Strength Begins with Mercy
Posted February 2016
Pope Francis didn’t physically cross the U.S.-Mexico border this week, but his words and the symbolic location of the Mass he held helped shine more light on the plight of migrants than all the fiery bombast about immigration coming out of the Republican presidential primary over the last seven months. The Pope concluded his visit to Mexico by celebrating Mass at a fairground in Ciudad Juarez, just a stone’s throw from the Rio Grande separating Mexico and the United States.
His visit gave voice to the longing and travails of those in flight from violence in search of a better life. His actions provided a stark moral reminder that our national debate over immigration is really a debate over the fate of human beings. Amid the destructive fear mongering of this primary season — and Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric in particular — Pope Francis issued a clarion call to each of us: Treating refugees fleeing terror and migrants as political footballs, rather than our brothers and sisters, dehumanizes us all.
This imperative becomes soberingly clear the moment you step foot inside the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. The Dilley facility is one of three detention centers built to hold migrant families apprehended at the southern border. These are mothers and children, scared, desperate, and exhausted; they are anything but menacing.
In 2014, some 66,000 families arrived this way, fleeing escalating gang violence in Central America’s volatile “Northern Triangle” of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala — now the undisputed murder capital of the world.
Refugees from this region are drawn to the United States and surrounding countries, not by the promise of easy living, but by the dream of a life free from terror, chaos, kidnappings and sexual violence.
America has always provided a haven, and a home, for people yearning to breathe free. International and U.S. law grants asylum to individuals who demonstrate a “well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political views, or social standing.” The UN Refugee Agency reports that the majority of children who crossed the southern border of the U.S. between 2011 and 2014 met that condition — and qualified for our protection.
Yet, despite the deteriorating conditions in Central America and a growing humanitarian crisis in the region, asylum seekers who rightfully seek a safe haven instead have become easy targets of inflammatory, hateful, and politically expedient rhetoric on the campaign trail.
Even the Obama Administration, which recently acknowledged the spike in violence across the region, has continued to enforce so-called “deterrent” policies — from prolonged detention of families to nighttime raids on those slated for deportation — intended to dissuade refugees from coming to America.
To date, no evidence suggests the administration’s tactics are working. This should come as no surprise. The risks of flight pale in comparison to the violence these migrants face at home. When a mother knows she and her children are in imminent danger, the decision to flee is a heroic choice for life.
Moreover, many families targeted for deportation have legitimate claims to asylum, but are unable, on their own, to adequately present their case. That is why attorneys like my colleague Barbara Hines drive hundreds of miles each week to provide legal counsel for incarcerated asylum seekers.
For nearly two years, Barbara and others — including hundreds of volunteers who come for a week or more at a time — have worked frantically to ensure that families detained in south Texas know their basic rights and can lay claim to them. Without aid, many of these families are twice victimized — first by the gang violence and corruption they fled, and second, by a hasty American justice system that robs them of their due process rights and, quite possibly, their lives. This is no hyperbole. According to an October report by the Guardian, as many as 83 individuals deported from the U.S. since January 2014 have been murdered upon their return to the Northern Triangle, a shameful outcome born out of our immigration laws.
Of course, for candidates who have grown all too comfortable with using immigrants as a political prop or a target, none of this matters. But viewed through the eyes of a front-line advocate like Barbara, these individuals reflect our common humanity.
During their long journey to the U.S., they have suffered and sacrificed beyond imagination to protect their children from harm. With every step along the journey, these parents are an enduring reminder of the purest form of love and courage: a desire to provide a life of peace, and the hope of a better tomorrow. Confronted with the terror these parents have experienced, any one of us would surely embark on the same path.
The website for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees describes asylum as one of humanity’s “earliest hallmarks of civilization.” Today, it is our civilization, not our security, that is at stake. It is time for all of us to join the Pope in rejecting the politics of fear, and standing up for an immigration policy that is worthy of our values.