Two weeks ago a crowd of angry protesters faced off with border patrol agents in Murrieta, California, where the city's mayor and residents blocked buses carrying immigrant children who were going to be processed there. Some saw anti-immigration protestors as patriots bravely standing up against a failed federal government. But when I went to the town hall meeting at Murrieta Mesa High School the next day I didn't see bravery at all. What I saw was fear and confusion.
[photo credit: Jolynne Photography]
Things you might have seen among the anti-immigration crowd: the Gadsden flag (“Don't Tread on Me”). Signs saying “Send them home!” A tee shirt saying “If you can't feed them, don't breed them.” A woman yelling in the ear of Latino pop star and counter-protester Lupillo Rivera. A protester spitting on a young Latina and telling her to go clean toilets. What you wouldn't see among the anti-immigration crowd: non-whites. What you wouldn't hear: any understanding of the the cause of this mass migration, or a good idea what to do about it.
I went to the town hall with my wife, my oldest son, and a friend from church to be part of a peaceful counter-demonstration. Though the gymnasium would only hold 750 people, there was a line of over 1,000 people waiting to enter. Police were directing traffic and keeping an eye on the crowd. There were crews from every major news outlet. The line was surprisingly quiet and orderly considering the chaos the night before at the border station.
Instead of getting in line, we walked beside the crowd towards the front. People looked at us with curiosity and suspicion. Never having been part of any public protest, I wondered what I was doing there and what I hoped to accomplish. A look at the crowd let me know that we were definitely in the minority. I asked my friend from church, who is my mother's age, if I could hold her hand as we walked. I began thinking that the counter-demonstration was going to be only four people, but as we approached the front of the line we saw one woman facing the crowd, silent, holding a sign that read “WWJD?” (“What would Jesus Do?”). I guess that's where we're going to stand.
I was encouraged. Our motivation in going wasn't “political” in the usual sense of the word. We weren't taking a stand for or against any party or the president. Our motivation was primarily religious. We took signs that my children had created, with messages such as “Love your Neighbor” or “Who Would Jesus Deport?” We took my guitar and sang “Lord, Make Us Instruments of Your Peace.” We saw our counter-demonstration as one of compassion, hospitality, and moral obligation to welcome the stranger and care for children.
[photo credit: Jolynne Photography]
Later on, after about half the crowd was left outside the town hall meeting, the line collapsed into a crowd. Well, two crowds. One was older, white, and carried signs such as “Citizens Rule” and “Americans before Illegals.” (I often wonder: do people know that Central and South America are also Americans? It's in the name.) The other crowd was smaller, but had a diversity of both skin color and age. There were families on the pro-immigrant side. They held signs that tended to be religious (“If the Migrant is not your Brother, God is not your Father!”) or pleading for basic dignity (“Keep families together!”). There were U.S. flags all around. I was glad to have more than three others to sing with me. Especially the children.
What sometimes gets lost in the emotions of protest and counter-protest are the facts:
The overwhelming majority of this surge of migrants are not from Mexico. They are from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
An unholy percentage of immigrants are unaccompanied alien children (UAC). In 2012 there were 8,000 UAC refugees. In 2013 there were 14,000. It is estimated that 60,000 or more unaccompanied children will cross the border in 2014. Imagine a child crossing Mexico alone or with strangers. How many children don't survive the trip?
Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world. El Salvador and Guatemala are 4th and 5th, respectively. Children are fleeing levels of violence and poverty normally associated with war zone. Young men are forcibly conscripted into drug gangs. Young women are raped. Where was the outrage in the 90's when white children came to the U.S. fleeing Croatia and Bosnia? They are not “illegal aliens.” They are refugees.
Border security is working. That is why there are floods of refugees currently in custody. Children are placed in deportation proceedings according to law. Murrieta mayor Alan Long and County Supervisor Jeff Stone agree with the anti-immigration protesters, if not their tactics. Apparently community leaders want a border station in Murrieta when it brings federal investment dollars and jobs, but not when it's time for federal agents to actually do their jobs. So much for following immigration law.
In 1939 the St. Louis sailed close enough to the United States that they could see the lights of Miami. On board were 938 Jews from Hamburg, Germany seeking asylum in the U.S. from the Nazis. For reasons economic and political, President Roosevelt's administration told passengers to get in line like any other immigrants. The ship wasn't allowed to land.
If the St. Louis had gone directly back to Hamburg, it is certain that every passenger would have been killed. Captain Gustav Shroeder stalled the return voyage in order to save the passengers, even concocting a desperate plan to wreck the ship off the English coast. Finally Western European countries took the passengers in. Tragically, a third of the passengers of the St. Louis were killed by Hitler's forces as they conquered Europe.
My own family emigrated from East Europe to live in Argentina. They then came to the U.S. when my father was four years old. What if they had been on the St. Louis? How could the country where I live, a country that celebrates its role in liberating Europe from the Nazis, been so careless with the lives of these refugees?
I believe that the United States is making the same mistake today by failing to declare these immigrants refugees, and by failing to create comprehensive immigration reform that creates a path to citizenship for refugees. Some things are the right thing to do, no matter how much personal sacrifice it takes.
Let us become a nation of immigrants again. Let us immigrate from rancor to responsibility. Let us immigrate from chaos to coordination. Let us immigrate from fear to fellowship. Let us immigrate from political stalemate to personal sacrifice.
This time, let's not send back the St. Louis.
What can I do?
My family signed up with Border Angels to be a host family. There is a waiting list until the legalities and other details are worked out. The National Latino Evangelical Coalition is doing something similar with churches.
Give. Organizations like World Vision already have structures in place to help immigrants here and back home.
Joey Aszterbaum is a husband and a dad of four kids. He works for County of Riverside DPSS and leads worship at Spirit of Joy Community Church in Hemet, California. You can find more photos from the protest here.