“Congressman ______’s office, how can I help you?”
This is my summer. I am a congressional intern: a small and life-altering miracle for an aspiring political science major. Sometimes we get to do policy research. Sometimes we do organizational data projects. Always, we process faxes and answer the phone. We represent the congressman as best we can.
Today, in this article, I do not represent the unidentified congressman I intern for. Today, I represent only myself.
“How can I help you?”
Last night I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about the children in detention facilities, separated from their parents, alone and frightened.
It seems I’m not the only one. When I walked into the office at 9, we had scores of backed-up voice messages from the weekend. The phone was already ringing before I closed the door and it rarely stopped for the rest of the day.
“How can I help you?”
We are Democrats in a heavily Democratic district. Most constituents want to know: what are we going to do about it?
We have talking points. All of them are true. The congressman is incensed. The congressman is co-sponsoring several bills in the house to stop this awful practice. I add my own personal touch: we will keep fighting until this stops.
They are angry, the constituents, the people we are supposed to represent and serve and protect. They are upset. Their voices break with emotion. They fight to keep calm. They appeal to us, their calls among the only tangible things they can do.
What are we going to do about it?
Some call to thank us for the work we are doing. They know we are raising awareness and pushing these bills to make it stop and doing everything we can. I tell them I’ll pass their support on to the congressman and that we’ll keep fighting until this stops. My voice is level. I add another entry on our tally of constituent opinions.
Some are furious. We are not doing enough. We must do more. Why have we not abolished ICE? Why won’t we stop this?
The congressman is incensed, I tell them. The congressman is co-sponsoring several bills in the house to…
Some of them thank us. Others insist it’s not enough. They’re tired of talk. Something has to be done.
It doesn’t work that way. I am patient. I try to convey how upset we are, here, in this office. How we are doing everything we can.
I do not tell them that I am the daughter of an immigrant. I do not tell them about my father’s expired student visa and how desperately he loved this country. How the family he left behind in Syria is almost certainly dead. I do not tell them that he died before his wish to become an American citizen could become reality — or, more likely, before it could be completely destroyed. My job is to listen and to represent the congressman. I do my job. I tally up opinions and positions. I pick up the phone again.
I do not tell them that I too am at a loss. That I too can hardly believe that as we speak, these things are happening. I do not cry with them about reports of nursing infants removed from screaming mothers, or pre-teens trying to figure out how to change a toddler’s — a fellow-prisoner’s — diaper.
I do not tell them that they are right, that we can’t wait another second. I do not suggest that we storm these facilities with all the firepower we can muster, today, now. I do not tell them to meet me in the parking lot. My job is to listen and to represent the congressman. Of course we do not support these things.
I don’t either — do I?
Some of them — only a few in our dark-blue district — oppose our efforts.
They are angry. They are kind. They are men and they are women. They shout that we are wasting taxpayer dollars with trips to investigate these prisons. They explain cheerfully that these children probably don’t even belong to these illegals anyway, that it’s clearly a cynical attempt to get into America. They tell me the children are eating cheeseburgers, as if the American cheeseburger acts as some kind of talisman against abuse. They lecture me, repeatedly, about Elian Gonzalez. Elian Gonzalez, that Cuban child from 20 years ago, when immigration was not yet a polarized issue. About Obama, who also separated families.
I only yell at one — the first one. “It’s a matter of human rights,” I tell him and hang up. He calls back and screams that these children should be kicked out of the country, then hangs up on me. My supervisors tells me not to argue back, that it’s a waste of time. They are right, of course. There are so many calls to get to.
So I stop arguing. I do not call any of them the names they deserve. When they tell me that Obama did the same things, I do not ask them if they are suddenly Obama supporters, if this is suddenly justification for bad policy. I do not say that as awful and inexcusable as that is, Trump has made it systemic, that it had become policy for all families who cross illegally and some who seek amnesty. So much more suffering than the unjustly ignored suffering under Obama’s unjustly unquestioned policy.
I do not argue that it does not matter who started it, that I’m sorry we didn’t pay better attention in 2014 but it has to stop now. That these are human beings, human children deprived of loving contact, that we do not punish children for the crimes of their parents, except that we do, we do, you do. I do not call them monsters, I do not call them un-American.
Instead, robotic, I thank them for their call and assure them that I will pass on their comments to the congressman. I get them off the phone as quickly as possible. I tally their opinion. There are more calls to answer.
Some callers want to feel less helpless. They want to know what they can do. I cannot recommend any private organization. I overhear one of the staff tell the constituents to call their family and friends in conservative states, tell them to get in touch with their own congresspeople. I start doing the same.
“Call your representatives.” Like the cheeseburger, like the promise to keep fighting, it is a fetish: a talisman wielded against something we cannot control. I speak the incantation again and again. For many, it helps. They thank us. They hang up. They feel better.
I offer them the only thing I have to offer them — our system, our due process, our machinery of government. But maybe that machinery only works if we agree on certain basic things, like inalienable human rights. If we agree that we are a collective instead of two warring factions locked in a fight to the death. If our goal is a better future, not the demoralization and demonization and denial and destruction of the other side. Our system rests on these agreements, even if we disagree within the framework of these agreements.
Maybe our system can’t handle these kinds of arguments. Maybe, once we begin treating human beings like animals, the slow and grinding system of resolutions and floor debate and sending to committee and revisions and on and on and on is insufficient. Maybe that’s why we had to fight a civil war. Maybe the real tragedy is that we didn’t do it sooner. Or more often. Or now.
Of course I don’t believe that. Do I? I don’t want that kind of bloodshed. There has to be some other way. It’s a bipartisan issue now. Laura Bush tweeted about it. We are the majority. Maybe we can stop it.
(But what if we can’t?)
The phone rings. “How can I help you?”
We keep up to date on the latest news. I read articles breaking down the facts of the matter. The beginning of child detention under Obama, its explosion under Trump. The Trump administration’s decision to imprison all illegal immigrants as criminals, thus forcing the separation of children from their families by default. “Plead guilty,” the humans are told, “and you will be reunited with your family.” But there’s no system in place to make this happen. It’s up to the parents to navigate an incomprehensible bureaucracy in a language they do not understand.
Asylum-seekers are supposed to have different rules but do not. They too are separated.
Statistics numb the brain. It all begins to feel manageable, comprehensible. Rules and processes for who gets separated and who doesn’t. Enough unknowns to allow for hope. Maybe they’re keeping track (even with the suddenness of roll-out and staffing shortages). Maybe it really is only a short time for most of them before they leave (and go…where?). One begins to feel as though it’s all under control. It’s not so bad. It’s just another panic, another daily scandal like the one before this one, and before that one, stretching back two long years and five long months to January 2016. A continuous bombardment of emergency signals until we are composed entirely of cortisol and rage, unless we shut the noise out.
I awaken with a start. No. It isn’t numbers or statistics. It is not manageable, it is not all right, it is not another pearl-clutching Trump tweet reaction or overblown and exaggerated scandal. It is frightened children who might never see their parents again, or see them only after trauma forever alters and poisons their futures. We will never get a full tally of this suffering, never.
“How can I help you?”
The staffers take turns answering the phones with me. They get some rough ones. So do I. “How can I help you?”
I have spent my whole life reading about Nazi Germany, fascinated by creeping evil, and I wonder if the helplessness I feel now mirrors the helplessness of bureaucrats in 1932, 35, 36. We are not, of course, Nazi Germany. We are our own nation, faced with our own choices. Perhaps the feeling is totally different. Perhaps my comparison is unwarranted. The children suffer either way.
I think about the monkey experiment, where they took baby monkeys away from their mothers and gave them false mothers with milk. Some got mothers made of wire. Others got soft mothers, comforting false mothers. The soft-mother monkeys were able to self-soothe and function relatively normally. The wire-mother monkeys became inconsolable. Pathological.
I go to the bathroom. I can still hear the echo of the phone in my ears, near-constant background noise for hours and hours now.
“Congressman _____’s office,” I answer silently.
“I can’t help you.”