For weeks, NewsNation has been reporting that asylum-seekers and migrants at the Texas border are suffering in searing triple-digit heat. I recently watched a video of several families, waist-deep in water, lifting their children over razor wire to waiting hands on the other side. My breath caught as one toddler with pink pants and pigtails bobbled in the handoff and almost slipped from her father’s hands. The desperation of these parents couldn’t have been more clear. What realities lay behind them, that they would take such risks to find a better place for their families?

The number of immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers worldwide is staggering and still growing, breaking new records each year. As of May 2022, according to the UN Refugee Agency, 100 million people worldwide — more than the population of Germany — have been displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations.

In June, UNICEF reported an all-time high of more than 43 million children living in “forced displacement,” usually as a result of violence and conflict. These aren’t just statistics, but a heartbreaking number of people, almost half of them children, who had to leave their homes in order to survive physically or economically. 

That families strive to migrate to safer places is not that hard to understand. Yet for years, some people have tried to convince us that that immigrants — “illegals” — are a threat to America, ruining our economy and increasing our crime rates, even though most reasonable people agree that everyone yearns for a safe place to call home, especially if you have children.

It’s a basic instinct in parenting — even animals find the safest places possible to rear their young. So it’s not really surprising that parents will go to remarkable lengths to provide a safer life for their families. That’s what love compels us to do. 

‘She is my home’

I work at an urban elementary school in Utah, a Title 1 school and magnet for immigrants and refugees. Three events in the same week earlier this year reminded me of this love-driven instinct for a safe, secure home for oneself and one’s family.  

One morning, as I hustled down the hallway to my classroom, a family — a father, a mother and their 10-year-old son — rounded the corner, walking purposefully towards me, heads down.

We have parents in our hallways all the time, but this small unfamiliar family exuded urgency. The dad glanced up as I smiled and asked if they needed directions; his face transformed with a wide smile. A few weeks later, I saw his quiet son in the cafeteria and asked him, “Where have you come to us from?” “Ukraine,” he replied. No need to ask what this family has been through; for 17 months, the world has been able to see for ourselves. That they’ve ended up here in Utah feels almost miraculous, as does the transformation I saw in the child as he settled into a safer life.

Around this same time, I encountered a school district tech worker I’d seen before in the school. This time, he had just hauled in lots of equipment that had been caught up in a spring hailstorm. Manuel, always smiling, had an open face, expressive eyes and an accent I couldn’t quite place, so I asked him how he ended up here in Salt Lake. “We came from Colombia — lived there for a while — but we had to leave quickly. We’re originally from Russia; we left there a few years ago.”

Ah, Russia. He glanced up at me, assessing my reaction. I just nodded my head; here was another person with a perilous past and risk-filled story about how they came to America.  

“So where do you consider ‘home’?” I asked.  

Not a second of hesitation. “Oh! My brilliant, happy, accomplished wife — SHE is my home,” he said. “I’m so glad to finally be here,” he continued, pointing down to the American soil beneath our feet, “but being with her is my true home.”

Wow, I thought. We are the lucky ones, that this man and his wife made it here. 

The next day, one of the students I tutored in basic reading was not in class for the third day in a row. I didn’t know much about him other than that he needed help as an English language learner and to catch up in basic reading and fifth grade math. The boy was way behind his peers, but no matter — he was an eager, hard worker.

I checked in with his teacher. “He’s gone, back to Idaho,” the teacher told me. “The family came here for his brother’s treatment for cancer.”

We looked at each other, both sobered at the thought, but unable to talk about it with other students around us. I thanked him and was turning to go when his next whisper brought me back: ”His family came to the U.S. from Honduras. They walked from Honduras.”

He held my gaze, watching me try to absorb the magnitude of what the child had lived through already in his short 10 years of life. 

Assets, not liabilities

I’ve heard some voices say the problems within U.S. immigration policy are too complex and insurmountable. Others have said we should close our borders and let the rest of the world fend for itself. I’ll admit right off that I’m no immigration policy expert. I understand that fear of the occasional bad actor is a source of concern, and that our borders and laws exist for good reasons.

Still, I want these families — the ones on the news, in my school, and the tens of thousands of other families like them — to settle here in Utah and in other welcoming American cities. I want them to find their safe place. 

They’ve risked a difficult, dangerous migration to get to the U.S. border; haven’t they proven they are dedicated, resourceful, family-oriented and hard-working? Sounds to me like they would, on balance, be distinct assets, not liabilities at all, to our towns and cities. Drive like that means more prosperity for all of us. 

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And as a nation, despite our problems, we are prosperous in comparison with much of the world. We are in a position to help alleviate suffering and provide opportunity for others in this stable place to which many of our ancestors migrated at some point in the past few hundred years. And we are our brother’s keepers. In our churches, we say this; in our hearts, we know this.

I also strongly believe in our ability, in this land of immigrants, to find solutions to problems.

This American ingenuity is our genius. If we can agree not to demonize the immigrant for that most basic human desire, to protect the family; if we can agree that everyone should have a safe place to call home; if our elected officials can agree to create immigration policies that are both empathetic and pragmatic, like streamlining the path to work permits, and supporting international refugee programs, then we can point our genius toward solving the issues that plague the entire process and divide us.

Our collective compassionate decisions now could forestall generations of hopeless suffering in impoverished areas around the world. It is these forgotten, resentful places that are too often the seed beds for radical extremism and eventual violence aimed at the West. 

We would succeed if we decided to try.

Sharon Ellsworth-Nielson is a longtime educator who now enjoys retirement in Salt Lake City — gardening, travel, volunteering, freelance writing, grandkids, pickleball and trying to convince her husband it’s finally time to get a dog.