In my role as president of Kids In Need of Defense (KIND), I work with children ranging in age from toddlers to teenagers who have had few choices in life. Most have been raised in abject poverty under repressive governments, subject to human trafficking, sexual and gender-based violence, abduction and torture. They are often witnesses to the murder of friends and family members. Most come from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, among the top five murder capitals of the world. Transnational gangs and narco cartels dominate their societies, systematically taking over communities to terrorize and exploit them because governments are too weak or corrupt to control them. The rule of law has broken down, and these countries are teetering on the edge of complete breakdown.
These children’s lack of choices, their desperation, presents the United States—and us as individual citizens—with choices. Who do we want to be? What do we stand for? Are we as a country going to turn our back on those in need, thereby limiting our stature in the world? Or are we going to embrace our longstanding and hard-won reputation as a country that stands up for human rights, freedom and democracy?
We can challenge ourselves to strive for that most perfect union that shaped a vision for our country.
Here’s an example of what I mean. I met Maria, a 5-year-old, in immigration court. The judge, dressed in his robes, sat behind the bench when he called her deportation case. A trial attorney from the Department of Homeland Security
sat at the front, prepared to argue for Maria’s removal from the U.S. Maria was by herself, without a lawyer by her side. She approached the bench wearing her Sunday best, clutching a doll. She sat behind the respondent’s desk, barely able to see over the microphone. The judge asked her a number of questions about why she was in the U.S. and about her life here, none of which she could answer. Her eyes grew bigger and bigger as she sat silently until he finally dismissed her and told her to come back at a later date. As she left the court, he asked her what the name of her doll was. In Spanish, she replied, “Baby Baby Doll.” That was the only question she could answer.
That moment haunts me. I continually wonder about the insanity of asking a 5-year-old to stand alone and defend herself against deportation in a federal court room.
Even though I have spent the past three decades since my graduation from Williams fighting for refugee protection and immigrant rights, such questions, while including immigration policy, are truly becoming existential for this country and, indeed, the entire world. The degradation and decay of our love and respect for each other is palpable. Racial divide, gender inequality, hostility toward those who worship a different God or want to marry and love someone in a “nontraditional” relationship all are spreading like a pervasive cancer. It’s become acceptable to mock people with disabilities. An entire nationality is painted as rapists. Judges are deemed biased because of their ethnicity. Women are belittled, and bragging about grabbing them inappropriately is dismissed as locker room talk. Elected officials are exploiting these divisions, empowering themselves by stirring up the toxicity of “us versus them.” And we as a society too often pivot to defining ourselves and each other by our differences—as if those differences are the most critical feature of our lives rather than our commonality as human beings.
We can turn this around. We can challenge ourselves to strive for that most perfect union that shaped a vision for our country and set a standard for the world. Our history is replete with people who made the simple choice to look beyond themselves and stand up for what is right.
Many of us are engaged in daily acts of kindness, such as the thousands of private-sector lawyers who volunteer their time with KIND to represent children like Maria in court. Maria was granted protection and allowed to remain in the U.S. simply because a lawyer volunteered to help. When I asked my staff what it took for our volunteers to represent a 5-year-old, the answer was: a lot of play dough and candy. It also took dedication, empathy and commitment.
I ask you now to embrace your choices and stand up for what’s right. Let’s reject
“us versus them” thinking and instead embrace “we the people.” We can be in charge of our destiny. We can change the world for the better. It’s been done before, and there is no reason to give up and say we can’t do it again.
Embrace your choices as you prepare to leave this beautiful, idyllic campus and set forth into the world. If we choose humanity, if we step out of ourselves and show compassion and understanding for the stranger standing next to us, I am confident that we will turn the corner into the light and away from the darkness.
Wendy Young ’83 is president of Kids in Need of Defense. During Convocation in September, she was one of five alumni to receive a Williams Bicentennial Medal for distinguished service in any field of endeavor. This essay is adapted from her Convocation address. To watch a
video of Young’s entire address, and for links to all the speeches and presentations that day, visit http://bit.ly/wmsconvocation17.