Independence Day is here again — the 243rd anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But as we celebrate the foundation of this country, it is difficult to ignore the human rights abuses being perpetrated in its name on our southern border.
The sickening stories just keep coming. On Tuesday morning, the New York Times reported that members of a congressional delegation touring refugee camps in Texas found enduring deplorable conditions. That followed a Propublica exposé on Monday revealing a secret Facebook group for border patrol agents, in which “agents joke about migrant deaths and post sexist memes.”
And, of course, that follows the news of the tragic deaths of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Angie Valeria last week. The Associated Press photographed their bodies after they drowned in the Rio Grande river trying to swim across into the country, fleeing from their home country of El Salvador. Some rightly argue that the use of the photo dehumanizes these people seeking a better life. At the same time, it’s hard to argue with Granby resident Audrey Walker, who in our cover story this week characterized their deaths as highlighting everything that is wrong with the United States immigration system.
That’s why it is inspiring to see some members of the Valley and beyond responding to the immoral treatment of refugees at the border. Several are going down to roll up their sleeves and give food, water, and other necessities to those waiting to enter the country. Writer Chris Goudreau reports that local people are traveling thousands of miles down to the border to connect with organizations like Team Brownsville in Texas. Volunteers with such organizations offer a rare glimmer of kindness to refugees who have endured a harsh journey and face a hostile immigration system and even worse conditions in camps following their entry.
While food and water are necessary provisions to the migrants who must stand in line, often in brutal temperatures, Team Brownsville co-founder Andrea Rudnik tells Goudreau that another important aspect of what they do is simply to listen to their stories. “You hear stories of people who have suffered tremendously, who have endured losses that we don’t know about — violence, burning down houses, being tortured,” she said. “I’ve met two people who’ve had fingers cut off by gang members threatening their family.”
If the United States is to be a democratic beacon and moral leader for the world, how we treat these vulnerable people fleeing from violence is Exhibit A in how well we are succeeding or failing to live up to our goals.
This is not the first time we are experiencing a refugee crisis. My own family history involves a very real flight from Nazi Germany and Austria. My father’s parents were both Jewish refugees from their respective countries, and were among the lucky ones to be accepted into the United States.
During the 1930s and ‘40s, the United States was far from a shining example of acceptance. In 1938, a boat called the St. Louis that had sailed thousands of miles from Germany to the U.S. was turned away, consigning hundreds of its Jewish passengers to death in the Holocaust. The following year, Congress rejected a proposal that would have allowed an additional 20,000 German Jewish children to settle in the United States.
Opening our doors to those fleeing disaster and violence in their home countries, and welcoming them to become a part of our communities, has been a part of atoning for those sins of the past. Since World War II, the United States has been more welcoming to those seeking asylum — until now.
Not everyone has the time or resources to travel down to the border to help. But in a democracy, there are other ways to show support. It was heartening to see Democratic candidates in a recent debate support a policy that would downgrade a border crossing from a criminal to a civil offense. Seeking asylum should not be a crime, and those who do it should not be put in jails — particularly jails which have been shown to have such inhumane conditions. Urge representatives, local leaders, and candidates for president to take a long look at our migrant policies.
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.