Credit: George Danby

The cries of scared and lonely children are in my head and my heart, and they won’t go away.

On Monday, the journalism organization ProPublica released an eight-minute audio recording of the children the Trump administration has placed in internment facilities, separated from their mothers and fathers. As ProPublica described it, the children “sound like they’re crying so hard, they can barely breathe. They scream ‘Mami’ and ‘Papa’ over and over again, as if those are the only words they know.”

Those eight minutes seemed like a very long time. But it will be far longer for the children who may be separated from parents for months and perhaps longer.

I woke today wondering where my country’s values have gone. When did wrenching children from their parents become a policy that the president and the attorney general could boast about.

The Trump administration has the option to keep children with their parents while the parents are facing deportation proceedings, or while the families’ asylum claims are being considered. This has been the practice for decades.

Instead, the president and his Cabinet officials have decided to tear young children from their parents and warehouse them, causing incalculable trauma to those young people.

[Opinion: Tearing children from their parents at the border goes against Jesus’ teachings]

President Donald Trump’s response to criticism was to justify his policy by stating that these immigrants “could be murderers and thieves and so much else.” These are the same false stereotypes that he used during his campaign.

I led the Maine attorney general’s Civil Right Unit for its first seven years, bringing people to court who had engaged in bias-motivated violence, threats and property damage. Since then I have worked with schools, police officers and communities in Maine, across the country and in Europe to respond to and prevent bias-motivated discrimination and violence. I have seen the devastating damage that biased speech and conduct can cause. But the systematic practice of removing children from their parents stands apart as a uniquely shocking and despicable practice.

Traumatizing children by separating families need to stop, immediately. Now is the time for Maine’s congressional delegation to take a stand. No legislation is needed for these atrocious family separations to stop; the president could make them end today. But if he will not change course, it will fall to our congressional representatives to act, including by passing legislation quickly to explicitly prohibit Trump’s policy of dividing families and incarcerating children.

This may be the Margaret Chase Smith moment for both Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Bruce Poliquin. We need our leaders to speak out. But we need them to do more: to unequivocally support legislation to reverse this misguided and deeply harmful policy.

Sixty-eight years ago Smith spoke to the Senate about the need for Republican and Democratic senators to stand up against the actions of Sen. Joe McCarthy. McCarthy was dividing this country by conducting a witch-hunt, promising to accuse, with little or no basis, people working in the government who he said were communists.

[Opinion: I came to the US as a refugee, but I wasn’t treated as an ‘illegal’]

Smith ended her short speech with five points. Her last point is as important today as it was in 1950.

“It is high time that we stopped thinking politically as Republicans and Democrats about elections and started thinking patriotically as Americans about national security based on individual freedom. It is high time that we all stopped being tools and victims of totalitarian techniques — techniques that, if continued here unchecked, will surely end what we have come to cherish as the American way of life.”

I hope Collins and Poliquin will travel to the detention facilities where children are being held to bear witness to this inhumane practice, and that they will sponsor legislation that will end Trump’s deeply damaging policy. Congress, with their leadership, can end the continuing harm to children now.

Steve Wessler led the civil rights unit in the Maine attorney general’s office from 1992 to 1999. He lives in Bar Harbor.

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