Border Crisis Test of U.S. Ideals

This commentary appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.

July 4th is a fitting time to consider what our role should be in addressing the unprecedented numbers of Central American children crossing into Texas. These children, fleeing atrocities that otherwise would have largely gone unnoticed in this country, serve as a call to embrace the highest ideals we have for what it is and can be to be an American.

The Statue of Liberty is arguably the most recognized tribute to American freedom. Inscribed emblematically with July 4, 1776, with her torch guiding the way, she has served as the first face of America to many. She evokes a spirit that is not about isolation and containment, but about compassion and individual liberty expressed through shared opportunity. As nearly every American school child can retell, the very creation of the statue reflected a spirit of unity and international cooperation. It was a gift from the French that was paired with American investment in and creation of its supporting base. The overall structural framework was engineered by an American who had emigrated to the U.S. only four years earlier. With many hands involved in its creation, its funding, and its installation, "Liberty Enlightening the World” was dedicated July 4, 1886 and became the beacon of Liberty Island.

The poem so closely identified with the statue, "The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, did not appear on the statue itself until a few years later, but it was created expressly to help bring the icon to Freedom Harbor. Its message of hope and welcome to those "yearning to breathe free” has been an inexorable part of our American understanding of the emblem’s significance. Her words memorialized a shared understanding that the goddess of liberty was not meant to promote a remote ideal, but was to be a sign of home to all who came across her — the "Mother of Exiles”.

These children crossing our border and the borders of our neighbor countries in unprecedented numbers are in the starkest sense exiles. These children have traveled for weeks, and many have suffered terrible abuses during their journeys. As has been widely reported, through interviews with over 400 children, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has concluded that as terrible as the trek might be, the conditions many of these children leave are much, much worse.

Through the years, we have as Americans embraced a vision of liberty that values helping others achieve the opportunities we hold dear and providing refuge to those in need. While this influx of children has led to a strain in our capacity to serve, the Fourth of July serves as a reminder of what it is to be American and that vision of "worldwide welcome” that we as a country have aspired to achieve. As these terrified children flee to us, do we put our energies to bolting the doors shut, or do we put it towards caring for these vulnerable, displaced children? There are not easy answers to this crisis, but as these children in need come to Texas, let us meet them with the face of the America we wish to be: a face that offers hope and liberty and embraces the opportunity to share those ideals with those who seek refuge in our borders.

Eileen Garcia is CEO for Texans Care for Children.