Essays

They Still Need Us

We were inside the house, my twenty-two month old son and me, and he seemed happy. We’d traveled all the previous day to get to Walla Walla, Washington for my sister’s graduation from university and both of us were ready for bed. Then, from far off, a rooster crowed.

My son instantly started to cry. A terrified, gasping cry that would not be calmed. This had been happening all day: each time the rooster crowed, Abel wept. I cursed the rooster, but even then I knew it wasn’t its fault Abel was terrorized. It was mine.

Upon arriving in Walla Walla the evening before, I had handed my son off to his dad and gone with my sister to her apartment. I hadn’t seen her in a year, and it felt amazing to spend time with her again. We drove around town, picked a few things up from the apartment, and headed to a dinner celebrating education graduates. But just as we were on our way to the dinner, we got a text from our mom. “Abel hasn’t calmed down yet,” she said. Guilt wrapped its claws around my neck. What had I been thinking, to leave Abel after the day we’d had? We woke up at three o’clock that morning in Alaska, drove to the airport, and endured two flights with an overtired toddler who only slept about forty minutes during the entire day. He seemed happy to see his grandparents and aunt, though, so I’d thought nothing of leaving him behind.

When my parents arrived at the dinner, Louis and Abel weren’t with them. “They’re in the car,” my mom said. “Abel fell asleep.” I hurried outside. There Abel lay in his carseat, sweaty and teary-eyed, still sob-hiccuping in his sleep. “He cried himself to sleep because he couldn’t find you,” my husband said.

That night I cuddled him close. But every time the rooster crowed, he started to wail. I’m no psychologist but I’m convinced he heard the rooster at some point during his breakdown. He has always loved the sound a rooster makes; he even knows what it says in Spanish: ki-kiri-ki, ki-kiri-ki! But after the breakdown, he associated the sound with my absence and it made his heart crumble.

It took a few days for that association to fade. And I was only separated from him for two hours.

Now imagine this. You are a mother or a father living in Honduras, where, as a February 2018 article in National Geographic said, “generations of young people have realized that in Honduras the self-perpetuating cycles of violence, corruption, and poverty have robbed them of their right to grow old.”

You want your children to grow old, though. You don’t want to be kidnapped in the night so your children can be conscripted into violent gangs. So you make the 2,000+ mile journey north. To the United States. To seek asylum, “a protection granted to foreign nationals already in the United States or at the border who meet the international law definition of a refugee….a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country, and cannot obtain protection in that country, due to past persecution or a well-founded fear of being persecuted in the future.”

But when you get there, after a month of harrowing travel, you realize that Donald Trump, the current occupier of the US Oval Office, has issued a policy. A zero-tolerance policy. A zero-tolerance policy that does not tolerate you. Even on the United States Department of Justice website, you are called illegal—even though, as an asylum-seeker, you are so very legal.  But border patrol doesn’t care. In their leader’s eyes, you are an invader, a infester, something akin to vermin. And once you’re that low in their eyes, they’ll do anything to you. Tonight they ask you to remove your child’s shoelaces. Then her earrings must go, until she has no possessions and neither do you. This is all endurable because at least you are together.

A Honduran mother nurses her two-year-old in the headlights of a border patrol vehicle. This girl became the face of immigration under Trump, and thankfully was not separated from her mother like so many others. She and her mother are locked in a detention center in McAllen, Texas. Photo Credit: John Moore, Getty Images

And then they do it, the unthinkable: They rip your baby from your arms. Your baby who still breastfeeds, who will weep and beg for you and be mocked by the United States Border Patrol for her tears. Tonight your arms will crave her warmth, her sweet smell, the softness of her skin. And you will pray that the people of the United States will help you both, will fight for you.

Yes, there’s been an executive order, a piece of tape holding together a crumbling building. But 2,053 children remain separated from their parents. And no evidence exists to prove that the 200 reunions the government claims have happened are real. As of today, babies as young as six months old (some sources say newborns are locked up without their parents right now) are locked up in detention centers. Those in immediate “holding” are locked in cages and given emergency blankets and hard pads to sleep on.

Children in a cage at a McAllen, Texas detention center on June 17, 2018. Photo Credit: Associated Press

Those “lucky” enough to be in longer-term detention centers sleep in overcrowded rooms and are let outside for only two hours a day. Under Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, each new family that tries to find safety in a country whose Statue of Liberty holds the words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” gets locked up together in these centers.

For each of us who is trying to end this cruelty, there are those who shrug and say things like “they deserve it, they brought their children here.” Or, “they’re trying to use their kids as pawns.” Or, “they’re criminals.” These attitudes are in line with the Americans who tore Indigenous children away from their parents for no reason, who sold Black children away from their enslaved mothers and fathers, who locked Japanese American citizens into internment camps, stripping them of their dignity. For as long as the United States has been a country, it’s been a country that uses cruel tactics to get what it wants.

When are we going to change that?

The Latin Americans who come to the United States are not stupid, lawless rule-breakers. What they are is brave. They flee circumstances many of us will never understand. As the poem “Home” by Somali-British poet Warsan Shire so powerfully describes it, “you have to understand, / no one puts their children in a boat / unless the water is safer than the land.” I urge you to read the entire poem. I dare you to remain unchanged once you finish the last stanza.

Some of you may be sick of me: I have been sharing articles, petitions, stories, places to help, ever since I became aware of what our country has been doing. The thing is, I’m sick, too. I’m sick of what we’re doing. And I won’t stop until it’s over, until Trump and DHS head Kirjsten Nielsen and Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescind their policy and apologize and glue the broken pieces of immigrant families back together.

My son, Abel, is only here because of migrants. My father, his maternal grandfather, came to the US to escape a stagnant and oppressive government in Cuba, as did his great-grandparents and great-uncle. His paternal grandfathers are both of Mexican immigrant descent. Three sets of his grandparents speak beautiful Spanish and struggle with English. His great-great grandparents on his paternal grandmother’s side immigrated from Italy to New York through Ellis Island.

It’s my hope that Abel will always know where he comes from. I speak Spanish to him because I want him to know his heritage. I want him to always be empathetic and compassionate to those fleeing home. I want him to always know how lucky he is, how fortunate, to have been born into privilege.

And I want him to use that privilege to help everyone who doesn’t have it.

Please, please, use your privilege to help them, too. Call your representatives and urge them to act against the zero-tolerance policy. Donate money to organizations that are working to put families back together. If you’re able, march on June 30 to protest our cruel immigration policies and demand that families be reunited—with proof for us to see.

They still need us.

(Please keep comments respectful.)

Thank you for reading.

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