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Obama finally speaks out on Trump’s family separation

“Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms, or are we a nation that values families, and works to keep them together?”

Barack Obama
Former President Barack Obama at the Gates Foundation’s Goalkeepers conference in New York City in September 2017.
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Former President Barack Obama offered a sharp criticism of the Trump administration’s family separation policy at the US-Mexico border on Wednesday, asking a “simple question” about watching children being separated from their fathers in real time.

“Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms, or are we a nation that values families, and works to keep them together?” Obama wrote in a Facebook post honoring World Refugee Day. “Do we look away, or do we choose to see something of ourselves and our children?”

World Refugee Day is an international event meant to draw attention to the global refugee crisis.

This is the first time Obama is explicitly weighing in on the Trump administration’s policy, which has sparked outrage across the country. On Monday, he retweeted a tweet from his wife, former first lady Michelle Obama, agreeing with another former first lady, Laura Bush, about the “cruel” and “immoral” nature of splitting up immigrants and kids. “It breaks my heart,” Bush wrote on Twitter and in an op-ed in the Washington Post. (All four living former first ladies have condemned family separation.)

Barack Obama on Wednesday reminded Americans that they’ve been “fortunate enough” to have been born in the United States and not to take that for granted. “Imagine for a moment if the circumstances had place you somewhere else,” he wrote. “Imagine if you’d been born in a country where you grew up fearing for your life, and eventually the lives of your children. A place where you finally found yourself so desperate to flee persecution, violence, and suffering that you’d be willing to travel thousands of miles under cover of darkness, enduring dangerous conditions, propelled forward by that very human impulse to create for our kids a better life.”

That’s the reality many of the migrants coming to the United States are facing, he wrote. He also harked back to America’s immigrant roots. “Almost all of us were strangers once, too,” he wrote.

A wave of activism and protests has swept across the country to try to put an end to Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, which splits up families by charging parents with illegal entry into the US and sending them into criminal custody and treating their children as if they were “unaccompanied alien children” who had tried to enter the United States alone. Obama called for doing more than saying, “This isn’t who we are.”

“We have to prove it — through our policies, our laws, our actions, and our votes,” he wrote.

Obama’s full World Refugee Day statement is below.

Today is World Refugee Day.

If you’ve been fortunate enough to have been born in America, imagine for a moment if circumstance had placed you somewhere else. Imagine if you’d been born in a country where you grew up fearing for your life, and eventually the lives of your children. A place where you finally found yourself so desperate to flee persecution, violence, and suffering that you’d be willing to travel thousands of miles under cover of darkness, enduring dangerous conditions, propelled forward by that very human impulse to create for our kids a better life.

That’s the reality for so many of the families whose plights we see and heart-rending cries we hear. And to watch those families broken apart in real time puts to us a very simple question: are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms, or are we a nation that values families, and works to keep them together? Do we look away, or do we choose to see something of ourselves and our children?

Our ability to imagine ourselves in the shoes of others, to say “there but for the grace of God go I,” is part of what makes us human. And to find a way to welcome the refugee and the immigrant – to be big enough and wise enough to uphold our laws and honor our values at the same time – is part of what makes us American. After all, almost all of us were strangers once, too. Whether our families crossed the Atlantic, the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we’re only here because this country welcomed them in, and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like, how our last names sound, or the way we worship. To be an American is to have a shared commitment to an ideal – that all of us are created equal, and all of us deserve the chance to become something better.

That’s the legacy our parents and grandparents and generations before created for us, and it’s something we have to protect for the generations to come. But we have to do more than say “this isn’t who we are.” We have to prove it – through our policies, our laws, our actions, and our votes.

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