George Kevin Watt: Former LDS missionary appalled by traumatic experiences of refugee children at the U.S. border

(Julio Cortez | AP) A migrant child sleeps on the shoulder of a woman at an intake area after turning themselves in upon crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, early Wednesday, March 24, 2021, in Roma, Texas.

During the London blitz of 1939 the British government inaugurated “Operation Pied Piper,” a wartime policy that evacuated almost 700,000 children from London and sent them to the English countryside, while their parents stayed in London to support the war effort. The evacuated children were billeted with friends, relatives and friendly volunteers. They were well-fed, housed and cared for, but unexpected consequences attended their plight. Pulitzer Prize winning author Deborah Blum relates the story in her important 2002 book about the early research on the subject of maternal deprivation: “Love at Goon Park — Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection.” Blum writes:

“Austrian psychologist Katherine Wolf listed the symptoms: children became listless, uninterested in their surroundings. They were even apathetic about hearing news from home. They became bedwetters: they shook in the dark from nightmares and, in the day, they often seemed only half awake. Children wept for their parents and grieved for their missing families. In the night, when the darkness and the nightmares came calling, they didn’t want just anyone; they wanted their mothers. Nothing in psychology had predicted this: Wolf was describing affluent, well-cared-for children living in friendly homes.”

Anna Freud, daughter of the great Swiss psychologist Sigmund Freud, was living in London at the time, and reported the results of a 12-month study finished in 1941 which concluded that “separation from their parents is a worse shock for children than a bombing.”

Fast forward to 2020, and a book by New York Times reporter Jacob Soboroff, “Separation: Inside an American Tragedy.” In it, Soboroff meticulously documents the origins of America’s own child separation policy. Beginning with the policy’s brief consideration and quick rejection by the Obama administration. Barack Obama, who could hardly be accused of being soft on illegal immigration, had just finished setting a record for deportations during a single presidential term. But the year 2014 brought a surge of illegal border crossings driven by the collapse of several Central America governments into narco-states. Refugees fled north to seek asylum, and the Obama administration responded by ending the policy of “catch and release,” meaning that illegal immigrants would now be detained at the border until they could be released into the custody of a known relative or a sponsor. A furious building of facilities followed, which soon filled with families waiting to be adjudicated.

Enter the Trump administration, who began actively pursuing a policy of family separation as a deterrent to illegal immigration. While it was true that the Obama administration temporarily detained children who were unaccompanied by parents, Trump acted aggressively to take children from their mothers and hustle them off to god-knows-where. Reporters and even members of Congress were barred from touring the facilities where they were held. Nor did the Trump administration bother with keeping records. It was later revealed that the parents of 540 children could not be found, because Trump’s enforcers were in such a hurry to get the parents out of the country that they didn’t even track down their kids first. Even the Nazis kept better records when they were snatching up Jews in Berlin. And our courts let them do it.

So here we are. The same trauma described in Anna Freud’s study from WWII was intentionally visited upon refugee children at our borders in a most malevolent and sadistic way, at the behest of a grotesque policy perpetrated by the 45th president of the United States. In a recent CNN town hall engineered for the rollout of the 2024 Trump presidential campaign, the former president and Republican candidate himself — Donald J. Trump — responded to a question about whether or not he would re-institute the policy of separating children from their parents at the border. His answer was an unequivocal “yes.” This means that 2/3 of Republican voters, according to recent polls, seem poised to give their support to a man who — in a just world — would be sitting in the dock at the Hague for crimes against humanity.

As a former missionary and tithe-paying member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who currently chooses to be inactive, I think I have enough skin in the game to say this: that it isn’t a good look in terms of the Christian bona fides of the LDS Church that a majority of its Utah members voted to return Trump to office in 2020, and will vote for him again in 2024 if he is the Republican nominee. And his candidacy is currently being actively promoted by some of the most powerful people in the state.

One wonders how they can sleep at night, much less sit still in church.

George Kevin Watt was a former Republican member of the 42nd Utah Legislature. He received his master’s degree in special education from the University of Utah in 2002, and came out of retirement this year to teach special education in the Elko County School District in Elko, Nevada, where he currently resides.