A Nation of Immigrants Turns Its Back

Child from Honduras

Don’t call hundreds of thousands of people a “border crisis” and a “problem.” Start realizing that they’re refugees, whether officially stamped or not.

I’ve never been crazy about the Fourth of July, and in fact, I’ve only had about five of them in the U.S. – the others I’ve spent with my mum’s family in England. There, I buy into the supposed British national identity – from the importance of manners and stiff-upper-lipping to queuing and loving Andy Murray. Of course, these are shocking generalisations and I would never call England perfect (any such nonsensical praise would, incidentally, be highly un-British of me), but I’ve always been more into the Union Jack than ‘Murica and all it professes to stand for. And as I studied U.S. history and government, I became frustrated by the shallowness of those avowed ideals.

In high school, I wrote essay after essay on instances of American hypocrisy in its failure to live up to its rhetoric of ‘liberty,’ ‘freedom,’ etc., beginning when Columbus sailed the ocean blue; I contrasted the lofty language of the Declaration of Independence with reports on the status of women and the number of slaves in the U.S. in 1776; I juxtaposed FDR’s insistence on the importance of fighting the racism of the Nazis with the intense inequality and segregation in the U.S. Army; I compared the highfalutin ‘fighting for freedom’ language of the Cold War with exposés on American support of coups in Latin and Central America that have impacted these regions for generations to come. Why, I wondered, could the U.S. seldom translate its worthy ideals into actual policy? Why did realpolitik have to come at the expense of the human rights of American citizens and people all over the world?

Before you disparage my cynicism, let me say that I am extremely grateful to have grown up in the U.S. – the land of AYSO soccer, Trader Joe’s, and other national treasures – and to have profited from its many advantages – a widespread liberal arts university system, incredible diversity, a passport that can get me into 172 countries without a visa. My exasperation comes from seeing our potential fall so flat in situations where we can be a leader in expanding universal human rights, and in seeing the way we treat others who die to grow up here, too. And in the past couple weeks, that fall has been steep.

Supreme Court decisions were the first blows. Gail Collins expressed my feelings about the ruling on abortion clinic buffer zones, McCullen v. Coakley, in her June 27th New York Times column: “We do not have time to discuss this in detail, except to point out that this decision came from people who work in a building where the protesters aren’t allowed within 250 feet of the front door.” After the Hobby Lobby decision, which ludicrously violated both women’s rights and legal sense, I was feeling pretty down. I thought I was done with bad news when the U.S. was heartbreakingly eliminated by Belgium in the World Cup. Then I read the latest in a series of news stories about the current humanitarian crisis at the southern border. And there was no Tim Howard left to save us.

In the week leading up to July 4th, the holiday intended to celebrate America’s so-called values of freedom, democracy, diversity, and equality, residents of Murrieta, California turned away three busloads of single mothers and their children who were to be registered in their town. Over the past few months, these women and children were among 240,000 migrants and more than 52,000 unaccompanied minors to cross the border. Before they wallowed in their successful rejection of mothers and children, Murrieta residents summed up their grievances to the press and their elected officials. Said, one resident, Jodie Howard, “What happens when they come here with diseases and can overrun our schools? How much is this costing us?” We’ll come back to that one, Jodie. Said another resident in a town hall meeting featuring a panel of federal officials, “How do you know they are really families and aren’t some kind of gang or drug cartel?” Excellent question, sir! Never fear – I’ll answer that one later, too. Said one woman, shaking her head gravely, “We need to close the border and tell these parents that this is wrong.” Yes, because the parents of the more than 50,000 unaccompanied minors flooding into the U.S., primarily from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, are fundamentally irresponsible and believe that they are sending their children for a joyride.

Unfortunately, the offensive sentiments of these Murrieta residents have not been totally quashed by elected officials. President Obama told George Stephanopoulos, “Our message absolutely is don’t send your children unaccompanied, on trains or through a bunch of smugglers.” Hillary Clinton sent a similar message in a CNN town hall interview: “Just because your child crosses the border, it doesn’t mean that child gets to stay.”

Of course, the more than 90,000 unaccompanied children who will have crossed the border by the end of 2014 cannot be accepted without question into the U.S. – immigration policy is not so simple. But my initial reactions to these remarks had little to do with political change, and everything to do with the complete lack of dignity in the treatment of and the conversation about what happens to these children and their parents.

This summer, I’m interning at The Advocates for Human Rights, an organization that provides pro bono lawyers for asylum seekers (people who fear returning to their home country because they have faced persecution in the past or fear future persecution). In the past few months, the number of callers from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador has dramatically increased. There are 14-year-old boys who have been tortured and whose families have been threatened because they refuse to join gangs; there are women who have been gang-raped and who have watched their family members be brutally murdered. Many of these callers are detained by Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) because they crossed the border into the U.S. without a visa. In detention, on top of the trauma they’ve suffered, they’re forced to wear orange jumpsuits and are presented in immigration court in handcuffs. A few days ago, our organization received a letter in which more than forty detainees listed their complaints against the harsh treatment they had received. Instead of receiving a chance at the American Dream, they said, they are being treated like criminals.

American immigration law is as complicated as it is unforgiving. There are five grounds on which one can file for asylum: political opinion, race, nationality, religion, and membership of a particular social group. A potential asylum-seeker must prove that he/she has faced persecution from the government or groups that the government cannot control on the basis of one of these grounds. The U.S. government has, over and over again, refused to recognize that gangs constitute such a source of persecution and that being a non-gang member is a legitimate ‘social group.’ So I know that when I pick up the phone, the chances of my being able to promise anything to a citizen of Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala who has been subjected to gang violence and threats are despairingly low.

These callers have been through hell. I know that they will most likely not be able to remain in the U.S., but the least I can do is put myself in their shoes for forty-five minutes and listen as they pour out their haunting stories – of cousins and brothers killed by gangs for helping the poor, of domestic abuse, and of an environment that offers no escape – and hopefully offer some words of comfort from my limited Spanish vocabulary.

Yesterday, we interviewed three children who had come from Central America because gangs had taken over their lives: they demanded money that their single mother could not pay; they stalked them every day after school. They told us, “We came to the U.S. because we just want to study.”

So, Murrieta resident, you ask how we can be sure that these kids aren’t leading drug cartels? Please, ask that to the 8-year-old who traveled for a month in a bus with forty other kids so that he could finally escape the pandillas that would beat him up and pressure him to traffic drugs instead of going to school. And, Jodie from Murrieta, you call them diseased? Millions of Americans, you call them ‘illegal aliens?’ Elected officials, you refer to them as a ‘problem?’ I call them some of the bravest and most inspiring people I’ve ever had the pleasure to talk to.

*          *          *

On the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty reads a line from Emma Lazarus’s poem “New Colossus.” Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. About a hundred years ago, members of my family fled persecution and came to the U.S., semi-legally (we had a couple of sponsor letters – that was about it) and passed the lady with the torch. They were incredibly grateful to be welcomed into the U.S., and they were granted entry because America considered them potentially useful citizens. The thousands of refugees coming through the Southern border are not being treated with equal respect. Thanks to American policies from the turn of the century, American industry and culture was enriched by thousands of immigrants from Europe and Asia. These immigrants, for the most part, left to seek their fortune in the U.S. The unaccompanied minors streaming across the border do, of course, wish for economic opportunity in the U.S. However, the vast majority of them risk their lives to cross the Rio Grande because they know that they will be threatened, tortured, raped, and killed if they stay in their home countries. For these children and their parents, a deportation notice is a death sentence. They are not immigrants; they are refugees, and should be treated with compassion, dignity, and policy that treat them according to their situation.

Yet thanks to our callous rhetoric and policy, we are, as Maureen Dowd put it in her July 6th column, “A nation of immigrants watched over by the Statue of Liberty — with a government unable to pass immigration reform despite majority support — [seeing] protesters take to the streets to keep Hispanic children trying to cross the border from being housed in their communities.”

What happened in Murrieta was more about respect than policy. The latter is a topic for many more articles (although I will say now that investing in increased services for immigration judges and asylum officers might be better than chucking more border guards into Texas). But respect is not to be overrated; it can be the beginning of policy. Don’t call hundreds of thousands of people a “border crisis” and a “problem.” Start realizing that they’re refugees, whether officially stamped or not. And the changes in our immigration system will follow.

It is high time for the U.S. to take responsibility for its actions and its promises. The most prominent gangs in Central America – MS and 18 – took over when we deported their founders from Los Angeles to Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and other countries. We must realize that the vast majority of these refugees have no state to return to, for theirs have abandoned them. They hear our promises and come to our border. If we want to turn them away, we can no longer claim to stand atop a moral pedestal. If we want to live up to our assurances and to accept that we are a nation of immigrants, we must promote the “self-evident” truths of the Declaration. After all, these were supposed to transcend nationality, for the Americans claimed the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness without controlling their own independent state. These rights were supposed to be universally guaranteed because “all men are created equal.” I’ve always resented the founders for choosing “men” over “people,” since history has narrowly translated “men” to mean “old white males.” Lately, I clench my fists because of those who use our flag as a wall to block the people who sacrifice everything for a chance at these rights.

So, yeah, I didn’t watch the fireworks this year. Happy Birthday, America.

By: Charlotte Finegold, a sophomore at Yale University and a resident of New Jersey, is a summer intern for The Advocates for Human Rights, working in its Refugee and Immigrant Program. “A Nation of Immigrants Turns Its Back” was first printed in The Politic, the Yale Undergraduate Journal of Politics.

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