If the adage remains true and a picture is worth a thousand words, then the photograph, shot on Nov. 25, is worth the tens of thousands of words that have been spent analyzing it since then.
The picture shows a 39-year-old mother of five, a refugee from Honduras by the name of Maria Meza, dragging two little girls away from an ominous tendril of teargas. The daughters, identical 5-year-old twins, are clad in diapers. One of the girls flees barefoot. Meza wears a T-shirt that depicts the smiling faces of Elsa and Anna from the Disney movie Frozen.
The picture, shot by Reuters photographer Kim Kyung-Hoon, got front-page play in the New York Times, the Washington Post and scores of newspapers and websites worldwide. That’s not a shock. Kyung-Hoon’s image crystallizes the American debate over immigration in a single frame.
Buzzfeed News found Meza and her kids at a refugee encampment in Tijuana that afternoon.
“I felt sad, I was scared. I wanted to cry,” she explained. “That’s when I grabbed my daughters and ran. I thought my kids were going to die with me because of the gas we inhaled.”
Monday morning, President Trump weighed in to defend the Customs and Border Protection agents who deployed the gas.
“They had to use [it] because they were being rushed by some very tough people and they used tear gas,” said the President. “And here’s the bottom line: Nobody’s coming into our country unless they come in legally.”
Amid the uproar over this image resides some fundamental questions about what we want this nation to be in the 21st century.
Are we still the America of Emma Lazarus’ The New Colossus, her famous words inscribed in bronze on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore?” Or has that age passed us by?
Are we Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill,” or have we become a nation defined by razor wire, tear gas and military vehicles rolling through border towns like Nogales? Do we build the President’s “big, beautiful wall with Mexico,” or do we encourage a border that’s less like a blockade and more like a port, a linkage between our country and those who want to visit or, yes, move here?
My preference would be more compassion like that evinced by Lazarus and less the bitterness spewed by our President.
And yet Donald Trump is correct when he demands a border that admits people to this country legally or not at all. A border that lacks security is not a border; it’s a sieve. We need an orderly, fair and efficient process to vet those who seek asylum here, whether they are fleeing war-torn Rwanda or coming here to seek a doctoral degree in medicine or tech.
A migrant caravan of 4,000 refugees from Central America shouldn’t demand attention simply because some in the group rushed the border and tear gas was fired to disperse the throng, including at Maria Meza and her frightened little girls.
Meza’s crisis started more than 2,000 miles away, in a country where gangs hold sway and lawlessness is the only rule.
Are we an America that helps – and how much help is enough for the families camped on our southern border? Or are we satisfied with a “big, beautiful wall” endowed with the smallest of doors?
The problem with the image of Maria Meza and her girls isn’t the tear gas, if you ask me. It’s everything else that brought 4,000 people to stand in a dirty field on the San Diego border.