It’s 98 degrees on the border as our flight approaches the Rio Grande Valley. Our plane’s shades are drawn to keep it cool. As we descend, I lift mine. The brown fields below stretch to the horizon, dotted with windmills generating clean energy. As their white blades spin I think of the song “Free As The Wind”. Thousands of child refugees seeking asylum across the same landscape must feel anything but free – caught up in our political clashes over immigration, separated from loved ones, detained.
We came to the border at Harlingen, TX to try to make sense of what we’d seen from afar – family separations, ICE raids, children confined in chain-link fenced detention centers. But up close it is actually even more mystifying. Rather than statistics or news reports we see human beings in all their complexity.
-A young mother at dinner with other refugees at the La Posada shelter run by Catholic nuns wears a big smile in place of the electronic ankle bracelet removed just hours earlier.
– Before 11 year old Yaritza is called before the judge in Immigration Court, the CEO of the ProBAR legal aid organization explains that all of the kids get a “Know Your Rights” presentation, “but given the trauma they are going through it is like talking to them about college applications while their house is on fire.”
– A region flooded with media now seems to have none at all. In Immigration Court, besides the 30 kids bring processed, and our team, there was no one else there. We’ve become a nation of reality TV watchers even though reality is more compelling. The kids I so often think of as vulnerable and voiceless have become invisible as well.
This issue polarizing American politics is not solely an American issue. UNICEF reports the worst child refugee crisis since World War II. Across the globe, nearly 50 million children have been uprooted, with 28 million fleeing brutal conflict in places like Syria, Iraq, Yemen and South Sudan, and millions more escaping extreme poverty. As your hard work brings us ever closer to achieving No Kid Hungry we will begin asking whether our knowledge, resources, and talented team positions us to help more kids beyond our own borders.
Aside from the data, legal issues and political arguments, a visit to the border evokes the issue, as Danny Meyer would say, of how it makes you feel: I left feeling America is better than this – not meaning that all of the refugees were good and all of the Customs and Border Patrol personnel were bad. It’s never that black and white. But we can do better than allowing our opinions to form and harden based on whatever political tribe we belong to, without really seeing the human beings impacted on either side. Unless we commit to bearing witness, most will remain as invisible to us as the wind turning the turbines below us as our plane departs.