There’s an old story about a man who notices a young girl picking up starfish from the beach and tossing them back into the sea. A storm had washed thousands of them upon the shore, and he asked the girl why she bothered. After all, he explained, what difference would it make? They’d simply be washed up again in the next storm.

“It makes a difference to this one,” the girl replied, tossing the starfish back into the water.

Now imagine walking down your street one day and coming upon a scared, lost and hungry child desperate for shelter. For most of us, the question wouldn’t be whether we’d help; it would only be how. We wouldn’t wait for details on how the child got himself into this situation; we wouldn’t withhold assistance until she proved herself worthy.

Empathy is the distinguishing characteristic of humanity. It’s a basic instinct to help the helpless.

Yet there is also a cruel geometry that comes into play, a proportionate intimacy where the further that child is from our street, the easier it is to ignore those cries for help. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our nation’s current crisis at our southern border. Families are separated and kept in hot, overcrowded cages as politicians grapple with what to do about our current immigration policies.

And we do … nothing.

The real crisis isn’t centered around those policies, nor is it about funding a wall or whether these immigrants are even technically “illegal.” The real crisis strikes at the heart of what it means to be truly American: What do we do with these huddled masses while we craft a long-term solution? How do we treat the helpless in their moment of greatest need?

We are a nation of immigrants separated only by time and the genetic lottery. Regardless of where we fall on the political spectrum, surely we can see our reflections in the eyes of those clinging to the tin foil blankets in the detention centers. We can do a better job of honoring the invitation of Emma Lazarus’ sonnet, “The New Colossus,” cast in bronze on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

We don’t need to come up with all the answers today, but Lady Liberty isn’t lifting her lamp to crush those who answer her call, either. We teach our children that America is the greatest nation on earth. Prove it. Find a way to treat those who flee for their lives for a chance at hope, our neighbors, in a way that restores their basic human dignity rather than removing it as we sort through our policy issues.

No, it’s not our “obligation” to save everyone and no, we’re not expected to solve all the world’s problems. We are, however, Americans. We fix things. If we don’t have the stuffing to help desperate families that appear on our doorstep until we get our policies in order, then rip the damn plaque off the pedestal wall and stop laying claim to any moral superiority.

Our elected officials have known about the horrid conditions of these camps for months now and done nothing. As I write this, a series of ICE raids are scheduled to begin that will only add to a dangerously overburdened immigration system. Perhaps we should address current conditions before we add more starfish onto that beach…

You can read more at RobertFWalsh.com, contact him at RobertFWalshMail@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.