It’s a horrific story: Nine people, including two infants, four small children and three women, were ambushed and killed in Mexico on Monday, some shot, some burned in their cars. All of them are dual US-Mexican citizens, and all members of a fundamentalist Mormon sect. Seven children who survived are now in the United States receiving medical care.
Those children experienced a harrowing ordeal and, thankfully, they could cross the border freely and quickly back into America.
Most people living in lawless parts of Mexico — those places, particularly some locations near the border, that are ruled by organized crime, besieged by gang violence and virtually unprotected by an impotent or coopted police force — have no such option of a safe harbor. The same is true for thousands of Central American migrants who have fled severe violence in their home countries.
And so when we consider the horror that befell this Mormon family, and reach for our empathy over this ghastly attack, we might save some of this feeling for those who are not American, but who face the same mayhem, the same threat. If reading about this attack breaks your heart, then do more than just cluck about how tragic it all is. Support the ability for people targeted by violence to keep their families safe and move freely to safer lands, like ours.
Last year, there were 33,000 homicides in Mexico, the highest number ever recorded. This year may be even worse. Besides organized crime and drug cartels, and a weak security state, the violence is fueled by the American gun trade and demand for drugs.
And yet, as people from beyond our southern border — our neighbors — turn to us in need of safety, as people from around the world have done since our country was formed, we in the United States are slamming our doors.
For the first time ever, and in part thanks to Donald Trump, the United States resettled fewer refugees than the rest of the world. We used to lead the globe in providing a safe haven, and now we trail. As many tens of thousands of people requested asylum in the United States, two-thirds saw their claims denied. Some of these cases were in the pipeline before Trump assumed the presidency, but he has made clear that these denials will grow, not subside.
Indeed, the Trump administration is trying to end the ability of people to claim asylum at the border, an administration move that would violate international law (at best it would be an end run around the Immigration and Nationality Act). It would leave thousands of people trapped and vulnerable. What’s more, Trump has cast Mexicans and Central Americans as collectively dangerous and threatening, suggesting that those who are fleeing violence will bring their nation’s problems to the United States.
In reality, of course, most people trying to get to the United States from Mexico and Central America — from Honduras and Guatemala and El Salvador — are not like the drug traffickers and criminals who terrorize them. They are more like the American-Mexican family now making headlines — minus the US passports.
People the world over want to live in a safe and prosperous place — just like the one most Americans were lucky enough to be born into. At the same time, most people don’t want to leave their homelands, but lack the individual ability to change their own governments, to end wars and stop pervasive violence.
What they do have is their own two feet. And a great many people from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are using them in fervent hopes that they can get to safer ground and protect themselves and their loved ones.
In the United States, we don’t hear most of the individual stories of the violence our southern neighbors face. But when the target of this terror is American, we see the headlines. And that’s fair enough — the murder of a Honduran family on American soil would also get more press attention in Honduras than the murder of an American family with no Honduran ties.
But as we take in this latest awful story, and as we weep for that poor family — the innocent women, children and babies who were slaughtered in cold blood as they traversed a dangerous place — our compassion must not be passport-specific. Nor can it be limited.
If we care about human life — if we, too, would want to be helped were we stuck, through no fault of our own, in violence and chaos of the kind this family encountered — then we need to open up our doors. And that means rejecting racist, narrow-minded and cruel policies, and opening our borders to refugees, asylum seekers and people in need.