Are things getting worse? No, just uncovered.

Commentary on “zero tolerance” immigration policies, with five suggestions

by Ken Sehested

U.S. President Donald Trump is a self-obsessed, infantile, demagogic and malicious huckster without a shred of moral capacity other than self-promotion.

There. Say it out loud.

Say it again.

Hold on to these words (with your own edits). You may need to say them again, out loud, in the future. Maybe more than once.

But now it’s time to move from ranting to revival, reclamation, and repairing: Reviving a beatific vision filled with moral imagination; reclaiming Creation’s promise that what has been made is, in fact, delightful (i.e., more than “good”); repairing the damage caused by malevolent forces (which are far larger than individual actors) attempting to desecrate all that has been named sacred.

This unraveling demands the attention, focus, and energies of reravelers. Which takes a lot more devotion, determination, and discernment than ranting. The heinous forces which animate trumphoolery want more than anything to keep us perturbed. Perpetual ranting robs us of agency, keeps us in reactive mode, and shreds our ability to focus. Its final counsel is fearfulness.

Fear is a liar.

It is like a swarm of termites on virginal wood joists. You likely won’t notice until your foot goes through the floor. By then, it will be too late.

What to do? Five suggestions.


The range of commitments needing to be made is as diverse as the spectrum of a rainbow. We need bold, bodacious, and disruptive actors to breach the barricades of propriety and seemingly-civil demeanor. That’s one end of the spectrum—and if you are called to it (for motives other than ego-enrichment), chart a strategic plan of action.

But we also need, at the other end of the spectrum (and in far, far greater numbers), those willing to undertake the menial, localized, patient work of reweaving the social fabric of daily life in the commonest of ways within families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and watersheds whose features are nearby and familiar. No news cameras rolling. No newspaper coverage. Mostly anonymous, except in a small circle of relations.


Commitments must be sturdier than a burst of enthusiasm, however heroic. Few sustain this work over a long period of time without a community of conviction. I would like to think that people of faith find this by engagement with a local congregation or ecumenical advocacy group.

I claim a special purpose for communities of faith because, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently revealed, much public policy is rooted (usually more implicitly) in counterfeit faith claims and illegitimate narratives of divine origin.

Otherwise, find another civic community. Whatever shape it takes, it must be rooted locally but also be conversant with regional, national, and even global networks. Such commitment will be inconvenient. To be effective, it will be consequential. It will impinge on what is currently considered as personal “freedom.” It will exact a cost.


Regarding our current “immigration” uproar: the chaos at our southern border with Mexico did not start at that border. There is traceable history behind the fact that many of this era’s migrants are from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

Our nation’s wandering eye (aka “Manifest Destiny,” conceived in starkly racial terms) was present from the beginning. One quote sums up that history with our continental neighbors.

In 1927, Under-Secretary of State Robert Olds said, “We do control the destinies of Central America, and we do so for the simple reason that the national interest absolutely dictates such a course…. Until now, Central America has always understood that governments which we recognize and support stay in power, while those we do not recognize and support fail.”

Most of the time the mechanisms of control take the form of bribery of local elites. But at lease once, in 1954,  the Central Intelligence Agency backed a coup d’état overthrowing the democratically elected government of Guatemala’s President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. During the first three decades of the 20th century US Marines were sent to various Central American countries dozens of times during the so-called “Banana Wars” to protect American business interests. [For a fuller accounting of this history, see Juan González’s Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America.]

However painful it is to admit, the logic of our nation’s relative willingness to admit immigrants is dominated by economic demands for cheap labor. Emma Lazarus’ famous poem, inscribed on the Statue of Liberty— “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free”—is aspirational at best. Dismissing its claim on our nation’s self-image, White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller (the likely architect of Trump’s Muslim ban and “zero-tolerance” immigrant policies) said last year that the poem “is not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.”


As many have already said, Trump is a symptom of this season’s crisis, not the cause. The malady afflicting our nation’s soul is deeper and more profound than we wish to acknowledge. In the immortal words of Jerry Lee Lewis, there’s a whole lotta shakin’ going on in our body politic.


To return to where we began, don’t let panic get behind the wheel. Refuse dystopian alarm; and recognize despair for the luxury it presumes. Listen attentively to two fragments of contemporary prophetic insight.

The first, a line from Somala-British poet Warsan Shire's poem, "Home," is essential for understanding what got us to where we are: “No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark.”

Second, for orientation and sustenance for what is to come, from author-activist adrienne maree brown: “Things are not getting worse. They are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”

Undergirding everything, we need a beatific vision to chart a course through these squalling storms. Mine comes from Jesus; but I will wholeheartedly collaborate with any traveling in parallel direction.

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