Tisha M. Rajendra is associate professor of Christian ethics at Loyola University Chicago. She is author of Migrants and Citizens: Justice as Responsibility in the Ethics of Immigration (2017). She is a member of the editorial board of the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics and has published in journals such as Political Theology and Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. Her popular writing has appeared in Sojourners and the Los Angeles Times. Rajendra is working on a book about solidarity and theories of selves.
Of all the stories of those mistreated by the Trump administration, the one that haunts me the most is the story of the father who told his 7-year-old daughter, as CBP agents were taking her away, that she was going to summer camp. Maybe it’s because his daughter was about the same age that my children are now. Or maybe it’s because the story recalls other child separations in other times, when parents forced to choose between comforting their children with a lie or brutalizing them with the truth have chosen, in what may be their last moments with their children, to comfort them. Years later, in my mind’s eye, I can still see this child walking away from her father with a spring in her step and a smile on her face, on her way to a trauma from which she will never fully recover.
As the news cycle moves on from the seemingly endless cruelties of Donald J. Trump, Steven Miller, and their minions in ICE and CBP, the suffering of this child (and the thousands like her) may fade from our memories as our attention drifts to other things. This is how our minds work—we focus on the emergencies at hand, especially when we need to survive them. And with the incoming Biden administration promising to reverse the cruelest policies of the Trump administration, from the Muslim ban to the “remain in Mexico” policy, many of us are breathing a sigh of relief. Finally, we can move on to a more just and compassionate chapter of U.S. history.
But as tempting as it may be to put the past behind us, many migrants and their families will not have that luxury. Hundreds of children scattered all over the United States have lost their parents to this policy—perhaps forever. Ten of thousands more children will forever bear the mental and emotional scars of being kidnapped and detained by our government. At least seven children have died in U.S. custody. Those families will never put that past behind them.
But as tempting as it may be to put the past behind us, many migrants and their families will not have that luxury.
To stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable and weak is to bear their pain, as the Salvadoran theologian Jon Sobrino has written. The world may move on, but as long as God remembers the suffering of these children, God’s people must too, keeping what Johann Baptist Metz calls “dangerous memories.”
The memories of these children are dangerous because they disrupt the comforting but dishonest narratives we use to placate our consciences. While much ink has been split over the false narratives disseminated by President Trump and the right-wing media, those of us who are horrified by the past four years have our own false narratives. As difficult as it is to sit with the memories of these children, they have much to teach us.
The memories of these children are dangerous because they disrupt the comforting but dishonest narratives we use to placate our consciences.
First of all, they show us that our institutions are fragile, vulnerable to such assaults on human rights, particularly for those who do not enjoy the protections of citizenship. An army of lawyers, activists, and concerned citizens came to the defense of these children, but their efforts only blunted rather than ended the cruelty of our institutions.
Second, these memories give us a primer, in our own day and time, in the banality of evil. Millions of American voters did not find Trump’s cruelty to immigrant children disqualifying. Dozens if not hundreds of ICE and CBP agents tore children from their parents’ arms, then surely returned home to their own families, without making the connection. They simply, in the words of Hannah Arendt, did not think.
Third, these children disrupt simple narratives about the goodness of Democrats and the evil of Republicans. There is simply no reason to imprison asylum seekers while they wait for their hearings. While Trump expanded immigration detention and used it to indefinitely detain even children, asylum-seekers have been imprisoned since the eighties. Today’s U.S. immigration detention system, expanded by every president since Reagan and run by for-profit corporations, is the largest in the world. The dangerous memories of these children remind us of our own failure to end this system long ago. They teach us that the fight against racism and xenophobia does not end with an election victory.
These children disrupt simple narratives about the goodness of Democrats and the evil of Republicans.
Finally, the dangerous memories of the suffering of these children reminds us that some wounds cannot be healed and that no policy can bring back the dead. They remind us that our own power is limited and that the only hope of the fullness of justice comes from God. For now, we must learn to live in the messiness of history, entangled in complicated webs of claims upon us that we may never be able to fully understand, much less fulfill.
Living in this messiness entails, of course, engaging in the business of politics, where compromise is often necessary and justice is never perfect. Guided by these dangerous memories, however, we may enter the sphere of politics knowing that while we may never be able to fully atone for the crimes of the past, neither can we rest.