Would you make a thousand-mile, perilous journey in the hope of saving yourself or your children? I don’t know if I would have the courage. But I have a story in my own family history that comes close to the kind of desperation felt by the immigrant families pouring across our southern border.
During the Nazi occupation of France in World War II, Jews in Paris were being rounded up and sent to concentration camps. My father’s uncle was forced to make an unthinkable choice: faced with the prospect of certain death for his family, he and his wife made the heart-breaking decision to take their young daughter out into the forest and leave her there. How desperate must a parent be to do such a thing? I can’t even begin to imagine. But they made the awful calculation that she stood a better chance of survival there in the forest by herself than with the family at home in Paris where they would likely be rounded up and eventually exterminated. And they were right. Both parents were sent to a concentration camp and murdered. But my father’s cousin did survive, and eventually made her way to the United States (how? I don’t know, I never learned that part of the story) where she made a life. She was a lovely, brave woman. But she was haunted by the memories of her early years.
Maybe it’s because I have seen the suffering that humans can inflict on one another that I feel compassion for the anguish that is leading families to make their journey from Central America to the United States. And their story is no different from the story of my father’s cousin, or the other immigrants who came to America after the war, or the millions of other refugees throughout history who have been forced to leave their homes because of war, famine, or poverty.
If you’re unclear about the dire situation that refugees are fleeing, here is a summary (For a more detailed explanation of the situation, listen to this podcast.): Most of the people being caught up in this latest immigration crackdown are not Mexican citizens, although they are indeed entering the US through our border with Mexico. Most of the people coming here are coming from Central America—primarily Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. They are not coming here because they are looking for the American dream. (They’re not even coming here to steal your below-minimum wage jobs, or to take advantage of our not-free, not universal health care!) They are coming here out of desperation to escape crime, poverty, and rampant corruption. In short, they are leaving their homes because staying would mean certain death. El Salvador is the murder capital of the world (it actually has a homicide rate higher than every country currently in the midst of an armed conflict except Syria). Roving members of armed gangs and drug cartels are terrorizing citizens. So people are making a desperate journey looking for hope. And it is indeed perilous. Most don’t make it here. Many are arrested on the way; many are forced through hardship or hunger to turn back. Hundreds die every year in the attempt to reach safety.
When I think about the despair that a father must feel to cause him to bundle up his family with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and leave home to find a safer life somewhere else, it breaks my heart.
When I think about how terrified a mother must be to attempt a thousand-mile perilous trek across a desert and through hostile towns while evading police, criminals and opportunists in the hope that she and her children may eventually reach safety, it leaves me grieved beyond words.
And when I think that a family might, against the odds and the obstacles, finally reach a safer place, only to have the government of that place arrest the parents, take their children, and lock them up in a detention center with no hope and no mechanism for ever reuniting the families, I am shocked, horrified, sickened, and mad as hell.
When a person is arrested in ordinary circumstances, their belongings (whether it’s a purse, a watch, a wallet, or whatever) are taken, logged, and safely stored. When the person is eventually released, their personal property is returned to them. In fact there’s a whole process and procedure set up to make sure that a person’s possessions are returned to them. But not when the person arrested is an immigrant. Our President’s administration instituted a new inhumane “zero tolerance” policy with absolutely no mechanism or procedure for tracking the children being taken from their parents; these poor souls are having their children taken from them without so much as a scrap of paper for identification. In some cases the children are still in diapers unable to communicate who their parents are. There is no system for reuniting them because there was never any intention of reuniting them. Can you even begin to imagine the pain that these parents are feeling, to say nothing of the poor children? Can you imagine the sense of betrayal?
Some people are justifying our government’s actions by blaming the victims: they are saying that these immigrants deserve to have their children taken away because they are not very good parents. If they were good parents, the argument goes, they would never deliberately put themselves into a situation where their children might be taken away. Clearly these victim-blamers are unaware (or maybe they just do not care) that desperate parents aren’t coming here to frolic on our beaches. These families are fleeing a terrible situation. In fact, their situation at home is worse than whatever hardship they might face in their journey or once they get here. And what do we do when they finally arrive? We steal their children.
Unfortunately, it is reminiscent of another dark period in our country’s history, when the children of slaves were taken away. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century Americans justified that cruelty by telling each other that the “negro race” doesn’t feel love for their children the way the “white race” does — their feelings were supposed to be more akin a dog whose puppies are taken away. Otherwise good people allowed themselves to be convinced that the “slave race” was less than human. Is this what we are telling ourselves now about these families from Central America: that they won’t really miss their children the way we would? Have the words “illegals” and “immigrant” and all of the angry rhetoric so de-humanized these people in the minds of ordinary Americans that we are somehow okay with taking away their children in the name of law and order?
It is beyond my ability to comprehend the fact that our government is willing to heap more misery on these poor souls at precisely the time when they need our compassion the most. The United States was once a country that (although admittedly not always as willing as they ought to have been) took in those seeking refuge and gave them the opportunity to build a life. We have a statue in New York Harbor that reminds us of our once-compassionate nature. How is it that we are now a country that has zero tolerance for the plight of our less fortunate neighbors?
We have become heartless and unspeakably cruel. And my heart breaks for these families.