Until this year, my nephews’ annual birthday celebration included a trip to the local kids’ museum downtown. I’d take the day off work, pack lunches and a good selection of snacks and we’d catch a city bus downtown — they were fascinated by city buses when they were younger, school buses, however, not so much. We’d get to the museum and the boys would spend four or five hours moving from station to station, enjoying themselves so much that they barely wanted to stop for food or drink.
We added another tradition to those annual trips to the kids’ museum a few years ago: as soon as we arrive at the museum, we take pictures. They’re so used to me snapping pictures of them, they don’t bother to ask why I’m doing it. They don’t realize that it’s my way of making sure that I can identify every stitch of clothes that they’re wearing. They never notice that I’m taking their picture next to the ruler so that I know how tall they’ve gotten. They don’t know that I’m preparing for the moment when I look up and one of them isn’t there.
It happened one time. I looked away for a second and then one of them was gone. I jumped up and grabbed his brother, pulling him from one station to the next in a frantic search. A member of the museum staff saw me and came to my aid. What’s his name? I told her. What’s he look like? I answered. How tall is he? What’s he wearing? I don’t know, I don’t remember. She called a description out to her colleagues, based on what little information I’d provided. I was still frantic — annoyed by the crowds of kids who made the search for my nephew much harder — and so, so mad at myself for not noticing what he’d been wearing.
They found him within minutes. He’d made his way back down to the first floor to the toy trains and was with another member of the museum’s staff. Relief made its way through my body — loosening my grip on my other nephew’s arm, slowing my heart rate back down to a normal pace — and I ran to reunite with my nephew who, of course, was unbothered. He just wanted to play with the trains, he said, blissfully unaware that he’d given me one of the scariest moments of my life.
I thought about that day again last night, when Kristen Welker asked the president about the more than 500 children who were separated from their parents by this administration’s grotesque immigration actions. I thought about the fear I experienced on the day I lost my nephew — for just a little while, in a museum brimming with cameras and staff — and tried to imagine what it must be like to be one of those parents… to have that fear be omnipresent in your life… and to have the man responsible for it, show not even the slightest bit of remorse for your pain.
“Mr. President, your administration separated children from their parents at the border, at least 4,000 kids,” Welker asked during last night’s debate. “You’ve since reversed your zero tolerance policy, but the United States can’t locate the parents of more than 500 children. So how will these families ever be reunited?”
Donald Trump never answered the question and, instead tried to hit all the immigration buzz words he knew: coyotes, cartels, bad people, the wall. It was nonsensical, of course — the question was about family separation so the idea that coyotes or cartels are primary actors is absurd — but Trump is invested in turning out his base and they eat those buzz words up with a spoon. Welker continued to press him about how he would reunite the kids with their families and he deflected blame to the Obama-Biden administration. They built the cages, he said, ignoring the fact that no one had even asked him about that. Welker pressed again and Trump conceded that there was no plan before returning to his buzz words.
“We’re working on it very… We’re trying very hard,” Trump answered. “But a lot of these kids come out without the parents. They come over through cartels and through coyotes and through gangs.”
Biden, on the other hand, at least had the decency to be indignant about the separations, saying, “Parents were ripped… their kids were ripped from their arms and separated, and now they cannot find over 500 of the sets of those parents, and those kids are alone. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. It’s criminal. It’s criminal.”
Trump was granted time to respond and, instead of offering a rebuttal, he tells the national audience about how well those 500+ children are being kept. He said, “they are so well taken care of. They’re in facilities that were so clean.”
The facilities where they lie in cages on concrete floors, wrapped in mylar blankets… the facilities where story after story suggests that those children aren’t just being traumatized by the separation and the conditions, they’re being sexually abused while in custody. Their facilities aren’t clean, they are not “so well taken care of”… the president is a liar.
There are people who are calling this debate “civil.” Because Trump wasn’t the ranting, raving bully that he was in the first debate, there are people willing to cede the debate to him. He managed to climb over the lowest of low bars so, of course, let’s dub him the winner. That’s how much the political media is invested in tone.
But this debate was not civil. There is nothing civil about orphaning 500+ kids as a matter of public policy. There is nothing civil about putting them in cages. There is nothing civil about the way we’ve treated these families who came to the United States — in accordance with the law — and asked for mercy. This is not civil… and the fact that anyone thinks so says more about them and the things they value than what actually happened on that debate stage.
Last night was the final presidential debate before Election Day (11 days away). Biden was as effective as he’s been throughout this campaign, litigating the president’s failures, and Trump didn’t do enough to expand his outreach beyond the base (and, in particular, among that part of the base that spends as much time as he does embracing conspiracy theories). It’s my hope that it’ll be the last time we see the president on the national stage…but I worry that what we’ll be left with is a politics and a media who never really disagreed with Trump — not on policy — they just didn’t appreciate his tone.