Many of us, watching the systematic separation of sobbing children from their distraught parents, are asking a simple question today: Is this still our beloved country?

Is this the America of a lifetime of inspirational story and song? Is it still the America of open arms, of a statue in a New York harbor signaling for all the world our national embrace of the tired and the poor and the oppressed of other nations?

Or is this now an America, with our callous treatment of migrant families, that causes us to feel ashamed?

The president of the United States, and the Department of Homeland Security acting upon his direction, give us cause to wonder.

Over a six-week period, roughly 2,000 children have been torn from their parents’ arms and placed in mass detention centers or foster care. More than a hundred are 4 years old or younger. In some cases, parents and children have gone weeks without being able to contact each other – or even knowing each others’ locations.


Immigrants and DACA supporters rally across the street from the Trump International Hotel & Tower in Las Vegas on Sept. 10, 2017. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Imagine the terror felt by these children. Imagine not only the fear of their parents but the shadow of guilt – that they couldn’t protect their own babies, a memory that will cling to them for a lifetime.

This president blames it on the Democrats. This is known as a lie. Under previous administrations, those caught entering the United States illegally faced deportation but not criminal charges – and they were not separated from their children.

This president’s attorney general offers passages from the Bible. This is known as blasphemy. This administration refers to its policy – prosecuting migrants, mainly from Central American countries — as “zero tolerance.”

That phrase is now a euphemism for cruelty toward children.

Even Republicans normally too frightened, or too politically calculating, to challenge President Donald Trump are expressing their revulsion at such action.

In the Washington Post now, former First Lady Laura Bush writes of one holding place run by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement: “The people at the shelter had been instructed not to pick up or touch the children to comfort them. Imagine not being able to pick up a child who is not yet out of diapers.”

This president tells us the children are taken away because their parents arrived here illegally. When did we become a country that values politics over decency, that values presidential muscle over simple morality?

In his mind, these aren’t children but bargaining chips. When he meets with congressional leaders this week, he’ll tell them: You want to reunite these families? Then I want money for my wall along the southern U.S. border.

And while these national leaders grapple over government policy, and look for ways to blame each other, thousands of frightened children and their parents wonder when they’ll see each other again.

And millions of Americans wonder: Is this still the compassionate country we always imagined it was? Or have we become something else?

A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, is now in paperback.