Does Taking Migrant Children from Parents Constitute a Crime Against Humanity?

Does Taking Migrant Children from Parents Constitute a Crime Against Humanity? February 2, 2019

Does Taking Migrant Children from Parents Constitute a Crime Against Humanity?

Before reading this, I suggest you read the following New York Times article from June 5, 2018: “Taking Migrant Children From Parents Is Illegal, U.N. Tells U.S.”

Many people both within the U.S. and outside it condemned the U.S. practice of separating children from parents at southern border crossings. Over the months of this operation as many as two thousand (probably more) children (many of them little more than infants and toddlers) were forcibly taken from their parents and placed in detention centers without adequate humane supervision and psychological and physical support. The practice called “zero tolerance” was suspended after a hue and cry from even many supporters of President Trump’s policies regarding illegal immigration. However, during the enforcement of the policy some government officials defended the practice—as necessary to inhibit parents from bringing their children to the U.S. without authorization.

Today, still, many immigrant children are being held in detention camps in the U.S. and some have died while in detention or shortly after being taken to a hospital for diagnosis and treatment. In most cases, so the U.S. government claims, the children now being held apart from their parents do not have parents anywhere in the U.S. They were brought to the U.S. by others, not their parents. In most cases it is believed their parents sent them to the U.S. to escape civil unrest in especially Central American countries.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

Some observer-critics of the zero-tolerance policy and practice of separating children from immigrant parents at the border constitutes a crime against humanity. Of course, “crime against humanity” is so far not well defined. There is, as always, predictably, debate about what constitutes a crime against humanity because no country in the world ever thinks its own actions constitute such.

Now, as a side bar comment to head off one critical response: Many of the immigrant families separated at the border did not consider themselves “illegal” because they were seeking asylum. That is why I have not labeled all of them “illegal immigrants.” It is not strictly illegal to come to the U.S. to seek asylum from persecution in a home country.

It is my opinion, as an ethicist, that forcibly separating families unnecessarily (not for the good of the children and especially as a deterrent to cause fear among would-be immigrant families) is cruel. I do not know of anyone who has claimed the policy and practice was necessary. It was clearly acknowledged to be part of a strategy to warn parents away from illegally immigrating to the U.S. or even to seek asylum here.

Does cruelty to children necessarily constitute a crime against humanity when it is a policy and practice of a government aimed at a particular group of people? Some are saying so.

As an ethicist I believe systematic cruelty to children always and by definition constitutes a crime against humanity—even if it is legal in the place where it happens. We, the U.S., would condemn it as such in any other country. We have condemned it as such when practiced by governments or para-military groups operating in other countries.

What does this claim mean to me? Only this: I would urge Christian churches especially to tell government agents involved in this practice that they need to repent and promise never to participate in cruelty to children even if that results in their being fired. Since at least Nuremberg, “I was just obeying orders” does not stand as a defense for committing crimes against humanity.

I am not speaking here to any government or international agencies; I am speaking as a Christian theologian to churches. They all need to speak out forcefully against such practices—including the current situation in which many migrant children are being held in detention centers apparently without adequate supervision and sometimes being subjected to neglect and abuse. (There have been videos shown on national news networks of “caretakers” in some child detention centers abusing children. And then there are the deaths. At least in some cases the childrens’ lives could have been saved had they been treated medically properly earlier.)

Christian churches need to explain to their people that Romans 13, for example, does not require Christians to obey government orders that are cruel and inhumane. And that, in fact, Christians ought always to disobey government orders that are cruel and inhumane.

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

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