The foundation of freedom, peace, and justice is recognition of the inherent dignity of human beings. This is the heart of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted 70 years ago in December 1948.
Human rights are universal. They transcend borders. Any state that violates them is wrong, whether that state is infringing upon the rights of citizens or of non-citizens.
Among our human rights is the right to seek asylum. Underlying this right is a basic ethic of hospitality and Good Samaritanism. We should help those who are displaced and dispossessed.
A few thousand Central Americans are heading north. But the real refugee problem is much larger. Nearly 70 million people are displaced around the world. Half of the globe’s refugees are children. Most are hosted in poor countries.
What is the richest and most powerful nation on Earth doing to help those millions of human beings?At this point we are playing defense, sending troops to the border to scare off asylum-seekers. Our president recently tweeted that our border is sacred. But borders are not sacred. It is human beings that are the focal point of dignity and worth.
We have also threatened to cut off aid to countries that do not stop their citizens from heading north. But freedom of movement is a basic right. It is a human-rights violation to stop people from leaving a country. During the Cold War, we defended people’s freedom to escape from behind the Iron Curtain. But now we are encouraging nations to violate the right of freedom of movement.
We are also considering abolishing “birthright citizenship.” The Constitution’s 14th Amendment holds that people born here are citizens. This is related to the idea, found in international human-rights doctrine, that everyone has right to a nationality, to legal recognition, and to equal protection of the law.
Beyond these legal matters is the basic moral question of whether children born on the margins deserve to be welcomed and protected. It is unjust to punish a child for the crimes of her parents. It is not the child’s fault that she was born here to parents who are here illegally.
Have we sunk so low as to scapegoat children? Where on earth are such children supposed to go? What nationality are they supposed to adopt? If the world’s richest nation turns them out, what chance do they have elsewhere? And what does such a proposal say about us?
Moral myopia causes us to ignore vulnerable people who require special protection and care. Selfishness causes the “haves” to be indifferent to the “have-nots.” And historical amnesia causes us to forget the real progress we have made in recent decades in moving toward a more humane and hospitable world.
The idea of birthright citizenship and the Fourteenth Amendment were remedies for the atrocity of slavery. This idea made the United States a better country. The world also became better with the founding of the United Nations and the advent of international human rights law.
It took long centuries for the world to agree that slavery is wrong, that human rights are universal, and that vulnerable people deserve special protection. Modern human rights doctrine brings to fruition some very old ideas about love and justice. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Emulate the Good Samaritan. And remember that we will be judged by what we give to the downtrodden, the desperate, and the dispossessed.
You don’t have to be a saint to understand this. It is the common sense of morality. You should welcome strangers because there will be times when you are a stranger in need of hospitality. You should help the needy because others have helped you in your time of need. You should give special care to the vulnerable because our common humanity is reflected in the face of the orphan, the widow, and the refugee.
Cruelty and indifference promote hatred and despair. Peace and stability flow from justice and care. We cannot let fear of the stranger replace an ethic of hospitality. We must not let foreigners and children become scapegoats. And we cannot ignore the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.