The great PBS documentary series “Frontline” premieres a new film tonight tackling the crisis of family separation created by President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy on unauthorized immigration. (But really, while “zero tolerance” might sound good to people who can disregard the humanity of its victims, it still doesn’t quite capture the cruelty of the policy briefly and unsuccessfully implemented. Separating children from parents and holding them various places in America doesn’t exactly keep them out of America, does it?)
Anyway, the Frontline is titled: “Separated: Children at the Border.”
The film’s heart is with the kids and parents who were separated, and we meet some of them. I’m angry and ashamed at the actions of our current incumbent and his team who imposed these inhumane policies.
But the film provides helpful context in understanding how the crisis arose and why it will be so hard to get to a better place that somehow reconciles the obvious pain caused to parents and especially small children by the Trump policy with the seemingly (but not really) basic concept that a country has some right to decide who gets to live legally within its boundaries. And the one-hour film, which airs at 9 p.m. tonight on KTCA Channel 2 in the Twin Cities (check your local listings), offers no answers to the daunting questions of exactly how to humanely decide who gets to live in a nice rich country like ours.
As someone in the film says, to those on the right no border enforcement policy is ever strong enough and to those on the left no policy is ever humanitarian enough. The film leans left, I’d say, because you see children suffering and parents who want only a better life for their kids (and certainly don’t want to be separated from them). But those who err on the side of enforcing the laws on who gets to come into America are allowed to speak, and I would say they are treated with respect.
There’s useful background in here. Given the current moment, it may be hard to recall (although the film reminds us) that critics of Barack Obama’s policies for stemming the flow of unauthorized migrants called him the “deporter in chief.”
Obama’s effort to find a balance was defeated by something called “The Flores settlement.” That refers to a legal ruling that the U.S. authorities cannot detain children for very long while working out the parents’ immigration issues. (It’s legal to detain the parents, but not the children.) Rather than separating the parents, Obama eventually complied with the ruling and allowed both the children and the parents to enter while their right to remain in the country was adjudicated, which led to some families disappearing, without legal status, into the underground economy and society. No easy answers – in fact, no answers – in this film.
Enter Trump and his build-the-wall or “we’re not gonna have a country” attitude. He orders an end to what he calls Obama’s policy of “catch and release.” Instead, the parents will be locked up, but the children, under the law of Flores, can stay. And then the question is how to care for them.
I won’t go into the legal problem any more deeply than that. My bleeding heart is with the children and the parents. I remind myself on a daily basis that my great American Dream life was given to me at birth as the result of my grandparents’ emigration from “the Old Country.” But I am aware that my sympathy for the plight of today’s immigrants or would-be immigrants doesn’t include a clever answer to the question of whether there is any limit on how many can come and how to decide whom.
The heartbreaking “Separated: Children at the Border” doesn’t pretend to have any answer to that question either. (Again, it airs at 9 tonight on KTCA Channel 2.)