A year ago, in the aftermath of the release of the audio tape of the anguished cries of children separated from their parents and being held in border patrol custody, thousands of people from across the country called the offices of nongovernmental organizations on the border to offer all manner of help to the people caught up in the war on immigrants.
I received a voicemail at that time from a woman from out-of-state, asking for help in locating an immigrant who was in a shelter in Reynosa, Mexico (Reynosa is just across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas). She told me that she was worried about him, as “he has come from Honduras and through Mexico on his bicycle…I want to help him.”
I thought of that phone call over the past month as story after story came out about the war being waged not only upon immigrants, but also upon the good people daring to offer a hand to them. There was, for instance, the shameful moment in July when the federal government decided to re-try Scott Warren for his attempts to save the lives of immigrants crossing a remote wildlife refuge. (For those tempted to dismiss Warren and his group (“No More Deaths”) as simple “do-gooders,” Warren notes that since his arrest, “at least 88 bodies were recovered from the Ajo corridor of the Arizona desert”).
Then, just a couple of weeks ago, on August 2nd, Stephanie Leutert, Catherine “Ellie” Ezzell and Jake Dizard, three researchers with the University of Texas, were walking a sixteen year old boy from El Salvador across the international bridge that links Piedras Negras, in Mexico, with Eagle Pass, in Texas. The boy, recently orphaned, was trying to enter the United States where he had hoped to enter a plea for asylum.
When the group reached the international boundary line at the middle of the bridge, a Border Patrol agent, breaking US law, international accords and the Border Patrol’s own internal protocols (“every CBP agent (is) to let unaccompanied children enter the port “without problem”) refused to allow the boy into the United States. A bit later, a border patrol supervisor arrived. The Mexican officials had surrounded the academics and were threatening the scholars with arrest for “human smuggling.” The border patrol supervisor refused, then, to allow the US citizens entry into the United States, so that the academics would be taken into custody by the Mexican authorities. As the Mexican officers walked the researchers back down the bridge into Mexico, one of them remarked, “Things have changed under Trump…the United States just denied entry to American citizens.” (Jay Root reported this story for the Texas Tribune).
Eventually, the US officials allowed the Salvadoran boy and the three US citizens into the United States, but only after some hard work by the ACLU, and an intervention by Congressman Will Hurd’s office.
The following day, Saturday August 3rd, the Reverend Aarón Méndez, a much-loved pastor from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, disappeared. Or, more precisely, “was disappeared,” to use a term common in Latin America for kidnapping that leads to murder. The Reverend Méndez had been operating a shelter in Nuevo Laredo for immigrants seeking asylum in the United States. He had recently blocked drug cartel members from kidnapping some of the immigrants who were staying at his shelter, and his disappearance is most assuredly tied to his action on their behalf.
The prosecution of a human rights worker for attempting to save lives, the threats exercised against three US academics, and even the probable death of a pastor, pale in the face of the more than eighty-eight people who recently perished in the Arizona desert, of the Walmart slaughter in El Paso, or of the fates of the tens of thousands of immigrants suffering the daily terrors of “remaining in Mexico.”
All the same, the persecution of the human rights’ workers, whether by US government policies or by organized crime, is a serious attack on our sense of solidarity, that practice of making manifest, in concrete ways, the nature of our common fate. The three researchers practiced solidarity as they walked with a sixteen-year-old boy lost along the border. They recognized the boy’s vulnerability and refused to ignore his plight. Solidarity was the basis for the moral conviction of so many people that other human beings should not die of thirst in a desert. Solidarity rooted the practice of Reverend Méndez’s biblical hospitality, one radicalized by death threats.
The exercise of solidarity serves as a powerful defense against all manner of social evil. Under its rules of engagement, solidarity refuses to accept the abuse of anyone—but especially of the innocent and vulnerable—as a price of doing business. This tactic plays out well, whether the persecutions take place in the name of progress (i.e. greed) or in the name of national security (i.e. greed), for the actions make clear those choices that politicians have taken and would prefer to keep under wraps. The screaming of babies caught on tape, for instance, is a powerful argument against the notion that these children are “threats to our national security.” Apart from shame, there is, quite simply, no other response to the anguished cries of those children.
The very nature of the exercise of solidarity creates a self-selecting pool of participants, who themselves form a powerful community of activists. Although immigrants have been national scapegoats in every political era, the response to the Trump administration barbarities have created a “doubling down” of efforts on behalf of immigrants, bringing new players and new energy to fortify the usual players in this age-old struggle. I was delighted, for example, to see a group of Alabama churches band together to create an entire network of sanctuary communities. An extraordinary internal strength must be at the center of the group of people committed to hiking together for miles through the desert in search of destitute immigrants, as is the moral force of the group of the elderly nuns who recently protested the actions of immigration enforcement in our nations capital.
I don’t think that the kindly woman who phoned in an offer of help last year was ever at risk of being persecuted by our federal government. I do believe, however, that the government considers her sentiment as dangerous, and I agree with them. The practice of solidarity is wildly contagious and is by no means limited to nuns and clergy. I have certainly seen that in my town. Just last week a group of people got together and created a school project for the refugee kids stranded at the international bridge. Every day, they cart school materials across the bridge, clear out a spot in the blistering heat, and teach children.
We are all of us called to respond to the cries of children. One group of Americans chooses to cage them; another group chooses to teach them.
This, alongside our border.