I was traveling from Washington, DC to Salt Lake City, Utah for the Young Democrats of America Summer Meeting. It was a long day of travel with two layovers, in Chicago and Phoenix. My flight from Chicago got in early, and I had a four-hour layover in Phoenix, so I thought I would try to place myself on the standby list for a flight that was leaving to Salt Lake City in a few minutes.
I was too late, facing the mildly-inconveniencing reality that I would have to wait for four hours in Phoenix, where outside temperatures were hitting 110° F and seemed to be seeping into the very walls of the airport.
I noticed it was lunch time and started looking for places to eat. I could’ve sat down to eat anywhere in that that airport—but I bought food and sat down in gate A4.
As I was eating, watching Star Wars: Episode VIII on my iPad,what appeared to be a kid, his mom, and an adult man sat almost right next to me, to my front left.
The dynamic between the three people was unusual from the start. The woman was dressed semi-formally, with a large purse or tote bag handing from her shoulder. She seemed to be very focused on and protective of the boy, although not particularly with the tender embrace of a mother. The, tall, large, and buff man was dressed like how an agent of some kind would dress when he goes out in the field. The boy was dressed very casually; t-shirt, jeans, carrying a cheap duffel bag, and seemingly terrified. The woman was sitting attentively next to the boy, and the man was standing a few feet beside them. The boy was just sitting, bowing his head as he looked downward.
At this point I had already paused the movie and taken off the left ear-bud of my earphones.
“¿Estás nervioso?” I hear the man ask the boy. Nothing. “Is he nervous?” he asks the woman. The woman confirms he is, after having a non-verbal interaction with the boy.
The boy mumbles.
“He needs to go to the bathroom”, she says.
“He just went to the bathroom, he’s just nervous. We can’t let ‘them’ get used to going too often” the officer says, almost with a compassionate tone.
The man walks up in front of the boy, at a distance, while leaning on a railing opposite the boy. “¿Estás nervioso papito?” he asked, “Tú acabas de ir al baño, esos son tus nervios hablando.”. (Are you nervous, buddy?; You just went to the bathroom, those are just your nerves acting up.)
The boy would refuse to look him in the eye, instead looking nervously at the carpet between his feet. That’s when I knew something about this exchange was particularly unusual; the boy didn’t seem to be comfortable at all with the man standing opposite to him. He was frightened.
I started thinking about all the stories that were coming out regarding the horrible tactics that the United States government was, and still is, employing at the border with one of our greatest allies. I thought about the statements we had put out as an organization at the Young Democrats of America regarding the issue. However, I never thought I would encounter the situation face-to-face, away from the border. I continued to listen, trying to witness an exchange such as this one as an unsuspected bilingual fly-on-the-wall.
After the conversation regarding the bathroom ended with the boy’s silence, the man started speaking to the woman. I noticed that the officer would speak in English to the woman, even though they both seemed to be native Spanish speakers. The man shortly clarified why that was.
“We usually speak in English so that they don’t understand what we’re saying”, said the man. He then went on to tell her that he is careful regrdless, since many times the kids will understand what he’s saying but won’t admit to knowing English when asked, calling them “sneaky”.
I couldn’t fully hear many small conversations that happened between the man and the woman following this, but I quickly realized that this woman wasn’t the boy’s mother. I realized that this boy had probably been separated from his family, and she was caring for or protecting him in some capacity.
I eventually heard something that really terrified me, and confirmed what I already suspected.
“We don’t like to tell them what the shelter location is, it’s better that way”, said the man as he was looking at his watch.
At this moment, I felt shivers across my body. To watch and read the news is one thing, even when it’s about horrifying first-hand accounts such as that of Sen. Merkley (D-OR) and letters from parents, but to get a glimpse into the situation like I had just had, albeit for several minutes, made it seem that much more real.
Shortly after that comment, the man announces it’s time to leave since they soon had to catch their plane. I tried to make eye contact with the boy, but he seemed to be feeling understandably nervous, out of place, uncomfortable, and unwelcomed.
“Buena suerte”, I said. The boy looks at me, joins his lips as he slowly bows his head, and then continues to walk away. The man looked back at me, rather surprised.
I wanted to say so much more, but fear of what the authorities reaction might be if I intervened got the best of me. So I promised myself I would at least tell my story.
The way we are treating immigrant families at the border is cruel and inhumane. It is no surprise that this is happening under the administration of a President that launched his candidacy by labeling most Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals, and recently doubled down on the claim; that pardoned convicted racial profiler Joe Arpaio, who detained people based solely on suspicion of their immigrant status; and that recently catalogued immigration a “very negative thing” for Europe and warned leaders to “watch themselves, because [they] are changing culture… changing security.”
This kind of rhetoric is what has allowed for immigrants to be treated so cruelly on the border, and it is what has enabled countless outbursts of overt and violent racism across the country. Worst of all is that President Trump’s anti-immigration in rhetoric is not based in fact. It is a huge shift from the ideology of President Reagan, who, looking to secure the Republican nomination in 1980, said “rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we… make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit, and while they work here, they pay taxes… and open the border both ways.” We are far from 1980.
As President Reagan once suggested, immigration is a net positive for the United States. Immigrants are more likely to own businesses than native-born Americans and they start businesses at a higher rate, which stimulates our economy and creates jobs. Furthermore, the New York Times reported on a comprehensive study that suggested, according to their analysis, that “immigration has the effect of reducing average crime, or that there is simply no relationship between the two.”
Regardless of whether you think immigration is generally negative or positive, as a country we are supposed to stand for basic common principles concerning the treatment of others, especially those in peril seeking refuge. The Statue of Liberty sitting on Liberty Island in Manhattan holds a plaque in its arm that reads, “give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Our country is greater because we have been inclusive, and because we have provided a chance to succeed to those who were born under more unfortunate circumstances than our own, or those who simply want to contribute to our economy.
Let us treat fellow humans with respect, and let us welcome those who want to contribute to our culture and our society. Ideally, we would want anyone, desperately seeking refuge or not, following the laws of this country. However, we first have to change those laws so that they are truly just. We must ensure that our laws make it possible for people fleeing gang threats and domestic violence to make a new life for themselves in a land that is free and welcoming, without having to justify persecution solely on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group, or political opinion.
If anything, let us start by not separating families at the border, and having children getting sent to shelters across the country keeping them in the dark as to where they’re being takenjust like the one I met in Phoenix.
The President must comply with his court-ordered duties, and ensure that HHS is doing everything in its power to reunite these families as quickly as possible. We must call our representatives in Congress so they can hold our government’s agencies accountable and, should nothing get resolved, we must vote out those who sat idly by while we committed atrocities at the border to those held at detention centers across the country.