Monday, February 10, 2020

On Banning Books: Remarks to the GHAPS Board of Education

Below are the remarks I gave at the public comment portion of the Grand Haven Area Public Schools Board of Education meeting tonight.


Thank you, Board of Education, for the opportunity to share a few thoughts with you. My name is Jared Cramer. I’m a class of 2000 graduate of Grand Haven and for the past ten years I have been the priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church here in town. In just a couple years I look forward to enrolling my young daughter at Rosy Mound elementary school.

I’d like to start by sharing a story with you. When I was a child, probably no more than eight years old, I decided I would read through the Bible from cover to cover. Much of it was familiar. I read through the familiar creation stories, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah’s ark and the great flood, Abraham and Sarah… But then I came across a story I hadn’t heard in Sunday School. I read how after Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham’s nephew, Lot, went to live in a cave with his daughters. His daughters thought they would never have children and so both of them got their father intoxicated and then slept with him, trying to get pregnant.

I came into the kitchen and told my mom about this strange story had I just read in the Bible. She said, “That’s not in the Bible.” I handed her my paperback New International Version and she read the story herself, her face flushing. She then told me that maybe I should wait until I’m a little older before I read Scripture for myself.

I share this story to underline two key points. The first is that there is a good amount of literature that has some sexual content—including some much more graphic content in the Bible, as I later discovered!—and only reading a few lines of any work does not give you a sense of context, of how those lines function in the larger narrative arc. Yes, the Bible contains some content which is the garbage of humanity… But it also tells the story of how God can always redeem even the garbage of this world. Second, my mother did what any parent should do: she took an active interest in what I was reading and, when she thought I was reading something beyond my years, she made a decision for me, her child.

I was distraught a few weeks ago to receive screenshots of posts from a Facebook Group called “Grand Haven Conservative Parents.” One of the leaders of that group posted on December 20, 2019, how someone went through the school library catalogs to come up with a full list of LGBTQ-themed books at every school in our district. From that list, some books were pulled out which have some more explicit portions and those books are now being used to argue for censorship and restrictions over literature in our district libraries.

A few things I would encourage the Board to pay attention to. Note where this began—with a concern about LGBTQ content. This began with a list of books that included something as simple as a child having two dads—a story a kid in our district who might happen to have two dads deserves to read in their school library. The book by Michael Barakiva from which selections have been read is not the smut it has been made out to be through the quotation of a few sections. it is a book that has been praised by numerous serious reviewers of young adult literature. Would the content be appropriate for all ages of children? Of course not. Children mature at different rates. For teenagers who are trying to understand who they are as a gay person, though, it has been reviewed as a deeply meaningful book.

There is already a professional organization who helps parents and librarians determine the appropriate age for children and young adult literature. It’s called the Children’s and Young Adults’ Cataloging Program (CYAC) at the Library of Congress. They use experts in the field of children’s literature and evaluate many aspects of that literature to help with cataloguing, including identifying the proper age of the audience. Our school librarians are also trained in knowing what literature is appropriate for which age group. We need to trust our professionals.

I want to applaud the options being offered by the district at this meeting, where parents can see any books their child has checked out, either through a weekly email or logging into their account. Parents can give a list of books they don’t want their child to checkout. All of these underscore what is truly essential—parents must take responsibility for engaging with their own kids (just like my mother did with me). They should talk with their kids about the books they read, what is in them and what their kids think about it. Lord knows, when my daughter is older, I would much rather she goes to the library to read literature with sexual content than some of the other options out there. Banning books from curious teens only sends them to other darker places.

But most importantly, a small group of parents must not be allowed to make these decisions for other children and teenagers by insisting that their standards should supersede those of library professionals. No group of parents should have the ability to say that stories that feature LGBTQ characters making out are somehow dangerous to teenagers—particularly when those books can be a lifeline to a queer teenager who feels alone and marginalized.

Furthermore, even though it might raise a few eyebrows, we need to be clear that sexual content in young adult literature—gay or straight—helps adolescents form a healthy and positive sense of their sexual identity. Judy Blume, for example, has been named one of the most frequently challenged authors of the 21st century by the American Library Association for their inclusion of content including menstruation, wearing a bra for the first time, and masturbation... and yet her books have meant the world to young adolescents. Authentic portrayals that teens can relate to when it comes to healthy sexuality as an adolescent are already hard to find. We shouldn’t make it worse.

I hope the school board will continue to empower our librarians. And I hope that parents that are concerned won’t take the path of banning books—even for their own kids. Instead, I hope they’ll focus on engaging more deeply with their own kids as they grow and develop. Thank you.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Against Those Who Would Harm LGBTQ Students in Grand Haven

Below is my column in today's Grand Haven Tribune, available at their website online here. It is also reprinted below.

There is a quiet parents’ movement afoot in Grand Haven right now—and it is one that could do irreparable harm to our kids.

A small group of parents who goes by “Grand Haven Conservative Parents” has quietly been working to formulate a plan to get any books which engage with LGBTQ characters, themes, or issues to be removed from school libraries or kept behind a desk with the requirement of a parent’s note to be checked out. One of those parents has now approached the Grand Haven Area Public School Board at a recent meeting to make this request formally and publicly. The School Board has not made a decision and is taking the time to research the issue.

First, we need to be very clear that this movement is not just about some books that some parents might find objectionable. This movement is an attempt to erase the reality of the LGBTQ students who attend Grand Haven schools. As Vanessa Perez, a part of the National Council of Teachers of English LGBTQ advisory committee, makes clear, “Declaring a book with LGBTQ characters inappropriate for school is the same as declaring LGBTQ students and families inappropriate for school. It sends the message, ‘You don’t belong here. We’ll remove this book and we’ll try to remove you, too.’”

Last year, the Journal of Adolescent Health published a study that found that 24% of suicides between the ages of 12 and 14 were completed by LGBTQ kids. Data from the United States Department of Health and Human Services indicates that LGBTQ youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth. Another study from the National Center for Transgender Equity found that LGBTQ youth are almost five times more likely to have actually attempted suicide. A study published in Pediatrics found that 40% of transgender adults have reported attempting suicide with 92% of those adults attempting before the age of 25.

And, for a conservative area like our own, it is important to note that LGBTQ youth who come from families that reject their sexual or gender identity are 8.4 more times likely to attempt suicide than their LGBTQ peers who report low or no level of family rejection. That data also comes from the United States Department of Health and Human Services. For all LGBTQ students—and particularly those who do not come from supportive families—easy access to these books are essential.

When LGBTQ students have access to positive and realistic portrayals—both in fiction and in nonfiction—of characters who resemble them, it helps to work against the cultural shame and provide a pathway to self-acceptance and understanding. Finally, they see someone whose thoughts, feelings, and identity resonate with their own. They can begin to develop a health understanding. And just as middle school libraries contain books that help adolescent straight and cis-gender students understand their own sexuality, there must be resources for LGBTQ adolescents as well.

Ingrid Conley-Adams, a librarian who helps schools serve their LGBTQ population, insists upon the importance of keeping these books in the library. “Left to their own devices,” she says, “Students and young people (queer or otherwise) may interact with information that can be incorrect or even toxic.” A study by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) found that when LGBTQ students receive exposure to these themes, they have higher attendance, GPAs, and a stronger sense of safety in the classroom. That means, not only do rates of suicidality decrease but they actually thrive in school.

The plan of these parents to segregate these books to behind a desk and require parental permission will be damaging to an already at-risk population because it sends a message that who they are as a LGBTQ teenager is not fit for public knowledge, that it must be hidden away. It exacerbates shame and will certainly increase the risk of suicidality. To require a parent’s permission will have a tremendously negative impact upon the questioning teen whose parents are not supportive of their identity.

For over a hundred years, there have been movements to ban or limit access to certain books. Everything from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to the novels of Judy Blume have been deemed by some to be inappropriate for students. That is why, since 1982, the American Library Association has promoted “Banned Book Weeks” a campaign which “stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them.”

Let’s not marginalize our children or teenagers simply because their gender or sexuality doesn’t line up with the established views of a certain segment of society. Let’s keep information full and open. Let’s trust our librarians to curate books appropriately. And let’s send a message to all the children and teenagers in Grand Haven that no matter who you are, no matter your gender identity or sexuality, you will not be shamed out of our community. And you certainly must not be shamed out of your own school library.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Some Election Year Resolutions

Below is my column from today's edition of the Grand Haven Tribune. It is also online at their website here.

As we approach New Year’s Eve tonight, many people will commit themselves to new resolutions, commitments they have made to change something about their lives for the better.

This New Year brings, I believe, one of the most significant presidential elections our country has ever faced. Furthermore, the elections in the United States legislature in the fall of 2020 will have a significant impact on the presidency of whoever wins in November. So, I’d like to make some suggestions for resolutions in this presidential election year, commitments I hope all of us can make as our country decides which way forward we want to go.

First, pay attention to facts and reject outrageous claims. While a politician’s loose relationship to the truth is hardly a new idea, it has advanced significantly over the past several years. And I’m not just speaking about our current president and his nearly 16,000 false or misleading claims since he took office. In December, Presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren made bold claims about fellow candidate, Mayor Pete Buttiegieg, and his being beholden to billionaires because of a fundraiser held in a wine cave. An opinion piece in The Washington Post clarified the actual nature and content of the event, the piece written by one of the attendees. But still, there is the tendency of candidates on all sides of the political spectrum to distract from policy with wild suggestions and theories which demean their fellow candidates. Don’t play into it.

Second, try to listen more carefully to those with whom you disagree. And I don’t mean listen so that you are ready to respond and prove them wrong. Rather, listen until you understand their perspective and point of view well enough to argue it yourself. The fact that so many people were shocked by the election of Donald Trump underscores how little broad segments of the population actually listened to the concerns and perspective of those who voted Trump into office. Maligning or mocking his supporters now will do nothing to advance your own cause. Seeking to understand—and, dare I say, empathize with—the supporters of your political opponent, however, can help you see the broader picture.

Third, reject attempts to scapegoat. This is, once again, an approach that all sides of the political spectrum have employed. We’ve seen it most heinously these past years in the scapegoating of immigrants when it comes to questions of violent crime and the economy (even though study after study has shown immigrants are far less likely to commit violent crimes and are actually a driving force in making the economy better). Democrats have also used the scapegoat method when they have failed to mount a persuasive campaign. Look to the actual reasons for the problems you identify instead of the easy group or person to blame. (See the first resolution on focusing on facts to help with this).

Fourth, and most importantly, show up and vote. If I was in charge of Facebook or Twitter, I would make it a rule that if you were eligible to vote and sat out the election, you have lost all rights to complain in social media about the state of our country. Data from Statista indicates that for the most recent national election, we rank eleventh behind other countries, with just over 55% of people participating in the 2016 Presidential Election. By contrast, 87.2% participated in the last election in Belgium. Along with this resolution, I would encourage every American to stand up to attempts by any power to make it more difficult for a citizen to vote. Everyone’s voice should be counted. 

As a Christian priest, I’d also like to make a suggestion to those who, like me, follow Jesus as their Lord. Remember what Jesus taught us, everything in the law and the prophets rests on love of God and love of neighbor. Ask yourself constantly during this election year if the way you are behaving, the political opinions you are staking out, and the words which come out of your mouth are advancing love of God and love of neighbor. If not, you may be falling into the trap of self-righteousness—and our Lord had very little patience for the self-righteous.

The American experiment has made much about this country great—but we have also several times throughout history missed our guiding principles and gone down paths which were dark, hate-filled, and contrary to the ideals of liberty and justice for all people. If the American voter will seek to be committed to principles of robust and respectful engagement with the election cycle, maybe our candidates can be encouraged as well. If they will not, then start asking if there is someone else you should support who can actually carry our country forward into a future that is free, fair, and just for every person. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The difficulty of truly seeing Jesus in Advent

Below is my column in today's edition of the Grand Haven Tribune, also online here.

This past Sunday evening, our church hosted an ecumenical offering of “Advent Lessons & Carols.” I was blessed by the area pastors who joined in reading Scripture, the sense of unity as Christians from a variety of denominations gathered together for song and reflection. And the music, offered by Diane Penning alongside of our own music ministry, was transformative.

One song in particular struck me as deeply meaningful. It is “Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” published in 1934 by Robert MacGimsey. Though he was not a black composer, MacGimsey spent much of his early years in Louisiana around the African-American community and he wrote the song in the style of an African-American spiritual. One of the greatest renditions is the one offered by Mahalia Jackson (you can easily find it on YouTube), but Diane’s offering was also tremendously powerful.

If you’ve never heard the song, it centers around the sadness and feeling of penitence that we did not recognize the Christ child when he came. In the third stanza, the singer mourns, “Just seem like we can’t do right, look how we treated you. But please, sir, forgive us, Lord – We didn’t know ’twas you.”

As Diane sang, I was reminded how this truth is one of the fundamental teachings of the Advent season, as Christians prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. The religious and powerful in the first century didn’t see that it was God incarnate in that small baby crying in the stable next to the inn. The religious and the powerful didn’t see that it was God incarnate in the itinerant carpenter’s son turned preacher from Nazareth. In fact, the religious and the powerful found the way he challenged accepted beliefs and practices, found the very people he spent time with, so unsettling that they conspired to torture and kill him.

If we remember this truth, every single one of us will hopefully take a moment in this season to pause and reflect. Because missing the coming of Christ in the child Jesus was not just an historical accident. It is something Jesus himself warned that religious people would continue to do. At the last judgment, when the Lord sends the accursed to eternal fire, he is very clear about why, “Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’” (Matthew 25:44–45)

Jesus is saying that when we see someone who is hungry or thirsty, we are seeing Christ himself. When we see someone naked or sick, we are seeing Christ himself. And, even more troubling perhaps for American Christians who like their Jesus respectable, when we see someone in prison, we are seeing Christ himself. And when we see someone who is a stranger – the Greek word being xenos, literally meaning foreigner and the same word from which we get xenophobia – we are seeing Christ himself. What we do for someone in any of these situations is an action done to our Lord Christ.

When we wrestle honestly with this verse, we will have to acknowledge that there are many times Christ has come to us and, like the singer in the song, “We didn’t know it was you.”

Everett Patterson’s picture,
called “Jose y Maria,”
reimagines the Holy Family
in contemporary times.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite Advent images, by comic-book artist Everett Patterson called “Jose y Maria.” In it, the artist reimagines the Holy Family in contemporary times. Joseph has an autoworkers shirt on with the name “José” on it and is trying to find change to make a call as he looks for lodging. A pregnant Mary is wearing a sweatshirt for “Nazareth High School” and sits on a broken horse ride outside the convenience store. The rain pours down upon them and they both look worried and unsure of what is coming next.

They also look tremendously easy to ignore.

Advent is a beautiful time of the year, a time of traditions and a growing sense of joy. It’s a time when people are often moved to give generously of their time and treasure to those who are in need. I’d encourage you, though, during this season to take it one step further. Spend some time in self-examination and ask where you may be blind to the presence of Jesus in this world.

Who is the hungry person whose causes you to avert your eyes? Who is the person struggling with serious health issues while our country fails to create meaningful change in a broken health care system? Who is the person in prison, wishing someone cared and that they didn’t just feel like they had been warehoused by society and forgetting? Who is the immigrant, living in constant fear because the only choice was a dangerous journey to live undocumented in America or certain poverty or even death back home?

Maybe you have trouble seeing Jesus in that liberal priest who writes those columns that annoy you. I know I’m broken and can be mistaken, but can you see that I’m trying?

I know I sometimes have trouble seeing Jesus in people with whom I disagree, but I try to let God’s grace continue to challenge me in that area. Maybe you can, too?

Each person, no matter what, carries inherent dignity and worth with the image of God pressed into their very soul. And each person you meet this Advent season is an opportunity for you to see Jesus in a new way, and find yourself changed in the process.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Support for faith-based responses to mass incarceration

Below is my column in the November 6 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune. You can see it on the Tribune's website online here.

There are 2.2 million people in our country’s nations and jails – a 500 percent increase over the past 40 years. We incarcerate a greater proportion of our own citizens than any other nation in the world. Just behind us are El Salvador, Rwanda and Russia. The amount of people incarcerated in Michigan alone is about the same as the entire prison population in Canada.

The reasons behind the increase in mass incarceration in our country have been well documented. The “War on Drugs” of the 1980s turned substance abuse problems into a criminal issue – meaning we went from a little less than 41,000 people in prison for drug-related offenses in 1980 to nearly 453,000 in 2017. The National Resource Council has also reported that nearly half of the growth in state prison populations was due to an increase in time served for offensives, the results of harsher mandatory sentencing laws and the reduction of releasing people on parole.

These mass incarceration rates have had a devastating effect on minority communities. According to the Sentencing Project, “Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men, and Hispanic men are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated as non-Hispanic white men.”

Michigan Radio is in the midst of a series called “Life on the Inside,” exploring what life is like in prisons in our state. At the beginning of the series, they spoke with historian Heather Ann Thomson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her book about the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971, “Blood in the Water.” Thompson noted that our society lacks clarity on the purpose of prisons. One view is that the goal of prisons is to rehabilitate people, to enable them to return to society as law-abiding and contributing citizens. Another view, however, is that the purpose of prisons is punishment, the way in which the state enacts vengeance upon those who have transgressed our laws.

This same confusion of purpose exists in Christianity. A recent poll commissioned by Prison Fellowship found that 88 percent of practicing Christians believed the primary goal of the justice system should be “restoration for all involved: the victim, the community and the person responsible for the crime.” However, in that same poll, 53 percent believed that it is important to make an example out of someone for certain crimes, even if that means punishing them more harshly than the crime deserves.

Jesus told those who follow him that whatever they do for those in prison, they do for Jesus himself. That is why Christians in the 18th century, particularly evangelicals and Quakers, worked so hard to change the prison system that existed in that time. Many Christian leaders in our own time have called for prison reform – not only to deal with the racial disparities in rates of incarceration, but also reform to the methods used in our prisons. The United Nation guidelines say that keeping an individual in solitary confinement for more than 15 days is a form of church. Our country holds more than 80,000 people in solitary confinement, sometimes even for years or decades.

One of the most meaningful organizations I have worked with in our area is Humanity for Prisoners (HfP). Formed in 2001, when Doug Tjapkes sought to help the wrongfully convicted Maurice Carter, the organization has received nearly 8,000 requests for assistance in 2019 alone. HfP focuses on personalized problem-solving services for those who are incarcerated. They have been on the forefront of prison reform issues in our own state, calling out inhumane practices and connecting people who have often suffered horrible abuse with professionals who can help them.

But they do small things, as well. They help those who are incarcerated find and communicate with their families. They help inmates find medical treatment and, at times, appropriate hospice treatment. They do significant advocacy for prisoners with disabilities or other impairments. They help people meet with the parole board. This agency is quite literally the hands and feet of Jesus to those who are incarcerated.

I served on the board of the organization for several years, including as treasurer, and the most meaningful thing I saw over and over again was prisoners contributing their own hard-won funds to the work of HfP. They know the difference this organization makes.

One of the most beautiful things about HfP is that they support people because they are people, because they recognize the dignity and humanity which each person has, no matter how broken their life has become. That’s not like other faith-based organizations, which often only help people of their own faith. For example, in 2006, a federal judge revoked taxpayer funding to the above-noted Prison Fellowship because they offered evangelical participants better housing, food and activities with nothing similar offered to those who were not religious.

It is essential for more Christians to learn about the moral stain that mass incarceration is upon our country. We need more Christians who are willing to stand up and be advocates for those who are incarcerated – seeking a system that is not purely punitive, but one that is restorative, one that helps people rediscover the image of God upon their soul. Learn. Advocate. Speak up.

And support the work of organizations like Humanity for Prisoners. They are doing the work of Jesus day in and day out. And, if you want to change the lives of those who are incarcerated for the better, a good start is helping them rediscover and claim their own humanity.

About the writer: The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at www.sjegh.com.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

New Proposal Would Devastate Mental Health in Michigan

Below is my column for the October 2 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune, published on their website online here.

When my wife was working on her graduate degree in counseling, I remember talking with her just a few weeks into her first semester and saying, “You are already way ahead of the small amount of pastoral counseling I learned in seminary.” Now, several years into her private practice, she makes a profound impact upon the lives of numerous people every day—particularly young people. She’s a Rockstar. And I am very aware as a pastor to refer people out to trained mental health professionals when what they need goes beyond what I, as a priest, can offer.

I say this at the outset to be clear that my own household has skin in the game, that we have a vested interest in a proposal currently working its way through the State of Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA). The essence of the proposed change is that it would remove the ability of Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs) to diagnose clients or use the techniques of psychotherapy. The result of that is that no one visiting an LPC would be able to be reimbursed by their insurance company—as diagnosis is a requirement for insurance reimbursement. Furthermore, by not being able to diagnose or use the techniques of psychotherapy, LPCs would be put in breach of their own ethical guidelines.

According to LARA’s statement on these proposed changes, they believe the issue is that current statutory law does not actually give LPCs the ability to diagnose and use psychotherapy techniques and previous attempts to update the law to do so have failed in the State of Michigan legislature. State House Rep. Aaron Miller (R - District 59) has introduced a bill, HB 4325, which would preserve the scope of the LPC profession and how they operate, solving the statutory issue so that LARA’s concerns with statutory limitations can be resolved. This should be an easy area of bipartisan cooperation.

It is essential that HB 4325 pass and is signed into law as soon as possible. James Blundo, the executive director of the Michigan Mental Health Counselors Association believes that if the scope of practice for LPCs is limited, it would impact 10,000 counselors in our state and leave up to 150,000 clients without access to mental health services. As Blundo noted in an interview with Detroit Fox 2, “We work in hospitals and state government and private practice. All of that would come to a halt. There are going to be a lot of people who will be without a therapist and some of them are in crisis.”

While I appreciate LARA’s concerns about the statutory issues that relate to the scope of practice for LPCs, the way to solve this issue is not to adopt a rule change that explicitly eliminates a profession from the mental health field. No one has claimed that LPCs are not qualified to provide excellent mental health care. No lawsuits—that I know of—have been filed arguing that their practice is outside the bounds of Michigan Statute. For an agency to hold 10,000 counselors and 150,000 clients hostage in order to force the legislature to pass this law is a dangerous move, one that could have profound repercussions upon those struggling with mental health issues. Sarah Lewakowski, executive director of Mosaic Counseling, a nonprofit agency serving Ottawa County, stated, “Approximately one third of the therapists on our panel are LPCs and LLPCs. I cannot imagine the clients that we refer to them not being able to receive the therapy that they desperately need. Many are suicidal. Many are children. The fact that the solution to this issue has come to this is reckless and inhumane. Surely, our political leaders can come up with an alternate resolution that does not displace thousands from the mental health care that they deserve and need.”

A public hearing on this proposed rule change is scheduled for October 4 in Lansing. It will be at 9 am at the G. Mennen Williams Building Auditorium, 525 W. Ottawa Street, Lansing, MI 4889. It is essential that citizens show up at that hearing and demand a delay in the rule change so that legislators can come up with an appropriate statutory remedy. There is no benefit to taking away access to mental health when we already have a shortage of mental healthcare providers in this state.

It is also essential that citizens contact their State Representative and State Senator to urge a swift passage of HB 4325 as well, so that mental health care will never again be held hostage by a regulatory agency in our State.

The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at www.sjegh.com.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Our Cruel Immigration System

Below is my column from the August 15 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune, available on their website online here.

The cruelty was the point.

Last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided seven plants, owned by five companies in six different cities, rounding up nearly 700 workers they believe were undocumented immigrants. What captured the attention of our country, though, were the images of children crying, not knowing where their parents were or what had happened to them.

Anyone who could use a calendar would know that these raids were planned on the first day of school in Mississippi, when kids were going back to class with excitement to meet new friends and learn new things. However, doing this raid on the first day of school to emotionally traumatize families and further discourage illegal immigration was precisely the goal. To wit, the cruelty was the point.

Our President has already been clear that he views practices like family separation as a deterrent to undocumented immigration—the immense emotional pain is precisely the point. The Acting Director of ICE, Matthew Albence, defended his agency’s raids, saying, “The parents or the individuals that are breaking the law are ultimately the ones that are responsible for placing their children in this situation.”

Wrong, Director Albence. Your choice, and the choice of your administration, to enforce our broken immigration laws in this way is what placed children in this situation.

First off, let’s be clear, illegal immigration is a crime—but it’s either a civil violation or a misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances. Even the higher-level crime of misdemeanor is not a serious crime in our country’s statutes. It is on the same level as public intoxication, vandalism, or shoplifting. To respond to a crime like a misdemeanor by taking a child’s parents away is cruel and unusual punishment.

Interestingly enough, hiring an undocumented immigrant is a felony—a much more serious crime. However, to date, no one from any of the companies raided has been charged with a felony. None of them have had their children taken away. In the past year, more than 120,000 people have been prosecuted for illegal entry into our country. How many employers were prosecuted? Eleven. How many were sentenced to prison time? Three.

Let’s be clear. Our entire enforcement of immigration law is predicated upon punishing those who have no power—they are easy targets. Those who benefit from undocumented labor—and often taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of the undocumented—are rarely held to account. And so those who commit misdemeanors are carted off to jail while their children come home crying to empty houses while those who commit felonies not only don’t face any significant penalty but continue to profit from our broken immigration system and the way it enables the oppression of those who are desperate for a better life for their kids and their families.

This is why the United Food and Commercial Workers union which represents workers at plants which were raided has condemned the raids. Rather than fixing our immigration system so that it is easier for those who are looking for jobs to safely and legally come to our country, our current administration has increased the failures (yes, the failures) of the Obama administration when it comes to addressing issues with immigration law. One of the few penalties any of these plants has seen actually was a $3.75 million dollar settlement between Koch Foods and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The issue wasn’t the hiring of undocumented workers, but was charges of sexual harassment, racial and national origin discrimination, sexual comments and touching of Hispanic workers, and retaliation against Hispanic workers who spoke up.

Our current immigration system is cruelly and brutally hurting our fellow human beings, people who—just like many of us—are trying to build a better life. People who have fled violence and poverty in the hope of their kids growing up hungry and not winding up dead in the street—choices I hope no person ever has to make. Increasing the failed deportation policies of the Obama administration, and making it even worse through practices of family separation, is not the answer to this moral stain upon our country.

The answer is to finally have an entirely reworked immigration system where people can safely and legally come to our country and do what immigrants have always done—make America a better place to life. And the answer is to hold to account those companies, governmental agencies, and other societal powers which continue to oppress and dehumanize immigrants.

The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at www.sjegh.com.