“We are a nation made strong by people like you: people who traveled long distances,overcame great obstacles and made tremendous sacrifices,all to provide a better life for themselves and their families.” ( Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Supreme Court Justice, daughter and grandaughter of immigrants. Address to new citizens, December,2018)
“Your enemy is not the refugee. Your enemy is the one who made him a refugee”. (Tariq Ramadan)
“Children do not immigrate. They flee.” (Fernando Stein M.D. Past President, American Academy of Pediatrics).
While it has always been the nature of humans to migrate, the painfully chaotic situation unfolding along our U.S. southern border is also the latest iteration of a long- standing fractal of exclusion, isplacement, violence and oppression. Migrants now seeking asylum from Central America, are survivors from a region which has long carried many layers of unresolved collective trauma. Beginning in Pre-Colombian times, various populations endured multiple tribal wars, slavery, human-sacrifice, famine, epidemics and natural disasters. The arrival of the Spanish conquistadores was an emormous shock to existing social orders. Soon to follow were European missionaries and their insistence on radically different values, languages, and Catholic Christianity. These colonial newcomers also forceably imposed their Gregorian calendar, which presented an entirely different time frame for secular and religious life. All of these Central American countries; Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, which have experienced overwhelming interventions and exploitations of theocractic colonial rule, have multiple residual collective traumas which have, in turn, led to more wars, revolutions and economic and other kinds of exploitation. (ASJ, Trauma y Condicion Humana en America Latina, 2017)
Current tensions with our southern neighbors are nothing new and date at least as far back as 1904, when imperialist President Theodore Roosevelt, as a corallary to the Monroe Doctrine, declared the “right” for the USA to intervene with police power within any Latin American nation that engaged in “chronic wrong-doing”. This rubric included large debts and civil unrest. (Seeking Empires, ushistory.org). As a result, our imperialist interventions and predatory foreign policies in Central America, along with generations of military and corprorate-sponsored political interventions, have unleashed economic deprivations, crime, corruption, political instability, and gender-based violence. Volumes could be written about our enabling the illegal drug trade and the United Fruit Company and other Agro-businesses to enslave local populations. The current situation is now such that years of state and drug related gang violence, together with extreme and grinding poverty, has forced hundred of thousands to flee from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua to join a 4,000 km journey that began in the northern Honduran city of San Pedro Sula, of the deadliest crime regions on Earth. With no one person in charge, men women and their children were desparate enough to undertake a long perilious journey north through Guatemala into Mexico. Along the way, there were challenges and deprivations including shortages of food, clean water, sanitation and safety. Temperatures often reached 35C (95F). Women and children were especially vulnerable to kidnapping, rape, human trafficking and other predations. Anyone who has followed the kleptocratic history of our involvement in Latin America knows that current migratory crisises from this region are our problem.
Migrants experienced mixed receptions along their way. As British journalist, Bryan Mealer traveling with them observed, these brave souls set out across mountains, rivers and forests, afternoon rains soaked meager belongings as they came to be seen as both menace and symbol of hope. A caravan of 4,000 people doesn’t simply visit a town, it swallows it whole, figuratively, if not physically, and takes the entire place hostage with their energy and chaos. Stewing in the heat, migrants slowly moved through streets, stalling traffic. Their threadbare bedrolls occupied every open porch and sliver of shade as insects bit the weary in need of rest. Along streets residents peered out through closed shutters and many businesses closed. Mealer challenges American media’s claim that the majority of migrants are young males in contrast to his own experience, as a fellow traveller, stating categorically, these are families with many elderly, women and children and more than a few with special needs.
As Mealer journeyed along he reflected upon all who came before, now as ghosts walking along his side: migrants from El Salvador, Cuba, Russia and Germany; from the killing fields of Sudan, Iraq and Syria. Cotton pickers from Texas and sodbusters from Oklahoma. Hebrews wandering the desert, a woman from Nazareth wth her newborn son, fleeing a tyrant. (ukguardian.com, November 26, 2018). Mealer’s reflections gave rise to thoughts of my own ancestors; French Hugenots fleeing life-threatening Catholic persecution, as well as destitute Cornish miners, who migrated to Australia and South Africa in search of work. Their descendants, who eventually made it to America, myself included, still bear some epigenetic, heartfelt longing to finally be able to return “home”.
Through sheer determination and minimal resistance, the migrants made it through immigration checkpoints and border fences from Guatemala into Mexico. Eventually, they reached the small Oaxacan town of Santiago Niltepec, which had recently experienced an 8.2 earthquake, devastating their town and killing many residents. Niltepec’s mayor had received advanced notice of the migrant’s approach, and she organized a welcome with food and clean water along with a statement: “We know about suffering in this town and we don’t want these people going through the same.” (Jonathan Blitzer, newyorker.com, October 30, 2018). As this ongoing caravan continued to wind its way north, through Mexico’s poorest regions, locals headed toward their main route with offerings of food, fresh water and any spare clothing. Meanwhile, more affluent Mexicans complained about this influx of foreigners from less affluent countries. This, in turn, raised uncomfortable questions about Mexico’s own relationship with migration. As Ibero-American University’s Professor Javier Urbano explained, “For us, an immigrant is someone coming from a rich country. A migrant is someone coming from a poor country…. Its a class issue”. (David Agren, ukguardian , November 9, 2018).
Those who made it all the way up to Tijuana and the San Ysidro port of entry, met a hostile reception. Asylum seekers, including women and children, were sprayed with toxic clouds of tear gas by American border agents while they were still on Mexican soil. This atrocity was cynically defended by Ronald Colburn, President of the Border Patrol Foundation claiming that tear gas was a natural substance, “so safe you could put it on your nachos to eat.” Never mind that tear gas (2-chlorobenzyalmalononitrile ) is classified as a chemcial weapon, banned in international conflicts since 1997. This chemical causes a number of unpleasant effects including inflammation of all mucous membranes and should never be used against children. More than a few of our citizens, including President Donald Trump, expressed the view that these “illegal people” got what they deserved, “because they were there “. (Amy Goodman, democracynow.org, November 28, 2018).
Blaming victims is nothing new, and some historical facts may offer some perspective for those concerned with “illegals”. There was a time when slavery was legal and hiding runnaway slaves illegal. In this country, segregation was legal and protesting racism criminalized up until the Civil Rights movement of the nineteen sixties. The Holocaust was also legal and hiding Jews or other “undesirables” was a crime, sometimes punishable by death. One wonders if the rising tide of opposition to asylum seekers is related to a desparate need to deny that our foreign policies have any repsonsiblity for creating situations from which so many need to flee?
Nevertheless, xenophobic class wars and racism run deep within American culture and I doubt that history or other facts matter much to those “zero tolerance” hard-liners opposed to imigration, especially of people of color and are all too willing to have them characterized as criminals and potential terrorists infiltrating the journey, all the way over from the Middle East. As we have seen, this administration and their minions, employ and enjoy cruelty as a deterrent. While many may be reflecting upon our values in relation to this crisis at the border, as journalist Chris Hedges points out, Americans, in general, have a vision of themselves that bears little resemblance to reality. Our nation was founded on genocide and slavery. Our democratic republic is, in fact, a global “might is right” empire, ravaging our globe with endless wars for profit and resource-control, which enriches oligarchic elites at the expense of citizenry. America empowers militarized police to murder unarmed citizens and lock away a quarter of the world’s prison population, while wallowing in the supposed superiority of white supremacy. (Chris Hedges, opednews.com, December 17, 2018).
The growing proportions of the humanitarian crisis along our southern border, now reflects the dying promise of Lady Liberty’s America as a land of refuge from injustice and suffering. Our nation is currently led by a lying, racist, bullying, willfully ignorant real estate hustler who seeks to manufacture an “invasion crisis” based on xenophobic fear-mongering rhetoric. In response to these politics of fear, British comedian John Oliver offers a measured perspective. “There was only one time in American history when fear of refugees wiping everyone out, did actually come true. We celebrate this as our national holiday of Thanksgiving”. (Last Week Tonight, November 24, 2015).