The following essay by the Rev. Dr. Jamie McLeod provides a powerful, prophetic response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis at the U.S.’s southern border. McLeod frames his essay around the disturbing, moving images of deceased refugee children and families, from Alan Kurdi (2015) to Oscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter, Valeria (2019).
We encourage readers to use their discretion about viewing these photos and others mentioned by McLeod, believing both that they may be triggering for some and that they are also important documented texts that can inspire and bolster resistance to the human rights violations at our border. The images have not been included. Readers can follow embedded links or search for these images if they should so choose.
Immigrants and Refugees
On September 2, 2015, the body of a three year old Syrian refugee named Alan Kurdi was found on the coast of Turkey. Kurdi’s family, fleeing Syria from the violent unrest that had swallowed almost the entirety of the country, crossed over the border into Turkey and paid a smuggler $5,860 for four spaces on a 15-foot inflatable raft. The raft, which was designed for eight persons but was carrying sixteen, capsized some five minutes into the voyage to a nearby Greek Island, throwing everyone into the ocean.
What happened next is difficult to pin down. Some of the adults in the boat were wearing life jackets, but Kurdi’s father would later tell the press that the protective jackets were fake and that they saved no one. The children on the boat had no life jackets at all. The body of three year old Kurdi was found floating in the morning by locals and dragged with another child back to land. It was there that the now iconic image of his lifeless body was taken, his face down in the sand, the bottom of his shoes pointing back towards the camera.
For some time, international news had been covering the violence that swept through Syria. Westerners had a working knowledge of the condition of the city of Aleppo and the use of banned chemical weapons by Bashar al Assad against his own people. We, as Americans, had read about former President Obama’s “red line” in which the United States would be forced to intervene to cull the brutality and bloodshed in the country. We also saw him later back away from that commitment when the time came to take more direct action.
Moreover, we heard about the massive numbers of Syrians who were pouring out of the country trying to get anywhere they could so that they and, more importantly, their children could have a hope of not being killed. In our collective minds and psyches, we knew all this, yet, it is not clear that the realities of what we knew had truly been absorbed by the body politic. Then the image of Alan Kurdi was taken and shared and shared again and posted on countless Facebook pages and tweeted and retweeted until eventually the gravity of the situation in Syria began to be felt by the global community.
When those who suffer are nameless, faceless, and without definite identities, it is easy to dismiss and ignore the plight of those who live halfway around the world. In the picture of Alan Kurdi, the whole of the world gathered their children in closer. We imagined the appearance of our own young ones, his lifeless body pressed into the seashore, his hair matted against the sand, the bottoms of his little three year old shoes facing the camera in our minds, his palms facing up to God. That little child became all of our little children, and in an instant, we cried and we cared.
In the aftermath, world leaders who were also parents with children recommitted themselves to the responsibility that the global community has toward those who were simply trying to flee violence. Likewise, everyday folks felt a new sense of urgency in the moment. Giving to organizations that sought to take care of various aspects of the refugee experience went through the roof as many emptied their purses, wallets, and pockets to relieve the collective guilt and shame that we all carried simply because something like this could happen while we were alive and breathing. All of this, largely, was sparked by a photograph and what it so powerfully conveyed.
The Power of the Image
Since the inception of the camera, much like poignant art, images that capture moments in time also capture the attention of the viewer. There is little doubt that the images that emerged from “Bloody Sunday” on the road in between Selma and Montgomery or the photograph of the body of Emmitt Till in his casket propelled the Civil Rights Movement to the forefront of many people’s minds. In the same manner, images from Kent State, marches on Washington, the flower being placed into the barrel of a rifle, the naked body of Napalm Girl, and the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức on a street in Saigon all called the attention of the nation and the world to the growing conflict in Vietnam, the cost of war, and the protests against it in both Vietnam and the United States.
Likewise, pictures of a single man standing up against the whole of the Chinese Army in the middle of Tiananmen Square, of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, or of Neil Armstrong standing on the moon next to the American flag that still (we assume) resides on the lunar surface remind us that the strength, resiliency, and determination that is found in the human spirit may well be limitless. Apart from pictures that capture those moments, we are left to find that strength and outrage within the confines of our own minds, and that is a difficult undertaking.
Earlier this week, a new photograph was taken and disseminated in the hopes of shaking us from our slumber. This image, the bodies of a father and his 23 month old daughter, testify to the lengths that some coming from far away lands will take to reach the safety and security of the United States. The father, Oscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, a refugee from El Salvador, frustrated because he could not gain access to the US asylum program, decided it was better to try and swim across the Rio Grande with his almost two year-old daughter with him.
According to reporting (in Spanish) by Julia Le Duc, the man, having reached the American side, left his daughter there with the plan of swimming back to get his wife. The daughter, Valeria, seeing her father leave, jumped in the water and clung to him. The two were then unexpectedly swept away in a strong current. Ramírez’s wife, watching this all from the Mexican side of the river, described a harrowing scene in which the father pulled the daughter to his chest in a final effort to keep her safe. Still, they sank under the water together, the daughter clutching her father’s neck. This was how they were later found when they washed up on the shore - their final resting place being, ironically, in the United States.
The details of the story, itself, should tug at the heartstrings of even the most cynical among us. The desperation of the father, the fear of the daughter, and the anguish of the mother watching helplessly ought to jar those who cravenly seek to obtain power by dehumanizing those who seek to gain asylum in this country even as they exploit their plight. That image ought to be seared into the hearts, minds, and souls of each and every person in the United States. It ought to continuously erupt into our days at the most inopportune time possible, rendering the completion of anything else impossible. It should haunt the nightmares of each of us who enjoy the comfort of a roof over our heads, food in our bellies, and the security of living in a time and place where, for a great many of us, the chance that violence and death will invade our everyday existence is virtually nil.
That image, not of a violent criminal or a member of MS-13, but of a loving father and his daughter, this ought to stay with us and disturb us and move us. As with the photograph of Kurdi, we should all be incensed by the structural failings and the political demonization of immigrants and refugees when we see this image of a father’s lifeless body splayed along side of a river, and his daughter’s lifeless body, clinging to the only security that she had in the last moments of her life, and the knowledge that whatever else happens in the next life, she will discover it in the loving arms of her father.
The People We Don’t Care About
In June of 2015, the (now) President of the United States, came down his golden escalator, in his posh building, and announced his candidacy for the presidency with the following words,
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
Setting aside the fact that the vast number of people who cross the southern border into our country are not of Mexican descent or that, statistically, those who do come over without proper documentation are far less likely to commit violent crime (or crime of any kind, really), the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue came onto the nation’s presidential stage offering specious claims and racist generalities hurled at the feet of a huge swath of people.
It is unfortunate that, at the time, these comments were not taken seriously. Trump was seen by most as a reality TV star whose fledgling entré into politics was little more than a business venture and a potential opportunity to start his own media conglomerate like Rupert Murdoch or his friend, Roger Ailes. Even those who were concerned about the degree to which Mr. Trump was castigating a whole segment of the population harbored little notion that this erstwhile campaign would make it through the Republican primary, much less all the way through the general election. Some two and a half years into his presidency, it seems clear that those who thought they knew better were wrong.
Trump, a person who had made his initial foray onto the political scene by openly and vociferously questioning the citizenship of the first African American president, had now found a whole group of persons upon whom he could turn his ire. Moreover, in doing so, he discovered a segment of the American populace that also turned their collective frustrations against persons from South and Central America who had come here (or were coming) largely in order to escape the endemic violence of their societies.
In ascending to the top of the polls to be the Republican nominee for president, there was a tacit approval of the kind of racial language and castigation that Trump had embraced. It is clear that what he had said at the bottom of the escalator was merely naming a reality that was already deeply-seated in a portion of the American citizenry. That being said, Trump’s language is merely a raucous and incendiary illustration of the animus directed at persons who lack proper documentation—an over-the-top character that allows the rest of us to point and say, “I’m not that.” In doing so, we can easily absolve ourselves of the collective guilt that comes with being citizens of this nation.
As country of persons empowered to elect our representatives, we must admit that, by and large, we really aren’t that concerned with the treatment of children separated from their families (or that there remain 100s of children who have not be reunited).
We aren’t that concerned when administration officials argue that providing toothbrushes, soap, bedding, or fresh diapers to children ought not be considered part of our government’s required humane treatment of refugees.
We aren’t that concerned that older detained immigrant children are tasked with watching younger ones or that infants’ cries pierce each hour of every day like a macabre symphony. We aren’t that concerned when an elected leader of this country blames the drowning victims for drowning while showing zero empathy for their loss.
We aren’t that concerned that women in detention centers are being told to drink out of toilets if they want water or that they’re being woken up at all hours of the night to be verbally abused and called whores.
We aren’t that concerned about cages or silver emergency blankets or kids getting sexually abused or dying of illness or that virtually all of it is preventable if only we cared. If we truly felt like this was completely unacceptable in our nation and that our civic leaders have spent the past two decades doing little to systemically alter the circumstances that allows these realities to continue unabated, then the only possible response would be to march, to protest, to flood the offices of our elected leaders, to stand and be counted and be unmoved by the consequences of our actions until something, anything, changed.
At the end of the day though, this is not simply a political issue. (Bearing in mind that politics is how we determine the parameters of the social contract for how we will live together in our nation / state / municipality). To break it down in terms of political allegiance is to, again, take an easy way out. We stare across the political divide at the other side and blame them for actions taken or their inaction. We say it is all “their” fault, pat ourselves on the back for being caring and concerned people, and move on.
This is what makes the image of Oscar and Valeria so powerful. As with other historic and iconic images, it is able to reach past the smaller communities of which we are part (political / philosophical / religious / national / racial) and for a split second simply see the humanity represented by two folks who died trying to claim the freedom that ought to be our birthright simply by being alive on this planet while being (in Christian language) children of God.
When we see others suffering, denuded of whatever layers of division that we tend to take with us into each new moment, we see our brother, our sister, our child, our parent until ultimately we see ourselves. It is our society and the cultural currency that racial divides have held in this country since its inception that prevents us from caring about the plight of thousands of Oscars and Valerias. It is our common humanity that causes the scales to fall from our eyes.
The scale of the crisis is more apparent now than at any time in the past few years. At present, we, as Americans, must acknowledge that there are thousands of Oscars and Valerias who are arriving at our southern border each day - though, they are not a monolithic group. They come from different countries of origin and thus seek to leave different situations. They come from places that are so violent, corrupt, and dangerous as to make it impossible for many to stay.
Many are running from gang violence that has swallowed any semblance to functioning government. Some are fleeing from abusive domestic situations in which the terror injected into the most intimate of relationships causes one party to fear for their lives. Some are struggling with debilitating poverty that makes for hungry children and tense populations in many of the nations to the south of the equator.
Regardless of the individual reasons, of this I am certain, absolutely no one would choose to walk a few thousand miles in the heat with few provisions and little clothing unless the situation they are fleeing is so bad as to leave them with no other options. To argue otherwise is to elevate the absurd to the rational, and no nation-state can ever survive by embracing the nonsensical in favor of some collective common sense.
Immigration is an incredibly complex issue and there is no ten word slogan that one can address all the issues that plague our broken system. That being said, it would seem that a good place to commence any sort of discussion should be with a commitment from every elected leader and every citizen to treat human beings as human beings and not as if they were merely the gum that is stuck on the bottom of our collective shoe.
Moreover, we should demand a system that takes seriously the dignity that ought to come with simply being alive. We know that immigrants who are coming from the south of us are doing so, largely, from situations from which anybody with a right mind would seek to escape. They see America as a shining city on a hill—a place where they can aspire to picking fruit or cleaning motel rooms in peace while their children can aspire to not dying or being killed or exploited. They have existed in hell for so long that even the most menial jobs in the United States seem fantastical by comparison.
That so many from outside the boundaries of the country arrive at such a conclusion should come as no surprise. It has been baked into the national cake for as long as we, as a country, have existed. The myth of American superiority is foundational to the collective understanding of our nation. We have spent the entirety of our history speaking of the United States as being blessed by God, as being exceptional, and as being the greatest country in the world.
We have shouted from the rooftops to anyone who would listen of our achievements in wartime and peacetime, of our robust economy, of our melting pot of ideas and cultures and people, and we have embraced the belief that at least part of our national responsibility was to welcome other countries’ “tired,” “poor,” and “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” This was how we understood ourselves to be and, at this moment, our chickens have come home to roost.
The folks who arrive at our southern border each day see America as the only option they have left in a life that has been far more damnable than paradisiacal. They are yearning to be free, to no longer be tired, and to experience something other than debilitating poverty, and they walked thousands of miles to prove it.
Oscar and Valeria swam a river in hopes of possibly sneaking into the country and not getting shot by an overzealous border patrol agent, or jailed, or deported, or dying of thirst, hunger, or the element - all to have the chance to be undocumented immigrants living a life in which they will be swept up in fear every time there is a knock at the door, or blue lights flash behind them, or a stranger walks just a little too close. Knowing all of this, America was still the closest thing to heaven that they could imagine. Isn’t that exactly the kind of people we want coming to our country?
There is no easy answer to any of this, and the current swell of refugees and migrants is surely taxing the present system to its breaking point. But in a time with so much hatred and bigotry being directed at such a defenseless group of persons with empty bellies, torn clothes, soggy diapers and no resources, there is nothing more radical than a movement that rises up from the masses to be an inch more loving, a little more accepting, more welcoming… at least an inch better. Do we really expect and accept so little from one another? I really hope not.
The Rev. Dr. James D. McLeod, Jr., grew up in the town of Lumberton, NC. After attending Clemson University, he studied Divinity and Theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and received a PhD from Garrett-Northwestern in 2015. His area of research is the intersection of race, religion, and culture. He has served churches in Missouri, North Carolina, New York, and Alabama. He lives in Trussville, AL, with his wife, Lesley, and three sons.