On the internet, there’s an image that haunts me — as it should haunt all Americans. It’s a close-up of the most beautiful lady in America: the Statue of Liberty. She has covered her face with her hands as she weeps.
There are no words. But, if you read newspapers, or peruse websites, or listen to the radio, or watch television, or look at your phone, words aren’t necessary. We all know about the enormous humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border, which gets worse every day.
The situation has deteriorated since last summer when a delegation of six U.S. bishops visited the U.S.-Mexico border one year ago this month to gather facts and support those who aid and comfort immigrants and refugees.
During their visit to South Texas in July 2018, the bishops examined detention facilities, visited the Humanitarian Respite Center of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, toured a government-run resettlement center for children, and celebrated Mass with more than 200 children.
A year later, things have not gotten better.
President Donald Trump, who says he supports legal immigration but also supports legislation that would limit it, has not had a change of heart. He portrays immigrants and refugees as criminals and a drain on society. His administration cooked up a “zero tolerance” policy where authorities separate adults who travel with children. Some units are families, others aren’t. Everyone gets separated.
While Customs and Border Protection officers did the same thing during the Obama administration, Team Trump brags about doing it and uses the separation tactic to punish families so as to deter others from coming.
But it’s not just about government policies and officials. Everyday Americans don’t emerge from this episode with clean hands, either.
What are we to make of the millions of Americans who hear the stories and see the images coming from the U.S.-Mexico border, where our own government is operating what many critics of the White House, including me, call “concentration camps?” Yet they do nothing. Just as most Americans did nothing in 2014, when President Obama built the cages that Trump now fills to capacity, and beyond.
In fact, turn the clock back a bit further. The corpses have stacked up since the Clinton administration launched Operation Gatekeeper south of San Diego in the early 1990s. Militarizing the U.S.-Mexico border forced immigrants into the Arizona desert, just as activists warned it would. Thousands died.
Obama campaigned for president by promising Latino groups that he would deliver immigration reform and stop the practice of “nursing mothers being torn from their babies.” Once in office, he tore apart scores of immigrant families by racking up 3 million deportations and dumping thousands of U.S.-born children into foster care. On the border, Obama separated families, put kids in cages, and denied internees sufficient supplies and access to legal counsel.
Now that Trump is president, these practices continue. Most people probably don’t know that, because agencies don’t like to give back funding or scale down operations. The “ICE machine” (like most bureaucracies) runs on automatic. It’s easier to start up than shut down, which is why politicians shouldn’t fiddle with it, especially for political reasons.
Meanwhile, no matter who is president, America remains a nation of immigrants that has never appreciated immigrants. We offer freedom to the “huddled masses” and then we lock them up.
Why does this happen? The English philosopher, Edmund Burke, was right: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”
On the call to welcome the castaway and the stranger, Scripture doesn’t hedge or mince words. The message is clear.
Turn to Matthew 25:40: “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”
Or Exodus 23:9: “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.”
Or Matthew 25:25-36: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. …”
Yet newly released statistics suggest we as Catholics aren’t always living up to those words.
The Pew Research Center poll asked: Does the United States have a responsibility to accept refugees? Among evangelicals, 68 percent said “no” and 25 percent said “yes.” Catholics did a little better, but they kept it close. Forty-five percent said “no” and 50 percent said “yes.” The religiously unaffiliated (including atheists) were the most welcoming. Thirty-one percent said “no” while 65 percent said “yes.”
These findings tell me a few things. One, that going to church, or believing in God, doesn’t guarantee compassion and empathy. Nonbelievers are just as likely to do the right thing as the devout. Second, that the crisis in the faith community in the United States is about more than lower church attendance numbers. And third, that Catholics need to realize that welcoming the immigrant and refugee isn’t just the responsibility for Church leaders, but of everyone in the Church.
The reality on the U.S.-Mexico border is, for the immigrants and refugees imprisoned there, as dark as it comes. And the disturbing realities of this crisis, including the overcrowding at CBP detention facilities and the separation of families at the border, are allegedly happening in your name, and mine. This humanitarian crisis is brought to you by the U.S. taxpayer.
It’s no wonder the lady in the harbor is crying. These days, our new reality will break your heart.
Ruben Navarrette, a contributing editor to Angelus, is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group, a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, a Daily Beast columnist, author of “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano,” and host of the podcast “Navarrette Nation.”
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