Tears of joy mixed with sadness rolled down my sweaty face last week as I watched a stream of 100 immigrant parents and children approach Sister Norma Pimentel’s humanitarian respite center to the applause of volunteers. They had fled violence and endured perilous journeys. For days or weeks they had been held in cages at the Customs and Border Patrol Processing Center, their fate uncertain.
There are moments in life when I’ve seen the Kingdom of God break through. The smile and energetic wave of a boy on his father’s shoulders on a hot South Texas day told me this was one of them.
“Restoring human dignity” was the motto above this humanitarian center’s door. For the first time in weeks, these families were treated as humans rather than packages or animals.
Confronting Customs and Border Patrol
Our journey began at the Customs and Border Protection Processing Center in McAllen, where hundreds of immigrants families are still being held in cages. There we prayed that God would tear down the walls senselessly holding our brothers and sisters in bondage.
We repeatedly requested entry to this massive complex but were denied. A Border Patrol agent confronted us as we tried to enter the driveway on foot and warned us not to come any closer. He refused to answer questions about the children inside, slamming the door of his patrol car. After praying, we called him over and asked if we could pray for him as well. We asked how he felt about the treatment of families inside. Two agents swooped out from the building and ushered him away. What was it they wanted to hide?
As we prayed outside, trucks and buses hauling in food, cargo and human beings honked their horns and kicked up dust at our curious chain of women of faith. Inside, we knew families were being sorted and separated by age and gender. Mothers with nursing and very young children in one cage. Older children (including 11- and 12-year-olds) in another. Families are still separated within the same vast facility center, often unaware that they are being kept under the same roof as their loved ones.
People who had just been released told us that those inside are given one meal a day. The food makes them sick. They are not able to shower. They sleep on concrete floors. Thanks to Trump’s June 20th Executive Order, they can now be detained indefinitely.
One nine-year-old boy at the respite center told us he had fled Honduras because his father had been murdered. When I asked what he hoped for, he said simply “I wish that we were welcome here.”
Separating Moms and Babies
The border wall stood imposing, a scar running across our land. That’s where I finally wept. As a mom, I kept thinking of the moment years ago when I realized how my own son drank not just from my breast but from my eyes. It wasn’t just food he needed. He needed my gaze, my touch, my presence.
That’s how we first come to know God’s love. To love another person is to see the face of God. For me, these moments with my son were and still are holy communion. Take, eat, my body given for you.
Taking nursing babes from their mother’s arms is a violation of a sacred bond. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s Zero Tolerance policy, which enshrined this brutal practice and paved the way for indefinite detention of families, is an offense to God. So too is our failure to give legal status to Dreamers — young people brought to the U.S. by undocumented parents. So too are the escalating ICE raids that deport moms and dads. Every day as the raids get worse, children are living in terror that their parents will not return from work and they will never see them again.
A Lifetime of Exile from Family
In Brownsville, our women’s delegation led a moral march to the federal courthouse to demand that the government reunify the families they have pulled apart, and that all aspects of immigration policy honor the family.
In the courtroom, I watched a father sentenced to a lifetime of exile from his four children and a sick parent simply because he crossed a man-made line without papers. In case after case, the judge reiterated the unjust law. “Under no circumstances are you to ever again enter this country. If you do I will give you the maximum or even above the maximum penalty. Not even for fleeing gang violence. Not to see your family. There is no reason you should ever enter this country again. Do you understand?”
Rooted in Racism
Watching these policies in action, I can only conclude that the Trump administration is marching to the beat of racist anti-immigrant groups who have long sought to make America whiter. These groups have called for the deportation of ten million immigrants who lack legal status. The administration gives every sign they are gearing up to do so.
I can only draw one conclusion when I see the administration choosing to brutalize so many of God’s children. Their policies are rooted in the cruelty and evil of racism.
President Abraham Lincoln for a time made plans to deport the three million freed slaves after the Civil War. He changed course. I pray that rather than repeat the sins of the past, our nation rises to our better angels.
Hope in the Darkness
Every act of compassion and protest holds back the darkness and lifts up a new vision for who we might become. I dream of a world in which policymakers follow Sister Norma’s mission “to restore human dignity.” Rebecca Solnit once wrote, “We write history with our feet, our presence, our collective voice, our vision.” Let’s write history with the vision of immigrants and children welcomed.