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Oped: We can learn about immigration from history

William Lambers
Catholic Relief Services

Kindness and compassion must drive our immigration policy, starting with reuniting families who have been wrongly separated at the border with Mexico. We can learn from an episode in Mexican-U.S. history a more humanitarian way for dealing with immigration.

While World War II was raging, Mexico took in refugees from Poland. In 1943, the Colonia Santa Rosa was established in the central Mexican town of Leon for 1500 Polish war victims. The United States helped with funding.

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These war weary refugees had traveled across many countries and continents to find safety. Some of the displaced suffered from malaria after having served forced labor in Russia.

Mexico became a refuge far away from the chaos of World War II.  

When these Polish refugees arrived at Santa Rosa they were greeted by flowers, hugs and a warm meal. Catholic Relief Services (CRS), which also started in 1943, saw its first action as a charity helping the refugees at Santa Rosa with medical care, education and recreation for their healing.

Today, at the U.S.-Mexican border, the reception is far less welcoming for the innocent families fleeing violence and hunger in the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala). They are hoping to seek asylum in the United States. Instead they are being detained.

Over 2000 children were separated from their parents. The Trump administration used this intimidating tactic to deter families from crossing the border into the U.S.

Even with an executive order from President Donald Trump ending such separations, most of the children have yet to be reunited with their families. The psychological impact of separation from parents is a horrible event for a child to endure.

Detention of families at the border continue. Their rights for asylum are not being supported either.

We must listen to the families and help them in a difficult time.

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Today kindness is sadly lacking in immigration policy. Trump's plan to build a giant border wall is not going to solve the problem. The only way to prevent masses of people fleeing to America is to address the root causes.

No family wants to leave their home and make such a perilous journey. They are forced to out of necessity.

Catholic Relief Services and partner charities work on self-help programs in Latin American countries so people do not have to flee in desperation. We need more of this type of humanitarian assistance.

These countries need the help. Guatemala just suffered a volcanic eruption and earthquake which will have long lasting implications. Farmland was damaged in these disasters, which will lead to hunger for many families who were already living in poverty. Drought has afflicted many other areas causing food shortages. 

The Northern Triangle suffers from widespread hunger and poverty, which has forced some to flee for the United States. 

But if families can grow food, gain income and stability they will not leave. If communities are in peace with economic development, families will stay. Fighting hunger, developing economies and peacemaking to end the violence will do far more to end the immigration crisis than any wall.

We need kindness and compassion today to drive our immigration policy, starting with reuniting families who have been wrongly separated.

— William Lambers is an author who partnered with the UN World Food Program on the book Ending World Hunger. He is a contributor with Catholic Relief Services.