Commentary: Do not look away from the suffering of migrants and asylum-seekers

(Cedar Attanasio AP Photo) In this March 27, 2019 photo, Central American migrants wait for food in a pen erected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to process a surge of migrant families and unaccompanied minors in El Paso, Texas. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott says he's sending another 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border and blasted Congress as a "group of reprobates" over the growing humanitarian crisis. Abbott said Friday, June 21, 2019, that the additional Guard members will assist at detention facilities and at ports of entry. .

By now, the routine is familiar. I close the internet browser window on yet another news story about a fresh new horror from the border and go about with the rest of my day. A tiny infant has been violently separated from his father; another child has died in immigration detention; a father and his toddler daughter, drowned on the banks of the Rio Grande.

But yet again, I click, close, and move on.

It’s not that I don’t want to think about these stories. In reality, I look away because I think about them almost every day.

Last fall I spent a week at a family detention center near the border and I have not been able to stop thinking about that experience either.

I traveled to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, with law students from Brigham Young University Law School’s Refugee and Immigration Initiative. We spent the week preparing women for “credible fear” interviews with asylum officers — interviews that begin the legal process to seek asylum in the U.S. We did this for over 12 hours a day for an entire week.

During that time, every woman we heard from had a compelling reason to leave their country. How could they not? No one makes that journey with children unless one has to. The perilous trips that refugees make, whether across the Mediterranean or the Rio Grande, are rational responses to the terror and violence of their home communities. Poet Warsan Shire reminds us: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”

Sometimes their stories would unfold piece by piece. A woman fleeing gender-based violence spoke in short sentences, sharing her story a little bit at a time. Questions remained so we called her back the next day without her daughter. Minutes into our second discussion she interrupted us: “He beat me so much that I lost a baby.”

Other times the stories would tumble out. A beauty salon owner nursing a cold told me all at once about how the gang members had extorted her and threatened her son’s life. Indignant, she asked, “Can you believe that these people did this to me and my son?” I spoke with several women who were similarly angry. I had not expected this either. I felt chastened that my perception of asylum seekers had been a single story of fear and desperation.

But then I came back home to my life in Provo, Utah and at BYU — where I am an assistant professor in the School of Education. The rhythms of daily life — of teaching, writing, parenting and church — reasserted themselves.

I still think daily about how to communicate what it was like to sit across and hear stories from women and children who were jailed simply for pursuing a better life. I think about it, and then I go on with my day. Click, close, and move on. Sound familiar?

Perhaps you have experienced something similar in your own life.

Psychologists have a term for stress and dissociation in response to the suffering of others. It is called burnout or compassion fatigue and commonly affects people in “caring” professions like counseling, social work, and nursing. However, I don’t think that compassion fatigue only affects individuals in these fields or those who have experienced the stories of asylum seekers first-hand. I believe that many people across the U.S. are experiencing a kind of collective burnout or compassion fatigue in response to the suffering of migrants and asylum seekers. Like me, I think many people have chosen to selectively tune out these stories.

We must resist the temptation to look away from the suffering of vulnerable men, women, and children at the border.

While direct help to organizations supporting migrants and asylum seekers is essential, I believe that our collective resistance to fatigue and complacency is even more important. Not looking away from what is happening at the border means being less concerned with distracting political rhetoric and more concerned with the root causes of injustice and instability in migrant-sending regions. For countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador; these root causes include things like the impacts of climate change, gang violence, and the U.S. government’s historic and ongoing culpability as a destabilizing force in the region. The issues driving Central American migration, in particular, have built up over decades and planning along a similar timeline will be required to address this complex problem.

Most importantly, not looking away from what is happening means acknowledging that family detention has fundamentally been a bipartisan effort. Both the current Republican administration and the previous Democratic administration are responsible for the jailing of migrant mothers, children, and babies. In the detention center I volunteered in, the vast majority of asylum seekers were ultimately found to have a credible fear and were released to wait out their asylum claim with family. We should not have to jail vulnerable people--including children and babies — for weeks and months as a part of this process.

Recently, the question about whether to lock-up migrant families seems entirely political, but it is really a question of our civic values as a nation. These values should not change or be conveniently overlooked because our preferred political party is in power.

Do not look away from what is happening to migrants and asylum seekers. Don’t do it. We must change what is happening at the border and make sure that it never happens again.

Eric Ruiz Bybee

Eric Ruiz Bybee, Provo, is an assistant professor in the David O. McKay School of Education at Brigham Young University.