Refusing sanctuary to children in need
Exactly 75 years and one month ago the St. Louis, a German trans-Atlantic liner carrying 938 Jewish refugees, was turned away from the United States, forced to return to Europe. U.S. law didn’t allow them sanctuary.
Today we are preparing to send 45,000 children back to Central American countries controlled by drug cartels that routinely torture, rape and kill children who refuse to work for them. So routinely, so often are children menaced that their families sent them away, alone, across thousands of miles on just the slimmest of hopes that they might be safe.
U.S. law doesn’t allow them sanctuary.
The St. Louis is famous now as a failure of compassion that haunts American history. It is so easy to imagine the despair of those passengers, forced to return to countries that would soon be overrun by the Nazis. It is difficult to imagine an America that would be so cruel and insensible to the terror of others. President Franklin Roosevelt is still held accountable for his failure to respond.
And now we have President Barack Obama promising to send the children back. We have an America demanding that he do so, and in fact, blaming his administration for not securing the borders more tightly so that those desperate Central American families would have had no hope at all that their children might find sanctuary.
But, in fact, the border is secured. The children are in custody. They will be turned back.
There are differences, of course, between these children and Jews on the St. Louis.
These children didn’t arrive on an ocean liner. They walked through some of the most hostile, hot, barren, dangerous country in the world. No one knows how many died. Their parents weren’t with them. They were sent by poor families so terrified for their safety that they paid many thousands of dollars and entrusted their children to criminals hoping they might arrive in America and be safe.
There’s another difference too. America did not fund the Nazis. America does fund the drug trade that empowers the killers these children are fleeing. If Americans didn’t buy drugs, the trade would dry up.
I keep wondering if those families were thinking about the great kindness that Americans are known for. Despite all that America may have done wrong, this is still a country that the world looks to for compassion and rescue. I wonder if those parents thought American hearts would be touched so deeply that there would be a great outcry when their children’s stories were heard.
We have heard their stories now. Stories of children who are publicly stripped naked and gang raped by drug syndicates. Stories of children maimed. Stories of children murdered.
Hearing how callous the world was to the suffering of Europe’s Jews, we are baffled. We wonder how that slaughter could have been allowed to happen. We wonder why countries closed their borders.
I don’t wonder anymore. I’ve listened to the politicians, read the editorials and heard the voices of American citizens demanding that terrified children be sent back into harm’s way.
Our hearts are not touched by these children. We want the law enforced. This is our country. Ours. And we don’t have to share it. Not now. Not 75 years ago.
We haven’t changed at all.
Why? It’s simple, really. A matter of us and them. Yes, these are children whom we’ll send back to be raped, maimed and killed. But they aren’t our children. Our children are precious.
These children. They simply aren’t. Not to us.
Christine Wicker is an author and former Dallas Morning News reporter.