Read this if you think the media covered Trump's migrant crisis unfairly: Robyn Urback

If you think the media, or Democrats, or small-l liberals have unfairly covered the way the Trump administration has separated kids from their parents at the border — a policy the president overturned by executive order on Wednesday — hear me out.

I don't think you hate children or relish the thought of kindergartners sleeping under foil blankets

U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday to end his administration's policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border. If everybody would have put partisanship to the side sooner, many kids might have been spared unnecessary trauma. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

There is a tendency in opinion writing — especially opinion writing in the social media era — to preach to the converted: to write columns designed for "shares" and "likes" and emails that tell the writer how perfectly he or she articulated what the reader was already thinking. Most every columnist, myself included, has been guilty of writing these sorts of pieces. I'm going to try my best not to make this one of those columns.

If you think the media, or Democrats, or small-l liberals have unfairly covered the way the Trump administration has separated kids from their parents at the border — a policy President Donald Trump overturned by executive order on Wednesday — hear me out. I don't think you hate children or relish the thought of kindergartners sleeping under foil blankets. Absent the noise of partisanship and politics, all of us (save for a sociopathic few) would agree that innocent children should not be made to suffer because of decisions out of their control.

So let's get one thing out of the way here: the children caught up in the adult-made mess (we can talk about which adults another time) at the U.S.-Mexico border are indeed suffering. They are in a new country where they don't speak the language, kept in tents — some in cages — and separated from their parents. That is unquestionably traumatic.

There have been reports of children sobbing uncontrollably, refusing to eat, wetting their beds and worse. In one case, a detained teenager had to teach other migrant children how to change babies' diapers. Even if you believe that this separation is an appropriate punishment for the parent who entered the U.S. illegally (though the notion of "illegal entry" becomes murky when we talk about asylum seekers, but we'll also leave that alone), it does not justify what amounts to torment for kids who, in most cases, have already experienced extreme poverty, violence or persecution, or some combination thereof.

That's why opposition to this policy — and future policies of profound humanitarian importance — should be a non-partisan exercise. There are times when we need to put aside our "whataboutism," our political allegiances, our personal biases and our need to be right, and unite for the sake of a kid in a cage pleading for his mom. This was one of those occasions.

At the same time, I can understand why a plea for everyone to just come together would be unsatisfactory to readers who, for example, genuinely perceive a double standard when it comes to how the media treated the issue of detained migrant children under Barack Obama. Or those who think the U.S. needs to take extreme measures to stem the flow of migrants across the U.S./Mexico border. So I'll address those points here.

I'll grant there was not, for example, this level of widespread concern for migrant children who were detained in the Obama era. But there is an important difference between then and now: the migrant children detained alone under Obama were by-and-large unaccompanied minors, meaning they were older — old enough to make the journey to the States alone. They might have had a chance to say goodbye to their parents and were capable of understanding what was happening to them.

The suddenness of the separation of children from their parents at the border is what made the situation especially traumatic. (ACF/HHS/Reuters)

The kids separated from their parents over the past several weeks did not have that chance to say goodbye. Some were removed under the pretence of being taken to have a bath and were never returned to their parents. The suddenness, lack of subsequent contact, and nonexistent information on what happened to their parents is what makes the experience especially traumatic. Those conditions also differentiate this type of separation from, say, the separation American children endure when their parents are incarcerated for other reasons.

But OK, maybe you still believe these sorts of tough measures are necessary to deter potential migrants from making the journey to the U.S. But there are two things to remember here.

First, fleeing your home country is typically a last resort — a response to imminent danger or conditions that have become horrendously dire.

For many parents, the idea of having a child safely in the U.S. — even if he or she is taken away — is likely preferable to risking death or persecution at home. The fact that the numbers of people crossing the border illegally has not decreased since the policy of separating families came into effect in April seems to reflect that.

Secondly, even if this policy was successful in deterring migrants, it doesn't make the suffering it imposes on children here and now morally justifiable. These are real kids — with favourite toys and hobbies and memories they share with their parents — not sacrifices for state policy objectives. If we couldn't conceive of looking a child in the face and telling him he's been taken from his mother for the "greater good," we should not be trying to defend it behind his back.

Despite the White House's insistence that only Congress could change the child-separation policy, President Donald Trump was always just a pen stroke away from scrapping it. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Which brings me back to my original argument. Maybe I haven't convinced you (alas, I need 2,500 more words), and you still feel that the media, Hollywood, Democrats and so forth have been unfair in their portrayal of this border crisis. That is your prerogative. But that feeling is less important than the suffering endured by real children at the hands of the state.

And if you agree first and foremost that children should not be traumatized because of the decisions the adults around them made — no matter who is to blame — then the "whatabouts" need to be shelved for the sake of clear, overwhelming opposition. Kids should not be ripped from their parents and kept in cages. Period.

Bipartisan pressure can move policy swiftly, as Trump's signing of an executive order to keep families together in detention (hardly ideal, but certainly better than disappearing children into the system) demonstrates. Had that pressure been unanimous from the start, it might have spared many children who have been separated from their parents in the time it's taken for reluctant Republicans and others to slowly get onside. Despite the White House's insistence that only Congress could change the policy, Trump was always just a pen stroke away from scrapping it.

Making a political point is less important than correcting an inhumane policy. That should have been the focus all along here. Yes, there is discomfort in temporarily aligning with your political enemies, but it is surely nothing compared to what the more than 2,500 kids separated from their parents have been made to endure.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Robyn Urback


Robyn Urback was an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at:


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