Regardless of our politics, we can agree that the rule of law is fundamental to the American way of life. Where we believe a law is flagrantly unfair or doesn’t solve the problem it was intended to address, it’s incumbent on us to “put up or shut up.” Either we tolerate a less-than-perfect situation or put our indignation to work by lobbying legislators and making our case through public discussion or protest.
But what if an injustice is perpetrated that isn’t based in law? The country has been struggling with bias and even violence against people of color, although by and large our laws protect the rights of all citizens. As for non-citizens, without formal authorization, their very presence is against the law. With the possible exception of due process, the rights they are granted are a matter of how the person dealing with them subjectively interprets “human rights.”
In the realm of non-legislated human rights the U.S. has historically led the world, beginning with the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The founders were of the opinion that no law enacted by man was necessary to establish the rights inherent in the very state of being human. While law doesn’t endow people with the unalienable rights cited by the founders, we’ve chosen to enact laws to protect them for our citizens (though in some cases belatedly).
When it comes to non-citizens, not only do very few laws protect them, they are often considered somehow devoid of the rights the founders believed were a matter of basic human dignity.
To deny asylum to those fleeing their country of origin because of endemic violence and specific death threats denies their unalienable right to life. To reject those unfairly threatened with imprisonment by their own governments is to deny them their right to liberty.
It’s true that many seek to cross the border simply for a better life economically. Even if the law prevents allowing them to enter, shouldn’t their motive — pursuing happiness for themselves and their families — be recognizable and familiar rather than alien? According to pediatric experts, compounding denial of entry by separating children from their parents inflicts trauma and inhibits their future happiness in an even more profound way.
Regardless of our politics, we can agree we’re a society of laws. However, to limit our agreement to man-made constructs is more than short-sighted. When children are separated, we ignore the known principles of child development, including the impact of trauma. In the case of rejecting bona fide asylum seekers, we abandon the foundational philosophy of our way of life.
The founders’ declaration of the dignity equally inherent in every person was a breakthrough, a game-changer that challenged and continues to challenge other common forms of governance — divine right, autocracy, oligarchy and dictatorship to name a few. The country has been moving toward this original aspirational vision by fits and starts ever since, never a straight line path but always moving forward overall.
When our respect for law fails to include respect for childhood vulnerabilities and for basic human dignity regardless of country of origin, we are at the very least callous. Willingly and knowingly doing so is both unfaithful to the truth, and to our country’s founding principles.
Alexandra Piacenza is a 10-year resident of Prescott, retired from a career in technical writing and strategic planning. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.