When I was in junior high (what we ancients called middle school), one of my classmates was from Vietnam. One day in English class, he shared a poem he wrote for his mother. In an effort to give him a better life, she sent him to the United States and he had not seen her for years. His poem was a beautiful one filled with the longing to see her again as well as gratitude for what she had given up for him. Even at my young age, I was inspired by the story of such love and sacrifice, so much so that I have always remembered it.
My classmate’s mother is in my thoughts a lot these days but really, what she did is nothing new. History is rife with examples of mothers sending away their children in the hope that they would be safe and happy. During World War II, more than two million British children were sent by their mothers to the countryside order to keep them safe. At the same time, many European Jewish mothers made the heart-wrenching decision to send their children away to safety. At the end of the Vietnam War, numerous mothers gave their children to American military personnel so that they could escape the war-torn country. And those are only some examples; there are many others.
While I hope I will never have to make such a horrible decision, I can understand the choice. All I have to do is look at my son to know that I would go to any length to help him have a better life. That is why I have been so moved by the more than 57,000 unaccompanied children from Central America flooding our border since October. How much desperation did it take for those mothers to give what little money they had to the coyotes (people who transport people across the border) for the trip or to encourage their children to set off alone to the United States? How terrible do things have to be before you would rather send your child on a journey through dangerous countries instead of letting them remain with you?
For the most part, the response on the part of the United States has not been welcoming. Congress seems like it’s going to decrease the amount of money President Obama has requested in order to help meet the basic needs of this humanitarian crisis. Apparently, it’s just fine to spend billions killing other mother’s children halfway across the world but we cannot manage nearly as much for desperate refugees closer to home. For his part, President Obama seems to be favoring increased deportation rather than doing anything substantive or healing. And don’t even get me started on the people down at the border screaming at children – some of them younger than five years old! – for being silly enough to want a better life. As if these people would not do the exact same thing if the situation was reversed.
In watching all this, there is another mother who has also been occupying my thoughts: Lady Liberty. Perhaps she is not an “official” mother but still, she has stood watch over our country for decades, her lamp lighting our way and her words imploring us to heed our better natures. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” What must she think of us now? Is she wondering if she should change her words to more accurately represent the current sentiment: “Take back your desperate, even your children, For we do not care if they long to be free, Your people are your problem!”
But the United States was not created to be selfish or isolationist. Weren’t we supposed to be the beacon of hope, the land of promise? After all, we are a nation of immigrants and our motto is that we’re the land of the brave and the home of the free (it says so in our national anthem). Now, I’ll give you that our freedoms have been waning of late but aren’t we still the land of the brave?
It took courage for those Central American mothers to send their children to us, hoping against hope that we will take better care of them than they can. And it was beyond brave for those children to slowly make their way here, resolute in their desire to start a new life, free from the deprivation, drugs and brutality that plague their homelands. If we are indeed the land of the brave, then shouldn’t we want these brave and determined children who risked everything to get what we all desire? Shouldn’t the circumstances of their lives count for something? I would want that for my son should his situation be different.
If we are to continue to be a country of brave people, then we need our citizenry to be courageous as well. As such, I’d vastly prefer taking in these immigrant children versus keeping those who have nothing better to do than harass kids whose only sin has been the willingness to do whatever they can to get away from abject poverty and extreme violence. Who do I ask about whether we can make a trade? If it helps, I’d be willing to throw in a lot of members of Congress and State Legislators!
Before I get complaints about how we cannot take care of the world and how overloaded our social services will be should we take in the thousands of children who are hoping for a better life, let me say that we need to think about things differently. The United States has tried to take care of the world through wars and weapons but it has not worked. In fact, we’ve only made things worse. Since our current solutions are not working, it is time to try something else. And make no mistake: we have the money we need to take care of these children; all we need is the will.
Jane Addams once said, “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in mid-air, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.” I want to secure the good for other mother’s children just like I would want them to do for my family. Sending these desperate children back to where they came from doesn’t get that done. We need to take care of their needs and incorporate the children into our common life. Perhaps if we do that, other poems about love and sacrifice will be written but this time, they will be written about us.