The Real Problem at our Southern Border

Featuring an op-ed by Fred Sneesby, private citizen.

 My boarding school on the beach

My boarding school on the beach

Ever since this summer when we, meaning our elected government, started separating families, I’ve had a hard time talking, or sometimes even thinking about the ordeal being faced by children at our southern border. I grew up between cultures. And I grew up in a war. I first left home as a 6-year-old to attend boarding school at a beach town in Vietnam. I have memories of things like tear gas. I have one memory in particular of some of us kids from my boarding school standing outside where the breeze was strongest, against our chain-link fence, looking out at the brilliant ocean which was like a sheet of tinfoil in the sun, crying because of the gas. I distinctly remember NOT being sad—I remember it as an adventure. Sure it hurt. It was also very exciting.

One of my surprises in listening to the news this week was my own reaction when I heard our soldiers were using tear gas on migrants. Outrage. Fear. I can understand water canons and tear gas in a riot. But children? For the first time in my life it dawned on me that maybe tear gas wasn’t just one of my childhood adventures.

I do spend time with refugee families. The kids are pure kids: energetic, relentlessly curious, sometimes mischievous, sometimes cranky, easily distractible, brimming with incredible hope and delight. These issues are emotional ones for me. To put it bluntly, some of our choices and policies are child abuse.

Below is an editorial from the Providence Journal written by Fred Sneesby back in July when our Department of Justice began actively separating children from their parents. Fred is an author and in his professional life works for the Department of Human Services and, I might add, serves as our State’s Refugee Coordinator—though he wanted it clear that he wrote this op-ed as a private citizen, not as a spokesman for DHS. He’s been an important support to Beautiful Day, so when he has something to say I usually think about it for a long time. Sadly his thoughts are even more relevant now than when they were first published.

I realize that attention to language in our roller coaster culture is becoming un-PC in certain circles. But Ianguage always matters. “Human displacement” is an important term because it reminds us that we are talking about human beings who have the same needs, same struggles, same pool of complex emotions as you and me. It means we share our most basic humanity and “being” in common. So if something might be traumatic for my child or yours then we had better assume it might be just as traumatic for another human child. Refugees weren’t born into more resilience to anxiety or stress—just different circumstances. Children are always the greatest victims in displacement. I pray for the activists and lawyers who are still trying to reunite those families—they’re doing important and probably thankless work. Even though the damage of separation is done and probably irreparable for the sake of our shared humanity they need to succeed.

I’m trying to use and get used to the pronoun “we” when talking about our elected government. And if we are not able to speak up about our systemic child abuse then we’ve lost the ability to see certain people as human. Most governments have a history of blind spots and terrible violence around these issues.

From what I understand there are upwards of 100 unaccompanied minors in our own city, making up another important, hidden population. Beautiful Day is beginning to explore opportunities to help at least a few of them learn job skills in hopes that this will help provide them with some sense of hope and agency as they find their way through a new culture and into new life. Who knows if this will lead anywhere; if nothing else it will help us to speak up and keep learning about human displacement.

Thanks, Fred, for letting me reprint this. You can all read the original in the Pro-Jo here.


The Real Problem at our Southern Border.

For a few decades now, youngsters have traveled a perilous route from Central America through Mexico and across the United States’ border.

For many years it was a relative trickle of migrants who were managed by Customs and Immigration Enforcement. In recent years, that trickle has grown into waves of young people from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, as those countries have sunk into violence and chaos. In contrast to migrants who are seeking a better life, these pilgrims are simply seeking a chance to live.

Over this period of time, the people who cross our southern border without legal standing have been labeled “illegal.” They could be migrant workers coming north to work in one of the industries that rely on such labor (agriculture, construction, hospitality). They could be people whose family members have been killed or threatened by gangs. They could be people who are seeking to be reunited with relatives who made the journey — legally or illegally — and gained a foothold in some distant American city by washing dishes or processing meats or doing piece work 80 hours a week.

No matter who they are, or their circumstances, or their country of origin, or what motivated them to come, they are classified as “illegal aliens,” people who have broken the law and must be subject to judicial proceedings to determine their fates. This is framed as a legal problem, with legal solutions to be implemented by the Department of Justice.

Sometimes, though, the attempted solutions to problems fail not because the solutions are inadequate but because the problem is identified incorrectly. That happened with thousands of children who were separated from their parents. Their presence, and that of the adults, is not part of an “illegal alien problem” or even an immigration issue. It is a humanitarian crisis and a refugee problem.

We are not the first country to experience this type of crisis. Due to the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, millions of people have been displaced. Neighboring countries suddenly found themselves unwilling hosts to people fleeing for their lives. Jordan is now home to almost 1.5 million Syrians who had to leave their homeland. Nearly the same number of Syrians now reside in Lebanon. These are staggering numbers for these countries.

Americans witnessed the heart-wrenching voyages of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the Middle East for Europe. Thousands of displaced people still live in camps in Greece and Turkey, while others found their way to other European countries. This is not an “illegal alien” problem. It is a displaced-persons problem, one of people fleeing for their lives. We are facing the same problem at our southern border.

The solutions are not readily evident, but it is crucial to characterize the problem for what it is. It is not a legal problem that will be solved by the Department of Justice. It is not a legal problem that will be solved by incarceration and legal proceedings. Legal solutions will not work because it is not a legal problem. It is a problem of large numbers of people displaced by violence and chaos. They have come for refuge.

There are several possible avenues that could lead to solutions, but we will never make any progress if we are trying to solve the wrong problem, not only wasting time on those efforts, but spending additional time and energy engaging in political and moral posturing.

Frederick Sneesby, of Providence, is the author of “Avoiding Martyrdom: the Catholic Church in the United States.”