Unnatural Phenomenon: Children at the border

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By Kathleen Stocking
Sun contributor

When dolphins wash up on shore in significant numbers, we suspect there’s something wrong happening in the ocean. It’s just not what we expect. It’s not a natural phenomenon. We may not know what it is exactly, but we guess that, whatever’s happening, however unknown or unknowable to us, it’s got to be about more than dolphins simply taking a notion.

Why don’t we have the same common sense intuition about the children at the U.S.-Mexican border?

We’ve all seen the pictures: children, endless numbers of them, peering wanly out of a dusty group of urchins who have just arrived near a chain link fence, or lined up on the floor in neat faceless rows under foil blankets, like so many child-sized, foil-wrapped entrees.

They have come by the thousands from Central America, an estimated 57,000 of them. Four decades ago, according to Oscar Martinez, a Salvadoran journalist writing in The Nation in August, our government supported the wealthy oligarchs and their military dictatorships. Poor peasants, revolting against starvation wages and oppression, were forced to flee from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Some of them found work as members of gangs in American cities. Arrested and returned to their home countries, “they found countries devastated by war and poverty,” according to Martinez, “with thousands upon thousands of corruptible and abandoned children” to recruit for new gangs.

These are the children at the border, Sonia Nazario wrote in the New York Times in July. These are the children of the drug wars. They have come to the United States to escape murder, rape and conscription by the cartels.

In an alternative view, the border children, like kittens dropped off in the night or babies in baskets on our doorsteps, have been sent by irresponsible parents into the United States to take advantage of our largesse. An anti-immigration crowd in Oracle, Ariz., held up signs proclaiming, “You are not welcome.” These American citizens, except in the rare event they’re of American Indian ancestry, are themselves invariably the offspring of immigrants, but see nothing hypocritical or aberrant in despising other immigrants.

When a boatload of Jewish refugees came to our shores in 1939 during the Second World War, President Roosevelt’s government turned them away. Anti-Semitism in the United States, like the anti-immigration sentiment that exists today, was strong enough that Roosevelt took the route that was most immediate, convenient and politically expedient. Government casuists in 1939 parsed their reasons: the 937 refugees were not refugees but tourists. They could not enter the United States on tourist visas because they had no return addresses.

Captain Gustav Schröder, given the German Order of Merit after the war and posthumously named as one of the Righteous among Nations by Israel, considered running the ship aground in Florida and allowing his passengers to escape, but U.S. Coast Guard cutters kept him from doing so. Returning to Europe, an estimated one-third to one-quarter of the passengers died in concentration camps.

In the confusion of the moment, whether we’re talking about children at the border in 2014 or a boatload of Jewish refugees in 1939, it’s often easy to get bogged down in the economic or legal constraints. It was argued then, and is being argued now, that the refugees don’t have the right documents or we don’t have enough resources for them.

One needs only to think back to Jonathan Swift’s 1729 satiric essay, “A Modest Proposal,” to think twice about purported legal and economic arguments. Swift, as you may recall, suggested that problems of poverty and orphans could be solved by passing a law mandating raising the children as food. Thus people would have enough to eat and the problem of the unwanted children would be solved.

In 1999 I worked with homeless children in Richmond, outside of San Francisco. This was one of the poorest regions of the Bay Area. I taught writing in the Palo Verde Elementary School on Saturday mornings from 8 to noon as part of a program called Community Works.

My first morning I was early and wended my way through garbage-strewn streets, past rag pickers pushing rickety grocery carts scouting for returnable bottles and scrap metal, past the evening’s revelers and drug dealers making their tipsy way home, past a few children up early, one little boy and a slightly bigger boy inexplicably beating a new bicycle to death with baseball bats.

The Palo Verde School was surrounded by a high chain link fence that was plastered with refuse. At first I thought it was strange that no one had removed the garbage, but then I saw that the school was next to a garbage dump. It would have been a never-ending job, cleaning up the trash, so they just left it there.

The school itself was one of those solid, 1940s-era, thick-walled schools with cool, high-ceilinged hallways and polished wood floors. The director of the program was a tiny, competent, white-haired Mormon lady, Evelyn, who had been doing it forever. Her office, next to the nurse’s station, was behind an iron grill, like a bank teller’s office in a Lone Ranger movie.

Evelyn decided to put me in the library, a large room with low tables and soft lighting, hidden in the bowels of the building. She wanted me to be safe from the roving gangs of older children who sometimes roamed the school to steal the juice boxes and snacks of the younger children.

That first Saturday morning, about a hundred children found their way into the hidden library. They spoke many languages: Hindi, Chinese, Portuguese, Mon, Swahili, Thai, Tagalog, half a dozen varieties of Spanish, and Black English in a dialect that was sometimes unintelligible. It was like the Tower of Babel in there. I couldn’t teach. All I could do was play games with them.

At the break at 10 a.m., I found my way out of the maze of hallways and back to Evelyn’s barred window. “I can’t do this,” I told her. No way could I teach 100 kids with a dozen different languages.

“Don’t worry,” she said calmly. She had heard this all before. (Evelyn would die soon after I finished there.) “There will be fewer each time.”

I thought about this on the way back to my library hide-out. Fewer each time. And what happens to the children who stop coming? This was my first time working away from Northern Michigan. In the years to come, unbeknownst to me then, I would teach in El Salvador, Guatemala, Thailand and Romania, Third World countries with unspeakable poverty and crime, but I would never get over fewer each time.

In a month I had about 20 students, more or less, not always the same students. Even with the different languages, it wasn’t as hard as I’d thought it was going to be. I had pattern poems in all the languages and between the games, the snacks, the improvisational theater (I brought costumes), the drawing and painting, the time passed pleasantly.

Two little Hispanic girls from someplace like Guatemala or El Salvador, a younger sister and an older sister, always sat together and never smiled and never wrote or made pictures. They came every Saturday. They didn’t cause trouble, but they also didn’t participate. They were a mystery to me.

One Saturday after the class ended, I caught up with Evelyn and told her I was concerned about these two little girls. I couldn’t get them to engage. She said, “Neighbors called protective services because the girls were screaming every night.” It turned out the girls were having nightmares. They had watched their father tortured to death in front of them. Their mother had escaped to California but the girls were still so traumatized they could not, or would not, speak.

At the same time that I was working with children from the streets and homeless shelters of Richmond, I was working with the most violent inmates at the San Francisco Jail in a program called Resolve to Stop the Violence (RSVP). The jail was the land of bad childhoods. One man’s father had tried to kill his seven children after his wife died giving birth to my student, the child he blamed for his wife’s death, a child who would become as an adult male and—why are we surprised—a murderer and a pedophile.

Another man who had no father, watched as his mother, aunts, uncles and grandparents all succumbed to heroin overdoses and he, after ending up in foster care, had gone to jail because he was on heroin. He was not a killer but he, and I, worried that once released from jail he would return to using heroin. And on and on, each story worse than the one before.

Most of my jail students were black, Native American and Hispanic. The connection between the damage caused originally by slavery, genocide and oppression, and then passed from generation to generation in a horrifying legacy of dysfunction, poverty and illiteracy, was inescapable. These were the dolphins washed up on the shore.

The trouble in the ocean is our culture’s historic lack of support for families and children and a belief that the resulting riff-raff can be put behind bars. We’ve created a society with more people in prison than any other country in the world, spending more to incarcerate a person for a year than it would cost to send that same person to Harvard. If the same money we now spend on prisons were spent on family maternity and paternity leave, if parents didn’t have to work three jobs in order to support their families but instead could spend time with their children, it would save billions. Children who are not cared for often become dysfunctional and this, in turn, leads to violence.

Children who are forced to witness terrible violence never get over it; those children do not just fade away. They grow up and, short of some miraculous transformation where they fall in love, find a good job and create a decent life, commit violence themselves. They shut down emotionally and so lack awareness of right and wrong. Violence, to those who’ve grown up with it, is a way of life. Killing, so I was told, gets easier with time.

The path from terrible childhoods where kids witness terrible violence—or it’s perpetrated against them—to drug addiction, finding work as hit men, death and/or prison was pretty clear in my mind. Knowing I had little chance of turning around the lives of violent adults in the RSVP program, I tried harder with the children at the Palo Verde School. I was willing to make a total fool of myself if I could get a smile out of a child.

The kids responded positively to my goofy costumes: a red wig, a full purple skirt with pink sequins. One day I came in sunglasses that had windshield wipers. I talked funny. I used different voices. Another time I wore a tiara with blinking lights.

My Spanish was so bad that if I really wanted to see the Hispanic kids rolling on the floor, holding their sides, laughing, all I had to do was try to speak Spanish. One day I noticed that I drew a slight smile, very slight, from the bigger Hispanic sister. The smaller sister, I learned, had such a stiff facial expression because she had a metal plate in her face. I never knew why.

I was always noncommittal with my students, half-pretending that I didn’t know they were there. Of course I did know they were there, but I’d discovered that if I was too apparently aware, it made students withdraw.

On a gray November morning of the California rainy season, I had the students draw a picture of a starry night, using Van Gogh’s “Oh, Starry Night” as an example. If a person can get an image then the words will follow. We drew stars all morning. Then after the break I passed out pattern poems about stars in as many languages as there were.

“Estrella” is the word for star in Spanish. For the first time I saw that the younger Hispanic sister was writing. This was an astonishing turn of events, which I purportedly ignored. I hadn’t known she could talk, much less write.

At the end of the class I gathered up all the work and put it in my bag. I didn’t even glance at the younger sister’s writing. As soon as the students were gone I pulled out her work—for all I knew she had been scribbling nonsense—and read, “Cuando estoy triest, me imagino que tengo espiritu de mi.” I knew enough Spanish to make out, “When I am sad, I imagine I have a spirit inside of me.”

That afternoon, after I drove back over the St. Raphael Bridge into Marin County, west and then north out along the high coast road above the Pacific Ocean and finally down into the cove near Stinson Beach where I lived, I thought about what had happened, trying to figure out why.

That evening, when people were out on their decks, I gave the poem to one of my neighbors, a bilingual social worker, to translate. The poem described a star, “brighter than all the others” on a cloudy night, a star that “seemed to reflect all the happiness inside me” that came out of the sky and into her being, “like a many-colored butterfly” and also like something that had been there before but that she had forgotten. It was “the star that illuminates all the obscure and silent night.” It was “the spirit inside of me.”

“She had a break-through,” my neighbor said in amazement, after she translated.

How or why, neither of us knew.

This I do know, we each have a spirit inside of us. I knew it before that day, but it was confirmed by what I saw in the younger sister. We fail to honor this spirit in ourselves and others at our peril. It’s not so much what will happen to the children if we send them back, but what will happen to us? Do we want to be seen by history like the people who watched the trains of children headed to Auschwitz and looked the other way? When do we become complicit? When we know something bad is happening, and can do something about it, and don’t. That’s when.

Children who are malnourished and mistreated become adults. Short of tagging them with computer chips, like animals, or simply raising them for food, as Jonathan Swift suggested, or flat-out genocide, they can end up anywhere. There’s no escaping anything anymore; and when we adults close our eyes to the harm being done to children, we become changed, less human, more brutal.

Herman Hesse, the German philosopher and writer, said that every so often in our evolution out of the primordial muck, we must look back down the long, dark, narrow winding way, and see how far we have come, and keep going, trying to become better human beings.

Evolution is not just about having an opposable thumb or being able to walk upright. Evolution is also about not sacrificing your child on the mountain and, bringing us up to date, knowing that there is no difference, in terms of sacrifice-ability, between your child and your neighbor’s child.

Evolution is about becoming more intelligent and compassionate. It’s about sharing resources fairly. It’s about recognizing that we are all better off when we are all better off. Caste, class, race, age, gender and borders are just ancient, ridiculous, outdated ways of thinking that were used to justify some people having more while other people had less.

The idea is to be more evolved, not less evolved. We must care for those children at the border, not just because it’s the right thing to do, which it is, but because if they are returned to the violent places from whence they came, they are very likely to become part of that violence and this will come back to haunt us, not just in our consciences, but in reality.

Any child who is loved and cared for—fed, sheltered, educated and told every day in every way that he or she is valued and wanted—is better for all of us. Any child who isn’t cared for is worse for all of us. There are no more borders.

Kathleen Stocking is author of the acclaimed book, Letters from the Leelanau (University of Michigan Press, 1990). She is currently working on her next book, The Long Arc of the Universe.

Read our related story about what’s holding back comprehensive U.S. immigration reform, including an interview with Congressman Dan Benishek.