Forsaking the Tempest-tost

Why the Crisis at Our Southern Border Should Keep Us Up at Night

Photo by Max Böhme on Unsplash

When Ariel entered my room that morning, I recognized something was wrong. Foremost, she came in long before class during a time when she usually laughed it up in the cafeteria with friends. Her eyes brimmed with tears as she collapsed into the papasan and asked if we could talk. I never expected what came next.

Ariel’s flare for the dramatic stood out among her peers. Was this more boyfriend issues? A jealous rival? Just more middle-school angst? I prepared to meet any of those issues with assurances that everything would be fine. We’d walked this path a few times. Yet, the situation loomed as nothing so trite or trivial, and assurance mutated to condolence because not only was there very little say, I could do absolutely nothing.

A few weeks prior, Ariel’s favorite uncle journeyed back to Mexico. I knew the man through multiple stories. He was her mother’s brother. Having no children of his own, he aided her family with everything from grocery money to child care. As the case for most of her family, his presence in the U.S. lacked legal status. But, they’d all been happy, contributing members of the community for years. Until now.

On his way back across the border, U.S. CBP detained Ariel’s uncle. He faced deportation, and the family stood powerless to aid him. Most certainly, his job would soon fire him. His apartment would be forfeit. What possessions Ariel’s family found no room for would go along with it. I had no idea how to address any of the ramifications except to just be there for Ariel.

Her family lost a provider. The landlord absorbed the cost of losing a tenant. His job spent the money to hire and train a new employee. Nobody won: not the economy, or local jobs, and most of all, not Ariel’s family.

Ariel’s story is far from unique. Hers plays out like the four-chord song among thousands of migrants from Latin and South America. The story contains multiple shades of black and white which blend into a noxious gray. Rule-of-law versus family unity. Immigration policy versus community well-being. Prejudice versus precaution.

The fervor of the current U.S. battle over immigration policy may appear new. Unfortunately, our history as “the land of the free”— where exiles, refugees, and the “tempest-tost” of the world are welcome to the “golden door” — begs the question. Neither is it an aberration that our president stands obstinately in the path of immigrants from the south.

President Harry S. Truman in 1951 speaking on Mexican immigration:

“These people are coming to our country in phenomenal numbers — and at an ever-increasing rate. Everyone suffers from the presence of these illegal immigrants in the community.”

Yet, on immigrants from Europe:

“We do not need to be protected against immigrants from these countries. On the contrary, we want to stretch out a helping hand to save those who have managed to flee into Western Europe to succor those who are brave enough to escape from barbarism to welcome and restore them against the day when their countries will, as we hope, be free again…these are only a few examples of the absurdity, the cruelty of carrying over into this year of 1952 the isolationist limitations of our 1924 law. In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration. [emphasis added] — President Harry S. Truman

Immigration policy is not a simple issue nor can it be; though, such is also not so complex as to be stagnant nor should it be. Yet, here we are. The golden door turned to so much pyrite, a fool’s gold promise, as we fail to uphold the values of human decency and address meaningful, family and community-centered changes to immigration policy.

I do not pretend to know all the answers. But, I’m old enough and world-wise enough and patriotic enough to know a few. We exemplify the free world. As such, ours is the example democracies and freedoms live and die on around the globe. When we militarize our borders, when we wall them up, when we indefinitely detain migrants behind fences and withhold basic necessities, our message to the world is one of isolation and fear not strength and unity.

We must not separate families at the border. We must not hold them in (essentially) cages. We must not withhold warm showers, actual bedding, and legal representation. We must not treat children as collateral. We must not be everything we promise not to be.

If these measures cost us more, now, the fault is our own. The demographics have been known for decades. The opportunities to phase in twenty-first century immigration reform have been plentiful. In reaping what we sow, we harvest international ill-will. We pick demagoguery over democracy. We ripen racism, xenophobia, and paranoia. Thus, we all become a little less safe. We place ourselves in danger. Not from migrants at the southern border but from ourselves.

T.M. is an educator, writer, photographer & Jarhead veteran. He lives with his husband Hank and their dogs in OK. Travel, coffee, and a good story make his day.

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