In the history of any great nation, there are moments of shame. As we face the international crisis of 52, 000 children at our southern border, two moments of historical American shame come to mind: the first, was in May of 1939, when the United States turned away the St. Louis – a German, transatlantic liner filled with 938 Jewish refugees escaping from Nazi Germany. The second is the terrible, iconic image of a middle-class, white women spitting on a black school girl during the desegregation of Little Rock High School in 1957.
How pitiful that these are the images that come to mind, right now, as protesters bang American flags on buses and shout racist epithets while frightened child-refugees cry.
The desperation of parents in Central America is overwhelming. These children come from areas where gangs control neighborhoods – extorting 80 or 90 percent of salaries as a kind of “war tax.” They live in towns where gangs will torture, murder and rape children. They live in places where children are routinely murdered for refusing to join gangs, in vendettas against their parents for not paying enough or quickly enough. They live in places where the bodies of those under ten pile up at morgues.
And so, much like the Kindertransport trains of the Second World War, desperate parents risk it all—their life savings, their own lives to reprisals—just for the chance that their child might live. Some in this country would have you believe that all this is a grand scheme, in which greedy parents use their children as a kind of “bait and switch” to ultimately immigrate to America themselves. Underlying this interpretation is the idea that poor people just don’t love their children, that foreign parents can’t love their children. That love is a commodity, like a nice car, that can and should only be owned by white, middle-class people.
We are fortunate, here, that we do not need to show our children this kind of desperate love. The kind in which we put them in the hands of a “coyote” and hope that they make it to America. The kind where we would rather never see them again if it means they have a chance at life. The people who are making these choices are not playing a “long-con.” They are desperate people making desperate choices.
Right now, America stands at a crossroads. Do we learn from the past or do we repeat it? Do we send these children back to their deaths, or do we recognize the refugee mantle they rightfully bear? Do we mindlessly teach our children “never again,” or do we actually live up to it?