Are we still the Land of the Free?

American flag seen from the Mexican side of the border.
Illustration: Craig Kelley Jr.

As we celebrate Independence Day, we mark the birthday of the nation our forefathers brought forth on this land. It’s a fitting time to remember that, if you’re not Native American, your presence in these United States of America is evidence of our nation’s history of immigration and appropriation.

Some of our politicians must have a short view of history — and a sense of privilege that’s long and wrong. Perhaps that’s why they think it’s okay to viciously slam shut the door to freedom on others.

I do not think it’s okay. I think what’s happening on our southern border is an abomination and a stain on the soul of our country.

Last summer I went to the border to get a firsthand look at the bleak reality many families are enduring. I could only begin to imagine the horrific circumstances that would make embarking on a perilous journey, facing indefinite detention and hoping for an asylum hearing seem like the best option for my family.

When children are also torn from the arms of their parents, I don’t know how the strongest adult — let alone any child — could possibly emerge from such an experience intact.

As bad as the situation was last year, the news has only gotten worse.

Since then, we’ve learned that family separation has been far more extensive than first reported. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) admitted that there may be thousands more children who’ve been separated from their parents than originally reported — and that they have lost track of them.

Think about that. Our government lost children it insisted on taking from their parents.

Then there was the news that more than 4,500 children reported being sexually assaulted while in HHS care over the past four years.

Overcrowding of families observed by OIG on June 11, 2019, at Border Patrol’s Weslaco, TX, Station.
Overcrowding of families observed by Office of Inspector General on June 11, 2019, at the Border Patrol’s Weslaco, Texas, Station.
Photo: Office of Inspector General, Department of Homeland Security

Just last week, we learned that children were being kept in makeshift jails and sleeping on concrete floors under bright lights kept burning 24/7. We heard accounts of young teens trying their best to care for infants and toddlers they didn’t even know. And we listened as a Justice Department lawyer argued that children in our nation’s custody do not need soap and toothbrushes.

To add insult to very real injury, we also learned that current and former Customs and Border Patrol agents allegedly took part in an online group that spewed racist and sexist taunts and mocked the deaths of people who were seeking to enter our country for the hope of a better life.

We cannot let the ever-worsening treatment of our fellow human beings become our new normal. We must raise our collective voices and demand change now.

While we hope and wait for our federal legislators to work together to create a more humane immigration system, the Mott Foundation has been exploring how we can help to address the immediate and long-term needs of separated families.

As soon as we began hearing about the crisis, we turned to trusted nonprofits working in the southern border region for information and guidance. We learned that Hispanics in Philanthropy (HIP) was mobilizing a collective philanthropic response, and we quickly made a $150,000 emergency grant to the organization’s Family Unity Fund.

The fund provides resources to local and regional groups working to reunify families, address their legal needs, and provide mental health services to help them recover from the trauma of separation and detention. Our early grant helped to leverage other contributions. To date, HIP has raised $1.5 million for the fund.

Along with tackling the immediate needs of people along migration routes, we’ve been looking at the issue from multiple angles. From the conditions that cause asylum seekers to flee their home countries, to the myriad challenges people face when they first reach the southern border, to underlying racism and xenophobia toward migrants — it’s clear there’s no quick fix.

Overcrowding of families observed by Office of Inspector General on June 11, 2019, at Border Patrol’s Weslaco, TX, Station.
Overcrowding of families observed by Office of Inspector General on June 11, 2019, at the Border Patrol’s Weslaco, Texas, Station.
Photo: Office of Inspector General, Department of Homeland Security

But one thing that stood out for me during my border visit was the compelling need for more information, coordination and resources for the hundreds of nonprofits and informal groups assisting refugees and migrants in Central America, Mexico and the U.S. For the charitable community to be effective in addressing the needs of these people — especially those who are separated from family — a well-coordinated, transnational network is critical.

Mott’s Civil Society team is working with our grantees to help strengthen networks and find other innovative solutions. So far, we’ve made additional grants totaling $700,000 to Alianza Americas and HIP to support this work.

And we will continue working with our grantees to explore how we might help to address this ongoing humanitarian crisis. While the nature and scale of the crisis are new for all of us, the Foundation can draw on our long experience working on issues of democracy, access to justice and civil society in places like Eastern Europe and South Africa, as well as our history of supporting local approaches to solving international challenges. Though we’re acutely aware that we don’t have all the answers, we won’t sit on the sidelines while such suffering continues at the doorstep to our nation.

As governments and charitable organizations from many countries work together to address the crisis, I hope understanding and empathy will surmount intolerance, insensitivity and fear. I hope we all might realize that — more than being citizens of any one country — we are all members of the global community. And all people deserve to be treated with dignity, no matter our status.

Perhaps Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best during his 1964 visit to Berlin:

For here on either side of the wall are God’s children, and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact. Whether it be East or West, men and women search for meaning, hope for fulfillment, yearn for faith in something beyond themselves, and cry desperately for love and community to support them in this pilgrim journey.