Family Separation and the Triumph of Cruelty

The Moral Cost of the Immigration Crisis

An undocumented immigrant carries a child after being released from detention in McAllen, Texas, June 2018. Loren Elliott / REUTERS

Sometime in 1940, an 11-year-old refugee named Yudita Nisse reached the United States on a boat from Japan. Her Latvian-Jewish family had fled Nazi Germany east across the Soviet Union; the trip to North America was to have completed their escape. But the family had no legal authorization to enter the United States, so on arrival in Seattle they were locked up as illegal immigrants. They were eventually released, and Yudita later Anglicized her first name, becoming Judith. A second name change when she married made her Judith Shklar, and by that name she became the first woman ever to receive tenure in Harvard’s government department and one of the most formidable political theorists of her generation.

Shklar’s work focused on cruelty. Her ideas offer a window onto the morality of the current crisis at the U.S.-Mexican border. Cruelty, in Shklar’s conception, is the deliberate infliction of pain or humiliation by a strong party on a powerless one in order to cause anguish or fear. The policy of separating children crossing the border from their parents seems to qualify. The immigrants are in a powerless position—the children especially so. Given that the Trump administration has defended the policy as a deterrent—a warning to other would-be immigrants—it is safe to conclude that the families’ anguish is a deliberate goal of the policy, rather than merely a byproduct. And although Shklar focused on the infliction of physical pain, her analysis extends to the profound emotional and psychological pain that the forced family separations impose. 


Shklar saw cruelty as not just a matter of personal immorality but also as a leading threat to liberal democratic government. A precondition for liberalism, in her view, was the ability of citizens to live free from fear and humiliation. Fear is the condition of the person subject to arbitrary power, the refugee on the run from violence, the parent with no food for his or her child. People in these circumstances

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