when she saw the doll on the floor, she was enraged. "You threw that there on purpose just to get my attention!" I defended myself by assuring her that it was an accident, but that only infuriated her more. "You'll just have to live with what you've done," she said and stomped off, leaving the doll lying on the floor just out of my reach.

When I try to imagine that little girl going before an immigration judge to convincingly appeal for asylum, I am stunned. My reaction to the few days of terror, humiliation, and isolation was to crawl into my doll's small crib my mother had bought as a coming home present, face the wall and not move for days.

There are compartments buried deep inside me that resonate to the pictures of lost-looking children and huge piles of confiscated stuffed animals. The sounds coming from groups of confused, panicked children sicken me. Some won't be able to bury the memories and will be forever haunted by fear, shame, and rage. Those who can bury the past deep inside them may move on, but will pay a high price.

Traumatized children can be physically altered and their immune systems experience ongoing damage. I've often suspected that's why I soon contracted scarlet fever, strep throat, measles, German measles, mumps, pneumonia, and chicken pox. Yes, my experience is minor compared to today's detained, isolated children. But my immune system is, was, and always will be a source of pain that makes me cringe for these youngsters. As for the five year-old defending herself in court, there is a place in hell for that particular piece of cruelty.

Reunification with families held indefinitely in detention camps cures little. Just ask Australia whose experiments with such camps led to physical abuse, outbreaks of contagious diseases, and skyrocketing suicide rates. As much as President Trump admires those experiments, they've left historic scars that our country should avoid. Surely America the Great can create more humane alternatives.

Deborah Levine is an author and trainer/coach. She is editor of the American Diversity Report. Contact her at deborah@diversityreport.com.