What Is the Value of One Human Life?
by Becky Baik
I find I have been pondering this question a lot lately, and not just because it happens to be the promotional tagline for my husband’s favorite soon-to-be-released video game. We live in a country that is increasingly polarized, driven by economic, racial and other fears. Perhaps the one great contribution Christians can make in this toxic political environment is to affirm the radical message that every single person has value in the eyes of God.
Last month, over 20 mothers at Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, PA, asserted their own value as human beings by going on hunger strike.
The story of this strike and of the dehumanization of these women goes back decades. The majority of them come from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, countries that were colonized and then controlled first by a foreign power, then by a small elite ruling class. Our own country then joined in the fray, toppling democratically elected governments and supporting ruthless dictators in order to protect bigger, seemingly more important things like our own economic interests, and the prevention of the spread of Communism. Then came the guerrillas and the civil wars, with more casualties and loss of life. Many fled to the United States, only to find little welcome. Some joined street gangs in order to survive, were deported, and then, in their home countries, founded vast networks, maras whose ruthlessness has now become almost legend. The women at Berks County Residential Center fled to the United States with their children, desperate to escape the latest stage of a cycle of dehumanization and violence that has lasted for centuries.
Due to legal concerns, it is difficult to find out the specific circumstances that made all the mothers leave their home countries and seek asylum in the United States. NBC reported on one mother, known to them as Jessica, who fled El Salvador because the MS-13 threatened to kill her son if he didn’t join them. In their open letter to Jeh Johnson, head of the Department of Homeland Security, the mothers wrote:
We left our homes in Central America to escape corruption, threats, and violence. We thought this country would help us, but now we are locked up with our children in a place where we feel threatened, including by some of the medical personnel, leaving us with no one to trust.
Whether the Madres de Berks (Berks Mothers), as they call themselves, were caught trying to enter the United States without inspection or walked up to the border and declared their intention of applying for asylum, the first step is similar. They all underwent credible fear interviews, to determine not whether they qualified for asylum but whether they had a believable fear of returning to their home countries. If detainees pass the interview, which is conducted by a DHS asylum officer, they can present their case before a judge and are often eligible to be released on bond or recognizance. If not, they are often deported. Many of the mothers at Berks failed their credible fear interviews. Advocates say that they weren’t given a fair chance to express themselves. They were still in shock and hesitant to discuss the atrocities they had suffered in front of their children. The Madres de Berks took their case to the Third Circuit, which ruled against them. They are now waiting to hear the results of their appeal. In the meantime, Immigration and Customs Enforcement could release them at any time. Yet, despite ICE’s recently-avowed policy of only detaining children for 20 days or less, some of the Madres de Berks and their children have been detained for a year.
While in detention, the Madres and their children are exposed to degrading and dehumanizing conditions. Many detained immigrants suffer sexual assault, lack of adequate medical care, and other dangers. Yet the Madres de Berks are focused on the negative impact that detention is having on their children. As they write in their letter:
Our children, who range in age from 2 to 16, have been deprived of a normal life. We are already traumatized from our countries of origin. We risked our own lives and those of our children so we could arrive on safe ground. While here, our children have told us they sometimes consider suicide, made desperate from confinement. The teenagers say that being here, life makes no sense. One of our children said he wanted to break the window to jump out and end this nightmare.
Perhaps one of the most telling passages of the Bible is John 11:45-53. The Jewish leaders are frightened of Jesus and his growing following, fearful that Rome will retaliate by destroying their temple and their entire nation. Caiaphas, the high priest, convinces them that it is better to hand Jesus over to be killed than to have the entire nation suffer. While in hindsight his decision seems both ruthlessly cold and inadvertently prophetic, our nation has, in many areas, adopted the same philosophy. Ever since large numbers of asylum seekers started entering the US two years ago, our government decided to make an example of them by an unprecedented increase in family detention. Instead of seeing human lives, valuable in the eyes of God, we saw a potential threat. And what did it matter if a few thousand immigrant women and children languished in detention, as long as our entire nation did not “suffer”?
On August 24th, after two weeks of refusing to eat, the Madres de Berks ended their hunger strike – not because they had won release, but because ICE threatened to take them away from their children. At the same time, they gave ICE an ultimatum – release the Mothers within a week, or the hunger strike would be back on. On August 31st, the strike was reinstated. At the time of publication, the Madres de Berks are still waiting for freedom, for themselves and for their children. In the meantime, we as Christians must answer the question we began with – what is the value of a human life?
Becky Baik has spent the last 9 years learning about the immigration system as an ABC volunteer, workshop co-facilitator, paralegal, and Sider Scholar.
*Editors Note* This article was updated from its original version to include the most recent development on August 31.