The Common Good

The Moral Failure of Immigration Reform: Are We Really Afraid Of Children?

Did you see the pictures from Tuesday in Murrieta, California? Three buses were full of unaccompanied minors and mothers with children, all fleeing violence in Central America. According to American immigration officials, they were being taken by Homeland Security to a U.S. Border Patrol Station for processing and eventual deportation—after being flown to San Diego from Texas, where they had walked across the U.S. border seeking safety. The buses of children were blocked by adults yelling that they weren’t wanted here in the United States. Big angry white men, holding signs the children couldn’t read, with angry faces screaming at them in a language they didn’t understand—when they were already alone and away from their families and home—would certainly make children feel very afraid. Some of the kids were reportedly as young as six years old.

The town mayor, Alan Long, said the children posed a threat to his community and that he was “proud” of the demonstrators. One hundred-and-fifty protesters waved American flags, chanted “USA! USA!” and shouted to the scared children, "Go home—we don't want you here." Totally blocked from reaching the processing center, the buses turned around and left for another Border Patrol Station, where some of the children were reportedly taken to a hospital for unspecified treatment.  

More than 52,000 unaccompanied children from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have walked across the U.S. border since last October—some, unfortunately, by way of human trafficking networks though Mexico. Thousands more have come with their parents. The surge has overwhelmed the system and become a very serious humanitarian crisis to which U.S. officials are scrambling to respond. But this is being politicized in Washington.

Incredibly, some Republicans have used this tragic situation as an excuse for why they scuttled immigration reform—when having a smart, fair, and humane immigration system in place would have helped avoid this crisis.

This horrible scene in California reminds me of an interaction during a talk I gave a few months ago on immigration.

It turned out to be the most important immigration talk I’ve given this year—and it was to my son’s fifth grade class. They were studying the subject and invited me to speak about it. First, we went through the long history of immigration in this country. All the children in my son’s class are part of our national history of people who chose to come to America (with the exception of those families forced by the chains of slavery). Next I told the students about our current problem of 11 million undocumented people living in uncertainty and fear for years and even decades, of families being separated, fathers and mothers from torn away from their children, and hardworking and law-abiding people being deported every day.   

Looking very surprised, these students asked the obvious question, “Why don’t we fix that? Why doesn’t Congress change the system?”

I answered, “They say they’re afraid.”

The students looked even more confused and asked, “What are they afraid of?”

I paused to consider their honest question and looked around the room—the classroom of a public school fifth grade class in Washington D.C. I looked at their quizzical and concerned faces, a group of African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, Native American, European, African children. Then it hit me.

“They are afraid of you,” I replied.

“Why would they be afraid of us?” the students asked, shocked. I had to tell them.

“They are afraid you are the future of America. They are afraid their country will someday look like this class—that you represent what our nation is becoming.”

This multiracial, multi-cultural, and multi-national group of 11-year-olds now looked more confused than ever.

“They are afraid this won’t work,” I said. “Does it work?”

The children looked at each other, then responded with many voices, saying, “Yeah…Sure…Of course it works…It works great…It’s really cool!”

Together we decided that our job was to show the rest of the country that this new America coming into being is, in fact, really cool.

Our long battle for comprehensive immigration reform was recently officially ended in Congress by Speaker John Boehner. The leader of the Republican House of Representatives told the President that he would not allow a vote for reform to be brought up—even though it is widely believed that a vote to fix this broken system would pass were it to come up in the House and the Senate.

Speaker Boehner and his Republican leaders themselves admit this is only about politics. Most Americans of every political stripe believe the current system is untenable and must be fixed. A large coalition from the faith community, the business community, and law enforcement officials says that reform makes common sense, is good for the economy, is good for national security and public safety, is good for keeping families together—in short, is a moral imperative. But that is being obstructed by a vocal group of white conservative lawmakers who are motivated by political and racial fear and hatred. Many conservative Republicans have more or less admitted that those feelings are very present in the constituencies they represent. And the Republican leadership is unwilling to stand up to their fear of a more diverse American future.

This is political obstruction of the common good, and it is a moral failure. This week, in a meeting with President Barack Obama, faith leaders asked the President to do everything he can, within his Constitutional authority, to “relieve the suffering” of all the families and children who will continue to be devastated. Let me say this very clearly: Those who have morally failed to fix this broken system must dare not now try to prevent executive orders to protect the people we love, who have become part of “us,” and whom Christ asks us to protect. If Republicans continue to ignore and cause the suffering of all “the strangers” among us, they will have to answer to the faith community.   

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God’s Side, is available now. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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