An enthusiastic little boy played with blocks and toy cars, laughing with a full-throttled giggle, the kind of laugh that is contagious. He was four years old and had made a long, arduous journey from Honduras.
This child, along with many others, was the first I noticed as I entered the Humanitarian Respite Center, a Catholic Charities-run facility in McAllen, Texas, led by Sister Norma Pimentel and minimal staff. The facility is about the size of my church’s fellowship hall. Over a period of four years, this small non-profit has serviced over 100,000 persons. In the federal courthouse only steps away, those now waiting at the Respite Center had passed the first step on the way to gaining asylum by articulating “a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion (1951 Refugee Convention).” The center is where they come after the court has heard their case. Shackled with ankle monitors, the sojourners are welcomed at the center.
I was at the Center representing the National Council of Churches as part of a delegation of Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim faith leaders. We came to support the work of the Humanitarian Respite Center and to bear witness with our sisters and brothers who were persecuted: first by acts of hostility in their country of origin, and again by the “zero tolerance” immigration policy that was initiated by the United States government. This policy required that children be taken from their asylum-seeking parents or guardians as they attempted to cross the border between the United States and Mexico. These refugees were now being prosecuted for a crime of illegal immigration; before this cruel new policy, it had been only a civil violation.
Our delegation met with Sister Norma and toured the facility, where we saw rooms filled to overflowing with baby formula, disposable diapers, food, toiletries, and clothing. This center is a haven where weary travelers are met with open arms and a spirit of love and hospitality. They can shower, sleep, eat and obtain fresh clothes after traveling through dangerous roads and deserts for weeks or even months. We also submitted a request to visit the nearby detention center where it had been reported that many of the children, taken from their parents and guardians, were being held in cages. Our initial morning visit was rescheduled until the afternoon. We later found out that the First Lady of the United States was visiting the center at the same time our visit was first planned.
Our time in Texas was fraught with treacherous rain, flooding, missed connections, delays, denied visits, long lines, fatigue, hunger, and thirst. The difficulties of our 24-hour journey were minimal, but I couldn’t help wonder what it must be like for those who travel for thousands of miles over a period of weeks and months under horrendous circumstances to finally reach the country that called you to its shores, saying:
“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…” What must it be like to finally arrive and to find the door closed? Or perhaps it’s a trap door that you enter and locks you up in one place and your child in another? What is it like feel to the anguish of not knowing where your child is or how they are being treated?
By the time the nation took notice of the implications of the “zero tolerance” edict, over 2,300 children had already been separated from their families. Parents had been deported without their children. Children have since been transported to locations throughout the country without their parents’ consent or knowledge as to where they are. Quite possibly, many of these parents and children may never be reunited. Faith leader and advocates are not allowed to enter facilities where children are being detained. Recently some congressional leaders have been given limited access. The government has issued photos of children in cages and sleeping on the floor. Whistleblowers have smuggled out audio recordings and images of children crying uncontrollably, asking for their parents and not being comforted, and distraught parents asking about their children. We have heard reports of children testifying in their own asylum cases without parents, guardians or legal representation.
The President of the United States has referred to those seeking asylum as “criminals,” as people “infesting” or “invading” our country, hateful words more often used to reference rodents or bugs. The Administration openly admitted they thought that taking the children would deter parents from crossing the border. These children are being used as pawns, bargaining chips and ransom to force Congress to do what they should do anyway – fix the broken immigration policies. It is unconscionable.
As the immoral, cruel and human tragedy of this administration’s policies unfolded, Americans once again seemed shocked. The left, right and everyone in between gasped with incredulity that this could happen here. How many times during the years of this administration has some form of racism, xenophobia, and hateful rhetoric been asserted? How many times have all the pundits and politicians seemed appalled? They pound their fists and issue statements, saying, “This is not who we are; this is not American!”
But this is America. This is the same America that took the children of enslaved African Americans and sold them, often as a means of punishment or as a way to control the behavior of those who resisted the system. This is the same America that took First American children from their parents and placed them in boarding schools and stripped them of their native language and culture. This is the same America that placed Japanese American children in cages during World War II. And this America is now taking brown babies and children from South America and Central America from their parents. Diminishing the humanity and dignity of people of color is very American, and children are not exempt from these cruel acts of racism. This is America! This is us!
This America is a soul-sick America. The psychological and emotional scars are already permanently etched into the spirit of these children and their parents and even the staffers who have had to “follow the directions” of their superiors. Similarly, racism has left psychological and emotional scars permanently etched into the spirit of the oppressed and the oppressor from generation to generation in this country. Racism is a sin against God. All people are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
Until the United States acknowledges that it is sick and awakens to the impact that racism and xenophobia have on shaping our policies and practices, and confronts the evil that we have perpetrated and is willing to transform (repent and choose right actions to undo our history of racism), we will slip further into the abyss of hatred with these kinds of acts. Again we will gasp, shake our fists, make statements and express prayers and concerns and unfortunately, again we will say, “This is not who we are! This is not America!” For now, it IS who we are. But it is not who we have to be. We can do better. We must do better. Later during our visit to the Respite Center, I made my way over to where the little boy was playing and met him and his father. I learned that their trip from Honduras had taken a month. I noticed that the child had what appeared to be a bruise over his left eye and the dad had fresh scars on his arms. The father was as pensive as his child was joyful. I could only imagine what horror they had to flee to arrive at this place. They were preparing to join with family members living in New York. I pray that they find a new and better America, one that lives up to its highest ideals. I pray that we all act now to end racism.