“I cannot watch the boy die,” said Hagar as she left her son, Ishmael, under a bush (Gen. 21:16). They had been exiled and were wandering in the wilderness in search of a safe, new home. They had run out of water, and Hagar could not bear to watch her precious child die.
Hagar was a mother traveling with her young son, looking for refuge. Today, thousands of mothers with young children have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border, similarly seeking refuge.
God comforted Hagar and provided life-saving water. She and her son were able to find safety and a new life. In the U.S. today, mothers and children looking for safety and a new life are be-ing locked up in detention centers. Many have already been deported back to the dangers they fled.
For the fiscal year ending in September, more than 68,000 families, primarily mothers with young children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border. Almost the same number of children traveling without a parent also arrived. Most have applied for asylum, a legal process by which a person from one country can apply to stay in a second country if that person fears certain types of persecution or violence in her home country.
In previous years, those applying for asylum could stay with relatives in the U.S. and await a court hearing. As the number of refugees — and the political pressure — increased last summer, the Obama administration started to put these families into detention centers.
When Obama took office in 2009, he closed the notorious T. Don Hutto Family Detention Facility in Texas, cited for numerous human rights abuses. In May 2014 there were fewer than 100 family detention beds in the U.S. In a matter of months this increased to 4,000 and continues to rise — all of them in for-profit facilities run by private prison companies.
Most women and children seeking refuge have already experienced suffering as victims of violence, rape, death threats or as witnesses to murder. Rather than finding the refuge they so desperately seek, many are further traumatized in detention. Most lack access to medical care and legal assistance. Women must recount stories of violence and rape in front of their children. Children are denied simple items like toys or coloring books.
Some have criticized mothers for bringing or sending their children to the U.S. But, like Hagar, many feared they would have to watch their children die. Gang violence is endemic in the three sending countries. Teenagers are recruited by gangs; some are killed for refusing to join. Small family businesses are terrorized by extortion and violence.
Other “push” factors include poverty, drought and domestic violence. Families are “pulled” by the desire to reunite with loved ones in the U.S. Trade policy, the U.S. “war on drugs” and U.S. military assistance also factor in.
Closing our borders may seem like a solution, but it is like locking the door while a neighbor from down the street pounds on it seeking safety from attack. Jesus reminds us in Matthew 25 that how we treat the most vulnerable reflects directly on how we treat him. Will we provide water, shelter and compassion to a weary mother and child seeking refuge after a long journey? Or will we lock them up and send them back into harm’s way?
Tammy Alexander is senior legislative associate in the Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office.