“We are people who believe in the worth of every human being,” Elizabeth Warren said the other day, and I wondered for a moment what life would be like if that were true.
The more crucial question, however, is: How can we make it true?
Warren had just returned from McAllen, Texas, where she visited an “immigration processing center” — a place where desperate human beings are stirred into the border bureaucracy and separated into categories (immigrants, refugees, criminals) — and where children, including babies, are torn from their parents’ arms, possibly forever.
This is “the law” at work here, and as we all know, “the law” is often the voice of racism and smug superiority, a tool of dominance and exploitation in the name of public order. This is American history: founded on the belief that some men are created equal and other men are less than human. And women clean house, have babies, do what they’re told.
“There are children by themselves. I saw a six-month-old baby. Little girls, little boys,” Warren said. “Family units are together if it’s a very small child, but little girls who are 12-years-old are taken away from their families and held separately. And they’re all on concrete floors in cages. There’s just no other way to describe it. They’re big, chain-link cages on cold concrete floors.”
This is not what America stands for, she said. But except for a thin, vital strain of humanity and compassion — the abolitionists, the suffragettes, the Civil Rights Movement — this is what America stands for. It usually does so with such quiet certainty no one even notices, except, of course, those on the wrong side of the “us vs. them” divide: the helpless ones who bear the brunt of our patriotic hatred.
It’s so easy to kidnap children, indeed, to commit murder (usually called war) when you first dehumanize the designated enemy. Here, for instance, are the words of Leigh Valentine, speaking on a program called “Faith & Freedom”:
“Rape after rape after rape. Children below 10 years old engaging in sexual activity. All kinds of sin and disgrace and darkness; the pit of the pits. So we’re not getting the top-of-the-line echelon people coming over this border, we’re getting criminals. I mean, total criminals that are so debased and their minds are just gone. They’re unclean, they’re murderers, they’re treacherous, they’re God-haters.”
What’s unnerving is that this is not just a marginal rant. I fear those who absorb such words control the levers of American power. These are the words that justified slavery and the genocide of Native Americans. They justified “Indian schools” — the boarding schools that native children were forced to attend, which ripped them from their families and their culture. And words to that effect have justified every war we’ve waged (even the “good ones” … World War II, the Civil War). You can’t don a uniform — whether Army fatigues or an ICE outfit — without dehumanizing the enemy of the moment.
Back to the border, then, and the words of Elizabeth Warren: “We are people who believe in the worth of every human being.”
If this were true, what would it mean?
At the very least, it would mean uprooting a lot of simplistic assumptions of what a nation is, and how, as a nation, we connect with the rest of the world. It would mean asking ourselves, for instance, why we “protect” our (Southern) border with such obsessive cruelty — and beginning to face the armed racism we have perpetrated for so long on the countries and people beyond that border.
As Richard Eskowpoints out: “One question remains: Why did these children’s families leave home in the first place? Again, the answers lie, in large part, with U.S. policy. The United States government has intervened in the internal politics of Central American countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador for more than a century. It has trained Latin American military officers in techniques that include illegal techniques of torture and interrogation, often at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas…
“Many of today’s immigrants seeking refuge from poverty, persecution, and violence aren’t just fleeing to (the) United States. In a real sense, they are also fleeing from it — or, more accurately, from the results of its actions in their home countries.”
If we begin to value the worth of every human being, the first thing we must do is acknowledge our failings in this regard over the last two centuries, and begin groping for fundamental change. This is a foundational question. Perhaps it begins with a simple (and extremely complex) commitment: From now on, we dehumanize no one. What if all national policy were embedded in such a value?
As we stood at our border, we would do so with awareness that the planet’s social order is evolving and humanity is uniting. We would understand that change begins here, with us, and the right to life doesn’t stop at this invisible line.
Masha Gessen, writing recently in The New Yorker, points out that the Trump administration is defending its border policies by citing both the law and the Bible, and alleging that the Democrats want — oh, the horror! — open borders. “Sadly,” she writes, “this is not true: no voice audible in the American political mainstream is making the argument for open borders…
“The existence of borders, and the need and right to police them, are among the unquestioned assumptions in the conversation.”
Now is the time to challenge this stagnant, cruel assumption. Now is the time to stand at our border with something other than hatred and fear. Now is the time to declare to the world that no human being is illegal.
Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.