WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono is frustrated.
During a press conference with Democratic lawmakers Tuesday, the Hawaii Democrat had a stern message for President Donald Trump about his administration’s policy of separating children from their parents after they’ve been accused of illegally crossing the border.
“Mr. President, have a heart for a change,” Hirono said. “Take that goddamn pen of yours and do away with this horrendous inhumane policy of yours that rips children from the arms of their parents.”
Trump ultimately signed an executive order Wednesday that he said will curb the practice. It apparently will have no immediate impact, however, on the more than 2,300 children currently separated from their parents.
But before that announcement, Civil Beat sat down with Hirono in her office on Capitol Hill this week to discuss her views on the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy toward illegal immigration, and her own experience moving to this country as a child.
She also opened up about a little-known fact about her journey to the U.S., when she left behind a 3-year-old brother. It’s a decision that still brings tears to her eyes.
“Every day he would ask from Japan, where he stayed with my grandparents, when we were coming home,” she said. “It’s very personal to me.”
The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and to eliminate redundancies.
Civil Beat: Of course this is a personal issue for you. How would this policy have affected you and your family when you came to the U.S. as a child?
Mazie Hirono: Let me preface this by saying that family unity should continue to be a guiding principle on any immigration reform. When I was working on the Senate bill in 2013 as a member of the Judiciary Committee I really pushed that idea. Why? Because immigrant families need it.
Immigrants need their families around them in order to thrive and to be happy. Who wouldn’t want to have your family around you if you are going to a whole new country? You don’t know anything. You don’t know the language and you’re just struggling. So family unity is a guiding principle, and this separation of little kids from their parents goes totally against any notion of family unity in immigration.
In my own situation, I came here with my mom and we were latchkey kids. So this really brought back what it was like when we were first here in this country in Hawaii and I didn’t know the language. I didn’t know anything.
My mother was just working hard at every low-paying job. She would go to work early in the morning and she would come home late at night. And my brother and I would go to the bus stop and wait for her to get off that bus.
So I started thinking about what it would have been like if my mother had been taken away from us. I don’t know what would have happened to us. It would not have been good. I would have been devastated. This is what’s happening to these kids.
I think part of what happens with the Republicans, too many of them, is that they lack an ability to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes to allow that empathy to guide their decisions and their positions.
CB: Why do you think that is?
Hirono: I don’t know. You should ask them. Really. These are people who had no problems taking 25 million people off of health care just like that without apparently much thought about the pain and the suffering that they would have caused.
This is why when I made my speech in July (about battling cancer) I said, “Where is that compassion that you’ve been showing me?”
I suppose that when they know the individual they can do it. But when it comes to thinking about millions of people they’re going to harm that doesn’t seem to translate. I just don’t get it.
CB: Why should what’s happening on the mainland U.S., particularly at our borders, matter to people living in Hawaii, a state where one in five people is an immigrant? How does this affect them?
Hirono: We are a state of immigrants. I don’t think that it was that long ago, for example, when a lot of our grandparents came to work on the plantations. A lot of them were single men, and they wanted to have a family. There were many women who came to Hawaii as picture brides.
That idea of having people around you, who can support you and who can love you, is an important human aspect. That’s part of life. And that’s why people can relate to it.
And we still have waves of immigrants who have come into Hawaii still within their lifetime, I’m sure they remember. The Filipino immigrants. The Korean immigrants. We have celebrated 100 years of the arrival of the Filipinos, the Okinawans and the Japanese. It’s not that far in our own memories about how important it was to have our families.
In my own case I had to leave a younger brother. My mother left my younger brother in Japan, and he was only 3 years old at the time. She brought the two older kids — me and my brother — because we could go to school. She could not be at home to take care of us. We had to be able to go to school.
So I remember my younger brother, every day he would ask from Japan where he stayed with my grandparents when we were coming home.
It makes me sad thinking about it now. And it took us another two years for my mother to have her son join us. It’s very personal to me.
CB: Given your personal experience do you think your voice carries more weight in this moment?
Hirono: I don’t know if it carries more weight. But I have an experiential perspective that a lot of people here don’t have. And yet if they look back to their own family histories it’s not that far back when their grandparents — or in Ted Cruz’s case his the parents — came here from another country.
For many of us we struggled. I don’t know what his life was like. But believe me, I didn’t have much material things. My mother just kept going. But I know the pain that she felt being part apart from my brother, her baby.
CB: Former First Lady Laura Bush compared what’s happening today with Japanese internment during World War II. How do you think the situation compares?
Hirono: I’m glad that Laura Bush thought that there was an analogy or a similar circumstance that impacted the Japanese-Americans. Their lives were torn apart by what happened. It was a terrible injustice. So whatever prompted her to evoke that period in our country’s history, I think, is an apt way to think about it.
When we start singling out a group for discrimination that is not what we stand for, and it usually does not turn out well for our country in terms of due process, justice, fairness. All those things are not happening on the border right now with this policy.
CB: A lot of focus right now is on the separation of children from their families. But what’s the one major immigration issue that no one is paying attention to right now?
MH: I view all of this in the context of, basically, the Republicans having a very anti-immigrant perspective.
There’s the Muslim (travel) ban, what’s happening on the borders and maybe even more anti-immigrant measures coming to the fore out of the fervent brain of Stephen Miller. I think that they really have a prejudice against immigrants.
What they can contemplate are immigrants who bring all kinds of skills, the STEM background, the STEM experiences, the STEM degrees, but never mind their families. There’s a total lack of understanding of all the people coming to this country hoping for a better life.
Not everybody has the kind of skills that many of the Republicans think our country needs. Our country needs diversity, and we in Hawaii know that. Of course my mother, she didn’t have skills, and we were able to come to this country.
You know what this country needs? This country needs people who take risks, who go to a country they know nothing about, who work hard, who provide the hands that so many companies need for a variety of jobs, and who help to strengthen our communities. A lot of people seem to forget that.
This anti-immigrant sentiment that I see in the Republicans — which by the way I don’t even call them the Republican Party anymore, it’s the Trump party — is the basis for a lot of these bills and policies and attitudes.
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