An open letter to the children being separated from their parents at the border

Dear dear young friend,

I am sorry. As a fellow, formally displaced child, I am sorry you have to go through this separation.

On behalf of the millions of people watching you being taken away from your parent’s outstretched arms, placed in chain-linked and concrete buildings, outraged and angry and grieving, we are sorry.

We are sorry that we are living in a country where the politicians care more about their image and television ratings and money and power than about the people they claim to serve. And I am sorry that despite the hatred and animosity shown to you from millions of people that greet you here, that your family experienced worse where you were and that the U.S. offered at least a glimpse of hope. Because as Warsan Shire said,

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.
…..

Six years ago I stood on the grounds of Ellis Island, where hundreds of thousands of people came in search of a safe place to live; the ancestors of those who are now screaming at your families to “go back to your country.” How soon they forget; that once it was their families who were the ones pleading for a chance. And the others, whose ancestors came here illegally and stole the land from those who were here.

My young friend, you have sadly joined the thousands of disappeared children, whose names and identities were changed. Who were separated from their families because of war, genocide, natural disasters, politics, religious ideology, patriarchy and above all, adults determining “the best interests of the child.” You are now part of a legacy. You have join the hundreds of thousand of us children in this country who were stolen from their families and sent to Indigenous boarding schools, or sent away on orphan trains, or brought here from other countries for adoption. You will be told it will be for a better life; it will come at a cost. You will be required to forget who you are.

It is possible that you will not see your families for a very long time. Remember their names. Remember your name. In the movie Spirited Away, the witch Yubaba changes Chihiro’s name to Sen. Chihiro is told that when she forgets her real name she will forget who she is. Don’t forget your name; even if they make a new name for you, never let anyone take your name away. Say it every day, write it down, keep it safely tucked inside your heart; it is your prayer to yourself, your parents, your ancestors.

Perhaps you, like many of us, will have adults and institutions and organizations and agencies and countries who will destroy all evidence of who you once were in an effort to make you palatable to those who hate everything you stand for – your foreignness, vulnerability, your youthful hope for a better world. Maybe you will be fortunate and have people caring for you who will love and treat you with care and compassion. Some of you will not. We, the disappeared children, know that it’s all the luck of the draw to whom and where you land.

In twenty years time, seek us out. We will be there for you. We are here now. We exist. Many people see you right now as small and vulnerable and cute; you will not always be seen this way. The bigger you get, the more they will no longer like you. Even if you lose your accent and cut all ties with your culture of origin. You will be simultaneously invisible in terms of your needs, and hyper-surveilled, in terms of your behavior. It will be a difficult journey, but remember we are here. And no matter where you end up, do what Mr. Rogers advised and ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ 

When you are ready, we will encourage you to tell your story in whatever way makes sense – through poems or music or paintings or tattoos or film or food or work or in the ways you live and love people.

We, your community of displaced children, love you for who you are and where you came from. You will never need to apologize. You might feel pressured to be the shining, perfect example of an “American.” But you do not need to lose your accent or change your name or say the pledge of allegiance or hang a flag on your house or get a specific occupation to prove your worthiness to us.

We see you

With love and solidarity,

The Current and Former Displaced Children of the World

Placing children out of their families is an American tradition

“The consequence is, that an immense proportion of our ignorant and criminal class are foreign-born; and of the dangerous classes here, a very large part, though native-born, are of foreign parentage.”

– Charles Loring Brace, Dangerous Classes of New York (1872, p. 35)

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This is going to be a long and winding blog post.

Over the past week I have been heartbroken to see what is happening with the refugee children being separated from their parents at our southern U.S. border. Honestly, most days I feel completely tongue-tied when even attempting to talk about what is happening; I can’t even put to words how I feel or what I am thinking. I’ve been writing this blog post for several days and am still struggling to write this.

And then, the news broke that Bethany Christian Services an adoption agency, took in 81 of the children to be placed in foster homes in Michigan – raising concern for all of us who care about ethics in adoption. Transporting children across the country from their parents, particularly without a systematic plan for reunifying them, looks like a fast-track to adoption. There are already reports coming in that many of the children in Michigan have no identifying information that could be used to help them get reunited with their families.

Once again, our history books will tell the story of that time in the late 2010s when first we conducted a mass separation/incarceration of immigrant and refugee children from their parents, and then began sending them hundreds and thousands of miles away to be fostered. The question now remains: will these children ever be reunited, or will they become just another population of children torn away from their families because those in power have defined their parents as unworthy?

In the 1800s it was Charles Loring Brace, whose disgust of the “dangerous classes” of immigrants led him to create a charitable organization that decided to gather up poor immigrant children and send them by train to rural towns where townspeople literally went to the train platforms to “pick out” a kid to work on their farm or in their home. This is literally where the phrase “put up for adoption” comes from. Brace’s seminal book describes “German rag-pickers,” “Ignorant Roman Catholics,” “poor Italians,” and the disproportionate number of Irish females who are criminals. The country of origin differs from today but the sentiment is similar – blaming immigrants for all the economic woes and taking their children as a way to assimilate them away from their “foreignness.”

We did this with Native American children too – using industrial boarding schools and the Indian Adoption Project. We ripped African American children from their parents during slavery.  Did you know it is a common practice to take children from their families as part of political ideological movements and as a way to control populations? In Canada, Australia and New Zealand, indigenous children were forcibly placed into institutions and foster/adoptive homes as intentional assimilation projects. Argentina and El Salvador are two countries where children were “disappeared” during the civil war, many placed out for adoption.

Mass separations and evacuations of children are a common reality during times of war, whether physical or ideological. The podcast Stuff You Missed in History Class did an episode called Six Impossible Episodes: Evacuating Children, broadly describing Operation Pied Piper (the evacuation of British children during WW2), Operation Pedro Pan (Cuba), Operation Babylift (Vietnam), the Kindertransport (German Jewish children), the evacuation of Finnish children just prior to and during WW2, and finally the evacuation of Guernican children during the Spanish Civil War starting in 1937.

Several years ago I (along with Shannon Gibney, Lisa Marie Rollins, and John Raible) did a workshop at the Pedagogy Theater of the Oppressed Conference in Minneapolis on this topic. We began the workshop by having participants go around the room where we had placed photographs of children and writing down their thoughts about the images.

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Images of child displacement – Pedagogy Theater of the Oppressed Conference                        (Photo © JaeRan Kim 2009)

Pedagogy Theater of the Oppressed Conference                        (Photo © JaeRan Kim 2009)

Pedagogy Theater of the Oppressed Conference (Photo © JaeRan Kim 2009)

In our daily lives it might be easy to think of each of these cases as an individual moment in time, but for many of us adoption and child welfare scholars, we see these as interconnected movements of children as pawns for power-hungry political leaders.

In 2010 I attended the Intercountry Adoption Summit at University of Waterloo. This summit and conference took place nine months after the earthquake in Haiti and many of us in attendance were concerned about the mass efforts to send Haitian children out of the country. If you recall, many orphanages were physically devastated by the earthquake and two of the responses that were widely reported in the news included the attempt by Laura Silsby and her group of missionaries who tried to illegally smuggle 33 children out of Haiti for adoption, and the airlift of 53 children on the order of Gov. Edward Rendell of Pennsylvania – some of those children who, it turned out, were not in process for adoption. Once they arrived in the PA ended up in the U.S. foster care system.

If there was one main takeaway from one of the policy sessions I attended: government actions to “rescue” children during times of crisis are bad policy decisions and always have devastating unintentional consequences.15641

There are two main themes I’ve found when looking broadly at the pattern of evacuating children, whether by force (i.e. indigenous children) or rescue (i.e. Operation Babylift): first, as Rachel Rains Winslow points out in her excellent book, The Best Possible Immigrants, nation states can be persuaded to take possession of foreign-born children as long as they are not tied to their foreign-born parents – they are acceptable specifically for their assimilability and loss of ties to their birth families and cultures. This is why nation states are more likely to take children but not families, which would include adults. In the podcast I mentioned one of the themes from the WW2 mass evacuations all hinged on the fact that they were only rescuing children, not full families, because of the concerns that refugee adults would “take away jobs” and take up valuable economic resources. Hmmm, where have we heard this rhetoric recently?

The second main theme is that these efforts at “rescue” are often stated to be temporary separations but in reality nearly all become permanent. Looking back at all of the examples that I have outlined here – separations and evacuations in the U.S. and other countries, we need to understand that despite the assurances by organizations promoting these evacuations and rescues, in reality most will be permanent. History has not shown it differently.

Indeed, John Sandweg, former ICE Director under the Obama administration, in an interview with NPR said,

SANDWEG: It’s a very real possibility. When the child ends up in the foster care system, now you bring into play a whole bunch of state laws that complicate things even further. You know, you have a 3-year-old child, they can’t speak for themselves. A guardian is then appointed to represent the best interests of the child. Meanwhile, the parent is shipped off let’s say to Honduras. There they are. They don’t speak English. They don’t have any money for – hire a U.S. lawyer.

And now their child is caught up in the state child welfare system where an advocate might argue it is not in the best interest of that child to be sent back to violence-ridden Honduras to live in a life of poverty and under threat of gang violence. It gets very difficult. The parent no longer can appear at some point, depending on the state laws. Parental custody rights are severed.

And if the parent can’t appear in state court – which of course they can’t because they’ve just been deported or they’re in detention – they run a serious risk of being – you know, losing their rights as a parent to control where their child goes. I think there is a very serious risk that of the people who are already deported, that they are not going to see their child again, you know, anytime soon, at a minimum – if not, you know, until adulthood.

As a former child welfare worker, I can attest that Sandweg is correct. This is not a new practice –  parents who have been detained or deported have, for years, have had their parental rights terminated because of their status or because they can’t participate in their “case plan” for reunification which usually includes visitations with their child. At a conference a few years ago I actually attended a session where this was discussed as a problematic new practice and the presenter warned us that these children were likely to become the “new option for adoption.”

And here is another thing that I know – despite the posts on social media talking about the longterm effects of the trauma of separation, in actuality there is very very little research on the longitudinal effects of these separations.  In the numerous cases I’ve mentioned, mostly there’s been an “act now, consider later” mentality though there’s been very little “consider later” that’s been done. The few exceptions have been undertaken mostly by indigenous scholars who have looked at generational trauma among the indigenous children forcibly removed. The case of the British children who were removed to the countryside during WW2 were the catalyst for John Bowlby (and his colleagues) work on attachment theory.

I took a look at Bethany’s website to do a quick content analysis of their services for refugees. What is striking to me: of the many services they tout, very few include full families.

On social media, I’ve seen lots of cries of “this is not who we are” – except this IS who we are. It seems we, as a country, did not learn from our past; and we are in the process of repeating our mistakes.

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Here are several adoptee bloggers who have shared their thoughts:

John Raible

Red Thread Broken

Lost Daughters

Kimberly McKee

I am heartened to see many organizations taking a stand. I would like to see other adoption agencies and child welfare organizations keep Bethany accountable and ensure that these children do not get fast-tracked for adoption. I think it is a great tragedy that the organization has responded the way it did; why bring those children to states so far away from their families? We need to get those children back to their parents AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

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How to help:

Hi, my name is [YOUR NAME] and my zip code is [YOUR ZIP]. I’m urging the Senator/Representative to denounce Trump’s family separation policy and use all of Congress’ authority to stop it.

Korean adoptee film, The Return

Last weekend I was very lucky to have the opportunity to preview the film, The Return, and interview the lead actor Karoline Sophie Lee. The film by Danish Korean Adoptee Maline Choi was shown as part of the Seattle International Film Festival. A friend of mine asked me to co-interview and co-write a piece because of my positionality and research and I am so thankful. I hope that this film gets released to a wider audience and that everyone has the chance to see it.

 

Here is the link to my piece in the International Examiner.