In the course of just 12 days starting in May, nearly 700 children were forcibly separated from their families at the border. Hauled off to detention centers or foster homes, these terrified and traumatized children could not be told the next time they would talk to their parents. That’s not law enforcement – it’s state-sponsored cruelty.

Cruelty, of course, is not new to border enforcement. But in the recent past, it has been the result of an overwhelmed and broken immigration system. Families could be separated and people victimized, but it was usually because of bureaucracies, bad actors and the presence of so many vulnerable migrants. This latest obscenity is intentional.

In a major shift in policy, the Trump administration wants to charge criminally all those crossing the border without authorization – a misdemeanor – rather than releasing them to await deportation. Now when families arrive seeking refuge from countries beset by violence, instead of being granted a hearing for asylum, children are now being ripped from their parents’ arms.

AN UNPRECEDENTED ESCALATION

This change represents an unprecedented escalation at the border. Under President Barack Obama, minors who arrived unaccompanied at the border– mostly teenagers escaping Central America – were detained. But at no point were young children treated like this.

The policy is not aimed at addressing the crime and violence President Trump so regularly attaches – with exaggeration – to immigration. It won’t help weed out the few migrants whose claims of asylum are bunk, or who use children to get across the border. There’s no flood of immigrants to stop.

It will only break up families who face so much hardship at home that a transcontinental journey to a strange country is their best option, and permanently scar children who have already suffered so much.

And where are the children being sent? There has been little transparency, but what we know is not comforting. It appears the new policy is shoving kids into a system without the proper resources to handle them, a recipe for overcrowding, neglect and exploitation – which is to say, more trauma for the already traumatized.

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley last weekend tried to get a better look at the conditions at one detention center for child immigrants, but was turned away by the private contractor that operates it.

Merkley did visit a processing center where young kids were kept in fenced-in areas and given foil blankets for warmth. He said officials told him the occupants were unaccompanied at the border, but that is a term the administration has started to use for all children in the system – after all, if you haul their parents away, they are unaccompanied.

NO WAY TO TREAT A CHILD

In any case, it is no way for our country to be treating children, a fact recognized by a group of U.S. senators, including Angus King of Maine. They have introduced legislation that would allow children only to be separated from their parents if they are being trafficked or abused.

The senators need to act quickly, as the number of children victimized by our government is only going to rise from here. Last month, 60 percent of immigrants crossing the border without authorization were charged criminally, without regard to breaking up families. That’s twice the usual rate, but short of the 100 percent desired by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Responding to the new policy, King said, “America cannot just live by its national values when convenient,” and he’s right.

The Trump administration has gone after immigrants who are in the country illegally without regard to circumstance, or even due process. The president has authorized immigration officials to go after even long-term residents firmly entrenched in communities, making them fearful to go to work or school. He has turned away tens of thousands of refugees. Now he is poised to do irreparable damage to thousands of families. If those aren’t your values, it’s time to speak up.