CHICAGO — Trauma from family separation knows no age.
On a recent episode of the podcast “The Daily,” I heard a grown woman talking about the fact she hadn’t seen her 77-year-old mother ever since her coronavirus-affected nursing facility went on lockdown. The woman cried as she described the relief of being allowed to peer at her mom through an outside window.
Even though they had been talking on the phone, the woman just needed to be able to see that her mom was alive, sitting up in bed and able to wave “hello.”
We’re going to hear many more stories about the impact of COVID-19 on families as people are quarantined at home and sheltered at hospitals and other health facilities. As travel is disrupted, we’ll hear about spouses being separated and children stranded from their families. It will be wrapped in anger that there isn’t enough information to reconnect people with each other.
As the outbreak worsens, it could personally impact millions of Americans, giving a critical mass of people an intimate understanding of trauma.
According to the nonprofit organization Physicians for Human Rights, The kinds of after-effects experienced by parents and children who are unexpectedly or abruptly separated include: “being confused and upset, constantly worried, crying a lot, having sleeping difficulties, not eating well, having nightmares, being preoccupied, having severely depressed moods, overwhelming symptoms of anxiety, and physiological manifestations of panic and despair (racing heart, shortness of breath, and headaches), feeling ‘pure agony’ and hopelessness, feeling emotional and mental anguish, and being ‘incredibly despondent.’”
My desperate hope is that coronavirus-related discomfort, inconvenience and suffering creates empathy for our fellow human beings. That’s because I want people to identify with and understand what is still happening today at the U.S.-Mexico border: Families that include immigrants continue to be separated.
According to the Pew Research Center, the number of migrant apprehensions at the border rose in fiscal 2019 to its highest level in 12 years. The 851,508 apprehensions recorded were more than double the number of the year before.
The majority of those people were spared from official policy that rips apart families with the goal of discouraging other migrants from attempting to gain entry into the United States. But there continue to be exceptions that, according to experts, are loosely applied.
When families are apprehended by the Border Patrol or present themselves and plead for asylum, the prevailing practice is that they can be separated only after a determination is made that a parent poses a danger to the child, or has a serious criminal record or gang affiliation. Or when an aunt, uncle or sibling is accompanying the child or the parent is sick.
But “the government is trying to drive a truck through what was supposed to be a very narrow exception,” Lee Gelernt of the American Civil Liberties Union told NBC News last summer. Citing government data and reporting from the border, Gelernt argued that many children were being separated from their parents for minor crimes or unverified accusations of gang affiliation.
One can believe in the rule of law as well as orderly and controlled entry into our country and simultaneously believe that it is wrong to forcefully split up families and then ensnare them in a tangle of administrative red tape, as has been well documented in the past few years.
What is happening at the border is nothing short of a human rights horror. It’s not much better in certain communities and neighborhoods all over the interior of the country, where raids and apprehensions at workplaces, homes and sometimes even near school grounds cause scenes as adults are arrested, leaving U.S.-born children behind with family or plunging them into the foster care system.
The threat of the coronavirus should not be politicized. But if we can find simple parallels in the pain of parents and children being torn apart by forces they have no control over, maybe more of us will sympathize with the ghastliness being inflicted on people arriving to our country. Both situations require our undivided attention.
Cepeda is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.