Traditionally, when passenger ships sailed on open waters, an emergency on the ship could mean doom. People would be ushered to life rafts and in the colonial days, boats were often stuffed full of more people than could be accommodated on the small life rafts. The cry would go out for women and children to move to safety first. They were seen as the most vulnerable and the most important to protect.Imagine if a captain called back those lifeboats, ushered the women and children back onto the sinking boat, and left them to drown.
Perhaps a more pertinent dilemma is the question of who would we expect to be sent to safety on the lifeboats if we ourselves were on board a sinking ship? It is appalling to think a ship would leave port without a safety raft for every passenger. And in this modern era, one presumes all crafts provide for every passenger. Still, not all governments consider “all men to be created equal” and do not enact legislation to that effect. The United States has a unique and wonderful position—and opportunity.
The United States of America has a special tie to the sailing of ships. Pilgrims and pioneers braved conditions unimaginable in today’s American culture in order to come to a new land. These immigrants came to labor from sun-up to sun-down, to scratch out an existence. They left the comforts of knowing what each day would bring, to strike out for unknown dangers in an unknown land. They followed hope, the hope and faith in God that through hard work and determination they would find better. Thus they built a nation.
This spirit of adventure, ethic of hard work, and patience to endure severe trial is not relegated to those ancestors of the past. People with that same energy, drive and passion strive to reach the borders of the United States today, to pick up those threads of nation-building that are carried by pioneers.
To understand what motivates people to leave behind communities and lands that raised them, remember those history lessons about those early immigrants who fled reli-gious persecution, starvation, unjust laws and social structures, and violence. What must it take to motivate a person to pack a few belongings, leave friends and family to endure hardships in a foreign land of strangers?
A mother with a child is among the least likely to wish to pull up roots, pack what she can carry, and haul everyone into the unknown. For a mother to resort to the extreme action of taking her child knowingly on a hazardous journey can only mean that the situation in which they live is untenable and more dangerous than anything they could meet on the journey. Desperation surrounds such a decision.
For poor immigrants traveling to the United States, the path is fraught with struggle and danger. Unscrupulous individuals wait to take all their possessions, perhaps even their lives, and for women the violence is particularly brutal. These are the villains of our nightmares. Then, the terrain they must pass through provides another level of terror: deserts, jungles, raging rivers, wild animals, hunger and dehydration. Perils like those make problems such as climbing fences topped with razor wire to cross a border, or capture by police, pale in comparison. Thousands of immigrants shoulder these burdens. Stories pass through friends and family so all have heard of the tragic losses, near misses, and successes of those who have attempted the crossing.
Mothers of children in countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and other places of insecurity and violence, poverty and destruction, choose to make the trip rather than remain at home. They are fleeing sinking ships. There is no safety in their lands. No one has led them to a life raft, they must seek one on their own.
Our own government has been enacting a policy of deporting mothers with children back to their countries. Who knows what happens to those deported once they arrive back in their country? Who has heard from them again? Their voices have gone silent. They fled perils more grave than the ones they faced on their journey to our great nation, and they were sent by the American government back to those terrors.
Our government ordered the women and children back to the sinking ship. Their cries can no longer be heard.
Houston Catholic Worker, January-February 2016, Vol. XXXV, No.1.