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Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is a freelance journalist covering disability rights, history and education. He writes regularly at his blog: How Did We Get Into This Mess? Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN) —  

First they came for immigrants, and let the record show, Corey Lewandowski said, “womp womp.”

David M. Perry
David M. Perry

Over the last few weeks, as stories of families being ripped apart and children locked in cages have proliferated, one thing has become very clear: If you are ever tempted to think we’ve reached the limits of cruelty from the Trump administration and its allies, think again. A report in The Wall Street Journal revealed that the Department of Homeland Security has separated a 10-year-old girl with Down syndrome from her mother and brother. Her father is a legal US resident, but she’s been sent alone to a detention facility in McAllen, Texas. Confronted with this latest outrage, former Trump campaign manager Lewandowski reacted on Fox News Tuesday by waving off the issue and cracking his little joke.

Asked on Wednesday if he wanted to apologize, Lewandowski declined and claimed his “womp womp” was intended to “mock” the Democratic strategist who raised the issue of the girl’s plight in the first place.

Lewandowski’s “joke” is just a highly visible edge of a much broader, terrifying, pattern. His callous indifference here is not a personality quirk or accident, but a necessary feature for a regime that seeks to dehumanize and destroy in their pursuit of a white nationalist agenda. It’s hopefully difficult to inspire the thousands of men and women who work for the government and in the private prison industry or the government to take babies and children away from their parents while feeling good about themselves. What kind of person can lie to a mother that they are taking their child away for a bath, then never bring them back, and still go home and feel good about their lives at the end of the day?

That kind of inhumanity requires stripping away empathy. To vote for people who enact such policies requires intense denial about the harms taking place.

The systematic destruction of immigrant families by the Trump administration is composed of thousands of such outrages. It shouldn’t take the particular vulnerability of a disabled child to inspire empathy, protest, action, and change. Like all decent people, I have been following the stories from the border with intensifying rage and searching for useful ways to act (here are some good suggestions from prison abolitionist and educator Mariame Kaba).

Still, as the father of an 11-year-old with Down syndrome, this story is hitting me hard. I find myself reeling as I imagine my child taken away from me by a hostile state, unable to process what it must be like for this terrified incarcerated child. I know the long history of forced institutionalization of disabled children in this country and around the world, especially disabled children of color, and I fear for her.

The 10-year old, whose name has not been disclosed, is far from the first disabled individual being harmed by our government’s attempt to cleanse America of its immigrants (an intention President Trump made clear with his use of the word “infest”). As numerous disability rights organizations have argued, the detention of this child is part of a pattern in which disabled children and adults, despite their particular needs and legal protections, are being abused by the state. Agents have been raiding hospitals and deporting caregivers. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents recently arrested a young man with Down syndrome at his job, despite his eligibility for protection as a DREAMer. If these particularly marginalized but sympathetic figures aren’t safe, no one is safe. No one is, in fact, safe.

Someday, I pray, this moment in our nation’s immigration history will join other outrages in our xenophobic past. We have far too many, including the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese Internment, not to mention the long history of taking children away from Native Americans and enslaved peoples. I have to believe that we will craft a better politics and better polity that will come to reject the idea that caging children is a necessary part of protecting our borders or enforcing the law.

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When that day comes, we’re going to need to turn the cold gaze of history onto this moment and take stock of who resisted, who collaborated, and who smirked and just said, “womp womp” as children were ripped from their parents’ arms.

An earlier version of this op-ed gave an incorrect name for McAllen, Texas.