USA: Our Children, A Reflection from Fr. Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J.

08 October 2018

Fr. Leo sharing a laugh with migrant children at the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, AZ. (Jesuit Refugee Service)

Who are the children whose terrified faces we have seen in images from our southern border as they were (literally) torn from their mother’s arms? They were, yes, Mexican and Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Honduran. But whose were they also and truly? A clue to the full answer is the alarm their alarm awakened in us.

Let’s start with something many of the privileged among us may actually have experienced. A good friend of mine from college—later a successful physician who also wrote a popular newspaper column for his local paper—now keeps a blog for a large circle of friends. He recently described seeing the picture of a terrified little boy, possibly Mexican, wailing his heart out as he was taken from his parents to be stored in a converted Walmart building inside of which was a large chain-link cage. “I felt like slapping whomever was responsible upside the head,” John wrote. “Where is my baseball bat?”

Have you ever felt like the detained child? Have you ever been that frightened? My friend went on to remember:

When I was a little kid I would go to the grocery store with my mother, and often, as we waited to check out, she would remember another item and tell me to wait there with the basket and she would be right back. I would nearly panic. What if she didn’t come back soon enough and I, a shy child with a stammer, had to confront the cashier, unable to explain myself and without money–would she call the police? I, at least, would not need to know a foreign language, and the cashier would not have a big pistol on her hip, so I was better off than that Hispanic child. My heart raced until I saw my mother coming through the aisle. I didn’t tell her about this until many years later, when it seemed funny–but it certainly wasn’t funny when it happened.

Most of us have known some such panic, and similar anguish. But imagine it heightened, and multiplied, and engulfing children. Not “strange, other” children. Simply children. And whom do they belong to? Do we care?

In the days after World Refugee Day this year, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA was clear about its care. We urged the U.S. government to ensure that people are not criminally punished for trying to seek asylum and that the rights and dignity of children and families entering the United States are respected. We affirmed that U.S. policies calling for the indefinite detention of families seeking asylum are contrary to Catholic teaching and violate the rights of asylum seekers and the dignity of children and their families. They also put at risk the long-term mental health and well-being of children and their parents.

Our advocacy was based on the intrinsic dignity and inalienable value of all human beings and their equal and essential rights as members of the human family. We believe in the ability of men and women of good will to reason together on how to care for all members of their societies, and above all for the most vulnerable members. We stand on the principle that commitment to the common good is the presupposition for our very right to freedom and democracy. In accord with the principles proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human rights, we see this vision as indeed the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

International law, we believe, is likewise foundational for the cooperation and common good of nations today. The right to asylum is part of that law, not a matter of occasional generosity on the part of certain host countries. It is a right embedded in the dignity of every human being to migrate from any environment where violence and oppression threaten the lives of people and their families. It is expressly stated in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children (which the United States is woefully alone in not endorsing) that children should not be separated from their parents, that a child seeking refugee status is entitled to protection and humanitarian assistance, and that the child has a right to education. These are not partisan, “liberal” positions. They are expressions of humanity worldwide seeking to be true to itself and its future. JRS, as a fully international organization, places its trust and hope in reasonable men and women seeking to form generous, inclusive communities that ambition being part of a larger, worldwide community for which justice and peace are not mere baselines but the conditions for comity and ultimately friendship without restriction.

We have also been inspired by the converging convictions of the major faith traditions–and not least by Pope Francis, who has reminded us that “every stranger who knocks at our door in an opportunity for an encounter with Jesus Christ, who identifies with the welcomed and rejected strangers of every age” (referring to Matthew 25:35-43). Since his first visit to Lampedusa on 8 July 2013, the Pope has seen the contemporary situation of migrants and refugees today as an irrefutable “sign of the times,” a signal of the Spirit that challenges and chastens all of humanity today.

Francis calls us toward an ideal of welcome, protection and promotion for migrants. But it is a practical ideal, desperately needed for a world in crisis shaped by untold violence and injustice. And he does not hesitate to call for trust in “the opportunities for intercultural enrichment brought about by the presence of migrants and refugees” through their integration into new societies. His culture of encounter refuses the vision of zero-sum cultural competition and affirms instead that cultural diversity, the many families within the one family of God, is the seedbed of renewal, recreation—and new birth.

The biblical witness speaks repeatedly of welcoming the stranger. And in the parable of the Good Samaritan we see that the stranger in need is our neighbor indeed. Not really “a stranger,” but one of us, part of us, someone without whom we are literally less. As if a member of our very own family were to be lost—and could not be found. The exclusionary rhetoric of the dangerous, the infected, the likely criminal “other” is not simply a morally unacceptable characterization of “those others.” It is an indictment of ourselves.

And so the children at the border—at any border—are not “someone else’s,” even granting of course the primary rights of their parents. They are our children.

What prevents us from recognizing that unique as each of us may be, we are nevertheless equally and just as truly members of the one human family, each of whom is made in the image of God–but images of God precisely as brothers and sisters of God’s Christ? Against this background truth of our being one family, Archbishop William E. Lori wrote earlier this summer: “There can be no reasonable justification for a civilized government to separate children from their parents as a means of enforcing the law. This action threatens the stability of families, unduly inflicts trauma and hardship on those involved, including children, and runs counter to the compassion and justice that are foundational to our American society.” It is what four members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops wanted to embody when they visited McAllen, Texas, in early July, where they met fathers, mothers and children who had spent weeks migrating by foot from their homes in Mexico and Central America. “We can be a nation of laws without being a nation without compassion,” said Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, in his homily during a Mass for the immigrants. That we truly belong to each other led Cardinal Joseph Tobin in the first place to decry a “sort of cardiosclerosis that has begun in our country” and to urge sending the delegation to the border as “a sign of our pastoral concern and protest against this hardening of the American heart.”

And our own hearts? May I suggest that we simply look at the faces of the children who are ours? If you can’t go to the border, tear a picture out of the newspaper, tape it to the frig door in the kitchen, along with pictures of your children and maybe grandchildren. You won’t have to remember to look at the picture. Because the little girl is also yours.

Fr. Leo J. O’Donovan is JRS/USA’s Director of Mission and President Emeritus of Georgetown University. This piece was originally run on

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