He is barely three years old. Wearing black shoes and a deep blue striped shirt, he pressed his face between the 30 feet high solid iron-bar-fence that separates the United States from Mexico. Not even his tiny face can squeeze in through the gaps between these bars. His eyes gaze at the people standing on the other side – the land of the brave and the free, the land where dreams are realized. He sprinkles white rose petals upon the American soil. He is not sure why he is doing so, or why he is even there. His mother, who stands a few feet away from him striking a conversation with the other folks on her side of the fence, surely does. These bars showcase the iron resolve of an administration that is determined to build a wall on the 370-mile-long border with Mexico. This mother is here to express solidarity with thousands of forced immigrants who have sought to cross the border to escape the horrors of violence, poverty, and despair. Some have succeeded in crossing, others remain detained in prisons because they are denied legal due process, and others died even before they set eyes on this supposed land of dreams.
A few weeks ago, I traveled from my parish in Dayton, Ohio, and joined more than a dozen Catholic priests on a delegation to the border in El Paso, Texas. We were there to listen, learn, and encounter. The trip, organized by Faith in Public Life, was one of the most transformative of my life. As an immigrant from India, I understand what it means to journey from your home, but the stark reality faced by undocumented immigrants who are caged in prisons and detention centers across America is a moral scandal. In particular, I came to express solidary with children, like the three-year-old at the border that day, who have been brutally separated from their families. I was there to grieve an infant who had died in one of the children’s prisons
that very week.
In spite of the iron fence, the place of our gathering is no ordinary ground. This is “holy ground.” This ground is hallowed not only because on that day Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso sprinkled it with holy water, not only because we symbolically sprinkled the border with rose blessed petals, but because the people who gathered on both sides of the world formed the one Body of Christ. The wall is real, for sure. However, iron fences cannot run deep enough to separate the earth below or high enough to divide the sky above. Walls and fences cannot destroy the communion of peoples. This ground is hallowed because God is a God of peripheries. This ground is hallowed because God is in the communion that binds God’s people together at the peripheries. God is not a God of walls. The Triune God is a God of unity.
“America First” is now a political and cultural mantra for some. For me, this phrase represents the romanticization of uncritical patriotism and even Christian nationalism. There is a history of systematic oppression behind nationalistic and nativist slogans, a history that is often glossed over and even erased from memory. That day, standing under the shadow of the wall, my mind recalled the history of the systematic oppression of peoples over the centuries. I recalled the heartless separation of families by the then brutal, yet “legal," slave trade. Many Christians even found biblical justification for slavery. I also remembered the first vestiges of detention centers in the more sober-sounding “reservations” for native Americans. History repeats itself. The people are different and the tools of injustice might change, but it is the same oppression.
Standing alongside a three-year-old sprinkling rose petals, I was saddened, angry, and heart-broken. I felt pain not only thinking about past centuries of violence and subjugation. On the same day that I was at the border, news broke that the Trump administration was hurriedly drafting new laws that would detain children and families indefinitely without due process. While previous presidents on both sides of the political isle have failed to comprehensively address the reality of undocumented immigrants, the Trump administration has unleashed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to essentially declare war on immigrants. During the presidential campaign, Trump promised to focus on those “bad hombres” such as violent criminals. Instead, his administration is deporting mothers and fathers who demonstrate the dignity of work, volunteer at church, raise their children, and strengthen their communities.
The corruption of the successive Mexican governments is also to blame. The governments on both sides of the border have ignored the economic and social causes of forced migration in the region. The 1994 NAFTA agreement was instrumental in creating the present crisis because it contributed significantly to destabilizing huge agricultural populations in Mexico and Central Latin American nations. In fact, the present reinforced fence was constructed to stop the forced migration of the very population that NAFTA displaced. None of the previous American administrations can wash their hands of the present crisis.
My sadness extends beyond standing at the border separated by an oppressive iron fence that defies the history of the once seamless landscape. On that day, standing alongside the three-year-old child were also three puppies. Immune to the danger of crossing borders, these puppies were weaving in and out through the wall to cross the border in total freedom. Neither the two helicopters hovering over us, nor the numerous border patrol trucks, the border protection personnel on ATV’s and horseback, deemed this a violation. Yet, if the three-year-old had crossed over, there would have been arrests, detentions, national and international furor! Animals have more freedom that human beings! Certainly, I am not claiming that international laws and necessary formalities for crossing boarders are irrelevant. However, when the term “illegal” is used of people seeking asylum from violence and misery; when the word “illegal” is used to describe a people devastated by economic policies created and implemented by the very nation that denies them human rights; when infants are separated from the families that put their lives in grave danger to save them; when laws are framed to detain traumatized indefinitely; when we imprison them then we have reached a level of dehumanization that find precedence only in the Nazi regime. Certainly, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 did not envisage or foresee the dehumanization being played out today at the border.
During my week at the border, I visited two shelters of hospitality that serve as an oasis for exhausted, hungry, and sometimes barely alive asylum seekers and refugees. Annunciation House in El Paso, and Casa del Migrantes in Juarez, Mexico, stand taller than the iron fence, giving dignity and refuge to those whom Pope Francis describes as part of a “throw away culture.” There is a huge mural on a wall at Casa del Migrantes created by students from a local university that reads: “No human being is illegal!” The mural forces us to pause. It forces us to contend with the fact that every human person – no matter their legal status -- has dignity in the eyes of God. The dehumanization of people is a crime against God, the creator of us all. Every nation has a right to establish laws, but when policies and laws violate human dignity and the common good, those laws are unjust. People of faith and conscience are compelled to moral resistance.
As time came for me to return home to Dayton, I grieved. What is next for the imprisoned families? I can leave. They cannot. They are fenced in, caged like animals, denied human rights. I grieve but I will also take action and never lose hope. My faith requires that I will do whatever I can to bring justice to our immigrant families and neighbors. Anything less would be turning my back on Jesus himself.
Fr. Satish Joseph