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Migrant mothers’ love: boundless, borderless | COMMENTARY

Celestina Ramirez, left, a migrant from Honduras, talks with her son Yancarlos Amaya, 5, before boarding a plane at Valley International Airport, Wednesday, March 24, 2021, in Harlingen, Texas. The mother and son, who are headed to Baltimore to reunite with Ramirez's brother, were allowed to stay in the U.S. after turning themselves in to U.S. Customs and Border Protection upon crossing the border. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Celestina Ramirez, left, a migrant from Honduras, talks with her son Yancarlos Amaya, 5, before boarding a plane at Valley International Airport, Wednesday, March 24, 2021, in Harlingen, Texas. The mother and son, who are headed to Baltimore to reunite with Ramirez's brother, were allowed to stay in the U.S. after turning themselves in to U.S. Customs and Border Protection upon crossing the border. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) (Julio Cortez)

My mother is selfless. Like so many other moms, she would do anything to protect me — and protect me she has. My mother and father made the impossible decision to flee a country on the brink of civil war, leaving behind the only home we had ever known. As members of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority, she knew her family’s safety could not be assured were we to remain in what ultimately devolved into an active war zone for the better part of three decades.

Through family and good fortune, we were able to start a new life in Baltimore — a community that welcomed us with open arms, empowered my parents to become lifelong teachers in the public school system and in Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and enabled my brother and I to get a world-class education. We were lucky. Today’s generation of mothers seeking safety, tragically, are not so fortunate.

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Consider, for example, mothers so desperate that they send their children unaccompanied to the U.S. — nearly 19,000 children arrived in March alone. For many unfamiliar with the rampant gang violence, political instability, and back-to-back hurricanes that have ravaged Central America and beyond, it may seem unimaginable to part with your child. But the stark reality is that this is a selfless act of love in the face of incredible adversity, born out of the universal desire of all parents to ensure our children have a better life than we did — or, in some cases, have the chance for a future at all.

These mothers, like any of us, are acting in the best interests of their children. Our response as citizens, and our policy as a nation, must therefore be rooted in our common humanity.

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As citizens, we can open our hearts and our homes to these children while child welfare specialists work to reunite them with their U.S.-based families — the vast majority of whom fall into this category. The organization I lead, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, trains and supports transitional foster parents to provide a safe, loving and licensed home in this interim period. We see time and time again that children thrive when they are in the least restrictive and most family-like settings — a model of care any mother would prefer over large-scale influx facilities run by for-profit government defense contractors.

As a matter of federal policy, we must honor these mothers by addressing the underlying reasons why people flee, expanding legal pathways of immigration that preserve family unity, and phasing out the use of large-scale facilities operated by private contractors with little to no child welfare experience.

Similarly, we cannot neglect the plight of mothers who make the dangerous journey to the border alongside their children. Because of a much-criticized and lingering Trump-era public health order known as Title 42, these asylum-seeking families have been expelled en masse without so much as a court hearing. Mounting evidence suggests that the order has compelled mothers to choose between keeping their children by their side in dangerous encampments in Mexico, or sending their children across the border alone to safety. We must restore due process and rebuild a fair and functional asylum system from the wreckage left by the previous administration.

Finally, if we are truly to honor mothers, we must right the atrocious wrong the Trump administration inflicted upon thousands of mothers when it forcibly separated them from their children as part of its shameful “Zero Tolerance” policy. The images of the first four families reunited on U.S. soil this week thanks to President Biden’s Family Reunification Taskforce and the tireless efforts of civil society groups moved me to tears.

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But there is still so much work ahead — three years after this dark chapter in our history, hundreds of mothers remain torn apart from their children. The only acceptable course of action is to make each and every last one of these families whole again. That wholeness must include legal relief, ideally as a special humanitarian parole program, immediate work authorization, access to trauma-informed community-based support, and ultimately permanent residency.

This Mother’s Day, let us recommit to the principle that all mothers, no matter where they were born, deserve dignity and the right to protect their children. If we are to restore the soul of this nation, surely, we must do better by the courageous and selfless women whose love for their family knows neither bounds nor borders.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah (@KrishVignarajah) is the president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Previously, she served as policy director for former first lady Michelle Obama.

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