If your social media feeds lean the way mine do, you’ve likely been seeing a picture of a sign getting passed around that says “Keep the kids. Deport the racists.”
As slogans go, it very neatly sums up the horror, even nausea, that many of us feel about the fact that some portions of our country have reacted to unaccompanied children fleeing horrific violence with threats of violence and a desire to circumvent our own laws to sent them back into that violence without due process.
There’s no excuse for threatening traumatized children.
There’s no excuse for pretending that the wave of refugees is all a matter of misunderstood immigration policy, and is not being driven by extremely violent conditions where these children are coming from. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world right now, 50 percent higher than the rate in Iraq.
I’d like to also say that there’s little excuse for refusing to acknowledge our country’s direct complicity in the conditions that are driving this exodus, from our support for the 1955 overthrow of a populist leader in Guatemala at the behest of United Fruit to our refusal to call the 2009 military coup in Honduras a coup.
It’s worth noting that most Americans feel the same, and we shouldn’t let the amplified voices of a few fearful people make us despair about our national character. A telephone poll found that strong majorities of people of all political parties and all major religious groups believe that the children should be sheltered, and their their cases be reviewed and the children not deported immediately; and that they are not traveling thousands of miles for trivial reasons.
But here’s the somewhat unexpected part for me. While I want nothing more than to put certain privileged chicken-hawk government officials and rabid racists protesting with their guns on top of a boxcar headed straight for the heart of Honduran drug cartel territory, I have found myself listening to some conflicted residents of border towns who were talking to TV reporters about their concerns about incoming busloads of the children, saying things like “We can’t even take care of our own homeless, our own veterans, how can we take this on too?” and feeling some sympathy for them too.
Not agreement, mind you, but sympathy. No matter what you think should be done about it, 57,000 refugees at your border is overwhelming. No matter how much you believe (as I do, and as history bears out) that immigrants strengthen the country and make huge contributions over the long haul, children fleeing violence alone have a lot of needs in the present time.
Providing a harbor to those in need, while “the right thing” in the abstract, is actually legitimately scary when the need is huge and you have unmet needs of your own and you don’t have sufficient support and resources. The risk is not abstract. Nonetheless, people as a whole will generally step up when they feel they can, often above and beyond what they thought they could do. But I also, from hard personal experience, understand the desire to retreat into your shell and not take on the woes of the world. That’s not entirely irrational, and it’s not entirely their failing.
It is the failing of the larger society that is not stepping up collectively to share the burden —both to take care of these children and to allocate our legislative priorities and resources more toward taking care of all those in need.
We have a refugee crisis on our borders. And so the whole country needs to respond, not leave it on the shoulders of Southwestern border communities, nor just to the states of Texas and Arizona. (I am not the first to say this.) We all need to follow the lead of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, the mayors of Syracuse and Milwaukee, and the others who have stepped up to offer to welcome and find places to house these children while they await their due process as asylum seekers.
And while we’re at it, just as an example, the rest of the country should also follow in Salt Lake City and Phoenix’s examples and house all of our chronically homeless veterans (which is actually cheaper in the medium term than not housing them). It’s not a matter of either/or.
If we work together on all these fronts, collectively pitching in and not leaving any one community taking on more than their share, I’d like to think more of us might find the courage to act out of compassion rather than fear.
(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on July 31, 2014.)