What are these young refugees telling us about ourselves?
There is overwhelming evidence that most are fleeing from potentially life-threatening conditions in their homelands in Central American. However, we continue to debate whether these people are truly refugees or, alternatively, perhaps not worthy of that status and should be sent back home. That debate has some relevance at the margins. Be we have the evidence that says we have a refugee crisis, not an out-of-control immigration crisis.
Refugees require humane treatment, and that treatment is to be maintained until it can be determined if indeed that status is legitimate. Meanwhile, we need to honor our own laws, defend the defenseless, more importantly, listen to our conscience. There are refugee camps throughout the world tending to the vulnerable dislocated, virtually all located in countries WAY poorer that this one. For these countries, maintaining refugee camps is the compassionate and necessary response.
I’m seeing some hesitancy to fulfill our humanitarian duties. Some of our citizens (and by extension, the politicians that represent them) maintain that either (1) these youth include a number of Trojan horses, ready to cause havoc and harm and bring diseases to our country or (2) in any case, we just can’t afford to give refuge. Citizens that ascribe to either (1) or (2) or both want a quick return of these new entrants. Refugee status? Bah, humbug!
If we aren't going to take the time, money and effort to determine their true status, for example by setting up properly funded processes for making that determination, then I think we have, by default, opted out of our international and humanitarian obligations.
My question is, why would we make that choice? Why would we opt out of this opportunity to show, not only our humanitarian heart, but a little world leadership, as well?
I think there are two answers:
We opt out because we are afraid. For the xenophobic among us, these youth at our border are somehow terrifying, posing a vague threat to survival. A quick exit would be just the tonic for the fears percolating in hearts of these ones. For me, it has become a rule of thumb that the Republican Party will poke at the embers of fear smoldering in our hearts at every opportunity. “Death panels”, “the end of America as we know it”, “black helicopters coming for your guns”. The fear-mongering is relentless, and plays really well to the xenophobic of all stripes.
Second, there are many that view this nation’s financial health as a zero-sum process. Their calculation goes something like this: “If we spend money on these youngsters, then there's less for me and mine, so send them home, economy class, on the next flight. We just can’t afford to have all these new folks using up our resources.” Again, this is a popular Republican refrain: Extend unemployment? Can’t afford it. Invest in national infrastructure? Can’t afford it. Food stamps? Can't afford it. And so on. And this may make sense IF you believe our nation’s financial well-being runs on the same principles as a family budget, where the key is to parse the known dollars. That theory, however, is well past debunked.
But there is an important positive reason to protect the children at our border and resist expelling them without due process: Conscience.
If we harm these children, we end up with the equivalent of the scars we get from wars. In war, we kill, maim, and hurt people, too often as collateral, too often including innocents. Ask our returning veterans about this un-glorious face of war and the internal wounds it has inflicted upon them.
Perhaps an analogy would better serve the point. Imagine you and some friends are lost and alone at sea in a survival raft. Along comes another survivor, without a raft, who frantically wants to come aboard. You are faced with the ultimate zero-sum calculation. But how do you feel about yourself and your mates later, now safely ashore, if you had chosen to reject that survivor from your raft?
A fair hearing for those at the border will at least allow us to avoid the needless poisoning of our conscience, and offers a rare opportunity to feel good about ourselves.
I am sickened by the knee-jerk Republican response to fear-monger this issue, and it will sicken this nation if their ilk are allowed to guide our policy toward these children. This is not an issue that allows for compromise. Either we offer an oar to safety, or we don’t.
Our first steps must be to protect, evaluate, and offer refuge where appropriate