There is inevitably an emotional risk that comes with empathy, when empathy means to truly understand and share the circumstances or feelings of another. Anyone can engage in a selfless contemplation of empathy. Sunday mass, for instance, may help with some versions of pious contemplation. There, placing oneself in the proverbial shoes of one facing unfortunate circumstances can be accomplished in abstract and safe fashion. In that space, empathy occurs only as a fleeting thought, and doubling the amount of the mass offering on a given day has a way of soothing the soul. Happily, by lunchtime, one can feel fully redeemed.
The emotional risk grows multifold, however, if one actually tries on for size those proverbial shoes of the other or assumes a personal duty to convert that empathy to good deeds. But, even short of that, way short of that, one can feel true empathy simply by looking into the eyes of a child or of a mother.
I observed buses at the McAllen and Brownsville, Texas bus terminals as entire asylum-seeking families, typically headed by middle-aged mothers, boarded the buses to various and sundry destinations throughout the country. Others were boarding airplanes to their temporary destinations. The Biden Administration had changed the practice of prohibiting asylum applicants from entry to the country pending their hearings. All they were really getting was a sort of temporary reprieve – they could stay with family, friends or sponsors pending their asylum application hearings. Most had waited just across the Rio Grande in make-shift camps for up to two years, pending that process. Under President Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), asylum applicants were required to remain in Mexico pending consideration of their applications. Mexico agreed to cooperate with the policy in consideration of some financial support. Others waiting at the border were more recent applicants who had arrived at the border within the past few weeks. The mothers embarking onto the buses permitted themselves to reveal slight elation. The children were full of expectation. I wondered what their lives would be like henceforth. In all likelihood, the hundreds who left the border on that day would face a long row to hoe. The number of asylum cases which may be authorized under current law is limited. There are currently 1.15 million asylum cases pending hearing.
Only one in ten persons who applies for asylum has a reasonable shot at success. Those nine out of ten will be facing deportation in a matter of course. The odds for that small percentage are improved somewhat only if they have legal counsel. Not understanding their burden of proof, applicants often tend to hurt their case by supplying the best evidence against themselves. They often share a misconception that an appeal to Americans’ morals and empathy is their best rational approach to asylum.
Do not ask me for answers. I do not have any. All I can say is that today, those children are in a better place –for now. The Tias have no answers, all they can say is that today, those children and those mothers are in a better place — for now. Tomorrow? Who knows? Recently, someone who openly supports the political right—the Trumpist right, someone whom I call a friend, expressed to me that were his family facing similar circumstances, he would do exactly what the refugees are doing. He would find one way or another to get across the border. I could not help but wonder whether something in his past had nudged his conscience. Perhaps he recalled, as I did, seeing through the eyes of children and their mothers, and not knowing what tomorrow will bring. I was reminded of the quote which so eloquently sums up my own empathy for the refugees – “There, but for the grace of God, go I”.