There are asylum seekers fleeing violence, dying trying to get to our border. And they’re dying trying to cross our border to claim asylum, and they’re dying when they do successfully cross and are placed in camps along our southern border. Camps that concentrate and confine these immigrant populations, including a large and growing number of children, in harsh conditions. They’ve come to us fleeing intolerable conditions, many of them farmers, many of them families and/or unaccompanied minors from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and other Central American countries. Many of them are children. In 2012, apprehended immigrants at the U.S.’s southern border were composed of about 10% children or families with children. Currently that number is north of 60%.
As the U.S. dramatically cuts down on the cap of the number of asylum seekers admitted per year and creates policies that make the process itself less humane and more difficult to navigate, global displacement is at record highs according to the UN Refugee Agency. 70.8 million people have been displaced from their home. Asylum claims in the United States have jumped dramatically over the last two years despite the anti-refugee rhetoric from various quarters of the country. Most of them are coming to us because there is economic and political instability in their countries of origin. There are also ongoing severe droughts in many areas. These cause food shortages and many related insecurities that contribute to the political and economic instability in the region. And, when there is economic instability and unrest, there is a rise in the rates of violence. So, these people did the only thing they could do: risk everything, their own lives, everything they’ve known, everything familiar to them, and sought out safety and asylum—a better life.
While the agricultural situation isn’t the only reason for this rise in migration to our southern border, it certianly plays an important role. The rain isn’t falling. Amazing how something so seemingly simple can cause such dramatic change. Something we take for granted suddenly just… stops. In the early part of the 20th century our own country experienced profound, massive droughts, a farming crisis, and an ensuing mass migration of the desperate, poor, and scared towards somewhere else, anywhere else, where hope still resides. And now these farmers are compelled by the same exigency. They fled the dry fields and then gang violence. They came to us to ask us for help. It makes me think of Emma Lazarus’s words inscribed at the base of the “Mother of Exiles,” and how those words still embody a vision of America that has circulated far and wide around the world:
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
And these asylum-seekers have looked to us and said, “I am suffering a tremendous amount of pain. All seems lost. I worry for my children. I am indeed tired and poor. And I was hoping you could help.”
They look to us, hard as it must be, and say, “I believe that the USA will protect those that have no protection, that yearn to breathe free. That you’ll shield those with no cover, those with no home, and I was hoping you could help.”
And when they look to us, with sadness, and say, "I am scared for my family. We don't know what to do, so we came to your light, to your door," I can’t help but think of Lazarus, of the history of human rights in this country, and about that fundamental commitment to help those in need because humans are valuable intrinsically and that value cannot be taken or given away. It is inalienable.
American history, for all of its blights and sins, has always found in its own national foundation a profound and universal belief in humanity. Attempting to live up to those ideals, to hold ourselves and the government to account, unevenly and imperfectly as we have, is more or less the history of social progress in this country. And, because we believe it, collectively, because it’s at the heart of our national ideals, they’ve come to us. Families. Mothers with their children.
And increasingly, tragically, just children. Walking, heading north, seeking help buoyed only by their own skinny legs and the strength of a distant mother’s love. Risking starvation, sexual abuse, murder, and other forms of violence, because this was the only way out they could see: the only glimmer of light in a storm-darkened sky.
It can sometimes feel like few of us believe in anything other than the exigency of our own day-to-day life. The pressing and unrelenting tasks, pressures, and obligations of our work-a-day existence can feel like far more than can be done in a given 24 hours, let alone worrying about the refugees at the southern border. And they’re often far away from us, and what can we do anyway? How much does this really effect me? And, of course, this brings to mind the philosophical problem of empathy at a removal from the actual scenes of these conditions. The children and family are somewhere else. These aren’t people I know. If a child was suffering right in front of me, I would help. But these are just news stories. That is, abstractions. Or, in Singer’s formulation, while we recognize the morality of preventing bad things from happening to people without “sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance,” i.e., when weighing the cost of getting my clothes wet to save a drowning child, few if anyone would say the sacrifice on my part is too great. Most everyone would say I’m compelled, indeed, that it’s my responsibility to sacrifice my wet clothes to save the child’s life. But, as Singer points out, the preventable death of a child at a remove of distance, of proximity, of categorization, despite a still minor individual cost, becomes somehow easier to countenance.
I think of my own daughter in times like this. She’s about as old as the young boy who drowned recently, arm around his dead father, while trying to cross a river into the U.S. to seek asylum as the mother/wife looked on. I think about my daughter, and my wife, and myself. I work backwards mentally. What would have brought me so far, to risk so much? I look at the sacrifices these mothers, fathers, and children are making, and I ask myself how desperate the situation would need to be for me to do the same. And if I was in a desperate situation like that, how far would I walk? How much would I risk to give my daughter a better tomorrow? My life, certainly. The hardest question is, how desperate would the circumstances have to become where I would have to ask my daughter to potentially sacrifice her own life: innocent, unknowing, and scared.
How desperate would things need to be that I would look at her, and know that she may die because of what I’m going to ask her to do, what we’re going to try to do, and say, “This is the only way. This is the only hope. We need help, and they will help us. I am sorry this has to happen, and I hope, with all desperation, that we make it. But we have to do this, honey, I’ve tried to think of any other way, and there isn’t one. So I need you to be strong, and I need you to be focused, and I need you to trust me, and if you lose faith in me, I need you to trust them. They will help us. And I need you to start walking. And if I don’t make it, I hope you and mom do. And if mom and me don’t make it, I hope you do. And if you don’t make it, I’m so sorry, I did everything I could do.”
When I was a child, I was picked on a lot. In one of those instances, when I was in junior high, there was a pack of about five boys that had made clear they were going to beat me up. And, after school, they stalked me on my walk home, finally catching me as I tried to sneak through yards, jump fences. Running, hiding, evading. I did everything I could do to avoid being caught, but, I was young and small. They were older and bigger than me. When they caught me, I thought they might kill me, I didn't know. You don’t really know what will happen when you’re that old in that sort of a situation. You’re just scared, alone, and unsure.
After they caught me, they threw me around in someone’s yard. Every time I would stand up, they would shove me, trip me, knock me to the ground. When I was on the ground, they would spit on me and kick me. As I was going through this, after being knocked down for the fifth or sixth time, I remember this moment when a minivan pulled up. Everyone looked to the car, and we all felt differently about it, I’m sure. But, I think we were all thinking the same thing: an adult is here. The boys no doubt thought they were about to get in trouble, and I thought I was going to be saved.
The back door of the minivan slid open, a boy jumped out and came running over to help kick me, and, as I watched between the legs of the now-laughing boys, the door slid closed, and I can still remember the sound of the minivan being put into gear. The sound of the tires crunching on the sand and debris in the road as they drove off. That little boy ran up to me like he was late for soccer practice and joined right in. This went on for maybe 20 minutes. After they’d stopped, a woman came out from her house and told everyone to leave. The boys left. And I remember the woman looked at me, and I could tell she almost said something, but then she just closed her mouth and walked back inside. The kids lazily strode down the street. And I just sat there, bloodied and snotty and tearful, and I picked up my things, put myself back together as best I could, and I walked home.
It’s hard for me to think about my mother’s face when I got home. At first I just tried not to talk about it, then I tried to lie about it, then I tried to tell a version that was less sad, less embarrassing—for me, for everyone in involved. But, finally, it all came blubbering out. And my mom’s anger, sadness, and especially her sense of betrayal when I told her makes more sense to me now. I’m sure then I thought she was sad for me (which she was) and mad at those boys (which she was). But I realize now that she also felt betrayed by knowing that two adults in our community saw a child laying on the ground, dirty and in need of care, and turned their backs.
And I think of all that now, because I think about the families, especially the children, trying to get to us so we can help them, only to be held in government facilities in inhumane conditions. Putting aside the conditions that cause these displacements, the metering policies, the asylum caps, and the political rhetoric, once asylum seekers or anyone else is within our custody, under our protection, providing humane conditions is the least we can do. And I’m not trying to say that doesn’t “cost” us something. Indeed, we may get our clothes wet, or worse. And it may not seem “fair” to us that we are under this obligation to help, that we have these ideals that mean we take care of those who reach us regardless of how they get here, why they’ve come. Principles like valuing all human life, principles that require us to do the right thing despite it not seeming “fair” can induce knee-jerk reactions that don’t speak with the voice of our better angels. Because they’re far away, they’re not “us,” they’re an abstraction, it’s easy to focus on the broad features of immigration policy or the asylum process instead of the individual human lives being affected. Indeed, small children are being locked up without adequate food, supervision, medical care, or things as basic as soap, toothpaste, or a clean diaper. Little kids are taking care of littler kids. And much of this is justified by sometimes implied and sometimes overt reference to the fact that the way they got here isn’t “fair,” isn’t through legitimate avenues. Nevertheless, when our own Justice Department goes to the Ninth Circuit Court and is asked, “[the] common understanding [is] that if you don’t have a toothbrush, you don’t have soap, you don’t have a blanket, it’s not safe and sanitary. Wouldn’t everybody agree to that? Do you agree to that?” the response from our Justice Department attorney seemed a lot more like going back inside and closing the door on a child in need than it did justice.
Sarah B. Fabian, representing the DOJ before the Ninth Circuit, replied, after dissembling, that, no, in fact, “those things aren’t required.” She notes that children aren’t intended to be held in these facilities for the long term, so in such short-term cases, diapers, toothpaste, soap, and blankets are not required. But, as the judges point out, this is not the case. Children have been held for extremely long periods of time in these facilities, and, in one reported instance, hadn’t had a clean diaper in two weeks. The conditions are bad, “appalling” according to the UN, according to independent journalists, and according to the Trump administration’s own Department of Homeland Security. So while Fabian may be arguing an interpretation of the terms of the agreement that was being examined during this court case, it doesn’t apply to the actual conditions being experienced. After being further questioned by the judges on the baseline definition for “safe and sanitary,” Fabian concludes her argumentation by stating unequivocally that “safe and sanitary” doesn’t have “independent meaning” and is, therefore, unenforceable. And all I can hear is the slow crunching of sand crushed between rubber tires and asphalt as that van rolled away.
We have to treat people who come to us for help better. There is a crisis at the southern border, that is unquestionable. And refugee crises are occurring all over the world. Estimates about the effects of enduring climate change on human displacement is staggering and heart breaking and indicates this will continue to get worse, not better. We need to pull our attention and resources into sorting out this situation, but we need to remember not to give up on our fellow human beings, inside our borders and beyond. This is a moral outrage, but the outrage is not loud enough, and it’s not being wedded to a clear moral outrage at actions done by a government that is itself anchored to the moral framework from which it derives its authority and very existence. We’re better than this based on our own self-description. Human rights are something deeply entrenched in American identity, and recognizing the responsibility that comes along with that critical belief is fundamental to understanding the ideals to and for which Lazarus penned her poem. And no one said doing the right thing will always be easy, that it will cost nothing. If being good, doing right, was always reflective of self-interest, it wouldn’t require sacrifice. But that’s rarely how these thing work. Nevertheless, if we’re all created equal, if we believe in human rights, if we want to be a beacon of hope for the world, then when people sacrifice everything they have to come to us, carried only by the hope of our aid and the fear of watching their family die, we need to meet them there and honor our obligation. They’ve done the hard work of getting to us, so we need to do the hard work of figuring out how we can help them. And while we’re trying to figure that out, we need to treat them like human beings. Human beings that have suffered and came to us running. They need to endure less suffering, less fear, less violence when they get here. That’s not too much to ask. It’s never too much to ask that we not turn our backs on children, on suffering people desperate and in need.
So, what can you do? Educate yourself on the topic. Regardless of political orientation, I think anyone who looks into the effect of our policies on conditions for vulnerable children will recognize that something needs to change. Talk to people about it. Help educate others. And really talk to other people about it. Listen to them, but focus on the moral dimensions of treating children this way when they are asking for our help and not only the broad, abstract features of “policy,” “immigration,” “migrants,” and/or “refugees.” Contact your local reps, congress, your mayor, and/or your governor and voice your concerns. Vote your conscience, identify candidates in your region that support these inhumane conditions for families and children and seek a better candidate. Donate to an organization that is on the ground doing work to fix these conditions. The ACLU, Immigrant Justice Corps, and Immigrant Families Together are “coordinating services at a national level” according to this NYT article, which also has a list of local organizations and other suggestions for things you can do to help.