As a descendant of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, I'm painfully aware of how fortunate I am to live in the United States. Thousands of my grandfather's peers were accused of being Nazi spies and denied asylum by the U.S. State Department and Franklin D. Roosevelt on the grounds they were a threat to national security. In one infamous incident, the German ocean liner St. Louis and its 937 passengers, almost all Jewish, were turned away from the port of Miami in June 1939 and forced to return to Europe. More than a quarter of those passengers died in the Holocaust.
As absurd as it feels to write this, Americans seem to agree that separating infants from their parents and holding them in cages is a less-than-ideal border policy. Yet, after the initial outrage, followed by weeks of protest and political handwringing, we are no closer to agreeing on a humane policy response to those seeking a brighter future for themselves and their children in the United States.
What do we owe asylum seekers from Central America? For the current administration, the answer is "nothing." As far as it is concerned, "caravans" of "illegal aliens" are blatantly disregarding the rule of law and bringing poverty, violence, drugs, and terrorism across the border — or would, if they were allowed to enter. Tear-gassing migrants at the border and separating them from their children might look cruel, but for this administration it is a small price to pay when, it would have you believe, the safety and security of the American people is at stake.
Of course, a full, honest accounting of the situation would require acknowledging our collective responsibility for the violent, wretched conditions under which so many migrant families have suffered. After all, the United States repeatedly has fomented political chaos and instability in Central America, resulting in decades of authoritarian rule and civil strife in most countries in the region, while Americans’ insatiable appetite for cocaine and heroin continues to fund the brutally-violent cartels behind the Latin America drug trade.
To Donald Trump, Mexico and Central America are violent and poor not for reasons of politics or economics; they are violent and poor because Mexicans and Central Americans are less than human. And if one is unashamed to call migrants "animals" and "criminals" looking to "infest" our country, why would one spend even a minute wondering what is causing them to flee their homes?
This mind-set attributes suffering to the personal moral failings of an individual or group of people rather than seeing it as a natural outgrowth of deliberate policy choices. It also knowingly evades responsibility. Persistent poverty and violence in African-American communities are attributed to the cultural or psychological flaws of black people, rather than recognized as the devastating consequence of hundreds of years of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, police brutality, and racist housing legislation. Falling incomes are seen as the product of laziness rather than the result of anti-tax policies, the offshoring of millions of manufacturing jobs, and decades of legislation that have concentrated much of the country’s wealth in the hands of a tiny subset of the population.
The manufactured crisis on our southern border is merely the latest symptom of a collective inability to recognize the basic humanity of others and come to terms with the consequences of past actions. If we acknowledge that political decisions made by American elites are partly responsible for the violence, extortion, sexual abuse, and mental and physical trauma that migrants are subject to on their journey to the United States, our collective obligation to help them becomes a moral imperative. Migrants are the victims in this crisis, not its creators.
This shameful moment in American history requires a philanthropic sector that is actively willing to support the two pillars of social change: charity and justice.
There are urgent humanitarian needs being unmet. Food, shelter, basic supplies, and asylum application assistance are all in short supply at the border, while for direct-service providers like those that make up the California United Fund, dealing with a large volume of migrants in a rapidly deteriorating situation has strained their capacity to the breaking point. The situation also demands a robust legal response. Organizations such as the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Southern Poverty Law Center need support as they bring suit against the administration on behalf of nonprofits working to provide assistance to refugees and asylum seekers. My organization, PICO California — the largest faith-based community organizing network in the state — will be holding a series of vigils, protests, and meetings at congressional offices and federal buildings in the months ahead to demand that Congress assign more judges to the border to speed up migrant asylum applications, send humanitarian aid to all migrants, provide job creation and violence prevention assistance to Central American countries, and vote "no" on expanded budgets for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
And yet, the focus on direct services, advocacy campaigns, legal challenges, and voter outreach is only a start. The polarization of our communities is so significant that nothing less than societal transformation is likely to bring about the changes we need. If we don't start to create pathways to reconciliation, progressive power will merely reproduce a different kind of hegemony.
At their core, the fights over immigration, housing policy, criminal justice reform, gun control, and tax policy are fights over who is seen and who matters. As a movement for racial and economic justice, we believe that everyone belongs, and we are committed to resisting the xenophobia and scapegoating that is corrupting our democracy. By investing in movement-building strategies that bridge differences, funders can help create a more inclusive society that is responsive to the needs of the most vulnerable. Only then will justice become a public form of love.
Jeremy Ziskind is grants manager for PICO California, the largest faith-based community organizing network in the state.