In Exodus, chapter two, we learn the story of the birth of Moses. Endangered in his own homeland, his mother hides Moses for three months. As time goes on, she can no longer keep him safe -Pharaoh had declared that all Jewish children would be drowned - so she placed him in a basket of papyrus to hide him amidst the reeds of the Nile. Pharaoh's daughter discovered Moses, took pity on him, and protected him, eventually treating him as her own son. Ex. 2:1-25. Some years later, Moses saw a burning bush, and the rest is history. When I was young, I remember being troubled when our parish priest would read from the Gospel of Matthew and preach about the famous parable of the sheep and the goats. That parable of course teaches us that whatever we do for the least of our brothers, we have done that for Jesus: "For I was hungry, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me . . . And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." I took the words too literally; and since I had only one brother, a big brother who beat me up regularly, I had a hard time understanding what I was supposed to do for him or what good it would do me to feed him. He was already twice my size. Last night the news covered the situation at the United States' southwestern borders. NBC interviewed a rancher working the borderlands who has placed watering stations on his land. He puts these in his fields because it is not uncommon to find children dead there if he doesn't. There is no shade there and temperatures reach 120 degrees. A county sheriff estimated that for every body found, there are several more of those who die in the desert, but are not found. Another news agency, the right-leaning Breitbart, reported that a four-year-old had crossed the U.S. border alone. Many of the children (and adults) at the border are coming from exceedingly violent places in Central America, not just Mexico. For example, the murder rate in Mexico is more than four times the United States, but in Honduras, it is close to 20 times as high. The primary danger in both places is gang activity related to drug trafficking. As one church organization official put it, "For many people the choice is to flee or to die." Americans might wonder what the problems of these other countries have to do with us. One thing it has to do with us is the fact that we are paying for it. American money pays for both sides of the drug war south of our border, and has for decades. American money is spent by the billions to buy drugs, and this money finances the cartels and the gangs. Likewise, American money pays for the government action against the cartels in the form of weapons and cash given to the impoverished governments of the region. So whether a Central American citizen is killed by a gang member, or the gang member is killed by police, we paid for the weapon and the ammunition. So the children fleeing the violence in Central America and trying desperately to get into the United States are actually running from a situation America created. The appetite for drugs in America, and the war-on-drugs-response of our political leaders are the reason the immigration crisis exists in the first place. This might be one reason Colorado's governor recently called the drug war "a disaster." In any event, what are we going to do? Some people, calling themselves "militia," say that they will go to the border and force crossers back at gunpoint. A militiaman covered a few days ago in the Washington Post explained his view this way, "You see an illegal. You point your gun dead at him, right between his eyes, and you say, 'Get back across the border or you will be shot.'" As a lawyer, I can tell you, that's not legal. A rising star among conservative writers, Charles C.W. Cooke, thinks the key is for the President to communicate a strong immigration policy telling Central Americans that they won't be allowed to remain in America, so there's no point in trying.
Many reports indeed indicate that Central Americans believe they will be allowed to stay. But considering the deplorable violence and danger they are fleeing, I wonder if a speech would persuade them to give up? And since when do conservatives think President Obama making a speech would help anything? Before deciding how we might stem the tide of immigration in the southwest, we should first consider whether we are right to turn these people away, particularly the children. Cooke has written, "If sovereignty is to mean anything, then a country is entitled to decide whom it wants to join its ranks and whom it wishes to exclude from them." Well, let's decide, then. Considering that American appetites and American policies are what so many of these people are fleeing in their own countries, what are we saying about ourselves if we send them back into a hell we've created? Is that what "the rule of law" requires? There has been much talk of enforcing immigration law more vigorously to meet the immigration crisis. But different laws apply when the immigrants involved are refugees. If a person crosses the border illegally, simply as a matter of preference about where to live, that is one thing, but if they are in serious danger where they come from, they are eligible to apply for refugee status and protection in this country. The law also entitles them to a legitimate process to determine their rights before they are deported. How should we do justice to these human beings who have placed themselves in our hands? That brings us back to Moses, and a four-year-old child who walked across a desert alone to get into America. Moses was, undoubtedly, a refugee. Due to the circumstances of his birth, he faced immediate harm at the hands of Egyptian death squads. His mother took the only chance she thought she had, and was fortunate enough that a powerful patron, Pharaoh's daughter, took pity on him. Few in America face such a devastating choice. But other mothers and fathers are sending their children away from their homes, often alone, fleeing death and destruction. Here's three questions for us on immigration: Who are "the least of our brothers" right now? What will we do for them; and how will we answer for it?