Crisis: Immigration or Indifference?

by Michael Sean Winters

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If a person – and a people - is not moved by the suffering of children, it is hard to imagine what will incite empathy. The crisis facing the nation at the moment regarding the influx of unaccompanied children from Central America is not an immigration crisis, it is a crisis of indifference.

Most of the politicians who have addressed the situation start with the need to stop the flow of children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. “People in Central America need to see illegal migrants coming back,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said. “We have to return people … They need to see people coming back, that they wasted their money.” I can imagine this sentiment coming from the mouth of former Congressman Tom Tancredo or current Congressman Steve King, both of whom embody a hostility to immigrants from Latin America that would make the Know Nothing Party proud. But, from a cabinet secretary in a Democratic administration?

Congressman Sean Duffy appeared on the EWTN show “The World Over” with Raymond Arroyo last week and touted this “send them back” line. Also in the segment was the USCCB’s point man on migration issues, Kevin Appleby. Everything that Appleby said was challenged by Arroyo but everything that came from Cong. Duffy’s mouth went unchallenged. It might have occurred to Arroyo to point out to the congressman that Catholics are forbidden to do evil (send them back) so that good (stopping the flow) can come of it.  But, Arroyo has been doing everything he can on his show to discredit the bishops’ efforts to create a more humane immigration system, so perhaps we should not be surprised.

Even if policymakers believe that the children must be sent back, might they not start with the perilousness of the journey these children undertake to reach our soil? Why is it more important to “protect our borders” than it is to “protect the children”? Very few politicians have had the honesty to acknowledge the rank hypocrisy of the position we are apparently taking in regard to these children. The U.S. government routinely puts pressure on foreign countries to open their borders to refugees from neighboring conflicts. The war in Syria has produced more than one million refugees, and they have fled mostly to Jordan and Turkey. The various conflicts in Africa produce hundreds of thousands of refugees that cross borders. The U.S. can’t handle 60,000 children? It is absurd.

Cong. Duffy tried to hide behind the Catholic emphasis on family to justify his indifference to the suffering of the children. He said only a “send them back “policy would permit families in Central America to stay together. Of course, staying together in what amounts to a war zone is no joyride. And, surely, a mother who saves her money, mortgages what little property she has, and sends her child on what she knows will be a dangerous trek, surely such a mother is not acting out of selfishness but out of desperation. Few and far between are the politicians willing to acknowledge U.S. complicity in the breakdown of civil society in Central America, a point I made in my article one week ago at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

Besides, if Mr. Duffy had done his homework, rather than merely memorizing his talking points, he would have known that many of the children are, in fact, seeking to be reunited with their families and that some of those families are on the U.S. side of the border. Indeed, while Comprehensive Immigration Reform, like all governmental reforms, will never create a perfect solution to a complex problem, passing the Senate reform bill would surely ameliorate some of the immigration problem for these children if they have family members who are already in the U.S.  But, Mr. Duffy and is fellow Republicans live in the fear of being challenged in a primary, or being called out by right wing talk radio hosts, and take no responsibility for their failure to pass the Senate measure.

A few politicians have broken the mold. As noted here two days ago, Maryland’s Governor Martin O’Malley struck the right note at the National Governors Association meeting, saying, “We are not a country that should send children away and send them back to certain death. I believe that we should be guided by the greatest power we have as a people, and that is the power of our principles. Through all of our great world religions, we are told that hospitality to strangers is an essential human dignity.” And, Congresswoman Linda Sanchez appeared on Andrea Mitchell’s MSNBC show to remind the country that we are talking about children here. Can you tell she is a mom? 



If you still have any interest in thinking well of President Obama, skip this paragraph. Upset by the criticism from O’Malley, the White House let it be known that the governor had told the White House not to bring any of these children to a center in his state. The headline in Politico read, “O’Malley: Don’t send border kids to Maryland facility.” This made him look like a hypocrite. If you get past the headline, you discover that the governor worried the facility in question was in a conservative part of the state and that any buses carrying children would be met with the kind of hostility we have seen in Murrieta, California. The article also notes that the governor took steps to get a different facility ready to receive some of the children. So, he was not being a hypocrite at all but the spin doctors at the White House know that some people, many people, never read past the headline. The White House team has time to worry about getting even with a Democratic governor who criticizes them, but not time to, say, craft a policy to stem the violence in Central America?  The Obama administration’s entire reaction to this crisis at the border could be well characterized as “Now we can’t.”

We know where Pope Francis stands: His starting point is the children. “Many people forced to emigrate suffer, and often, die tragically,” the Holy Father said in a message sent to a global conference in Mexico. “Many of their rights are violated, they are obliged to separate from their families and, unfortunately, continue to be the subject of racist and xenophobic attitudes.” Last year, at Lampedusa, the pope first used the phrase “the globalization of indifference” to describe the phenomenon we are seeing daily on the news, the unwillingness to look at the human face of this crisis, the preference for political posturing, and the underlying inhumane attitudes – “racist and xenophobic” – that yield such indifference to human suffering. But, the pope’s words fall on deaf ears, even when those ears belong to Catholics.

It is appalling. The whole damned thing is appalling. If this great country of ours can’t help and protect 60,000 children, work to alleviate the underlying suffering and violence in their homelands, and adopt a better immigration system than the one we have, what are the chances we will be able to get our act together to confront climate change issues, or the still-present threat of extremist Islamicists, or growing income inequality? I am not a person given to depression, but the past couple of weeks have been deeply depressing.   


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