Last week former Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz shocked Utah, and the nation, when he spoke about the terrible death of a 7-year-old girl from Guatemala who died while in the custody of the U.S. Border Control after making the hopeful journey to a better life. She died of starvation and thirst.
Chaffetz’s message to other immigrants was, “Don’t make this journey, it will kill you.”
Besides the utter lack of empathy and grace, Chaffetz’s comment was horrific in its substance. “She should have never, ever made that journey. That should be the message. Don’t make this journey. It will kill you.”
No, that should not be the message. Full stop.
Of course the irony is that Chaffetz is a member of, indeed a convert to, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And thus he was adopted into a heritage that includes a people walking across the prairies of America’s west seeking religious refuge and political asylum. They were driven out of Missouri, and Illinois, and Ohio by violence. A state governor issued an extermination order against them. Another state’s constitution included a test oath against their religion for public office, which wasn’t removed until 1982.
Even more ironic is that before Chaffetz converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints he was Jewish. Jewish. You know, the quintessential wanderers in strange lands as they ran from violence and discrimination in their own homelands.
Of course Chaffetz isn’t responsible for killing this girl, but what about the next one? How will his flip rhetoric on talking-head television affect the next family who seeks a better life?
Does his rhetoric make it more or less likely that men on the border will be emboldened to “protect our borders” by emptying jugs of water left in the barren land for those who may need it, who thirst for water and for life.
Does his rhetoric make it more or less likely that those seeking asylum will feel safe to cross the border freely, which is their right as asylum-seekers, or will they fear that crossing, and in that fear attach themselves to predatory coyotes who care not for their safety or wellbeing but only for their money?
Does his rhetoric make it more or less likely that those running from violence and drugs will even make the trip toward American independence – independence from terror and violence and pain?
Yes, that is what he hopes his rhetoric will accomplish. But why? Why shouldn’t these families come here? Are we full? Our rural landscapes beg to differ. Can we afford it? Doesn’t conservative philosophy teach that the free market can sustain those who are working in it? That growth will result and benefit all? Doesn’t that new cellphone you’re reading this article on bely our inability to help our neighbors?
Christmas is in less than a week. It is the season of giving, and life, and hope. Utah has always welcomed its neighbors, domestic and abroad. Refuge and safety are the principles we built on.
Chaffetz should take a break from his warmongering for the holiday season and contemplate just what we’re celebrating next week.
My bishop shared a thought this past Sunday about Joseph, husband of Mary, and his role in the life of Christ. He reminded his congregation that Joseph chose to follow God’s direction, leave his homeland with the baby Christ and flee to Egypt, where they would be safe from King Herod’s order of violence upon children in Judea.
Joseph took his family and ran, likely under the cover of night, to save the baby Jesus. They wandered in a strange land and sought refuge, and asylum. And as Christians everywhere believe, by saving baby Jesus, Joseph saved mankind.
Jason, as a fellow-Utahn, you embarrass me. Put your shock-jock largesse away, and welcome the little children with promises of life and with gifts of grace. Keep your pious lectures on mortality to yourself.
Death is not, and cannot be, the result of families seeking safety and grace. Because we are better than that.
Michelle Quist is a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune