Truth ravaged, our backs turned to families pursuing better lives

Immigrants from Cuba and Guatemala seeking asylum in the United States wait on the Matamoros International Bridge above the Rio Grande June 29 to leave Mexico for Brownsville, Texas.
Immigrants from Cuba and Guatemala seeking asylum in the United States wait on the Matamoros International Bridge above the Rio Grande June 29 to leave Mexico for Brownsville, Texas. Associated Press

For several years when I first moved to Lexington, I taught English at a program co-sponsored by Operation Read and Hunter Presbyterian Church. These classes offered basic English language skills to support people in the Latino community who were working on horse farms and in the restaurants and businesses along Nicholasville Road, none of which could have prospered without their labor.

The first night only one student showed up, a soft-spoken young man who arrived on an old bicycle. Gradually, however, the classes grew until we had more than 20 students a night — kind, gentle people so eager to learn that they came to study English after working hard all day. Our doors were open to all, and of necessity the classes were fluid: Not everyone came to every class, and the range of language skills was wide. Yet their English improved, and over time a community developed, a place of good will and sharing. I always left those classes feeling happy.

The other teachers felt the same, I know — we were all changed by the experience, our lives expanded and enriched. Over verb tenses and vocabulary words and later, shared meals, we learned the profound and moving stories of our students, the journeys they’d taken, and the risks.

We heard of the loneliness they felt, having left everything they’d known to seek better, more secure, lives. These people worked hard at jobs many Americans no longer want: physically demanding, often unpleasant jobs. They cooked food and washed cars, built houses and cleaned them, did landscaping and cared for the beautiful farms and racehorses of the Bluegrass. They lived frugally and regularly sent money home to help relatives who had nothing. It was humbling to teach them, a privilege and a joy.

When Donald Trump descended from his gilded tower to run for president in June 2015, he opened his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists and criminals and denigrating immigrants in general. He based his candidacy on lies. The kind, hardworking people in my English classes were not unusual. Despite the president’s claims, crimes committed by immigrants are infrequent.

Since his inauguration, President Trump has continued to lie about matters small and large — 3,251 false or misleading statements as of May 31, according to The Washington Post — an overwhelming barrage of untruth.

His claim that immigrants are a threat is among his most persistent, and most odious, lies. It stands directly behind his administration’s cruel treatment of those who reach our border, seeking refuge from war or poverty or violence. It stands behind his horrific policy of taking children away from their parents and shipping them across the country in secret, with no plan in place to reunite them.

As a parent, I can’t imagine this agony.

As a citizen, I grieve for the shame this has brought on our country, and for the way we are ravaging the truth. The president’s lies are so pervasive that they have become the sea in which we swim, echoed on conservative media, trickling down, often unchallenged.

For me, a clarifying and disturbing moment happened recently when I called Sen. Rand Paul’s Bowling Green office to protest taking children from their parents. The staffer assured me that Paul disagreed with this practice. She then went on to say that the Supreme Court had ordered these separations years ago, but previous administrations had ignored the law. Since it was a law, she said, only Congress could change it, not the president.

I listened, stunned. None of this is true.

The separation of immigrant children from their families is not a law. It is a Trump administration policy implemented in April. The president can change his policies with the stroke of a pen — which in fact he did a few hours after I had this conversation (although as I write thousands of human beings are still penned in chain-link cages, and thousands of small children are still separated from their parents). Yet the staffer in the senator’s office was sure; she seemed to believe what she was saying.

I hung up disoriented. I double-checked my facts. Then I called back and requested that my senator’s office not mislead the public with false statements and outright fabrications. I called Paul’s D.C. office, as well; to their credit, they acknowledged that the staffer was wrong, and apologized.

Still, how many people before me heard this false story from a place of authority and believed it?

For decades, the U.S. economy has profited from the labor of immigrants, both those who are here legally and those who are not. Now these people — fleeing danger, in search of sanctuary, food and a better life for those they love — are being used as scapegoats by our government.

Here’s the real, inescapable truth: We must all express our outrage, both on their behalf and also for ourselves, because we are implicated in these cruel atrocities if we don’t end them. And because, throughout history, leaders who need scapegoats to stay in power never stop with one.

Kim Edwards of Lexington is the author of novels “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter” and “The Lake of Dreams” and a collection of stories, “The Secrets of a Fire King.”