In June of 1939 a group of European refugees arrived at the port of Miami aboard the German liner St. Louis. There were almost one thousand people on the ship, most of them Jews trying to escape the Nazi violence that had driven them from their homes. They were denied entry. A number of them ended up back in Europe and were sent to the death camps. America, which bills itself as a generous and compassionate country, has a mixed record of welcoming people who are fleeing tyranny. It seems that if those fleeing oppression fit the model of the dominant culture, the doors open a lot easier for entry then they do for people with the “wrong” religion, the “wrong” color, or the “wrong” language.
Right now the focus is on a large group of migrants who are marching through Mexico toward our southern border. The president has called this an “invasion” and has sent elements of the U.S. military to the U.S./Mexican border to stop them. Whipping up a climate of fear, he has framed this migration as a threat to national security. And this description plays especially well with his political base.
We ought to ask how this group of people, in large measure made up of women and young children, is a threat to American security. Are they armed? Will they storm the border and overwhelm any attempt to stop them. Are they all gang members? Will our military fire on them?
People with any sense of reality know the answers to these questions and will see this for what it is – a manufactured crisis that is being used for political ends. The word invasion seems hardly the proper description for a group of poor people fleeing the murderous region of Central America. El Salvador has the highest homicide rate in the entire world. Law and order has largely broken down. Gangs rule the cities. Honduras isn’t far behind averaging 20 homicides a day.
Illegal immigration is certainly a problem. There is no denying that. Obviously we can’t take all of the people who want to come here. And their might indeed be some bad people in that caravan. We need an orderly process that can screen those who might intend to do us harm from the great majority of whom just want a better life. The sad fact is that both our political parties continue to refuse to craft a solution to the issue, using immigrants as a means of scoring political points. Meanwhile those who are desperate to escape horrible conditions in their own countries have few options. Stay and die or take a long shot to get to the United States.
At a time like this, we should remember people like those Jews aboard the St. Louis who were refused entry and left to a dark fate by a callous nation. We should see clearly that where once America was seen around the world as a beacon of hope and compassion, under this current administration our country has become instead, a place of hate and intolerance. The current leadership goads its supporters to see immigrants as eroding the cultural values and norms of this country. It’s the same fear that has stigmatized every ethnic group that wanted to come to America. On the eve of the mid-term election we should ask ourselves – is this who we are? Is this what we want our country to be? And we should think about our own families and why they came here, all the while realizing the truth that a nation, like a tree, becomes stronger when it is grafted with new stock.