Nine years ago, I took a group of approximately 50 students to tour Topaz, the Japanese internment camp, located in Delta, Utah. Opened in 1942, the camp forced internees to complete construction, including raising the barbed wire fence along the perimeter of the camp — the same fence that would confine them.
During the tour, I walked through the then tiny museum to see relics of more than 11,000 people who transitioned through that site. We also walked around the camp, and students found cups, silverware and other remnants of lives interrupted simply because of their Japanese heritage.
On the drive from Ogden to Delta, we had watched anti-Japanese propaganda films created by the U.S. War Department. At the time, students were shocked, appalled and even in tears, trying to understand how we could treat people that way, and wondering why we would ever treat people that way.
Today, I am going through the same emotional turmoil the students experienced and shared with me. How can we, the leaders of the free world, treat people like animals, housing them in cages, separating children from parents? How can we turn away people seeking a better life? The Statue of Liberty calls out: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” These same people came to the United States in masses from 1892 to 1954, just from different countries.
A piece of my heart wonders if one day I will take a group of students to the border to tour facilities that lie in ruin, proof of our inhumanity. I recognize not every person who wants to come to this nation can. I realize we have limitations on immigration and asylum. However, I am not sure how or when our capacity to treat people with dignity, respect and integrity so wholly disappeared.
When we dehumanize people, we make it easier to treat them like animals. When we dehumanize people, we justify our greed, violence and abuse. When we say certain people “will infest our country” we are saying, they will bring damage and disease to our country — the activity of insects and animals, not people. We have heard this language before. Hitler and the Nazis used it against Jewish people during World War II. It is being used again.
So what can we do? First, decide what your values are and how you would like to articulate them. Next, talk to your friends, neighbors and even strangers to find likeminded individuals who will join you in your efforts. Use your right to peaceable assembly and speak out, sharing your concerns and possible solutions.
Reach out to your elected leaders — local, state and national, as each plays a part in the role of immigration and asylum. Find out if your city is designated an asylum city. Currently, Ogden receives refugees for resettlement through Catholic Community Services. They are always looking for volunteers, donations of goods, foster care and employment.
Raise money to pay legal fees for parents separated from children at the border. Having an attorney present expedites the process for family reunification. You could also host an asylum seeker or refugee in your home. A great friend of mine not only hosted a refugee but also adopted him into her family.
Another dear friend of mine conducted a resource drive and took a Suburban full of donations to McAllen, Texas. She worked with the Rio Valley Relief Project to volunteer with her oldest son at the border. They collected new items that the relief effort could use immediately. In addition to their donations, they both worked with individuals who were lawfully complying with the requirements to attain asylum by providing comfort, compassion and kindness to people experiencing great fear and uncertainty.
I believe we are a nation of people who can and do care. I believe history can teach us something if we are willing to pay attention. Our silence and inaction must not make us complicit. It is incumbent on each of us to do something to improve the world where we all live.