Caught Between Morality and Legality at the Border

I watched 3 kids play with my 1-year-old son at the park. We had just met their family. They played and ran and laughed together. Their mother was chatting with my wife, and their father was talking with some other friends of ours.

It looked like a typical American get-together at the park. There was nothing unusual about it…

…except that these were asylum-seekers – migrants from Central America. And just a year earlier, they had suffered the traumatic experience of child separation at the hands of our government.


What’s Simple Has Become Complex

Basic right and wrong says you should help people in need. You learn that as a child from any decent family, teacher, or religious leader. You even learn it from cartoons.

As we grow up, even people who don’t care about morality can agree on the universal code that you don’t hurt children. That’s something only the worst of humanity does.

Yet currently our nation is refusing to help people who are fleeing for their lives, are separating children from their families, and are detaining children in horrible conditions in which many have already died. And we somehow find ways to defend those actions.

Look, I know that immigration is complex. I know a wall won’t fix anything, and neither will open borders. Political parties can argue all they want about immigration policy.

But separating families and detaining children shouldn’t be in that conversation. The simple necessity of protecting children has become corrupted by the complex desire to protect a political party.

Normal, well-meaning people, who outside of politics would agree that taking kids away from families and locking them up is wrong, are abandoning their moral code and finding nonsensical ways to protect their political party’s views.

They will say, “I’m all for immigrants, as long as they come in legally.”

Or, “If they just present themselves at a port of entry, this wouldn’t be happening to them.”

Still others will go further and say, “They wouldn’t be in danger if they went back home where it was safe.”

And I’m ignoring the completely stupid and racist people who say, “Our country’s full, send them back.”

But these statements show a willful ignorance to the reality of what is happening at the border and the situation that these migrants are in.


The Story of the Sanchez Family

All the names have been changed in this story to protect them. This family is still in the midst of their asylum case which is very sensitive.

The Sanchez family is from a Central American country that’s overrun by drug cartels. A drug gang had taken over the village where the Sanchez family lived. Rafael, the husband and father of the family, refused to work for the gang. He received threats and was beaten. He feared his family might be tortured or killed.

So he made the decision to take his eldest son Alberto and make the dangerous journey to the US, with the goal of being able to sponsor the rest of his family to come.

He’s not a terrorist. He’s not a drug dealer — he was fleeing because he refused to be one. And he’s not a human trafficker or a rapist. He’s a husband and father trying to keep his family alive and safe.

So Rafael and his 10-year-old son Alberto make it up through Mexico to the Arizona border. They turn themselves in asking for asylum and are sent to a detention center.

ICE forces Rafael to sign a bunch of papers in English, which he doesn’t understand. But he signs them, trusting they’re helping him.

Then they separate the two.

Rafael is holding desperately to his son as ICE agents are pulling at Alberto’s feet. Rafael is yelling for them to let his son go. He says to his son, “I’m sorry, I’m a bad father. Why did I ever bring you to the United States?”

10-year-old Alberto gets sent to a detention center in another state. Rafael is deported back to Central America.

Alberto is queued up to be adopted by an American family, despite his protests that he already has a family.


Evil and Legal

A child was taken from his parent without consent. That is kidnapping. The child was transported far away to be given to other people. That is human trafficking. The US government, our government, is kidnapping and trafficking children. But we don’t call it that because it’s all legal.

The simple act of taking children away from their parents is wrong. Putting children in detention centers is wrong. Leaving them there for months in tight spaces with poor treatment is wrong. There’s not much more that needs to be said about that. Yet people will go to extreme lengths to justify it.

People will say that the parents should not have brought their children. So how does that make kidnapping and trafficking children the right thing to do?

People will say that these families should not have come in illegally. So how does that make kidnapping and trafficking children the right thing to do?

People will say the kids are being used to smuggle in drugs. So how does that make kidnapping and trafficking children the right thing to do?

People will say that it’s nothing compared to the concentration camps during the Holocaust. So how does that… wait… WTF?! You’re using the holocaust as your baseline for morality?

When we try to use the law to excuse and justify actions that are wrong, that is evil. We are evil.

Slavery was immoral and evil. It was also legal.

The holocaust was immoral and evil. It was also legal.

Separating children from families and detaining them is immoral and evil. It is also legal.


Giving What We Have to Help

UNICEF and other organizations caught wind of the situation and intervened to have Alberto returned to his family in Central America.

They were separated for 5 months. Today, Alberto still wakes up with nightmares from the traumatic experience. Rafael gets anxiety whenever he is not with his son.

An organization consisting of churches, nonprofits, and lawyers took up the Sanchez family’s asylum case. They brought them to the US where the family now waits for their asylum hearing, which could be several months to over a year.

While they wait, they are not allowed to get a work permit, which means they have no source of income. Make sure you get this —this immigrant family wants to work, make money, and pay taxes, but the government won’t let them.

The church I attend has teams that help refugees get resettled in the US. We’ve formed about a dozen teams that have helped a dozen refugee families from all over the world get settled in our city. I was on a previous team that helped resettle Muslim refugees.

Volunteers from our church drive the Sanchez family to their various government appointments. They helped enroll the kids in school. They donate money and gift cards on a continuous basis so the family can go shop for groceries and eat. They are taking the family on short excursions so they get to know the city and have things to do. One person had a spare bedroom and is letting the family stay in their house.

Our church isn’t taking some kind of political stance, but unlike many other churches, we don’t fall into the stereotypical political alliance that tries to justify how our government is treating immigrants and refugees. We just know what the right thing to do is — to help those in need — and are doing what little we can to help.

We can’t help everyone at the border. Sadly, the majority will be sent to detention centers. Many children will be taken from their families. Among those, several will be separated forever because of the adoption loophole in our laws. And as you know, children have died and will continue to die in US custody.

It’s pretty damn depressing.

But we can’t let the inability to help everyone paralyze us from our ability to help someone. Not being able to do everything isn’t an excuse for doing nothing.

So we help one refugee family at a time.

We don’t have a lot of money, but we buy food and gift cards for the family when we can. I don’t have special skills like some of our church volunteers who are lawyers, social workers, counselors, and educators. But I have a somewhat flexible schedule and so I help drive them when I can.


Do Something

Find a local organization in your city that’s helping refugees and immigrants, and look for ways to help. Sometimes its a faith-based group or interfaith group — if you’re not religious, be open to partnering with to just help people.

Some opportunities they might have to help refugees could be:

  • Buy gift cards
  • Donate clothing, furniture and appliances
  • Help drive them places or teach them to use public transportation
  • Offer a temporary place to live or help find housing
  • Teach them job skills or help them find a job
  • Teach English
  • Get them enrolled in education, health, and government services
  • Take them around your city and get them acquainted
  • Just be friends with them

Changing the political landscape is difficult. It can be done through debating, petitioning, protesting, and voting. But it will take time. Don’t let that blind you from also doing something small and tangible right now.

Give what you can. Help who you can. Do what you know is right.