Border Crisis: A Moral Failing in the Making

By: Thomas Nolan

July 22, 2014

Seven years have passed since immigration reform failed in Congress, and little has been done to address what the United States and its people acknowledge as one of the most important issues facing 21st century America and the world. An emergent humanitarian crisis on the border presents the nation with an opportunity for action.

It is troubling, but perhaps not surprising, that American xenophobia has come out of the woodwork in response to the crisis. This comes at a time when the American people, largely a people of faith, could respond with compassion and treat the vulnerable children fleeing their homes as they would treat their own. Instead, the specter of exclusion and “othering” has returned to our politics and is given voice by welcome-wagons of incensed protesters across the country wherever refugees arrive.

A vocal strain of the backlash has focused on a humanitarian law signed by George W. Bush which guarantees some unaccompanied refugee minors a day in court. Pundits and politicos have decried the “mixed messages” being sent to those considering fleeing to the United States. A bill that was lauded at the time as an example of bipartisan commitment to human dignity should not be tossed out at the first sign of political inconvenience.

“Messaging” is a scapegoat. The mass incarceration and deportation of children in the United States, as well as the duplicity of the coyotaje — the illicit smuggling industry with increasing ties to cartels — have received extensive press coverage in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Repealing humanitarian laws would be a great moral failing, and the nation has nothing to gain by doing so. No one thinks amnesty awaits them in the United States.

But they will continue to come.

Why? The federal government knows. Many Central Americans seeking asylum fromthe countries these children have fled benefit from a legal presumption of a well-founded fear of return. And children, as a particular social group, are especially vulnerable. Gang violence and widespread poverty have resulted in the production of police forces that are unwilling or unable to investigate crimes and protect public safety.

But those scourges are only symptoms of a disease.

Decades of imperial aggression, guided in large part by American intelligence services in the support of repressive regimes and paramilitaries. This only began a modern history that extends now into the War on Drugs that has created and perpetuated the violence plaguing Central America today. Neoliberal policies, spread forcibly by international entities, have contributed to the endemic poverty that only exacerbates the situation. If presented with the same circumstances, few Americans would not make the decision to flee or pay coyotes to smuggle their children to homes in a safer country, possibly to be reunited with family.

In short, this crisis is one of our own making; America’s crows have come home to roost. Compassion, as well as our responsibility to the citizens of the globe as the world’s richest and most powerful nation, dictate that we accept these refugees as our brothers and sisters. We must attach the same imperative to providing sanctuary to these refugees as our government would have us hold for intervention in the Middle East.

If the federal government will not act, others must. Many of America’s faith-based organizations and churches have volunteered sanctuary for refugees. States and localities must reassess how the immigration system interacts with law enforcement, civic participation and public services in order to be more inclusive of all residents regardless of immigration status. The Haas Institute will support the willing.

Once taken up, the mantle of the World’s Protector cannot be cast down. Not, at least, without surrendering American entitlement to that moniker.

The ideas expressed on the Haas Institute blog are not necessarily those of UC Berkeley or the Division of Equity & Inclusion, where the Haas Institute website is hosted. They are not official and not of one mind. Thoughts here are those of individual authors. We are committed to academic freedom, free speech and civil liberties.