Like so many of you, I watch the news of what is happening with refugees and asylum seekers entering through our southern border and elsewhere (for this is not only happening to those attempting to cross from Mexico). However, I watch this with a very personal pain, but a pain that is shared by millions of Americans. I was a child who was removed from my Mother and placed in the foster care system. Others are also watching this with personal pain, those who had family in concentration camps; those who experienced Japanese internment camps; those Native children removed to boarding schools or taken from their families by social workers; and those of various ethnic groups who were also targeted for removal of their children because of the ethnocentrism of the child welfare system. So there are tens of millions of us who are having old wounds opened by the cruel travesty being inflicted by Trump and his appointees.
While I am sharing my story here, it is in no way equivalent to the horror being lived by the refugees and asylum seekers asking for safe haven in our land. My experience does give me a basis for deep empathy with those being dealt with so cruelly, and the horror they are living reinvigorates deep memories of my own journey. Many of the people coming here not only do not speak English, they do not speak Spanish. They may speak Portuguese, or one of the hundreds of indigenous dialects so that even in their home countries they are linguistically excluded. Or they may be from somewhere else entirely, for refugees from all over the world (particularly the global south) find no welcome from Trump and his band of alt-right nationalists. His goal is to rewrite immigration legislation to create a "merit" system so that only those of "correct" pedigree and "character can enter this (white dominant) country.
I was seven years old when I was removed from the custody of my Mother. She, like the parents making desperate journeys to reach what they hope is a haven, did what she had to do to keep us together and fed. She engaged in a number of survival strategies. She worked in an "adult" bookstore, she spent a lot of time in neighborhood taverns drawing people's portraits and selling them for a dollar a piece, and in desperate times she sold her body to make ends meet. What happened remains burned into my memory, and now we have the scientific and medical proof to know that it was burned into my brain and body as well.
We lived in the inner city of Kansas City, Missouri, and we were desperately poor. We moved a lot, and I stayed with my "aunt" Edith whom I believe was not a relative, but a friend of my mother's. One very stormy night my Mother left me home alone and went out to try and make some money. I went to sleep, but woke up as the storm raged and the electricity went out. I was terrified and decided to go to my best friend's apartment to see if I could spend the night with them. His parents let me in, but then called the police. Like many kids from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds, I did not see the police as my friend. In fact, they were to be feared and avoided. Unfortunately, I could not avoid them. They took me on a journey to find my Mother. They took me to their car and put me in the back seat, and started driving from one bar to the next. They would pull me out of the car, into the pouring rain, and haul me into the bar and tell me to find my mother. I was crying and angry, and I swore that if I saw my mom that I would NOT identify her. Unfortunately, that was a promise I could not keep. I believe that on the fourth or fifth bar that we went into I saw my mom - and she saw me. I was so undone at that point that I ran away from the police and straight to my mother who picked me up and held me.
The police came over, grabbed me and put my mother in handcuffs. We were both then hauled back out into the rain and the police car. The first stop was the police station where they took my mother away and put her in jail while I sat on a bench under the watchful eye of a uniformed cop at a desk. They then came back and collected me and took me to the Jackson County Juvenile Detention Center and processed me in in the middle of the night. I have no idea what time it was. I was wet and exhausted when they took me into a dormitory with at least 30 beds in it and a separate inner room where a bunch of babies were sleeping (and some crying). They shad me strip out of my clothes and put on a nightgown and took me to an empty bed and told me to go to sleep. I laid down until they left the room and locked the door. I then sat up and looked around. I found myself in a huge room. At that time it seemed like the biggest room I had ever been in, and it was much bigger than a classroom. There were five rows of beds. The only light came from the city lights shining through massive windows that were covered in heavy wire fencing - and no curtains - and some low light from the "baby" room.
I got up and went to stand at one of the windows. I looked out through the wire at the lightning lit sky and cried for what seemed a long time. I then went back to my cot, crawled in and slept in exhaustion. We were woken the next morning, and they brought me some clothes and told me to get dressed. When everyone was dressed we lined up and they marched us from the dormitory to a cafeteria for breakfast. It seems like breakfast was some oatmeal and a glass of milk. They had us line up and take our bowls and glasses and place them on a table. Then they marched us out and dropped a bunch of us off in "play rooms". There were about 20 of us in each room. There wasn't much there. They had windows on the hall side and they locked the door behind us. There were classrooms with desks and a blackboard. They too had big windows with wire fencing, and we were locked in. We were generally moved as a group from one space to the next and locked in wherever we went. They took us out to the "playground" that had no play equipment that I can remember. It was asphalt with a huge concrete wall around it. You could only see straight up.
Older girls were kept in smaller rooms with multiple bunk beds. I believe there were six girls to a room and they had them doing laundry and ironing clothes and bedding. I don't know where the boys were, but I assume somewhere in the same facility. Maybe a different floor.
I asked over and over to see my mother and was told that I couldn't see her. I asked where she was; how long I was to be there; how I could go home; whether I could see my aunt, my friend (Tom) or Tom's parents. No, and no, and no.
Then one day they put me in a dress and I went to court. My mother was there (but they wouldn't let me go to her), and my aunt was there (but I couldn't go to her either). They sat me down at this big table with the judge and a bunch of stuff went on that made no sense to me. The judge finally asked me who I wanted to live with, and I said I wanted to live with my mother. He said OK, and asked somebody to remove me. I was crying. My mom asked the judge if she could speak to me just for a minute, and he said yes. I ran to my mom and she gave me a big hug and then looked me in the eye and said that she loved me, but that I would never see her again. She told me to never forget what she had taught me and to always do what I thought was the right thing to do even if no one else agreed with me. She was crying, and I was crying and she kissed me and the judge told the person to take me. As I was leaving, the judge gave me a piece of candy. I was taken to one of the playrooms and locked in with the rest of the kids. I looked at the piece of candy in my hand and I threw it as hard as I could at one of the big windows with the heavy fencing between me and the sky.
I believe I spent about six months in the detention center before they sent me out to my first foster family. They let me talk to my "aunt" periodically on the phone. Once I was in foster care, the court or the social worker decided that I was not making a good transition and they decided to no longer allow me to call my aunt. She was my final connection to my life and my mother. I was then totally alone and adrift in an overburdened and inhuman system.
I have had health problems my entire life, and had bleeding ulcers by the time I was 10. I now have a double-lung transplant and a laundry list of chronic health problems. I have struggled with all kinds of issues with forming relationships, as I have had to work my way through trust, vulnerability, and abandonment issues.
I am not alone in my experiences. There are millions upon millions of us, and probably billions on a global level. And we watch the evolving disaster being created by Trump and his racist, nationalist minions, reliving the terror of our childhoods (and parents their terrors), and it sounds almost trite to call this Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Why? Because while it is innately personal it is also innately collective and the consequences cross the generations.
I watch, and the millions of stolen children watch and Trump and his "advisors" create cruel policies that block refugees, and those fleeing horrors at home, from finding safety in our land. He claims they are some massive threat to us, but clearly this is not so. He initiates a "zero tolerance" policy on the border and then essentially forces asylum seekers to cross "illegally" into the United States where they go looking for the Border Patrol to turn themselves in. The Trump/Sessions diabolic "policy" entails arresting asylum seekers and convicting them BEFORE determining whether they have a legitimate asylum claim. The adults are then put in federal jurisdiction, fast tracked for deportation. Meanwhile, their children are taken from them and put into state (federal) custody. They are moved into a totally different system.
There was no preparation. Deliberately? And children are going into ad hoc "detention" facilities while their parents are going into federal prisons while they wait to see if they will be approved for asylum, or sent for rapid deportation. There is NO plan to reunite these children with their parents. These children have been cruelly, and deliberately, STOLEN.
Now Trump says that he is prioritizing keeping families together (if the courts allow), but maintaining a "zero tolerance" policy. There is good reason to think that this executive order is a waste of paper, and only a show to shut down the outrage against his policies. Why? Because they can't detain children endlessly - even with their families - and zero tolerance will continue to overwhelm the system. Children will continue to be stolen by the US government and lost in the bowels of facilities under multiple jurisdictions across the country. All of this is supposedly meant to act as a "deterrent" to keep refugees from our borders. In other words, to send the message that coming to the United States is more dangerous than killer gangs and deadly violence in their home countries.