A refugee child's death, a heartbreaking echo at Christmas

I love the holiday season. The family togetherness. The Christmas cards, the pictures, sent by friends, of...

Posted: Dec 16, 2018 10:27 AM
Updated: Dec 16, 2018 10:27 AM

I love the holiday season. The family togetherness. The Christmas cards, the pictures, sent by friends, of their kids. Adorable—and almost as perfect as my own.

When we had our first, a good friend told me that having a child was like taking your heart out of your body and letting it walk around outside you. She was right.

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And so I cannot imagine the pain, the shattering, searing, agony of a parent who loses a child. This story, reported by the Washington Post Thursday night, hit me hard:

"A 7-year-old girl from Guatemala died of dehydration and shock after she was taken into Border Patrol custody last week for crossing from Mexico into the United States illegally with her father and a large group of migrants along a remote span of New Mexico desert, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Thursday."

Jakelin Caal Maquin, doubtless as precious to her parents as my children are to me, was taken on a dangerous journey through the desert to a foreign land because her parents wanted to escape a place where half the population lives in poverty and nearly as many suffer from malnutrition.

But Jakelin did not escape death.

She and her 29-year-old father, Nery Gilberto Caal -- traveling in a group of 163 migrants -- had approached border agents in New Mexico on December 6 to turn themselves in. An initial screening by a border agent revealed no health issues for the little girl, and she and the others were given access to food and water while they waited for processing Customs and Border Patrol officials told CNN.

But the father alerted officials that the child was ill and vomiting shortly before the group was transported by bus to a border patrol base 95 miles away, CBP officials told CNN. "According to a statement from CBP, she 'reportedly had not eaten or consumed water for several days,'" the Post reported.

By the time the bus arrived, her temperature was 105.7 degrees, emergency responders said, and she was not breathing. Jakelin died Saturday at an El Paso trauma center, where she had been airlifted by officials.

"Unfortunately, despite our best efforts and the best efforts of the medical team treating the child, we were unable to stop this tragedy from occurring," the CBP official told CNN.

Americans, being Americans, will be heartbroken to learn of Jakelin's fate. We are the most generous, welcoming, big-hearted people on earth. But somehow, some of our leaders have instructed us to turn away from our hearts and our history and view that vulnerable, cherished child as an enemy. We are told that her family and others like hers, fleeing their homeland are "invaders," as if a 7-year old girl from Guatemala could threaten a country of 325.7 million people, with a military of 1.3 million, a reserve of 800,000 and 6,500 nuclear weapons.

No, the supposed threat from Central American refugees is not real. But the pain of the parents of that little Guatemalan girl is.

And the tragedy of their story has particular resonance at this time of year.

As a Catholic, I think especially of the Holy Family: the overpowering faith of Mary and Joseph; the overwhelming burden of raising the Christ child; the overflowing love that couple had for that helpless baby who had to be born in a barn; and the risky journey afterward when his parents -- seeing no other option -- left the only home they'd ever known, Judea, taking their baby on a perilous journey through the desert to a foreign land.

The story may be allegorical or fantasy for some. But for me as a believer it is real.

Those of us who believe in the divinity of Christ - and the majority of Christians voted for Donald Trump--have a special duty. We need to connect the pain of that panicked Judean family 20 centuries ago to the pain of this panicked Guatemalan family today.

Joseph and Mary did not wait in line for visas during the flight to Egypt.

They did not concern themselves with the niceties and complexities of immigration law. They were refugees, seeking safety from harm.

In his ministry, Jesus was absolutely clear about how we should treat that innocent 7-year old girl. Perhaps reflecting on His own time as a child refugee, He said, "For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in." (Matthew 25:35)

Of course, this unspeakable tragedy does not mean America should abandon its obligation to police its borders. Nor should we demonize the women and men on the front lines of our border who enforce our immigration laws.

But every American who traces their lineage to an immigrant -- and except for Native Americans that's all of us -- has a duty this Christmas to reconnect to the hopes and fears that brought our forebears here.

And as those of us who are Christians pray that we may be worthy of the sacrifice of our Savior, let us take a moment to lift up in prayer the Guatemalan parents who risked everything to take their little girl out of danger, but lost her in the process.

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