As a matter of policy, agents of the U.S. government have separated thousands of children from their parents on the U.S. side of the Mexican border.

Nursing babies have been pulled out of their mothers’ arms. Young children cry themselves to sleep at night in makeshift detention centers set up in tent cities and a former Walmart.

Federal authorities have reportedly lied to parents, telling them that it will only be a brief separation, even though they know there is no plan for their reunification.

These agents are not acting on their own authority. They are taking orders right from the top — President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Last week, Sessions rationalized forcibly separating children from their families by quoting the Apostle Paul’s first-century letter to Christians in Rome, advising Americans “to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”

It’s shocking to learn that these acts are happening at all. But to have them done by agents of our own government in the name of all Americans demands that we do something besides be shocked.

About 100 Mainers did the right thing on Thursday, by protesting outside the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in South Portland as part of a National Day of Action. Along with thousands of other Americans, they registered their disapproval by exercising an essential right of Americans to freely assemble and redress grievances to their government. Some protesters were religious leaders, like the Rev. Jodi Cohen Hayashida of First Universalist Church in Auburn, delivering a message in sharp contrast to Sessions’ reading of the Scriptures. “Let’s breathe in our righteous anger,” she said. “Remember, in our country, we are not powerless. This only happens in our country if we permit it.”

The actions at the border are what happens when irresponsible campaign promises are turned into policy. Trump boasted that he would deport millions of undocumented people and he would turn the southern border into an armed camp. That being impossible, he instituted a “zero tolerance” standard, jailing anyone who crosses the border without authorization, even if they are running for their lives. When parents are arrested, their children are detained separately, which is creating a humanitarian crisis.

This has been brewing for a decade, ever since Republican extremists killed sensible immigration reform during the Bush administration. It’s grown worse since, when Congress could not pass reform and the Obama administration instituted its own cruel policies, including detaining unaccompanied minors and increasing the pace of deportations.

But the Trump administration has shocked the conscience, and history is full of examples of what to do when that happens.

In the early days of the republic, New England philosopher Henry David Thoreau spent a night in jail for refusing to pay his taxes in protest of government policies regarding slavery and the invasion of Mexico. He later published an essay known as “On Civil Disobedience,” which became an inspiration for Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Thoreau wrote: “(If the government) requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”

The Trump administration should end this terrible policy. Congress should pass comprehensive immigration reform. And good Americans, like the protesters in South Portland, should keep putting pressure on their government until it happens.

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