Americans pride ourselves on being a moral nation, so what do we do when our government carries out an immoral policy? How can we stand by while our government separates children, including babies and toddlers, from parents arriving at our border, often after arduous journeys, seeking asylum and a better life for their families? Isn’t that the fundamental basis of the American Dream?

Judges have ruled that this inhumane policy cannot stand, but most of the children are still apart from their parents, terrified and traumatized. The parents are rightly distraught.

The horrified reaction to this policy has been loud and bipartisan. Former first lady Laura Bush wrote: “I live in a border state. I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart. … Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children. … These images are eerily reminiscent of the Japanese-American internment camps … now considered one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.”

Mrs. Bush is not alone. Citizens, politicians, and religious and foreign leaders have spoken out against the morally bankrupt policy. Some have described it as state-sponsored child abuse. Seeing a 1-year-old bawling alone in court because the government insisted that children should not be accompanied at their hearings makes one agree with the description.

Former state Assembly Republican minority leader Kristin Olsen, a lifelong conservative who supports border security and law enforcement, asks, “Do we need to separate children from their parents to stem the tide of illegal immigration?” She answers: “Unequivocally no. Ends do not justify means.”

The official, tone-deaf and mind-boggling response from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was that the ends do justify the means. Inconceivably, Mr. Sessions turned to the Bible as the authority for the policy, citing Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Religious leaders from all faiths were upset by the biblical justification for a policy that could hardly be described as loving. It was pointed out that a verse in that same epistle proclaims, “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Love is the fulfillment of the law.” For me, the Book of Luke has the most humanitarian biblical quote about children: “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for such is the Kingdom of God.”

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has said that the policy of separating children from their parents is “contrary to the values in this country,” and former first lady Michelle Obama agreed that, “Sometimes truth transcends party.”

Coupled with the inhumanity of the actions has been what looks like utter incompetence. If you are arrested in our country, you get a receipt for your possessions. The parents at the border received no papers for their children. There is mounting evidence that the government does not know which children belong with which parents.

Besides missing its court-ordered deadline for reuniting the youngest children with their parents, our government even insisted that there was no need to reunite children with parents who had been deported because they are outside the jurisdiction of the court. A judge slapped down that absurdity and insisted the reunifications continue, but there is still no confidence that the records exist to make that happen.

We have always been a moral beacon to the world. What are we to do about an immoral act by our own government? Dag Hammarskjold, former secretary-general of the United Nations, pointed the way when he said: “In our era, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.”

We need to act, individually and collectively, writing, speaking, marching, rallying, lobbying, voting, protesting and making our voices heard.

In these dangerous times, let us remember Martin Niemoller, the prominent German anti-Nazi Protestant pastor, who spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. He wrote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

After the German atrocities of World War II, it was said, “Never again.” Engaged citizens at all levels coming together is the only way to protect and sustain the values of our country and ensure that inhumanity to fellow humans truly happens never again.

We must reunite all of the detained children with their parents. Going forward, we must ensure we have policies that prevent this from ever happening again. We must protect the values of our country and remember what truly makes us great.

Government is all of us. We are the United States of America. We are a democracy. We the people must do this.

— Bill Cirone is a retired Santa Barbara County superintendent of schools. The opinions expressed are his own.