Lately I’ve been reading Ibi Zoboi’s American Street, which tells the story of a young Haitian immigrant adjusting to life in America while trying to free her mother from an immigration detention center. Fabiola Toussaint comes to America as a teenager in the company of her mother, but only she makes it to Detroit where she will live with her three cousins and her ailing aunt. Her mother is detained upon entering the country. Without spoiling the novel, I can say that the effect of Fabiola’s mother’s detention upon her emotional state is profound. She dreams of her mother, panics because her mother is not with her, and makes reckless decisions in the hope that she can bring her mother back to her.
It’s that thought – such a prominent one in Zoboi’s story – that brings me mind to the mess America is facing today. While it has finally been struck from official policy, no one can ignore that border officials have separated thousands of children from their parents as they sought asylum and attempted to cross into the United States. My interest is not in discussing general immigration policy; that is a conversation for another time and often one where the difference in opinion is too great for any notable progress in just the span of a mere conversation or internet discussion. My interest lies in the psychological toll of such separation on a child. In the case of Fabiola Toussaint, this separation has a terrible effect on her, and she’s a teenager at the time customs officials remove her mother from her. Even at her age, she isn’t able to immediately comprehend the meaning or consequences of such a separation. She isn’t able to fully and comfortably adjust to the loss of her mother, and she is able to speak to her by phone at times. She knows where her mother is, and she suffers. How much worse could such a thing be for children who simply can’t comprehend their parents’ detention or contact them?
Throughout her struggle to see her mother released from ICE custody, Fabiola faces a considerable lack of compassion and understanding from the people around her. Her aunt refuses to let her speak Haitian Creole, her native language, and her cousins mock the religion to which she turns to find comfort and control in her heartbreaking situation. I personally believe that it should not be hard to offer some sort of kindness to a girl missing her mother, and yet Fabiola constantly faces mockery and hard treatment. It seems that the people around her can’t, or won’t, comprehend that separation from her parental figure causes her enormous pain. It would’t take much to extend a bit of sympathy or exercise a bit of empathy, but they won’t do it.
I’ve been floored in the worst way by the widespread response to the children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexican border. Responses of satisfaction, self-righteousness, and outright hatred fill the internet and discussions about the morality in what is happening to these families. These children are not Fabiola Toussaint. By any estimation, they have it much worse than her, even with the callous treament she receives from her family. Many of them are not old enough to understand what is being done to them; many of them may never see their parents again. Yet, like Fabiola’s cousins, indeed worse than them, so many people have demonstrated little care and even outright pleasure at the suffering these children are experiencing. Immigrants or not, these children are now in profound emotional pain that few people have taken steps to fix. Many of them are babies, many of them are already traumatized from tragedies that have happened in their home countries, and some of them have suffered more at the hands of corrupt border officials and ICE officers. No one, let alone children, should suffer as these children are.
While reading American Street, I found myself wishing that someone, anyone really, would take seriously Fabiola’s unhappiness surrounding her immigration to the United States. It seemed, though, that no one was willing, and so Fabiola spiraled. In spite of her reckless actions and nights of fear, her story has a happy ending; I fear that their may be no happy ending for the children currently detained, especially since too few people seem to care.