A couple weeks ago, I took a road trip to see some old friends in Western Pennsylvania. I stopped for the night at a motel in Flatwoods, West Virginia. I was hungry after eight hours of driving, and also ready for a cocktail. I asked the desk clerk where I might get dinner and a drink in Flatwoods. The clerk replied that bars weren't open on Sunday. For dinner, she suggested I try Arby's. This was dire news.

"So there's nowhere to get a drink around here, at all?" I asked. "Or sit down for a real meal?"

"Nope, not on Sunday," she said.

Then her coworker said, "He could try that Mexican place. I think they have a bar."

"Yeah," she replied. "I've never been there, but I hear it's okay." I was in my car and on my way, pronto, dreams of a margarita (or two) dancing in my brain.

El Gallo was in a strip mall, of sorts — if a town of 277 people can have a strip mall. The restaurant was small but three of the booths were full, and folks seemed to be enjoying themselves. I sat at the bar. The bartender looked at me and acted startled. He fumbled around, handed me a menu, and went quickly back into the kitchen. A lot of chatter ensued from behind the kitchen door. One guy looked through the window at me.

"Must not get many strangers around here," I thought. The bartender came out of the kitchen and took my order. He seemed nervous. I smiled and asked for a recommendation, but he wouldn't loosen up. It was then that I realized I was wearing a black T-shirt and blue jeans. Maybe these folks thought I was from ICE? I don't know, honestly.

I do know it was an odd experience, and one that I have little doubt was a result of the accelerated aggressive actions of the Trump administration's Justice Department. Hispanic folks are living scared right now. Who could blame them for being nervous around a stranger, when representatives of our government are now routinely raiding restaurants, picking Hispanic-looking people off the street, and separating people seeking asylum in the U.S. from their children.

It's important to differentiate between the stories about "missing immigrant children" in the news and stories about parents being separated from their children. They are different situations.

The "missing" kids in question came across the border as undocumented minors. They were apprehended at the border or picked up in-country. The government sets them up in foster homes or group homes, until they can figure out what to do with them — send them back to their home countries, find them family in the states, whatever. Fifteen hundred of these roughly 7,500 young people are missing. They've either run away from their temporary homes or, as some have reported, been sold into the sex trade. It's a bad situation.

But it shouldn't be conflated with what's far worse: the administration's new policy for dealing with asylum seekers. These are not people who have sneaked into the country and been caught. These are folks, often families, who've come to the border, given their names and country of origin and applied for asylum in the U.S. Typically, they are fleeing murderous political situations in their home countries or are victims of rape and abuse and gang warfare. They have a right under international and national law to seek asylum. They've done nothing wrong. Nothing. They are literally the huddled masses, yearning to be free. What we're doing to these people is criminal.

In the past, such applicants have been sheltered or, depending on the situation, been allowed to stay in country awaiting a court date to plead their case.

Now, as a matter of policy, the United States of America is splitting the families of asylum seekers — literally taking children from their parents and putting them in shelters for undocumented children, often several states away from their parents. In effect, they are creating a whole new class of undocumented children, some as young as 18 months. They are breaking up families who have commited no crimes.

It's cruel and unusual and unAmerican — and insane. The administration says it is doing this to "discourage" other asylum seekers. This is not the policy of a great country. It is obscene. It echoes the way slavetraders treated slaves.

These people are not "animals." We are.

Bruce VanWyngarden

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