Our country is not facing a crisis at our border, but rather a moral crisis in our willingness to treat humans with dignity and respect.
It was the gentlest of tugs on my shirt followed by the soft giggles of a young girl. I turned and looked down to see her little face. She had come around, again, with her brother in tow, this time offering me candy from the scant sack lunch the shelter had provided.
The 4-year-old and her 3-year-old brother had circled the compound several times trying to find me. Spotting me to deliver a gift, usually a piece of candy, had become their game. When I listen to lawmakers demonize migrants and reduce them to numbers, I am reminded of the days I spent managing that migrant shelter in New Mexico and the people I met there.
The U.S. Border Patrol had brought them to our makeshift migrant shelter that morning. They came in vans that arrived all day long, bringing more than 100 people in all. Just like yesterday and so many days before.
The community of Las Cruces, New Mexico, had been surprised that the federal government was releasing these migrants. Usually, migrants were transferred from El Paso to an established network of non-governmental shelters that would facilitate their travel to join family members in other parts of the country. But now the shelter the governor has assigned me to manage, which was already fully occupied with homeless tenants, was functioning as a waystation for migrants as well.
I was generally the first face migrants saw when they arrived. As the only Spanish speaker at the shelter, I made sure to greet each and every van filled with exhausted, confused, terrified migrant families. I would briefly explain where they were and what was going to happen next. All the migrants, many of whom were seeking asylum, would spend at least one night at the shelter before moving on.
For most, their immediate need was food. Parents would explain that their children had generally been given just water and a cup of thin soup while in federal custody and had very little food before that while on their dangerous journey to our country. The sack lunches we provided at the shelter were adequate: a simple ham sandwich, bag of chips, water and, when we were lucky, a piece of fruit. But for hungry children and worried parents, it was everything.
Over time, as donations began to come in, we were able to provide Gatorade and hard-boiled eggs—an incredibly welcome bounty. The other prized donations were bags of candy for the children. We usually saved the candy to hand out between meals as a special treat to get the children through the day. And now, these young siblings who had nothing but the clothes on their backs were sharing their candy with me.
Their mother told me that I was the friendliest person her children had seen in weeks. She talked about the trauma her little ones had experienced during their short lives—lives filled with struggles so great that a stranger offering a welcome in a language they understood, sustenance and safety was worthy of great affection.
I know from firsthand experience that the children and parents at our border right now are not national security threats. They are families faced with no good choices who made the incredibly tough decision to leave a dangerous situation for an equally dangerous journey in hope of finding safety. Our country is not facing a crisis at our border but rather a moral crisis in our willingness to treat humans with dignity and respect.
The American people are strong enough and resourceful enough to respond humanely to the patterned migration of people arriving at our border, and to help address the natural disasters, climate change and political instability that are driving them out of their homes and communities.
It’s time to reject dishonest, misleading rhetoric and politicians who use it to divide us and foment hostility and hate. Let’s stick to the facts, treat migrant children and parents with dignity, respond with humanity, and be the friendly face extending a hand to the tired and hungry. Most of all, let’s remember that those at our border are real people with real fears and hopes for the future.