Children Last

A Minnesota native's case lays waste to U.S. cant about the drug war and child protection.

YEARS FROM NOW, when people are moved to wonder how Americans sold so many basic liberties down the river so cheaply, they will find that the lion's share of it was done in the name of protecting children and prosecuting the war on drugs. Every day brings some new effrontery. I refer you to recent proposals to link all manner of official databases in the name of making it easier to track down deadbeat dads and force him to pay up. It follows that where deadbeat dads are concerned, any discussion of privacy rights would be in poor taste. Meanwhile the U.S. continues on its merry way as one of the worst protectors of children in the developed world by countless indices--some of which are cited in the table accompanying Monika Bauerlein's cover story this week.

There is a case making headlines in Canada and Britain right now that neatly underlines the hypocrisy of both these perennial PR offensives. The story of Michael and Margaret Harmon and their now 12-year-old son, Timothy--not their real names--began in the early 1990s in Britain, a country they fled to evade the boy's abusive biological father and his family. Margaret was a U.S. citizen by birth, and they proceeded to settle in her native Minneapolis. She later married Michael, a British citizen. He got a job selling cars in Bloomington, while Margaret secured a scholarship that allowed her to go back to school. Their son, an emotionally fragile child, was able to begin putting down roots as well.

All went relatively well until July 1994, at which point local immigration officials invited Michael Harmon to the INS office, ostensibly to process some ongoing paperwork. When he presented his passport, they seized it and deported him immediately, without hearing, on the grounds of a 1982 British drug offense to which he had admitted in his immigration application. At the time Michael Harmon had been clean and sober by all accounts for 13 years; he and Margaret were well-known figures in Twin Cities recovery circles. In Britain the offense had been wiped from his record after seven years. None of this mattered to the INS, then laboring under Clinton administration deportation quotas. Off he went, and a tick was placed in the appropriate box.

The family managed to reunite a month later in Canada, where Michael was allowed entry, but Timothy was enormously traumatized--first by the apparent loss of the man he considered his father, then by the abrupt departure from his new home. According to his mother, he soon thereafter attempted suicide by dashing in front of a truck. Stranded in Canada, the family tried to gain redress through the office of Sen. Paul Wellstone. "His office lied to us," she says flatly, "and his staff handled the matter incompetently. Sen. Wellstone elected to dump the matter in the laps of the Canadians, knowing very well that my son was at great risk." (A Wellstone rep says the office did its best but couldn't get Harmon readmitted to the country.)

Going back to Britain wasn't an option in view of Timothy and Margaret's fears of her ex-husband's family, so in a last-ditch effort to keep their family together the Harmons applied for refugee status in Canada. And on Jan. 15 of this year it was granted--making her and her son, Margaret claims, the first Americans granted refugee status in another land. But even this poor excuse for a happy ending was shortly yanked away by the Canadian government's announcement that it was reserving the right to review the Immigration and Refugee Board's finding. At stake for the Canadian government is a whole raft of issues surrounding immigration and refugee status, ranging from the daunting prospect of embarrassing the American government to that of becoming the haven of choice for innumerable other refugees from the war on drugs. The case has become a cause célèbre in Toronto papers and among children and family advocates on the Internet.

The family consequently remains in a stateless limbo owing to a now 15-year-old drug offense. Their possessions, which remained behind them in Minnesota for a year after they left the country, were subsequently seized by Canadian officials, who placed a lien against family assets for the health and social services they have received as visitors to Canada. Michael Harmon has another job selling cars now, but Margaret says the family is living in poverty nonetheless. And Timothy is in a psychiatric hospital, terrified that he and his family will have to leave yet another country. He has made further suicide attempts. According to a psychiatrist's report quoted in the Jan. 15 IRB decision, "[Timothy] is under considerable stress feeling that the family may not be able to remain in Canada. He has had thoughts of killing himself because he sees himself as a problem for his mother."

BACK IN THE 1970s, after reforms in the wake of the '68 Chicago convention opened up the Democratic Party to a degree, it became fashionable to refer to the resulting "crisis of democracy"--meaning there was too damn much of the stuff and it was interfering with the manufacture of consensus. Now Cokie Roberts and her husband Steve have espied a new electronic crisis of democracy on the Internet, where, they note in a recent syndicated column, any cretin with an e-mail account can thrust his or her nose into the august proceedings of government and thereby tilt the scales of public policy. To the Robertses' ear, such a prospect "sounds like no more deliberation, no more consideration of an issue over a long period of time, no more balancing of regional and ethnic interests, no more protection of minority views." What they really mean is that this kind of direct action is the political equivalent of stealing cable TV signals. To Cokie and Steve--she the daughter and brother to two of the most promiscuous influence-peddlers Washington has ever seen, he a recently fired U.S. News pundit, both of them well-remunerated love slaves of the conventional wisdom--there is no higher sin in representative democracy than laying claim to services for which one has not paid.

 
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