For those who live alongside a border, hospitality is at once a virtue and an expectation. The coming and going of strangers is, at the same time, exotic and normal. The sharing of bread is a necessity and a privilege.
As a border resident, I enjoy learning new ways to practice hospitality. Recently, I was delighted by a story detailing how one woman would welcome an eighteen year old into that often strange, very exotic no man’s land called adulthood.
The story came from a pediatrician, a woman who had practiced her trade long enough, she noted, to care for patients from their birth to adulthood. One of the nicer moments in her practice, she shared, was how good it was to sit with a newly minted 18-year-old, one who would be moving from pediatric care to that of a physician who cared for adults. The pediatrician said that she liked to pull out the patient’s file and go through it with him.
“Look here,” she would say, “back when you were three years’ old, we were worried that you might not be growing. But look at you now—a strapping young man!” Or she might show him what she had charted on the day that his mom brought him in after he had broken his wrist. “Do you remember how high up that tree you got?” she might remind him.
The conversational attention to detail of the young man’s life was her way of honoring his history–and recognizing his new status. I can imagine the young patient sitting up straighter and straighter, as his physician, one who knows him so very intimately, affirms him as a human being, and, now, a new adult.
On the other hand, and just down the street from our home, live a group of young people for whom the celebration of their 18th birthday can be a brutal moment. These young women and men are “unaccompanied alien children” in the sensitive language of the law. They are young people, mostly from Central America, who have come to the USA to escape the nightmare that has taken over their homes. Many of them survive the long journey through Mexico only to end up captured by the border patrol.
Since 2003, the responsibility for unaccompanied children has been in the hands of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. This means that the Border Patrol has 72 hours to place a child that has been arrested in an approved shelter. There are fourteen of these shelters in our region, holding, today, March 6, 2014, 1,279 children.
These institutions offer shelter, clothing, meals, classes, and attention. For the most part, the facilities seem to offer a stunning difference between the experiences that the children had while crossing through Mexico, which featured endless days of hunger, cold, and, God can only weep at the thought, violence; and that of the shelters, in which there are three meals a day, classes in English, and, extraordinarily, snacks.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement works to reunite the children, as quickly as possible, with family members. The process, however, isn’t always a smooth one—and if the captured child is 17 years of age, the reunification has to take place before the child becomes an adult—that is, before the 18th birthday.
If a 17-going-on-18 hasn’t managed to connect with her family, hasn’t been able to arrange a release to be with a foster family, on her 18th birthday, she will not get a visit with a compassionate and gentle physician. Instead, Border Patrol agents will arrive at the shelter. They will remove their pistols and place them in the safe box, the clanging of the pistols, despite the thick walls, and multiple doors of the institution, can be heard from within. The officers will be invited within the sanctuary of the shelter and be allowed to take the now 18 year old off to immigration prison.
The first experience of this new adult, then, is that of being a criminal. She will be dressed in a prison uniform, she will be placed behind razor wire, and she will have no one looking out for her.
Can you take a moment to imagine what that must be like—the disorientation, the fright, the shock, especially for a young person who was, to begin with, fleeing for her very life?
The practice of hospitality is a subversive one, whether it takes place in a doctor’s office or in a small town along a migrant’s journey. The pediatrician’s message is subversive in that it so different from “the winner take all, you are on your own now” survivalist meme of 2014. Subversive, too, is the action of the neighbor who takes the chance of hiding the 17-going-on-18 year old from the migra—this because our nation has grown afraid and our collective heart has shrunken and our vision of greatness has become clouded and we somehow think that these children, even if 18 year old children, are somehow dangerous.
Alongside a border, some of us refuse to see these children as dangerous, but rather as blessings.
This is not a new notion. I am reminded of the scene in Genesis 18, wherein Abraham, sitting “in the tent door in the heat of the day, lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood over against him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them…And he took curd, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, while they ate.”
Three men—seventeen years of age, or maybe eighteen? We don’t know their ages, because scripture only tells us that they were strangers, that they were hungry, and that they were angels.