It’s common for first-time parents to start seeing the world in a different way. Sometimes that means thinking about the beauty and joy their child will get to experience for the first time. But it can also mean that seeing cruelty up close is that much more devastating.
Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara, whose son River was born earlier this year, wrote an op-ed for People Magazine, published Monday, about the migrant children separated from their parents at the southern U.S. border. There are 545 children whose parents still haven’t been found.
“As new parents, it’s unbearable to imagine what it would feel like to have our child taken away from us for a day, let alone years,” the couple wrote. “But that’s the very situation those 545 children and their parents have been living through.”
Most of the parents attempting to cross into the U.S. with the kids were asylum seekers from Central America, many fleeing violence in their home countries. The “zero-tolerance” policy that separated families was a deterrent meant to send a warning to other asylum seekers, Mara and Phoenix wrote.
“In some cases, this meant quite literally ripping children younger than five out of the arms of their parents, even babies under a year old. We all remember the audio that was leaked of some of those children in government custody wailing for their parents.”
Several news organizations got access to audio of children who were separated from their parents. In a clip obtained by ProPublica, several children are crying so hard it sounds like they have trouble breathing. A border patrol agent jokes over the noise that they sound like “an orchestra.”
“What’s missing is a conductor,” he says.
This kind of trauma in young children can have significant effects for the rest of their lives, the couple wrote.
“For the children who remain separated from their parents, the damage will be lifelong. Child psychologists say that even short periods of forced removal from the care of a parent can cause irreparable emotional harm. Some of these children are no more than toddlers or have yet to reach their 10th birthday. Our hearts break to think about the suffering they’ve endured at our country’s hands.”
Becoming parents themselves means they’ll have to explain this to their own child one day, they said. It’s hard to imagine how to have that conversation.
“How will it feel to explain to our son, when he asks us about this time and how we treated scared, defenceless children, some of whom may never see their parents again?”