That statue in New York harbor -- that big white lady holding a torch -- is a prominent part of the American myth, a symbol used to convey a certain story about who we are as a nation: generous, compassionate, welcoming, inclusive. As the nation approaches its annual birthday celebration, that lady will be held up, once again, among the icons that supposedly demonstrate our unique place in the world -- our benevolent spirit and moral example.
We have never been that nation, not really. Our history is stained with the conquerors' genocide of indigenous peoples, slavery's oppression and cruelty, and, yes, the vicious treatment of many immigrants. But for much of the modern era, we have tried to be that nation, that shining city on a hill.
Not now. The presidency of Donald J. Trump has buried -- brutalized, really -- any sentimental notions of inclusion, of compassion, of a claim to moral leadership. Trump's constituents revel in his cruelty toward darker-skinned immigrants, especially those coming here without papers. And whenever the president finds himself in political peril, he ramps up the inhumanity.
With low poll numbers giving him little assurance of a second term, Trump is launching his re-election campaign with yet another assault on undocumented immigrants. He had already pressured Mexico into opening massive refugee camps for migrants trying to lodge asylum claims here in the U.S., rather than allowing asylum-seekers to await court hearings here, as past policy allowed. According to published reports, border cities in Mexico, including Juarez, now expect thousands of men, women and children, for whom they lack appropriate shelter and supplies.
As if that were not despicable enough, a few days ago, Trump took to his favorite communications platform -- Twitter -- to announce mass roundups of families already here. "Next week," he wrote, "ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States. They will be removed as fast as they come in."
In typical fashion, Trump has vastly overestimated the capacity of U.S. Immigration and Customs agents to ferret out families and deport them. Removing "millions" would require hundreds of thousands more agents and billions more dollars -- at a time when the federal budget is already strained.
But there is no overestimating the damage that will be done to families who will be deported, some of whom have lived here for decades, working long hours, buying homes, starting businesses. There is no overestimating the devastation to children, some of whom were born here and will be separated from their parents. There is no overestimating the danger to our civic fabric, which is being torn asunder by this callousness.
Trump and his minions offer various excuses for this outrage, but none are plausible enough to be described even as specious. There can be no claiming, at this point, that undocumented workers pose a burden to the economy -- not when Trumpistas are pointing to an unemployment rate that now hovers at historic lows, below 4%. Mark Morgan, the suitably ruthless head of ICE (he replaced Ronald Vitiello, who, apparently, was insufficiently sadistic), has offered a commitment to law and order as an excuse. Coming from the Trump administration, though, that's laughable. The president and his family sit atop a criminal enterprise, using the presidency to line their pockets.
While progressive activists do what they can to offer shelter, legal assistance and political support to undocumented families, religious conservatives have been largely silent, with the exception of a few Catholics. How very strange. They have spent decades in vitriolic defense of hypothetical children -- working hard to destroy reproductive freedoms in an effort, supposedly, to save the unborn. What about children who are already among us?
While we Americans like to believe that we have matured into a kinder, gentler and wiser nation, setting aside the cruelties of the past, our current era is an unsettling reminder that that's just not so. Trump's base -- who may not constitute a majority but are a significant minority -- are not uncomfortable seeing babies ripped from their mothers' arms. For them, cruelty is the point of the president's immigration policy, mercilessness is the measure of its success, institutionalized bigotry is the bonus.