Not long after my parents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, the apartment building where they lived with four kids caught fire.
This happened in the late 1960s before I was born. My older brothers and sister still have vivid memories of my family being trapped in the apartment, not knowing what to do, until Des Plaines firefighters came and rescued them.
When they got out of the building, my mom and siblings scrambled along railroad tracks to flee the inferno.
What my mom remembers most decades later were the women — white American women — from a nearby trailer park who rushed them into one of their tiny trailer homes as a place of refuge. My mom and siblings, all foreigners, spoke no English, and it didn’t matter.
They found safety.
Americans offered it.
I can tell you other stories about benevolent Americans who gave my family a helping hand as we got started in this country. A part-time children’s librarian at the Schiller Park Public Library named Sue taught my brothers to play chess and arranged field trips to museums and Catigny Park in Wheaton on her own time, with her sister, Donna.
They didn’t ask if we had papers.
They didn’t care that my parents barely spoke English.
They became lifelong family friends.
When I think about my family’s journey in the U.S., I tend to think about the many kind, decent Americans we’ve encountered. They make this country great. There are more of them than there are angry people who turn their backs on people with dark skin and frown at people who struggle with the English language.
Most Americans want our president and other elected officials in Washington to treat with fairness and compassion the Central Americans who are trying to enter our country as refugees.
White House administrations in the past have resorted to cruel deterrents rather than real remedies to this humanitarian crisis.
In 2015, a federal judge ordered the Obama administration to improve “deplorable” conditions at holding facilities for migrant children. Obama wanted to keep migrant children and mothers in detention centers to deter other migrant families from coming to the U.S. A federal court nixed it.
Conditions are even worse under President Donald Trump, the man who believes in separating babies from their migrant parents to discourage desperate people from coming here. Last week, lawyers charged with keeping tabs on child detention centers and holding facilities blew the whistle on wretched conditions at the Clint, Texas, border station.
“The conditions we found were appalling,” Elora Mukherjee, a director of Columbia Law School’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, told The Atlantic. She is part of a team of lawyers monitoring detention centers under a federal consent decree. “In 12 years representing immigrant children in detention, I have never seen such degradation and inhumanity. Children were dirty, they were scared, and they were hungry.”
Kids weren’t allowed to shower, the lawyers said. Young teens had to care of toddlers soaked in their own urine because there was no one else to do it in the overcrowded facility.
Just days before the public learned of the conditions in Clint, a Justice Department lawyer tried to tell three judges from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that a consent decree that governs the treatment of migrant children in detention doesn’t call for providing soap, toothbrushes and beds. The judges didn’t buy it.
The lawyer was just doing her job, speaking for the Trump administration, which doesn’t believe in minimum standards of care for kids. The administration is fighting hard against the consent decree, known as the Flores Agreement.
The government’s treatment of migrants has been so bad that when freshman U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez compared child detention centers to concentration camps last week, I started mulling it over instead of wanting to condemn her for bringing up an association to the Holocaust. She has a point.
We need real solutions to the Central American humanitarian crisis.
The photo of the Salvadoran father and his 23-month-old daughter who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande River earlier this week reminded us of the despair and dangers facing migrants. Those who make it here deserve to be treated with dignity.
You can search for and implement solutions to a crisis and still treat people humanely.
Most Americans want that.
We must demand it.
Marlen Garcia is a member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.