“Illegals” have faces.

This is what Republicans are learning, to their chagrin, amid mounting international outrage over the new policy of separating immigrant children from their families at our southern border. For years, the party has pretended otherwise. It has denied undocumented immigrants their personhood, casting them instead as an abstract threat – rape! gangs! murder! – against anyone who makes the mistake of compassion.

Now reality is blasting through that xenophobic fiction like a comet through a sandcastle.

President Trump lies about whose fault the policy is because he has no honor. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen defends it because she has no shame. Attorney General Jeff Sessions uses Scripture to justify it because he has no soul. But none of it is a match for the agonized cries and anguished faces of little kids being torn from their families – by us. The sounds and sights are so painful, even Republicans are turning away.

“A hot mess,” said Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana.

“A tragedy,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

“A horrendous situation,” said Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

But the president digs in. “The United States will not be a migrant camp, and it will not be a refugee holding facility,” said the child abuser-in-chief Monday.

In defending this evil, he is, of course, following longtime Republican orthodoxy. Back in 2006, President George W. Bush proposed an imperfect but pragmatic immigration reform that would have hardened the border, offered a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already here and created a guest-worker program and a merit-based system for future immigrants.

“I know this is an emotional debate,” he said. “But one thing we cannot lose sight of is that we’re talking about human beings, decent human beings that need to be treated with respect.”

But that is precisely what his party wants you to lose sight of. It killed the bill, in essence, because it was insufficiently cruel.

Cruelty is easy once you deny people their personhood. You’d think human beings would understand that by now, but for some reason, the lesson never seems to take. Indeed, even before this crisis, we saw news stories of how some of those who voted for this administration were stunned to find its heavy-handed immigration tactics victimizing people they knew.

“Anybody would like to have him as a neighbor,” said a police chief in Washington state when Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested his friend Mario.

“I knew he was Mexican, but he’s been here so long, he’s just one of us,” said an Illinois woman when Carlos, a popular local restaurant manager, was taken.

A man in Indiana said he voted for the president “because he said he was going to get rid of the bad hombres. Roberto is a good hombre.” But there Roberto was, under arrest, awaiting deportation.

Like too many Americans, these people fell for the great Republican lie, its fable of the faceless Other. They found out too late that the Other lives next door. Makes you want to holler. What else did they expect?

But when you reduce human beings to the sum of your fears, when you make them less than real, when you use them as repositories for your prejudices and receptacles for your cruelties, it becomes easy to forget that people are just, well … people.

Now the lie is imploding. The attorney general bloviates, the DHS secretary parades her moral imbecility and the president deflects and denies. Yet none of it is enough to dissuade the nation from something it can see with its own shocked eyes.

Immigrant children look just like real children. They even sound like them when they cry.

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for The Miami Herald. He can be contacted at:

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