In John 9, Jesus encounters a man blind from birth, and his disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The implication of the question is shocking to a lot of modern readers, but it was a common assumption in parts of the ancient world that children could be blamed for the sins of their parents. This meant not simply that children sometimes suffered inadvertently because of their parents’ misbehavior, but that God might actually harm a child for the sake of punishing the parents. Even the Old Testament has passages that seem at face value to point in that direction, such as 2 Samuel 12:15-23.

Nevertheless, Jesus responds clearly, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God may be manifested in him.” Jesus then heals the man, and he becomes a follower of the Lord and a means by which the hypocrisy of the spiritually blind Pharisees becomes known.

In modern America, we have decided that punishing children for the perceived crimes of their parents is both acceptable and practical.

In an abhorrent 1923 article for The New York Times, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger said that the spread of birth control to impoverished and racially diverse parts of the country would bring about

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the release and cultivation of the better racial elements in our society, and the gradual suppression, elimination and eventual extirpation of defective stocks — those human weeds which threaten the blooming of the finest flowers of American civilization.

In other words, it would keep poor people — and particularly poor people with dark skin — from having children who would become a burden on society. Almost a century later, a third of aborted children in the United States are African American. Half of the women having abortions in the United States are poor and another quarter are low-income. Sanger’s dream of eliminating poverty and “defective” people by eliminating their children is surprisingly resilient.

The 2005 book Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Steven J. Dubner argued that the drop in crime experienced across the country in the mid-1990s was at least partially attributable to the legalization of abortion in the 1970s. Since poor people are more likely to have abortions and more likely to be incarcerated for violent crime, legal abortion meant that many would-be criminals had been eliminated before they could ever start. The theory was controversial, but it got a lot of buzz. While Levitt and Dubner claimed to be reporting facts impartially, their assertions bore a striking resemblance to the vision of Sanger. Abortion was being presented as the answer to society’s woes, while children were made to be the scapegoats for all of our worst fears.

In recent weeks, we have seen a similar scapegoating play out in reactions to the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the border. In May, White House Chief of Staff Joe Kelly told NPR that a policy of separating children from their families “could be a tough deterrent — would be a tough deterrent” that would make people think twice before attempting an illegal border crossing. The administration has since gone back and forth on whether that was the policy’s intention.

Christian leaders from across the spectrum roundly condemned the policy. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the current president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, “Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral.” Evangelical leader Franklin Graham, who has long been a Trump supporter, called the policy “disgraceful” and added, “It’s terrible to see families ripped apart, and I don’t support that one bit.” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry essentially agreed, saying, “This is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue. It’s a humanitarian issue.” Rarely have I seen such unanimity in a Christian response to a moral crisis.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions responded to criticism of the policy from Christian leaders by saying “illegal entry into the United States is a crime” and citing St. Paul’s call in Romans 13 to obey the rightful government, but of course the ones being punished are those with no agency to make such distinctions, the children of immigrants (an estimated 2,000-plus remain separated from their families as of this writing). Even though the president eventually relented, signing an executive order to end the separations, the new order includes the possibility of indefinite detainments of families, potentially creating an even larger crisis, especially if judges are dismissed and due process is dispensed with as the president now suggests.

I have been genuinely horrified by the number of conversations I have found myself in or witnessed in the past couple of weeks in which the suggestion is made, sometimes subtly and sometimes blatantly, that the children are the problem. After all, they are the children of “illegals,” which makes them also “illegals,” carrying the sins of their fathers and mothers to the third and fourth generation. Their presence in our country will be disruptive because they are poor and therefore likely to commit crimes, despite all evidence to the contrary. This incredibly flawed line of reasoning bears a striking resemblance to that used by Margaret Sanger all those years ago.

Christians of good will may disagree about any number of important social issues, including the best approach to immigration policy. What we must agree, however, is that the fundamental identity of each child is the one given by God when he made that child in his image. As children of Adam, we have all inherited the wound that the Church has long referred to as original sin, but our kids are not responsible for our crimes, nor should they ever be punished as a way of getting even with us. “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son” (Ezek. 18:20).

A society that sanctions either the killing or the incarceration of children because their parents are poor is a society in desperate need of a moral awakening. The Scriptures affirm repeatedly that children are a gift. All children, without exception, deserve to be treated as such.

About The Author

Fr. Jonathan Mitchican is the chaplain and Theology Department Chair at St. John XXIII College Preparatory in Katy, Texas. He writes about prayer, theology, and Catholic teaching at https://contemplativeapologetics.substack.com/

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8 Responses

  1. Doug Simmons

    The issue of would-be immigrants entering the country illegally, especially when it pertains to the children being brought or sent in by parents or others, appears to touch an emotional nerve which interferes with rational thought. Fr. Mitchican, normally an insightful writer, here manages to conflate two distinct moral issues in his attempt to make a point about a serious point of contention in current crisis.

    He brings abortion into the discussion, though it has no connection to the subject at hand, and then does so in a curiously confused way. There is no doubt that the ideology of Margaret Sanger and those who follow her was an abomination when viewed from a Christian perspective. She proposed, and achieved significant success, in creating a program which had (and has) as its goal the elimination of certain groups and classes of people from society. The evil which this represents cannot be downplayed. On the other hand, the authors of Freakonomics were merely analyzing and commenting on one of the observable effects of the implementation of Sanger’s ideas. That there may have been a “positive” effect from the legalization of abortion, one consistent in a fashion with the implied rationale for Sanger’s proposal, does not render the underlying ideology morally acceptable. Pointing out that the idea worked as intended does not make Levitt and Dubner advocates or supporters of the idea, any more than observing that Stalin’s starvation of 30 million Ukranians in the 1930’s made the subjugation of the region much easier for the Soviet Communists makes one an advocate for the communist system. Frankly, by using the kind of logic which draws the abortion issue into a connection with the immigration issue, one could also draw the conclusion that because abortion has reduced the number of likely Democrat party voters (based on statistics), that party needs to support the importation from other parts of the world more likely voters through any means necessary.

    This brings us to the challenge of children being brought into the country through illegal means. It is not “scapegoating” to point out that there presence in this country is no more legal or justifiable than that of the parents or others who brought them in. If a parent takes a child with him or her to the scene where that parent proceeds to commit a crime, that parent will be considered a “bad parent” and the child separated for the well being of the child. Telling people in advance that if they such an act will have such a consequence is, actually, an act of compassion if it has the effect of dissuading the parent from acting irresponsibly. Of course, in order for the warning to have an impact, those who choose not to be dissuaded must experience the negative consequence if it is to have any further deterrent effect.

    As unpleasant as separating children from parent who enter the country illegally may be, it is not “punishing the children.” It is, if anything, a punishment for the parent who chose the path which led to the separation, and a necessary response from those responsible for enforcing the national borders and legal structures.

    Illegal immigration is a tragedy of immense proportions. It is tragic that conditions in other parts of the world make undertaking the dangerous and risky journey to enter this country through any path they can find seem reasonable, and it is tragic that so many of those who begin that journey die along the way. It is tragic that the promise of liberty in the U.S. is used as bait for those who would profit from the desperation of hungry and fearful people. It is tragic for those around the world who seek to enter the U.S. through the legal pathways of immigration but find the path crammed and choked by those who choose not to follow the laws of the country. It is tragic for those at the lower end of the economic scale of this country who find themselves suddenly in competition for work and income with low skill, poorly educated people willing to work for extremely low wages, often under unimaginable conditions, because that’s all that’s available to them due to their irregular status in the country. It is tragic for those who, for whatever reason, are willing to compromise their own moral standards to benefit from this influx of needy people. It is tragic for the country as a whole as it struggles to both deal with the influx of needy people across the borders and to find an acceptable means for stemming the tide.

    Most of all, it is tragic for those whose sense of compassion for the poor and needy leads them to positions which ultimately defend and perpetuate the ongoing tragedy of unrestrained illegal entry into the country.

    Reply
    • Stewart Clem

      Doug, you wrote:

      “If a parent takes a child with him or her to the scene where that parent proceeds to commit a crime, that parent will be considered a ‘bad parent’ and the child separated for the well being of the child. Telling people in advance that if they such an act will have such a consequence is, actually, an act of compassion if it has the effect of dissuading the parent from acting irresponsibly. Of course, in order for the warning to have an impact, those who choose not to be dissuaded must experience the negative consequence if it is to have any further deterrent effect.”

      This ignores the important question of whether the law in question is a just law. The United States, along with virtually every developed country in the world, recognizes the principle of proportionate punishment. Imagine if the law in question concerned speeding rather than border crossings. Now imagine that an executive order made speeding a capital crime. Just because it would serve as a deterrent (which it certainly would, at least for most people) doesn’t make the policy just. It would be ludicrous to say that the government was being “compassionate” by warning people in advance that they will receive the death penalty for driving 5 miles over the speed limit.

      In your scenario, the parent is only a “bad parent” because they have broken a law. But since you’ve ignored the question of whether the law is a just one, it’s circular reasoning to claim that the parent is bad because he/she broke the law. There is nothing about the act of crossing the border – a misdemeanor under federal law – that inherently necessitates the separation of a child from her parents. It’s heinous to suggest that this is for the “well being” of the child.

      Reply
    • Deacon Jonathan Mitchican

      Hi Doug, thanks for your comment. I was not trying to say that Levitt and Dubner were advocates of Sanger’s position. Their analysis has its own deep flaws which other statisticians have pointed out over the years, but that is really not germane to my post. I was merely saying that their analysis gave credence to a perennial argument made by those who have inherited some form of Sanger’s vision that abortion makes the world a better place by eliminating potential criminals.

      The link between our attitudes as a society towards abortion and towards the children of immigrants is not political but moral. Underlying both is the notion that children themselves are a problem to be solved rather than a gift to be received. Punishing them for the sake of punishing their parents is a repugnant practice, whether engaged in for good motives or not.

      None of this suggests any particular political remedy. To be honest, I’m not terribly interested in the politics which have become increasingly tribal and without grounding in even basic reasoning. But the moral issue is clear – whatever we do politically, punishing children for what we perceive to be the crimes of their parents is abhorrent. The Scriptures say so. The Church says so. I say so.

      Incidentally, the assumption that the children of immigrant parents at the border are somehow being made complicit in a crime against their wills is simply not an accurate reading of the facts. Undocumented immigrants are not criminals, unless we are now going to start including traffic violators and other perpetrators of misdemeanors as criminals. Moreover, many of those being separated at the border are asylum seekers. Being the victim of political oppression and poverty is also not a crime. But as I said, even if these children were the children of criminals, that would not make it ok to separate them from their parents and put them in detention centers without proper care or due process. And it certainly would not make it ok to use the threat of such action as a means of deterring others from seeking entry into the country.

      Reply
      • Doug Simmons

        We used to call “undocumented immigrants” “illegal aliens.” The change in terminology is intended to obscure the fact that they are, in fact, criminals. Whether a misdemeanor or a felony, entry into the country in violation of the rules governing that entry is a crime, and those who do so are by definition criminals. Since the entry and presence in the country of those who do not have a legal right to be here is an actual source of harm to those who are or would like to come here legally, it is hard to argue that an open border is a morally neutral situation. There is no such thing as a right, human or otherwise, which imposes a cost on others when it is exercised. An open or porous border imposes a cost on both society and individuals and therefore cannot be viewed as a “right” to be expressed by anyone who wants to show up at the border and demand entry. Setting aside the question of asylum, for which there is a significant body of evidence suggesting that such requests are frequently the result of coaching by those engaged in encouraging or facilitating the illegal entry into the country, the legal processes in handling any extra-legal entry requires some form of care for the minor children involved. A specialized holding facility designed and operated for the well-being of the children is not out of line. Advance warning and actual implementation of such a policy could therefore be viewed as an act of compassion if it deters people from attempting an illegal entry into the country.

      • Deacon Jonathan Mitchican

        “Whether a misdemeanor or a felony, entry into the country in violation of the rules governing that entry is a crime, and those who do so are by definition criminals.”

        You are missing the point that Stewart and I made above. A misdemeanor is not the same thing as a felony. You don’t, for instance, send people to prison for misdemeanors. We would be outraged if the state purported to take our children away because we jay walked or received a speeding ticket. The presumption of our legal system is the same as the presumption of our faith, that the best place for children is with their parents and their own family members unless there is absolutely no way that this can be achieved. It is, therefore, cruel to separate innocent children from their parents at the border when such a thing is obviously not necessary.

        “Since the entry and presence in the country of those who do not have a legal right to be here is an actual source of harm to those who are or would like to come here legally, it is hard to argue that an open border is a morally neutral situation. There is no such thing as a right, human or otherwise, which imposes a cost on others when it is exercised.”

        Leaving aside for a moment that nowhere in this piece or my previous comment did I suggest that we should have a completely “open border,” it is not true that rights never “impose a cost on others” when they are exercised. Of course they do. Your right to free speech, for instance, means I have to either listen to you or get far enough away from you that I cannot hear you. Every right when exercised makes others bear some kind of cost. The idea of a free society is that we are willing to suffer those costs for the sake of being free and respecting the dignity of every person.

        “Setting aside the question of asylum, for which there is a significant body of evidence suggesting that such requests are frequently the result of coaching by those engaged in encouraging or facilitating the illegal entry into the country…”

        Well, that’s an awfully large can of parenthetical worms. We cannot simply set the question of asylum aside since a significant number of those who are asking to enter our country whose children have been taken from them are asylum seekers. Asking for help is not a crime. If there are some asylum seekers who are using the request for asylum as a means for gaining entry unfairly–and there is some reason to believe that this happens at least some of the time in cases of human trafficking–then those problems need to be sorted out, but we who believe in the presumption of innocence cannot err on the side of ripping families apart just in case. We must do better.

        “…the legal processes in handling any extra-legal entry requires some form of care for the minor children involved. A specialized holding facility designed and operated for the well-being of the children is not out of line. Advance warning and actual implementation of such a policy could therefore be viewed as an act of compassion if it deters people from attempting an illegal entry into the country.”

        I can fathom no situation that would require taking small children away from their non-violent and otherwise fit parents and putting them into makeshift prisons where they are not even allowed to be comforted by the workers there.

      • Doug Simmons

        Though I strongly suspect that your original piece and ongoing argument is largely influenced by recent media reports, many of which have been revealed to be based on bogus or out of context situations, I will grant that you may be right about the inappropriateness of separating small children from parents for the relatively minor crime of illegal entry first time (a misdemeanor, after the first time I believe it is considered a felony). If so, the moral obligation must fall on changing the law upon which the practice is based. If a country is to have a workable system of laws, then they must be enforced uniformly. Selective enforcement breeds contempt for all laws and leads ultimately to that anarchy in which “every man does what seems good to him.” Bringing politics into the discussion (which I had kind of tried to avoid), it appears that President Trump’s approach is to point out a problem to Congress that they are responsible for fixing legislatively, and then moving on to actual enforcement of the law until it is changed by Congress. If we have a law, the effects of which make us uncomfortable so that we tolerate occasional, intermittent, or selective enforcement, then there is a problem with that law. Maintaining it on the books and then ignoring it, except when there is some (political) gain to be achieved by actually enforcing the law, should not be tolerated in a country which purports to be a country ruled by laws and not men.
        So again I say, you may be right about this law, in which case I think you are in agreement with the President that it needs to be changed to provide for a better solution to the problem of children being brought illegally into the country by parents or others. Therefore, go and work to change the unjust law, even as you work to engender compassion for those caught up in the law and its unpleasant effects. Until it is changed, however, let us include in our compassion those who are faced with enforcing the law as it is and who are doing the best they can in the circumstances they face.

  2. Fr Ian Wetmore

    Well said, Fr Jonathan. Another aspect of this issue that I find particularly appalling is that some clergy actually spoke in favor of the policy, and even of Mr Sessions’ statement.

    Reply
  3. jJen Lewis

    Sad . . . but it still exists in Psalm 51:5. Even Islam, with Christ as a prophet, doesn’t believe that.

    Reply

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