Seeing the human dignity of those suffering at the border

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You might call it a memorial card, maybe a prayer card. I call it a holy card.
It’s a picture of a little saint, Jakelin Caal Maquin, who was seven years old when she died after migrating to the U.S. from Guatemala. On the back of the picture is a prayer for children in immigration detention.

Little Jakelin wears a simple, frilly blue shirt in her picture, and has soft brown eyes that gaze steadily but innocently at the camera. She’s the kind of little kid you yearn to embrace. I want to give her a cookie and tell her everything will be okay.

In her life, Jakelin lived in the obscurity of the poverty-stricken and powerless in her violent homeland. But in death, her name is now a Google-click away because of what she symbolizes.
And what she symbolizes is the incompetence and inhumanity of recent U.S. actions on our border.

Jakelin died from the bacterial infection streptococcal sepsis while in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The bacteria was found, according to the medical examiner’s office in El Paso, in her lungs, adrenal gland, liver and spleen. When she arrived at a border facility in New Mexico, there was no basic exam given, no concern that she was presenting symptoms that showed she was very ill. Jakelin died in 2018, on December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

You might say mistakes happen. With such an influx, someone may slip through the cracks. True.

But if you look at the big picture of our immigration behavior in the past three years, it becomes clear that the whole thing is a grotesque mistake. Take, for instance, one of our worst policy decisions, the separation of children from their parents at the border. This “policy” was a scattershot effort without any preparation for how children would be identified and reunited. Mere babies were treated like animals in cages. The American Civil Liberties Union reports that over 5,000 children were detained in this manner, and tragically many of them will never be reunited with their parents.

Every Thursday morning on a windy hill in mid-Omaha, a group called “Mothers and Others” stands on a busy street corner during rush hour with posters, including a large picture of Jakelin. They stand there to remind the city of child detention and the spiritual, physical, and psychological horrors it brings to the smallest victims and to the rest of us who sit by quietly. It was the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless.”

Almost no one wants unrestricted immigration; everyone wants a healthy, coherent process. But Congress has remained inert on the subject for years, throwing the issue into the hands of succeeding presidents. Catholics must advocate for change and reform and, above all, for a respect for life and the dignity of all. People must understand that it is never illegal to ask for asylum.

In a Lenten novena at my parish, Mercy Sister Kathleen Erickson, one of the “Mothers and Others” leaders, talked about her over-30-year involvement with immigration. What Americans often misunderstand is how connected we all are, she said. Our consumer desires, increasing greed and economic inequality all influence the root causes of immigration.

“We must recognize U.S. collusion in what is happening,” she said. And we have to believe that we belong to each other.

For me, Jakelin’s picture is both heartbreaking but also a reminder of our connection to each other and our suffering, greed-impacted earth.


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