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Our 'never again' 

Cruel border camps for migrant children should outrage every American

As a preschool teacher, mother, and mayor, care-taking and empowering young people has always been my central motivation. Like many of you, I put a lot of thought and care into raising my children. I ensured they were safe, warm, fed, healthy, and loved. My worst nightmare would have been to have them taken from me and crammed into a cold cell without adequate food, water, or hygiene, left alone and stripped of their basic human dignity.

Today in the United States of America, that nightmare is coming true for parents at our border, in our name. There are so many egregious acts being perpetrated by this administration that it's difficult, if not impossible, to address all of them. While the list is long and the assaults are many, none is more horrific than the way children are being treated at our nation's borders. The fundamental rights of human beings are under attack.

There is no doubt that our nation is long ready for immigration reform, and there are many paths to embody a country that understands the strength in our diversity while creating pathways for national security and global partnerships. Whatever your vision for our future of immigration policies, it should be an affront to your very humanity to see children whose lives still depend on their mothers being treated as human garbage in for-profit internment camps.

We are paying up to $775 daily per interned child to for-profit companies in the new tent cities they are building that provide the most trauma-inducing experience imaginable. These are children—who by the very fact that they are children—are innocent. In The New York Times, a pediatrician who visited one of the facilities shared that he observed "extreme cold temperatures; lights on 24 hours a day; no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food."

We've all seen the photos of migrants packed together like animals, forced to live in filth behind chain-link fences in freezing temperatures with mylar blankets as their only defense. Laws are being broken every day—not by the migrants, but rather by this administration.

Lawyers who have observed the camps say that these children are living in traumatic and dangerous conditions. They are living in windowless buildings, trying to care for each other with inadequate food, water, and sanitation. Many have been very sick and several have died.

"At least seven children are known to have died in immigration custody since last year, after almost a decade in which no child reportedly died while in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection," read a May 29 NBC News story.

We now have concentration camps in the United States of America.

Most of these children are accompanied by parents or extended family, coming here to exercise their legal right to seek asylum, accompanied by a desire to not only have a better life, but in many cases to have a life at all. They are following the trail to their families, coming from countries in Central America and others that are inundated with gang violence, domestic abuse, government corruption, and land displacement.

These children are forcibly separated from the relatives who come with them by our government. Family integrity is a constitutional right as decided by recent court cases that stipulate that children should never be separated from their families. The trauma that this separation and subsequent mistreatment of these children is creating will have repercussions for generations to come, not only directly on the affected children, but on the very fabric of our nation.

The stories we have heard are heartbreaking, and people on both sides of the aisle are speaking out.

"The zero-tolerance policy is cruel," former first lady Laura Bush wrote in a 2018 Washington Post op-ed. "It is immoral. And it breaks my heart."

But being heartbroken is not enough. We are called not to an empathy rooted in inaction but rather to courageous compassion that is rooted in justice. We cannot wait for someone else to save the day. We are the ones these children are waiting for.

Knowing our history is more important than ever. We must look back so that we can learn from our past mistakes to ensure we do not make them again. We live on the stolen lands of the Chumash peoples in a time where the effects of the colonial mindset continue to breed bigotry, misogyny, and attacks on basic human decency. This year is the 77th anniversary of the internment of Japanese Americans, who were taken from this very community. The Army base, Fort Sill, was once used as an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II, now being repurposed to intern these innocent children.

I am committed to the nonpartisan nature of my role and assert that standing up against these policies is not a partisan issue. It's a human issue for which all of us must take a stand. It should not be a matter of right vs. left; this is a matter of right vs. wrong. It is our responsibility to take action. It is our responsibility to ensure that this cruel policy does not continue. It's time to move from outrage to action.

So as you feed your kids a healthy hot meal, give them a warm bath, and send them off to sleep in a warm and soft bed, remember that there is no such thing as other people's children. We are so lucky to have our children close, to hold their tender hands in ours. Let's use that gratitude to call us up to action. The rallying cry after the Holocaust was "Never Again." This is our never again.

It was heartening to see so many of our friends and neighbors standing in the hot sun at the Lights for Liberty Rally on Saturday. The rally featured female voices, voices that often get ignored. One by one, each woman stood up to share her own truth and to be a compassionate voice for the voiceless. The feminine rising up and taking its rightful place in the world as a constructive, co-creating, care-taking force is what we need now more than ever.

Here are some things you can do right now to be part of the solution to this crisis:

Be informed, educate others, and be vocal and outspoken about stories.

Call/email your elected officials often.

Volunteer with Allies for Immigration Justice, SLO County.

Connect with Central Coast Coalition for Undocumented Student Success.

Donate. For a local family seeking asylum:

Visit people in immigration detention: Contact Jan Meslin at

Visit Tijuana to witness or volunteer. for four-day justice journeys to Tijuana. Contact Jan Meslin at for connections with groups making trips. Δ

Heidi Harmon is the mayor of San Luis Obispo. Send comments through the editor at or write a letter to the editor in response and email it to

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