Asylum Seekers Need Action, Not Apathy

Migrants lined up at Group Beto in Nogales, Mexico. Photo courtesy of the author.


At the Nogales, Arizona, port of entry, I have met with Central American asylum seekers waiting to be allowed in legally and claim asylum. With fellow members of Voices from the Border, I have taken food, water, clothing, and hygiene supplies to these refugees, and I have heard the horrifying stories of why and how these asylum seekers came. Ask yourself: what would it take to suddenly uproot your family and flee with no possessions? Some refugees may have lied or exaggerated, but the hundreds upon hundreds arriving daily did not all falsify the threats of death and rape they spoke of.

Here—with names changed to protect the innocent—are a few of the people we met.

Elena is a mother of four from Guatemala. Her husband (a police officer now living with another woman) frequently came to her house, beat her, and threatened to kill her. The order of protection she got was totally worthless because he was a police officer.

Carla is a mother traveling from Mexico with two young children. Her husband and 15-year-old daughter were murdered by the gang that then tried to extort money from Carla which she didn’t have. They threatened her life and the lives of her two youngest if she didn’t pay.

Pedro is a 14-year-old unaccompanied minor from Guatemala. He was being recruited by the gang that murdered his father.

Gabriela lives in a neighborhood where a gang slit the throat of one teen boy and threatened to repeat it with every boy who did not join their gang. The 12-year-old daughter of Gabriela’s sister Martina had been recruited by gang members at her school to carry packages of drugs. After a couple of times, Martina told them her child would no longer be their mule. Gang members said if she didn’t continue, they would all rape her. So the sisters Gabriela and Martina fled in the night with their two children.

Our U.S. attorney general does not allow domestic or gang/drug violence to be justification for asylum, only political violence. It is arguable that the deplorable—and in some cases unimaginable—violence in countries to the south of us is the result of political arrangements such as NAFTA, and by our respective governments creating a situation that deprives hard-working, rural farmers of their livelihood. Whatever the reasons, the atrocities are real, and they are unconscionable.

And what happens once the immigrants get into the United States? In addition to the words “disgusting” and “reprehensible,” another word people use to describe our government’s treatment of recent immigrant families is “unbelievable.”

A child scales the border fence near Brownsville, Tex. Via

People who perceived themselves to be honest, caring citizens looked the other way or convinced themselves that what seemed to be happening could not really be happening. But it was.

After World War II, many of the Aryan Germans who had remained in their country throughout the Nazi takeover, rule, and Holocaust claimed that they did not know what was going on in the concentration camps. Perhaps these people thought government-run atrocities in the camp were “unbelievable.” People who perceived themselves to be honest, caring citizens looked the other way or convinced themselves that what seemed to be happening could not really be happening. But it was. It was not only unbelievable, it was unthinkable.

There are people in the United States today who do not believe that what is happening to immigrants here is truly happening. Some think adults from Central America and Mexico are bringing their young children to America to dump them here. These Americans think the adults planned to be separated from their children. It’s possibly true in a small number of cases; in desperation wouldn’t we all sacrifice ourselves for our children? However, considering the numbers involved, it is not reasonable to suppose this is the case for the majority of the separated families.

To be honest, I know of one case where three youngsters (the oldest claimed to be 14 but looked 11) were left at a port of entry by their father. They had only 300 pesos (approximately $20) and a cell phone with their mother’s number in North Carolina. Still, these kids weren’t “dumped.” They were being sent—although woefully inadequately—to their mother. Whether the parents were too poor, pitifully desperate, or totally uninformed will matter little to their children’s fate. The kids were here alone and grossly unaware of the seriousness of their plight. They giggled as their shoes flopped loosely on their feet because the border patrol had removed the laces to prevent suicide. The agents could hardly believe what they saw. Still, there is no legal obligation to conduct those young children to their mother. Speaking only Spanish, the children will not be able to plead their case. They may be incarcerated until put in foster care or they reach the age of 18. Nobody knows because the laws and the policies change constantly. I hope to God that those three can at least remain together. In spite of this one instance, I’ve rarely seen “dumping”; it is only a tiny part of what is happening. When it occurs, it is only one of many examples of what desperation leads to.

Respected organizations, including the United Methodist Church, Amnesty International USA, the Southern Poverty Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union, and American Friends Service Committee, are of the opinion that our government is needlessly and illegally mistreating immigrant families. If you don’t respect any of the above organizations, whom do you trust? If you only trust what you see with your own eyes, try to go to a detention center and see what goes on inside. You will not be allowed in. Why do you think that is?

We like to think that way, but right now Lady Liberty is in danger of losing her footing, dropping the torch, and setting our world aflame.

We need to recognize that what is unbelievable, unacceptable, and even unthinkable to most humans is nevertheless done. My country has separated children from their parents; run boarding schools for Native American children; held people in cyclone-fence cages with cement floors; and run internment camps for American citizens of Japanese descent.

What we think exists is strongly influenced by what we want to exist. Most Americans cherish the notion of an idealized America. Indeed, the government envisioned by the founders was ideal in most respects, that is, ideal for white, male, landowner citizens. Through the years, constitutional amendments and legislation have honed the law closer and closer to the ideal of equality, liberty, and justice for all. There are channels to redress grievances when they occur. Atrocities are un-American and we do not commit them, right? We like to think that way, but right now Lady Liberty is in danger of losing her footing, dropping the torch, and setting our world aflame.

Those who say children are being dumped here are not that different from most of us and the way we think. It is hard to accept that this nation we live in and vote in could be committing reprehensible, illegal acts in our name.

Howard Zinn postulated that apathy is the result of guilt. His idea was that people do care about injustices, but think they are powerless to help or change things. Then they feel guilty because they didn’t help, and people don’t like feeling guilty. Therefore, they stop engaging with the situation that makes them feel guilty. They may even deny it exists.

When we are presented with an unacceptable reality, denial is tempting to all of us. Psychologists have words for strategies our brains employ to reconcile irreconcilable differences. One method is to choose the more acceptable version of what we see and claim that other views are false. Another tactic is to create a different scenario that is more comfortable than any possibility we’ve been exposed to: for example, those who got the death sentence and were executed, even though they were later proven innocent, were probably guilty of something else anyway. Or that the 1968 My Lai Massacre of South Vietnam civilians by U.S. soldiers must have been perpetrated by “just a few rotten apples” in the bunch. Or how those Central Americans currently being imprisoned on the southern border for entering our country without documentation must be here to steal our jobs or bring in drugs.

As a fellow human living in this place in this time, I implore you to examine and discover what is happening here. If it does not align with what you envision to be an excellent reality, consider what you can do with others to work nonviolently to create change. For example, share your values in conversation with your friends, and explain that your values compel you to vote a certain way. You already know that a journey begins with one step, so I encourage you to take that step. A step can change your perception of what is possible and empower you to do more. Doing more in the company of others who share your values can boost your sense of the possible. And sharing your ideas gently with those who disagree can urge them toward a first step in another direction. At least, they may understand your position and see that your idea is not as unreasonable as they thought.

Remember, you can always do something. It may be donating to a helping organization, taking clothes to a shelter, or driving someone to a voting place. There’s no need to feel guilty or turn away, because there is always some way you can help. Find it.

Janice Pulliam

Janice Pulliam is a resident of Patagonia, Ariz., and a member of Athens (Ga.) Meeting. She is also a member of Voices from the Border, a southern Arizona nonprofit, grassroots community action alliance dedicated to promoting human rights and environmental justice. Learn more at

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