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Children Detained: Immigration and Jesus’ Story of the Rich Man and the Beggar

by Angel Valdez

Those of us who work closely with immigrants, who share our lives with them at Casa Juan Diego, have had to come to terms with the increasingly cruel and aggressive policies of our government towards our guests. We have gotten accustomed to it, to be honest. I am not sure this is entirely a good thing. The destruction of families caused by current immigration policy is so terrible, such a violation of everything that Casa Juan Diego stands for, that it may seem that we should be in a state of constant outrage. But we are not, really. For better or worse, we go about our business of performing the works of mercy and we trust in God.

But every once in a while, our leaders do something so spectacularly vile that we are shocked out of our complacency. As I write this, we are watching what we pray are the last moments of the spectacle of children at our southern border being separated from their parents and thrown into cages. We are listening to tapes of their anguished cries, made worse because the government staffers are not allowed to hold or hug the distraught toddlers. We can feel what it would be like if it were we who were prevented from comforting children who need comfort so badly. The whole thing is, as Laura Bush says, heartbreaking.

It is also so extreme, so over-the top, that I am confident that the policy will be overturned later today as promised, well before this article is published. Unfortunately, the trauma inflicted on these already vulnerable children will not so easily be reversed. We work with children who have been separated from a parent or parents. We have seen with our own eyes what happens to these children, the damage that cannot be undone, though we try our best. To think that such damage has been done on purpose, by governmental edict, is all but unbearable.

How did it come to this? Americans, by and large, are a generous people with a soft heart for children in trouble, a people horrified by child abuse. How can we reconcile this with the scenes of sobbing children at the border?

The easiest answer is politics. Catholic Workers take stands on issues that affect our guests, of course, but following the example of Dorothy Day, we try not to get caught up in partisan politics. We simply do not have much to add to the seemingly endless commentary about which politician is doing what to whom. We do, however have a great deal of experience living and working with the poor, particularly poor immigrants, experience which might help shed some light on what is going on at our border.

What have we learned that might be helpful? Let’s start with my firm observation that Americans are a generous people. We see this amazing generosity every day at Casa Juan Diego. Many of our donors have been blessed materially and are giving back to those in need. Others have little, but they share what little they have with those who have even less. This generosity is uplifting, but deepens the mystery: how can a kind and generous people have a government so heartless?

One clue is that we have learned that we do not need as many possessions as we think we do. In fact, our excessive possessions get in the way of what really counts. The danger is great that the possessions become more important than people.

Now, we Catholic Workers are not living high off the hog, that is true. Nobody here takes a salary, and we get no government money at all. We are committed to our tradition of voluntary poverty, but sometimes I think that using the word “poverty” to describe ourselves can be misleading. The fact remains: we have the material possession that we need.

But our experience has taught us that voluntary poverty and involuntary poverty are very different. While we have all the material possessions we need to live a decent life, most of our guests do not. Not at all. Not even close. Their lack of resources makes it difficult or sometimes impossible to raise their children. They cannot provide for their needs, or even protect them. This puts tremendous strains on family relationships. This kind of poverty, when coupled with our “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, has led to a nightmare, an existence without mercy for these families.

Economists call this gap, this chasm between the rich and the poor, “inequality.” They have objective measures of inequality, and much evidence that it is increasing, at or near an all-time high in this country. And of course, inequality here is considerably higher than in other developed countries. Most economists agree that excessive inequality is bad, not only for the poor, but also for workers and even the rich themselves, because it eventually strangles demand – if no one has money except the super-rich, who will buy the goods we produce?

This is useful information, and important, but it does not give me much hope, and, believe me, hope is what I need in times like this. Gratefully, there are hopeful things happening. Most obvious is the simple fact that the children living here with us now made it across the border before this new zero-tolerance policy went into effect. What we are watching on the news could have been them. Instead, through the grace of God they are with their families who are awaiting their day in court, instead of separated and incarcerated.

Fr. Alejandro Solalinde
Drawing by Angel Valdez

Another unexpected hopeful event was a recent visit from Father Alejandro Solalinde, a champion of human rights from Oaxaca, Mexico. He is, I suppose, as close to a super star on the migrant trail from Central America to the U.S. as one gets — ask any migrant that passed through Mexico and they will likely know of his tireless work defending Central American migrants, defying both the criminal gangs and the government, getting death threats from both.

I myself have been in southern Mexico talking to people fleeing Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, people running for their lives. The anxiety and despair was palpable, and for me, contagious. A little bit of hearing their stories wore me down. Father Solalinde has been doing this for over 12 years. When I heard he was coming to Casa Juan Diego, I had so many questions- what keeps him going? Isn’t he afraid? After all, the gangs and the crooked officials have killed hundreds, maybe thousands of migrants trying to escape Central America, kidnapped and held for ransom tens of thousands more. What makes him think he was immune?

Really, as soon as I met him, it was clear that all these questions were foolish. Of course he wasn’t afraid. Sitting in our men’s house, at the “good” table (the one that isn’t broken), with the light bulb above us burned out, eating a pot luck meal almost in the dark, he shared his vision of love and progress, and the hope he gains from every migrant he serves. He was joyful and enthusiastic and happy, and his message was above all, totally without fear.

I am beyond grateful for his timely visit. He reminded me that the central message of Jesus was simple and clear: don’t be afraid. Fear paralyzes and pollutes our motives and our mission to love others. Fear makes us cling so tightly to what we have. Fear causes us to close the door to those who need our help.

by Daniel Erlander

More and more, I have come to realize that to really understand something we need to share a story. The study of economics can tell us much about inequality, but human beings are story-telling creatures, and it is our stories that make us understand what is important. Jesus of Nazareth taught mainly by telling stories, not by giving lectures, and many of his stories were about inequality. Perhaps the one most directly related to the current border crisis is the story of the rich man and Lazarus, a beggar at his gate, who longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.

Apparently, the rich man ignores Lazarus, maybe even builds a wall to keep him away, keep him out of sight – the author of Lukedoesn’t say. But after they both die, the rich man goes to Hades, where he is in torment, and sees Father Abraham far away, with Lazarus at his side.

“So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us’” (Luke 16: 24–26).

Thinking about this scripture while watching cable news showing U.S. agents ripping children away from their parents, it is not hard to tell who the rich man might represent, and who might be Lazarus. But there is an important question that is easy to overlook. Sure, the rich man should have shared with Lazarus; he, like us, had more than he needed. But the question remains – who built the chasm?

God did not build the chasm. Father Abraham did not build the chasm. The story never says that. I do not see this as a story of divine punishment, a story of God, represented by Father Abraham, sending a rich man to hell because he did not help his neighbor. That is not what happened. There is no pious message.

The rich man himself built the chasm! And now he is stuck with the consequences. He is in agony, all right, but his agony is that he has separated himself from his fellow human beings. Out of fear, or greed, or both, he hoards the “good things” of life” to himself. But fear and greed are the opposite of heaven, and by embracing them, allowing them to control his actions, he creates his own hell.

This parable helps me understand actions that are seemingly inexplicable. Why is our government doing such terrible things to innocent children? Why this hostility to immigrants in general?  Well, when we are fearful, when our fears are causing us to be in agony, our actions are no longer logical or sensible. We lash out, frantic to escape our fear, our pain.

Maybe we put sobbing children into cages.


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 3, July-September 2018.