Ann Williams Cass
Ann Williams Cass

McALLEN, RGV – When I heard stories of great famines occurring in Africa I would think to myself, “How close does a starving child have to be for local people to show concern?

Would a child starving to death on my front lawn be enough to soften the hearts of neighbors to respond? What if the child lived in North Texas or in Mississippi? Is that too far away to get involved?”

Today we have children right in our midst who need attention, love, and caring. Fortunately, the majority of citizens are stepping up to the plate and responding with time and resources. Fortunately our local leaders, the Mayor of McAllen, Jim Darling, and Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia, along with their emergency management officials, have been so supportive of these families.

Unfortunately elected officials who do not live here and who cannot look these children in the eye are offering quite a different response. These politicians suggest that we militarize our Rio Grande Valley, that we waive existing laws and that we expedite the deportation of these children as soon as possible.

A study of over 400 children leaving their countries in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, done in December of 2013 by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees and the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops found that a majority of the children had viable causes to request for asylum.

A civilized nation does not send refugees back to their country of origin until the issues that caused their flight are cleared up. You just don’t do that. We did that once during the Second World War when we sent back boatloads of Jews fleeing death camps because our immigration policy had met its quota. History did not look kindly on us for that move.

A civilized nation does not put children in jail. What is happening right now in the Border Patrol Detention Centers for unaccompanied children is horrible. The UN’s document, Children on the Run, points out that we need to refrain from practices that unnecessarily restrict children’s liberty, especially with regard to detention as it gives continued harm and has a detrimental impact on the well-being of the child.

Our government must do better and we citizens who have these children in our communities need to be raising our voices about what is happening. We need to educate our Senators and Governor about what constitutes a refugee and why they should not be returned as quickly as possible without due process, which they are not guaranteed.

Thank goodness for the response of our Catholic Bishop Daniel Flores and Sr. Norma Pimentel with Catholic Charities RGV. Other faith communities and families have also responded in unprecedented numbers to volunteer and to bring supplies of food and clothing.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and an Equal Voice Network coordinator remarked that the situation of these children provides us as Americans the opportunity to show the world just how great we are. I am reminded of the late Bishop John J. Fitzpatrick who responded to the refugee crisis in the 1980s by opening up a shelter for those fleeing the wars in Central America. He told me once, “I supported opening up the shelter because I believed that the Gospel was calling the church to be the face of Christ for the refugees. To my surprise, they became the face of Christ for us.” And indeed the parents and children who are here in the Valley now are the face of Christ for us today, what an opportunity we have to serve them. Let us continue doing that and supporting those who are working very hard to make that happen. In the long run, we are the ones who will be blessed by them. What an opportunity we have!

Ann Williams Cass is a longtime community organizer in the Rio Grande Valley.