Gratitude and Shame: Why I Talked About the Border at My Thanksgiving Table

The holidays remain one of the few times when people who don’t necessarily share opinions share a meal; this can be stressful but also an opportunity for building common ground.

I’m a fan of the idea of “talking turkey” over the Thanksgiving dinner table, but this year, I stayed close to home, sharing a quiet meal with my husband and daughter. She came home early from college after suffering a significant concussion last week, and our Thanksgiving plans quickly changed from a major trek to the Midwest to a simpler and low-key affair.

My daughter’s illness has led me to think even more about an imaginary dinner conversation—as concern for the welfare of our children binds parents together, no matter their politics.

October 2019: a child’s toy in the tent camp along the International Bridge in Matamoros, Mexico

In our case, when the call came that Rebecca was in the emergency room and had been passed out for half an hour before anyone could rouse her, we dropped everything to be with her. Quick notes to our work colleagues, the rush home to throw clothes in the suitcase, a junk food drive-through meal as we hit the road and then seven hours of worrying until we could see that she was all right for ourselves.

A concussion is always serious, but our daughter has an underlying chronic illness that already makes daily life a struggle at times, and the compounding effect of the concussion meant that she was now juggling regular symptoms and additional dizziness, nausea and confusion. She wanted to recover on her own, surrounded by her friends, so with the doctor’s blessing we returned home a few days later, only to fly out and come get her when the pain and the confusion became unmanageable. Seeing her in so much pain, my heart ached, especially because she could not focus enough to read or write, things that always bring her comfort—and she was distraught over how she would finish the semester. A thorough exam from our family doctor suggests that she is just going to have to take it day to day, but that time will do its usual work of healing and getting her back to some kind of normal.

Why share all of this? Ironically, on the day Rebecca had her concussion, I had been thinking about the more than 57,000 people the U.S. has returned to Mexico to await asylum hearings under its Migration Protection Protocols. Many of those people are parents and children; many of the children are sick from living in horrible conditions, stranded in Mexico by U.S. policies that are designed to deter asylum seekers from reaching the United States and put them in danger.

I had been thinking there were probably parents whose children were suffering from mystery illnesses, triggered by injuries and trauma, who had no idea what was wrong with their child and no access to basic medical care, let alone diagnostic services. I was contrasting that to our own medical journey—grateful for the cardiologists, neurologists, pain specialists, psychiatrists and adolescent pediatricians who helped us tackle Rebecca’s POTS, an autonomic nervous system disorder. Her chronic illness is a constant in her life, and ours, but she has an extraordinary network of support, and we have health insurance, sympathetic employers, family and friends and the means to manage whatever hits us.

Still, when we got that call from the emergency room, my heart was pounding, and my anxiety was palpable until we could hold her for ourselves. When we left her a few days later, I was worried and distracted, finding it hard to keep my mind on work. When we learned she had to come home, we debated the best method: Should we send her alone? Should we drive or fly? Should one of us or both of us go? How do we get to her quickly, get her home quickly, and keep her safe? We compared costs, briefly, but in the end, money didn’t really matter—we just had to get her home, so I flew out and brought her back in a whirlwind day.

Again, I thought of the parents along the border, weighing the dangers of migrating to the U.S. against the daily violence in their hometowns. They have debated time, and distance, and money—but they have done it against a backdrop of violence, corruption and minimal social services. Their children aren’t just threatened by a medical emergency, but by illness, murder and sexual assault at home; increasingly, their children are also at risk in the unsafe camps that are springing up all along the U.S. Mexico border.

October 2019: steps away from the bridge, a tent camp where asylum seekers will live for months until their immigration hearings take place.

I’ve seen the camp outside the international bridge spanning the Rio Grande between Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico. I’ve seen thousands of people crammed into tiny tents; little children playing in the dirt or standing in line patiently for meals provided by volunteers; people desperately afraid to return home and also in fear that they will be harmed in Mexico. Some parents even send their children to the bridge alone to recross into the U.S. because it is too dangerous or they have become too ill to remain in Mexico while their asylum case is pending. In the past, these families would have been allowed to live in the U.S. while their cases were heard, but the Trump administration is deliberately creating hardship to try to discourage asylum seekers from coming to the United States. This violates international treaties and our own laws, but it is also extraordinarily cruel.

I want my child to be safe, and that impulse also leads me to want safety for other children. If we can recognize that shared desire, we can begin to build an immigration system that rejects harsh treatment of asylum seekers and other migrants in favor of one that works to improve the well-being of everyone in this country—including those who ask for our help.

I can’t imagine the pain that goes into the decision to leave your country or to send your child away in order to try to protect them, but I understand the fierce love and the anguish that goes into parenting. I feel grateful that I’m a parent in the United States—and ashamed that our country continues to turn away asylum seekers, forcing them to wait months in Mexico in dangerous conditions, separating them from family in the U.S and separating parents from children. Those who wait on the border are increasingly desperate, and, like parents everywhere, will do whatever they can to save their kids, even if that means letting them go.

That is what I wanted to talk about at the Thanksgiving table this year. As mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, we have to recognize that we have stood in the shoes of those who are standing at the border today. Our choices may not have been as desperate or tinged with the fear of life or death, but at certain moments in our lives, we’ve all felt the maddening, aching need to protect those we love.

This post originally appeared on Medium. Republished with author permission.


Mary Giovagnoli is an immigration attorney and policy expert who has worked for over 25 years in both the federal government and nonprofit advocacy to improve the immigration system. She is a former executive director of the Refugee Council USA. She served as the DHS deputy assistant secretary for immigration policy from 2015 to 2017.