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The Disasters of War

Photo Source .Dimitris. | CC BY 2.0

Holy Cross/Santa Cruz Episcopal Church is located in the city of Kingston. Kingston, one of the hubs of New York’s Hudson Valley, has received a good deal of attention these last few years, as New York City continues–at an ever-growing rate–to function as a domain of the wealthy. Holy Cross/Santa Cruz, though, sits amid the large, ungentrified swath of Kingston unlikely to attract the attention of the New York Times or expatriate Brooklynites.

The church’s hybrid name reflects its bilingual English-Spanish congregation. The divisions are purely linguistic. It is, Father Frank Alagna stresses, emphatically one community.

Holy Cross/Santa Cruz is part of a sanctuary parish; Kingston itself—in no small part because of Father Alagna’s efforts–is a sanctuary city. The Trump administration’s bluster over the State of California’s sanctuary policies—besides playing on some of the populace’s natural antipathy toward California—is also a useful distraction. In reality, sanctuary cities and entities are widespread and geographically diverse, a good deal of them located in the so-called heartland: Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota.

Father Alagna is a firm, yet soft-spoken presence. It is instructive, he notes, to consider the various meanings of the word sanctuary itself: a sacred space, a safe haven. Sanctuaries can exist within one’s heart and exist in the wider world. Holy Cross/Santa Cruz has applied the meaning of the word both as a spiritual manifestation and as an impetus for straight-out activism.

Kingston and the Hudson Valley, like many parts of the country, have seen an influx of Central American refugees fleeing the lethality that makes anything resembling a normal life completely untenable. Historically, the United States has spawned the violence and terror that has devastated Central America. This is not conjecture, nor does it require deep digging into classified archives.  American interference has been undertaken visibly, proudly; in full view.

Who is more vulnerable than a refugee? Father Alagna refers to an exploitation chain, the refugee’s endless series of perils that cover the spectrum of suffering and abuse. His aim, he says, is to extract people from that chain. The challenges in breaking this exploitation chain are manifold. There are linguistic difficulties: A recent group of indigenous Central Americans do not speak Spanish, but their own language.  Many of the new arrivals have searing stories: A daughter, for example, witnessing her father’s beheading.

The refugees, of course, arrive with absolutely nothing. What some of them do have are mandatory ICE-imposed ankle bracelets, functioning not just as a tracking mechanism, but probably instilling a steady level of fear and providing a visible stigma.

Father Alagna’s advocacy immediately engendered widespread interfaith support, coalescing—among religious and secular alike–into the multi-pronged Ulster [County] Immigrant Defense Network.

These refugees from Central America need shelter, food. They need pro bono legal representation. There are mandatory meetings with ICE that require transportation. Refugee parents can be snatched up a moment’s notice with no provisions whatsoever for their children, leaving them suddenly abandoned. It is important for the refugees to know their legal rights. ICE, as deadly as it is, does operate under legal strictures. They cannot, for example, enter a dwelling without a federal warrant.

American racism is supple and easily adaptable. The Latino population is a visible part of the American fabric, yet amid this current orgy of hatred and fear, this same populace has been transformed into invasive hordes, ready to seize jobs, spread disease, sow wanton violence. And that, Father Alagna reflects, is inevitable when a convenient enemy is needed: The invisible are made visible.

The endless analogies that render Donald Trump akin to a foreign despot—Hitler, Mussolini, Putin—are ultimately a cop-out; as if the administration’s destructive rampage is so exceptional and unprecedented that it simply must have come from outside, foreign sources. It is just the opposite: The ravaging of Central America has been an all-American legacy. The current fear-mongering, xenophobia, the outright sadism directed at children—all it needs no inspiration  from abroad. It is ours as a country.

And yet, in times of oppression and hysteria, there are always those who voice their objections, who dissent, who attempt to sever the exploitation chain in all its manifestations. And this too is a part of humanity.