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Ripping Apart Families: How Did Our Nation Get Here?

I traveled internationally with my sons on two separate occasions several years ago.

I was “estadounidense” (“American”) and gave little to no thought to whether I was able to travel alone with the kids.

We were U.S. citizens, which is to say, we were somewhat oblivious to the rules, regulations and visa requirements that most people face.

With my older son, Jason, when we arrived at the airport to board our flight home, I was asked for country-specific paperwork that showed I had the authority for him to leave Costa Rica with me.

This involved an application process, complete with signatures from both parents, interviews with government officials and properly notarized documents with “timbres” or official stamps.

I had purchased an exit visa that showed that Jason was a legal permanent resident, which placed him under Costa Rican protection as a minor. I was free to go home, but not Jason.

For my younger son, Kyle, Costa Rican law had recently changed and all minor travelers born in Costa Rica, regardless of their nationality, country of residence or passport, were covered by child protective services and required the government-issued travel documentation.

For both kids, the system promised to be responsible for them until a time when I could return and present the proper paperwork in order to take them home.

There was no way I was going to be separated from my kids. I was horrified at the idea that they could be taken away from me, the parent, or held in the country simply because I hadn’t known about current Costa Rican policy and law. I acted like a typical parent – I was pretty hysterical and irate.

Today, as I contemplate our government’s recent separation of children from their parents with no apparent thought given to reunification, I’m reminded of that day in the airport, being told Jason couldn’t travel.

What if he had been taken from me, moved to a shelter or placed with a family until I could return with proper documents? What if we hadn’t lived near Washington, D.C,. where my husband was able to travel to the Costa Rican consulate and present the necessary documents for Kyle to return home?

What if none of us had spoken Spanish? What if we had known no one in Costa Rica who could help us? Or if I had been accused of smuggling the kids and detained?

I don’t have a clue what Costa Rica would or could have done with my children, but I wouldn’t have immediately known how to get them back, especially if they had been moved well over 1,000 miles away (which, from Costa Rica, would be the equivalent of moving them several countries away).

For many of the parents who arrive at the border with their children, the idea of being separated probably never crossed their minds until they saw it happen right before their eyes.

In the hospital, a patient is given an armband that is checked and double checked by every healthcare professional who engages with that patient.

Children are checked in and out of schools, daycare facilities and church programs, always under the care of their parents.

Parents don’t entrust their children into the care of strangers, no matter how attractive the program or nice the representatives seem.

So, exactly how did we as a nation get to the point of believing it’s a good thing to take children away from their parents?

What was the plan for reuniting them, and what were parents told? How are they to go about getting their children back, once they are released from detention?

In my situation, both of our sons returned to the U.S. with me, and all is well. This makes a great family story about how Mom brought Jason home with a new tourist visa – after purchasing baseball caps and a change of clothes for both!

And about the days spent dealing with government agencies to obtain permission for Kyle to return home.

But what stories will be told by the thousands of children and parents separated through “zero tolerance” enforcement?

Sue Smith

Sue Smith is a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel who works with LUCHA Ministries in Fredericksburg, Virginia.