It’s a story as old as time. The hero’s journey. The leap of faith. The foundation upon which American values rest. In an act of courage, the valiant emigrant leaves home — fleeing crime, war, violence, or persecution — in hopes of securing a better life for his or her family.
In 2018, we heard this story told in a number of different lights, with a number of different causes.
Dealing with these crises is an exercise in enlightenment and empathy. The first of these (knowledge of the suffering), in most people, brings about the second (understanding the feeling of suffering, and acting in accordance with that to alleviate it). Unfortunately, we have recently seen that the world’s policymakers lack some combination of the two.
Civil War in Syria (Year 8)
As the devastating civil war in Syria entered its eighth year, airstrikes, chemical attacks, and bombings continued, and human rights violations by the Syrian government escalated civilians’ plight. Since the war’s start, half of the country’s population has died or been forced to leave, and nearly half a million lives have been lost. Millions of Syrians have fled the country, creating the biggest refugee crisis since the second World War. Most end up in Turkey, followed by Lebanon, and then Jordan, but still others seek refuge in parts of Europe and the U.S.
In recent years, Syrian refugees reaching the European Union have faced discrimination and inhumane treatment, particularly in Italy and Greece. U.S. President Trump has had a strong anti-Syrian refugee stance since the get-go. One of his campaign promises was to not only oppose refugee migration to the U.S., but to deport the Syrian refugees already living here. (This has proven difficult due to their legal protections by virtue of their refugee status). Trump’s xenophobic sentiments are rooted in a fear of Islamic terrorists. When the Refugee Act was passed in 1980, the “annual refugee ceiling” — the yearly maximum number of refugees allowed in the U.S. — was more than 230,000. It was 90,000 under Reagan and 110,000 under Obama. Trump set it to 30,000 for 2019. In 2017, we admitted only 3,000 from Syria.
Mexican Immigrants, the Border Wall, and the Migrant Caravan
Since 2017, People Without Borders has organized “migrant caravans” — groups of migrants hailing from the Northern Triangle of Central America traveling from the Guatemala-Mexico border to of Mexico and the U.S. in order to flee gang violence, poverty, and political repression. In October 2018, a march gained international attention as one of its leaders was arrested and deported in Guatemala. That same month, President Trump threatened to deploy the U.S. military to prevent immigration, close off the Mexico-U.S. border entirely, and cut off millions of dollars in aid to countries allowing the caravan to pass through.
The U.S. Border Patrol has fired tear gas at the border a number of times, including on New Years’ Eve (December 31, 2018), when two smoke bombs hurled at migrants prevented hundreds from crossing. As of late 2018, Trump has maintained his campaign stance that Central American and Mexican immigrants are bringing crime, drugs and violence into the country.
In April 2018, the Trump administration enacted a “zero tolerance” immigration program which included a family separation policy, under which illegal immigrant families at the border could be split, with parents sent to jail or deported and children brought into government custody or foster care. From mid-April to mid-May 2018, around 2,000 families were separated at the border. This has led to controversy by virtue of the tragedies it has caused: a Honduran man killing himself in a cell when his child was taken away from him, and maltreated immigrant children and adults dying prematurely under the U.S. government’s care in Immigration & Customs Enforcement detention centers.
As of December 31, 2018, Trump plans to stay true to his campaign promise of building a wall to prevent immigration at the border. He seeks to negotiate a plan to end the current government shutdown in exchange for support in building the Border Wall.
I recently revisited a slam poem I wrote two years ago about immigration-related issues, which I thought seemed relevant to 2018 and the ethical questions our world has had to grapple with.
Here it is:
You don’t leave home until home kicks you to the doorstep.
You don’t leave home until home tells you you are no longer welcome
When the voice that once lullabied you to peaceful slumber violently awakens you,
When the woman who raised you on lofty dreams, ambitions nurtured, warm porridge dribbling down your chin ,
When she closes her door,
You have no choice but to flee to the streets.
When the ground from which you blossomed uproots the very seeds it planted,
You must dust off your dirty knees, walk onward, find somewhere else to root.
When the boy in whose arms you felt whole casts you away,
You may feel “ungrounded” for a while,
But when every ground on which you’ve set foot gives way to shaking,
You don’t have a place to stand.
And when the diamond gleaning with promise you once held blood-warm in your palm slips away from you,
You’re reminded that cloaking yourself in silence
and darkness unbridled
is the only “skilled labor” you’ll ever truly master.
It’s hard to ground an identity nomadically
Hard to feel that you are anything more than a collection of tattered fabrics
stitched together by the words “you are not wanted here.”
You need to understand
You’d only choose naked skin torn on barbed wire fences
Over skin burned by fire
Only opt for ruthless strip searches, feet adorned in shattered glass
Over the sight of your child’s body in just as many pieces.
You don’t nest in back of moving trucks,
journey miles of uncharted road by tired foot
Unless the alternative is an unknown man between your daughter’s legs
A patchwork of scratches on your son’s arm,
Blue-black from the street-poison you always told him not to try.
Some things about the promise land that I know to be true:
What’s true is that it is an assemblage of realized dreams
you’re met with open arms beckoning at the gates
What’s true is that in daybreak’s forgiving light you can remake yourself
It is a refuge from the fire
where huddled masses can breathe free
From the stench of burning bodies
What do you do when truth has become obsolete?
When beckoning gates turn to a wall insurmountable,
What do you tell your children?
What do you do, when
In the eyes of the promise-land
You are the eye of the storm,
You are nothing more than the fire you flee,
setting ablaze everything in your path?
You think, I’ve walked an Odyssey in these worn shoes
but when the journey
through siren and scylla
means less than the chaos from which I am fleeing,
Penelope closes the door.
You think: I am so much more more than that from which I’ve treaded dirt-ridden roads, brutal day and starless night to escape
And I want to go home, but home has kicked me to the doorstep
And I’m tired — and this skin is tired,
I’m told that home is a feeling and not a place
Maybe that’s why terror coursing my veins feels so familiar.