These immigrant children and their families are us, and how we respond to them is a reflection of who we are as a society
By Michael Cheno Wickert
One does not need to sleep on dirt floors or live life constantly looking over a shoulder to understand why masses of people would want a better life. There is no requirement that a person must witness murder and mayhem to desire a more stable and safe environment in which to raise a family. Nowhere is it written that a person must personally experience the most extreme difficulties in life to practice compassion.
Yet, the arrival of tens of thousands of children and partial families from Central America has brought this to the forefront of our lives. In the past weeks we have seen the images and heard the stories of the most desperate, and often most vulnerable, people making the trek to the United States with hope for a reprieve from the chaos of their lives. Fortunately, more and more individuals and organizations are stepping up to help.
As an American, I am proud of everyone who has made an effort to bring some comfort and solace to the migrants who risked so much and were met with such resistance upon arrival here. I am also proud of those who practice acts of kindness in large and small ways, and who see these individuals in human terms, not as some abstract idea that can be ignored or turned off.
The crux of this immigration issues is simply that it is a human issue. Each person sitting in our immigration detention facilities is a flesh and blood human being with hopes and fears, with love, with determination, and apparently a dream. Maybe that is precisely what makes those thousands of detainees so difficult to deal with. It is their humanity. If we turn our backs on them, then we must face the cold, hard truth that we have purposefully been turning our backs on millions of people for decades.
To put it bluntly, the lives of children and their families are at stake. Period. That should be enough. That should be overwhelming.
The eight year-old girl sitting in a holding cell in Texas or California is really no different than the eight year old who has been left to survive in a group home for orphans. The mother who travels La Bestia in search of Oz is, in many ways, a mirror image of the homeless mother trying to protect her children from the big, bad wolves of the world that would rather use them for their selfish desires than to offer shelter from the storm.
In many ways when we look at the faces of Salvadoreños and Guatemaltecos, we are looking at our own inner-cities with police brutality and mass incarceration, the crumbling concrete and asphalt devastation of the War on Drugs, the lack of resources in our schools, and our general disregard for those who do not conform to some outdated 1950’s version of what it means to be an American.
For decades we have chosen to neglect the poor, the hungry, and the desperate right outside in our own neighborhoods and towns. This wave of Central American immigrants has swept across our borders like a parable waiting to be read, but whose pages are being ripped out and tossed aside. In short, these immigrant children and their families are us, and how we respond to them is a reflection of who we are as a society.
There are numerous talking heads and xenophobes who hide behind Internet pseudonyms that ramble on and on about an overtaxed system and the rule of law. It seems they have forgotten the Golden Rule or have chosen to ignore that the idea of good will toward men is not relegated to those who echo your beliefs a month or so before the winter solstice. Maybe those individuals will hold steadfast to their points of view, but maybe not.
Therefore, it appears that we have been presented with something that educators call a “teachable moment”. Like many teachable moments, the arrival of these children seeking a better life in the United States is contentious and full of emotion, rhetoric, and innuendo; however, what is often missing here and elsewhere, is some good solid evidence and the ability to understand why that evidence is important.
If we are honest with ourselves and seriously look at the role the United States has played in politics throughout Central America (and the entire Western Hemisphere) for the past century, then it becomes pretty obvious that the problems these children are fleeing did not simply pop up of their own accord. The truth is that these problems have deep roots, and the United States has done its fair share to cultivate this garden of discontent, and now the fruit is dropping.
Although it is important to educate people on the long-term reasons for this recent crisis, there is something more important going on. For many people and organizations, this crisis has opened up a necessary dialogue and a call to action. Upon reading the growing number of articles related to this situation, it is easy to see that there are many groups and individuals that are willing to step up and help these families however they can. These children and their families will likely never meet any of their benefactors, but the intrinsic desire to help the less fortunate is still alive and well in our country. That is something worth celebrating.
Of course in America, no act of goodwill goes unpunished. After reading almost any piece of news related to these children, it is truly horrifying to read the public commentary. There is so much fear and hatred that it is easy to see that nativism and xenophobia are also alive and well.
Just as the First Amendment protects our right to speak our minds, it also allows people to show just how ignorant and inhumane they are. Blocking children from receiving basic human rights and showing them that the Promised Land they seek is full of monsters is simply unconscionable. As an American, I find this cold-heartedness both disgraceful and disrespectful.
Although the United States has a long history of xenophobia, it has been shown time and again that the narrow-minded nativist point of view has consistently been on the wrong side of history, as they are once again.
It is a statistical probability that many of those who so strongly oppose humanitarian aid for the child immigrants of Central America, are also direct descendants of the millions immigrants who came here before the 1920’s. Those immigrants also came here without any formal invitation because of political turmoil, economic instability, and the ongoing threat of both starvation and violence. And yes, many of them were minors, just like those who are crammed into overcrowded holding cells today.
Yet, those waving the signs and banners of an exclusive America where the tired, poor huddled masses are no longer welcome still flood our news channels in a sensationalist attempt to garner even more support for their cause at the expense of real human lives. They demand the rule of law, but ignore the truth that the laws they refer to are nothing more than man-made policies created to enforce man-made geo-political boundaries with the intention of maintaining a power structure that favors the privileged and blames the downtrodden for their own misfortunes.
Truthfully, many of those misfortunes were created by the privileged Americans who made it their folly to wreak havoc within the boundaries of those sovereign nations in the name of freedom. Now, the fallout of those policies and military actions has brought the grandchildren of American Exceptionalism home, but they are not being welcomed to the table. Maybe grandpa doesn’t want to hear about the seeds he planted and the turmoil that grew in the fields of an unsolicited power struggle for more than 100 years.
Whether we reflect upon the US government’s involvement in taking land in Panama for the canal, the hardline support of puppet dictators, military support of multi-national corporations, or the war on drugs, we have dabbled in the lives of millions of people over generations, and left their homes in shambles.
Although we no longer use terms such as savages or barbarians, the depiction of these children and the lands they come from is often unflattering and presents images that portray them as somehow less than us. The net result is a form of dehumanization. It converts people into things that can be bought or sold, treasured or ignored, and accepted or rejected without guilt.
While these nativists speak of law and process, few of them probably take into consideration the fact that the Ojibwa, Oneida, or Blackfoot never invited the colonists to the shores of North America. None of the indigenous people asked for shiploads of Europeans to sail down the St. Lawrence River and settle in the Great Lakes. The Cheyenne, Sioux, Hopi, Navajo, or Apache never sent written letters to individuals of Spain, France, Mexico, nor the United States inviting them to come into their territory and take their land and murder their people.
Yet generations later, the offspring of these so-called pioneers purposefully protest the arrival of children based upon laws that somehow must not apply to their forefathers. What makes this so dangerous is that in the mind of these nativists, their actions are somehow not only fair and equal, but lawful and necessary.
How quickly and easily we forget the unwelcomed advance of Manifest Destiny, and how it legitimized the uninvited march of Americans across North America, into the Caribbean and the Pacific, and eventually took us into the Central American countries where many of these immigrant children were born. It must be alright for us to go into other countries uninvited, as long as no one wants to come here without a special stamp of approval.
Still, survival does not have time to wait for visas and green cards. Hunger and the threat of violence do not simply pause because the embassy is closed. This is not the time for Americans to rear their ugly heads. This is the time when we should stand collectively and show that E Pluribus Unum still means something to our nation.
Now is the time for us to show that real American Exceptionalism means that we are in tune with the neediest among us, and that we can be strong because of what we have to offer, not the payment we expect up front.
Michael Cheno Wickert is a life long San Diegan, a professor at Southwestern College in the English Department, a published poet and an avid beer connoisseur.