Little child lost

Migrant child and mother, Dallas Morning News

Some are reaching the saturation point regarding the inhumanity of separating children from their parents at the US border. But it’s a human imperative to share what we know and feel. So I offer a couple personal stories:


The pretty toddler with the wavy brown ponytail screamed. Volume was the main idea. I saw her more than twenty-five years ago for only a few minutes, but I still remember her, because I was so frightened. My fear was silly, rationally speaking: she was just a three-year-old child who got lost from her mother in the mall. I, a young childless woman at the time, was trying to help.

Her absolute conviction that her life was in peril was contagious. My pulse hammered as I knelt beside her. “It’s okay, honey,” I said. “We’ll find your mom.” She was doing a human imitation of a siren, and the cortisol that flooded her system triggered mine. No stranger’s words could penetrate her mortal terror. Her strategy was age-old and universal: lost that essential parental protection? Cry loud enough that they can find you! NOW!


The thing that broke my heart about the tape of US-detained children crying, “Papa, Papa . . .” and “I want my mommy . . .” that has circled the world? They were no longer crying loudly. Theirs was an exhausted terror.  The crying children can be heard about minute 1:30 at this link:


Back at the mall, I caught sight of the mom a few seconds before the little girl did. She had that embarrassed look parents get when their child is making a loud noise in public. She was trying to walk calmly and apologetically toward our little cluster of distress at the entrance of J.C. Penney.

“Is that your mom?” I asked, pointing.

The child took off. “Mama! Mama!”

Her mom’s façade of calm broke. She ran to her baby, arms wide. My heart flooded with sympathetic relief.

Hours, days, weeks, even months after being separated, some migrant parents have been deported to their home countries, while their children are trapped here in foster care or some kind of institutional setting. Other parents are in detention centers. They don’t know where their children are. For them — adults and children — there is no relief.


Migrant child, Rolling Stone

Most people know humans are born young: that is to say, underdeveloped. Compared to other large mammals, we are unique in the level of dependency on our parents from birth and for years afterward. Our brains have a lot of developing to do after we emerge into the world. So it is instinctive—an essential part of belonging to this species—for children and parents to bond. Humans are adaptable, God knows. But the younger we are, the less so. There are certain things a young child needs. Stability. Safety. Consistency. Love. Attachment.


My grandfather was two years old when he came to this country. He was lucky. The US government wanted immigrants then. They wanted settlers, and were offering homesteaders “farmland” in Nebraska. Things were so bad for his father and mother in Sweden that they gave up everything to come here. They had no education. They were farmers; my great-grandfather Johannes Ferm had been in the Swedish military and was trying to eke out a living on a too-small plot of land. He came ahead in 1889 to “homestead,” living briefly in a sod house before building a small frame house for his wife Carrie,  his sister Anna, his three-year-old daughter (also Anna), and my grandfather, two-year-old John Ferdinand Ferm. Those four came about a year later, in 1890.

Migrant children and their siblings, 1901. My grandfather John, 13, stands behind older sister Anna.

My great-grandfather and great-grandmother didn’t have an easy life in the States. People thought Swedes were big and dumb. Think “dumb blonde” or “blockhead.” The land they were given in Nebraska was barren and nearly worthless. Twice they moved their growing family before finally settling in western Oregon where they still had a pretty tough life, but managed to launch their children and grandchildren to a better one.

My grandfather John Ferdinand was the first of his family to earn a college degree. Eventually, he became the chief engineer in a steel company. From this position of prosperity he was able to help his parents and siblings, including buying his father (by then an old man) his first car. John Ferdinand’s son, my dad, John Charles Ferm, became a prominent scientist and a university professor.

What would have happened if John Ferdinand and his sister Anna, ages 2 and 3, had been separated from Carrie and Anna at the US border? What results of attachment disorder and attention deficit might have been passed down through my family? Would my father have become a university professor? Would my siblings and I have the college educations we used to become productive citizens?


Perhaps Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon summed it up correctly. He is quoted in the New York Times saying, “This is not a zero tolerance policy, this is a zero humanity policy, and we can’t let it go on.”,

The New York Times article makes clear what has changed, and what has not, with this administration. In the past, other administrations (Bush and Obama) had considered this “zero tolerance” policy, and jettisoned it as morally and politically insupportable. There were unpopular detentions of undocumented immigrant families; there were assembly-line trials leading to speedy deportations. But ripping crying children out of their parents’ arms was a bridge too far.

But not, apparently, for White House Senior Policy Adviser Stephen Miller and his boss, Donald Trump. Those two men and countless others, including Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, decided to make everyone who crossed the border not at a designated border crossing — even those turning themselves in to Border agents and applying for asylum — a criminal. Once the adult was declared a criminal, the child became, ipso facto, an “unaccompanied” minor, and was shunted off to the Department of Health and Human Services. With the flood of children added to the system by the new policy, there is inadequate staff, not to mention quarters — abandoned WalMart anyone?  — and the foster care system was overwhelmed.

Since the president — under intense political pressure that included a number of First Ladies, including his own wife — has rescinded the policy of separating children from parents at the border, the inadequacy of our government’s ability to undo the harm has become glaringly apparent. Resources are desperately needed: case managers, attorneys, judges. There’s a scramble among private and government agencies to try to restore the severed links between parents and their children.

As a grandchild of immigrant families, I have a message for anyone who thinks we can hold back the flood of migrating humanity that is going on worldwide with fences and walls and draconian policies: I’m sorry, but you have another think coming.  When things are so bad at home — where you know the language, have friends and family and maybe some kind of job — that it’s BETTER to spend weeks of perilous travel to a foreign land where the welcome is uncertain and you know everything will be hard (likely for the rest of your life) . . . people will move. They’ve been doing it since the beginning of time. There’s good data to support the fact that immigrants, as a group, work hard and are law-abiding — sometimes moreso than their native-born neighbors!

Immigration is a complicated issue. Transitional services are imperative. Orientation to our culture, language classes, and case management, too. Maybe if we freed some of the money we’re spending on “defending” ourselves with missiles and bombs (and now a new Space Force?!?) to cultivating a thriving populace, immigrant and native-born alike …? I don’t know all the solutions. I just know we must seek them, with all the humanity and wisdom we can muster.

Saturday, June 30, people will gather throughout our country to stand up for immigrants, for humanity, for the right to nurture your children and seek a better life for them. Where I live, the gathering will be at 10 a.m. at City Hall. Wherever you are, please consider standing up for this.

It’s a human thing to do.

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