In the summer of 2014, one of the stories that dominated the news was the stream of children, or “unaccompanied minors” as they were dubbed, who crossed the U.S. border after journeying from Central America. I had two sets of thoughts at the beginning. First, what must their parents be feeling? The panic and unrelenting anxiety of not knowing where their child might be with the very real possibility that unscrupulous people or natural dangers—extreme heat, wild animals—may have harmed or even killed them. I pictured mothers with their heads in their hands, fathers punching walls and shouting at anything they could see. I wondered how desperate, how bad things must have been for these mothers, who carried the children in their bellies, to feel that the only thing they could do to give them a chance at survival was to send them on a long, blind trek all alone, into the swallowing darkness. I pictured their throats constricting with tears, their stomachs buckling with nausea as each hour passed in each terrifying day.
And I thought about the kids. Just as an exercise, for a moment, let’s all picture one of the children who means the most to us in this life. For me that’s my nephew, Noah, who is nine years old and loves to play the piano, whose drawings make everyone who knows him shiver at what must be swirling in his oversized imagination. I picture him marooned in the hollow desert night with absolutely no one else he knows, surrounded by other shaking, traumatized children and perhaps one adult who towers over him, the kind of shadow that lurks in his nightmares in his bed at home. Would he say anything to the other kids, or stare vacantly into the abyss? Would he cry for his mom? What, as he squinted at the craggy silhouettes of barren trees, would he think awaited him?
He probably would not have imagined protestors. The images are familiar to us now: crowds of people, many waving American flags or dressed in its colors. Some of them brought children. They held hand-painted signs that said things like “GET OUT OF MY COUNTRY” or “NO SE PUEDE” (“No you can’t”). Their faces were red, hot with stress and the southwestern sun. Screaming. They blocked the kids, by then on a bus, from entering their town.
Many of these protestors were clearly parents, and I imagine many of them went to church every Sunday. They probably did things like volunteer at their local senior center, or bring meals when a friend had a death in the family. Did they think about what awaited the children in the reality of “GO BACK?” Did they imagine the mothers, since some of them were mothers themselves? Could there ever have been a better stand-in for the beggar in the Biblical story told by Jesus Christ, who was not to be passed by by Christians, for this would mean shunning Jesus himself? How would their daily lives have changed if the kids, like many before and after them, were brought to detention centers to enter months or years of legal limbo? If I had been there and asked that question, what kind of words would the answer have contained? What might have happened to me?
My own heated, red-faced stress begins to rise when I consider this, despite how much I want to value and listen to all points of view. I have friends, intelligent people who I respect, who disagree with me on immigration policy. Politically and legally, I agree that this is a complex issue. Morally, it is not. And so this is not, predominantly, a policy piece. This is about what may be in the minds and hearts of the people who make the policies, and the people who vote for the people who make the policies. This is about what is inside us all.
Some of these notions are conscious. I follow the rules and others should too/My grandfather came here with nothing. Some are implanted by a repetitious media and social media culture. They’re taking our jobs/They’re doing jobs Americans don’t want. Some may be overly idealistic, and some, often without us realizing it at all, are simply racist. We then apply them to any immigration issue, whether a person without documentation commits a crime, or a child who only a year ago was learning to walk needs medical care.
Let’s try and unpack it a little. How many of our thoughts and opinion statements include the word “they?” How many are exactly what our parents believed? There are probably some if not many ideas of our parents that we have re-examined and abandoned as adults. Could reconsideration be warranted here? In conversation, have you ever used a phrase like, “The Middle-eastern family down the hall” or “The Hispanic girl who lives next door?” Probably. Most of us have. How about “The Christian couple two houses down” or “The white family who just moved in?” Less likely. Why do we think that might be? For my part, as I was composing this piece, it took a second reading to realize that in framing the preceding questions, I was addressing them to a white, Christian, native-born audience. I decided to leave them there as an illustration that no one is immune, that I do not exempt myself or intend to lecture anyone singularly, and that every one of us could stand to do a bit of personal inventory.
As part of our evolution, we had to develop the ability to identify dangers. But we continue to evolve today. Our brains allow us to pause, look around, and choose, if we wish, to see things differently. In neuroscience this is sometimes referred to as “the magic quarter-second.” Between a stimulus (someone raises a political issue) and our response (the knee-jerk opinion we state), there is a sacred flicker of a moment when we have the ability to stop, reflect, and have more freedom in how we react and move forward.
And I think we can agree that whatever it is we’re doing now is not working.
Some of the solutions, as with any societal issue, will have to come from our political leaders. Different trade and foreign aid and drug policies, to help immigrants’ home countries (many of which the U.S. once invaded, propping up the dictators who then destroyed them) become places people do not need or want to flee. Modern immigration policies to help those who do wish to come stand in a daylight line that moves, instead of hurdling themselves or their children into the bewilderment of the night.
But as with all things, I believe that individuals can be a part of the solution as well. Those who are religious surely must have access to the belief that we are all God’s children, and be able to consider re-introducing compassion into our thinking. Others may simply need to change who or what we are listening to. Instead of Facebook friends or TV, a place inside ourselves. Not the place that holds our current thoughts and words. Somewhere in our bodies, our throats or chests or stomachs, somewhere were we remember viscerally the worst nightmare we ever had as a child in our beds, and what our lives might have been like if we had been yanked out of those beds and shoved into a living, breathing incarnation of that horror coming true.
Where I come out is that if I really had my way, there would be no “nations.” Nations are constructs; human beings are real. There would be no borders, no visas, no passports. This beautiful planet would belong to all of us, equally. Really, how preposterous is it, at its core, this idea that particular parts of this majestic earth belong to particular sets of people, according to where our ancestors were born or ended up, defined by theoretical lines that originated in someone’s mind? Indeed: we made the whole thing up. We can pause, reflect, and do it again, differently.
Do I think that’s happening in the next hundred years? The border dissolving, certainly not. But ideals should always be put forth and pondered, even if their time has not yet come. The reflection—that can happen any time we choose. For better or worse, the ideas of humans—some humans—will shape the reality of others. The more we work to grow those ideas from the place where we are our very best selves, the better those ideas are likely to be, for all of us.
Photo by Alexander Lam