In the last 24 hours, there’ve been two comments that I can’t get out of my head. They were about two very different situations but in my mind they keep running together – because they both had to do with immigrants and with children.
Only one of the comments surprised me.
I was kept here at the newspaper until late last night, helping assemble our story about a tense scene in Southwest Philadelphia involving the police and a crowd of residents – mostly immigrants from West Africa, mainly Liberia -- who are overcome with grief and anger about a fire last weekend that killed four kids, and asking questions about the city’s response.
Exhausted when I finally got home, I flipped on the TV and here was the highest ranking official in Dallas County, Texas – Judge Clay Jenkins -- talking about the crisis of unaccompanied, undocumented migrant children from Central America crossing our southern borders. What should be a humanitarian issue has instead become a casus belli and even an impeach-Obama rallying cry for American conservatives, and given the blood-red politics of Texas, I was expecting the worst from this elected official.
To the contrary, Judge Jenkins was explaining how he’s been hard at work trying to open up under-utilized public facilities in Dallas County to hopefully provide a comfortable and safe home for these young children – mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala – until their long-term fate can be worked out. To do anything otherwise, explained the judge, would go against his Christian-inspired view of compassion.
“These are precious children of God – they’re not ‘Others,’ Jenkins said in the TV interview. “They’re little children and they need our help.”
It was just a human being expressing a very human emotion, and yet I’m sad to say that I was surprised to hear it (as were, apparently, the folks at MSNBC who re-packaged the interview clip under the heading of “rare compassion.”)
The next morning, I opened my email and there were some missives about the standoff in Southwest Philly. Admittedly, some residents, in their anger and their quite understandable grief, went too far in hurling accusations against firefighters and cops; although the public does deserve answers both about the response and what caused the blaze in the first place.
But readers have also typically rushed to judgment…about the neighborhood. One of my emailers called the residents of Gesner Street “typical (n-word)s” and added “[m]aybe they should go back to where they came from and continue to live like animals.”
That was…not rare. OK, it was extreme – most folks with that perspective don’t usually use the N-word, not in 2014, but across Philly.com I read a flood of similarly flavored comments that didn’t surprise me at all – all quick to assign all the blame inthe world to African immigrants who were parents, loved ones, or neighbors of three 4-year-olds and a baby who burned to death. These were accusations being hurled without knowing any of the facts of what happened on Gesner Street that night – assumptions based, apparently, on the origin of the residents...and on the color of their skin.
I wasn’t surprised because, like most Americans, I’ve been watching news footage from Murrieta, California, where an angry, hateful mob has gathered to hurl invective at children and at mothers who are part of this flood of Central American immigrants – including 52,000 children since October – and to even spread a falsehood that they are bringing diseases into the country, the kind of myth that you’d have thought had gone extinct by the end of the 20th Century. You’ll be shocked (not really) to learn that much of the gross misinformation that's being spread about the child migrants by regular citizens begins with noxious talk radio hosts and with the anchors of the Fox News Channel – grown-ups who should know better but will say anything to attract an audience.
The ugly adult scenes that we see in Murrieta and the virus of hatred that blinds us to the needs of innocent children are the actual disease that's being spread here, infecting millions over the airwaves and through the electrons of the Internet. I won’t say that I’m ashamed to be an American – how could I be, when there are also millions of good people here like Judge Jenkins, propelled by conscience to do the right things. But I do think that Murrieta is a dark stain on our country’s image in the world, if not another black mark on our history.
The children who are coming to this country are – by all accounts – fleeing not only crushing poverty but gang violence and rates of crime that are so high they make the bloody streets of Chicago seem like a day in the park. Honduras, in particular, is the murder capital of the world and base of a ruthless cocaine trade. The children of these places are indeed “children of God” who want the same things that my kids and your kids want – to grow up free from fear and free from want. Our border fence isn’t keeping them out – and it shouldn’t keep our love and compassion for them bottled up, either.
No one has an easy answer. These children should not be making the long trek to the United States – because that journey endangers their lives. And like all other nations, America can’t have fully open borders and can’t shelter and feed every child of the world who would like to come here, not all at once. But we can do a lot better as a people than yelling and blocking buses of moms and kids, and we can expect a lot better from our politicians beyond warehousing them in substandard facilities before racing them back to neighborhoods where they may be killed.
Two things seem obvious. In the short term, we need more leaders and citizens like Judge Jenkins to step up and find the type of accommodations for these kids that we would find acceptable for our own children. In the long term – and I don’t know how this happens, given the current mess in Washington – we need an immigration reform bill that reflects the realities of the border and of the undocumented who are already here. That includes a broader definition of which children have protected refugee status than the current arbitrary and outdated standards.
But we also should do something that is probably even less likely. We should acknowledge that American policies – from the ruthless and knee-jerk militarism of the 1980s to the botched campaigns of the later drug wars – have helped to create the mess in Central America. That means we should now create and support policies that will make life better for children in the nations where they and their families live – so there is no need for them to come to the United States in the first place.
Whether they are out on the streets of Tegucigalpa or wandering through the desert of Arizona, these are children under the same sun, breathing the same air, and endowed with the same human rights. Children of God? Sure, but let’s go farther and consider them our children, and then let's fix this. Call the solution American ingenuity, if you must. I’d just call it plain human decency.