Sunday, July 20, 2014

Frayed border. Or 'fraid knot.

Just a quick rant on the border children.  Please, if you have an opinion on this, leave a comment.  I’m not an expert on any part of it, so please educate me.   But I can see what it looks like: a flood of refugees, as we have seen in this world in other places and at other times, fleeing from wars or disasters.  Only in this case, at this time and at the border of our country, there is a very large component of young people, mostly teenagers but also younger children, in this refugee population.

Here is the data.  (Always nice to start with the facts, don’t you think?)  Go ahead, take a look, I’ll wait.

Notice that in every sector except Tucson the “apprehension” of “unaccompanied alien children” has had a huge increase, but in one sector, the Rio Grande sector, it has been staggering: from 14,565 in 2013 to 42,164 in 2014 (which isn’t even over yet!).  That’s an increase of 189% so far and it will be far larger by the time the year is over.  But even that understates the problem, because there has also been an over 500% increase in that sector in the apprehension of “family units”.  These are people that seem to be traveling as a family.  But it’s more than possible that a very large number of these family units were not families when they started their journeys toward refuge.  Some “families” were probably formed rapidly as the border approached, so that the adults involved could have a better chance of staying here for at least a while.

Congress, of course, is going on recess.  But I’m tired of complaining about Congress.  Let’s discuss this among ourselves, and let them pursue their bewildered irrelevance at their leisure.  They are involved in a deep argument over whether this influx resulted from a 2008 law passed under George Bush or from a more recent executive action by Barack Obama.  Both of those may contribute, but to attribute the flood of refugees to either of those is just wrong: the cause of the flood is not a porous border or leniency for children.  The cause is that the life they are fleeing is enormously worse than the life they expect when they get here, and that life, the life faced by those few who are allowed stay, is no picnic.  They will be paupers, and illegal immigrants with no rights here at all.  And the journey they undertook to get that dismal chance was long and terrible. 

But what they left is overwhelmingly worse.  It must be worse, or why would they come?

There are several pieces in the Washington Post this morning on this, but there is only one that is required reading.  Oscar Arias (Nobel Peace Prize winner and twice President of Costa Rica) wrote this article on the Opinion page in the front section.  If I quoted as much of his comments as I’d like to I’d undoubtedly run afoul of some copyright law, but let me give you this much:

“The conservatives who oppose President Obama’s request for emergency funds for the crisis criticize him for dealing only with the symptoms and not with the ‘root cause’ of the problem. They are half right — but the half that’s wrong is very, very wrong. For them, the root cause is a lax immigration law, weak protections or insufficiently severe punishments. But no punishment, no wall and no army can solve this problem…If these children … are willing to risk their lives atop the infamous train through Mexico known as La Bestia (“the beast”), face the rape and abuse that many children experience during the journey, sell their possessions and their bodies, and give their life savings to unscrupulous smugglers, what else could possibly deter them? What can the United States do to these children that would be worse than what they are already suffering? And why is such a great country even asking that question?”

Yes.  They face certain danger, hunger and abuse on the road here, a high probability of rape, or of being sold into servitude, or of death.  They are leaving the country they know, the language they know, the customs and people they know, their families, their friends.  What punishment can we impose, what deterrent can we bring to bear, that is worse than what they are enduring to get here?  We can send them “home”, to face dangers that they think are even worse than the journey here.  And if we don’t make an anguish for them here that is worse than the one they are fleeing, they will continue to come.  This is basic economics: these people are making, we assume, a rational choice, weighing one set of risks against another, and will continue to make that same choice as long as it appears to be rational to do it.  

But it’s the last question in that list that haunts me.  Why the hell are we talking, and waiting, as though this were simply a dessicated debating point?  Why is a great country, this great country, my great country, asking that question?  There are tens of thousands of children who need help, who are desperate and alone in the world, facing poverty and legal limbo if they are allowed to stay and vastly worse poverty and violence if they are sent back home with no support and no help from the world.   

Arias goes on to say:

“The root cause of this crisis is not U.S. immigration law or the policies of one U.S. president. The root cause is the violence and poverty that make these children’s lives at home intolerable. The root cause dates to the parents and grandparents of the young people fleeing their countries today — our region’s ‘lost generation,’ those who were children and teenagers in the 1980s. Back then, two superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union — chose our region as a place to work out their disputes. They were eager to help Central America transform students into soldiers. They were eager to provide the weapons while we provided the dead.”

Does he sound bitter?  Maybe.  But he lived through that period; he was President of Costa Rica the first time from 1986 to 1990.  And his comments make sense to me.  But in truth it doesn’t matter much right now who we blame, or how far back the blame goes.  It doesn’t matter whether it is Obama’s fault, or Bush’s fault, or the cold wars, or the drug wars. 

What matters, for the moment, is the present tense, not the past tense or even the future tense; what matters is the human story, the many human stories, appearing on our side of the border every day.  They need shelter, and food, and medical care.  We know how to provide those; we’re probably the best in the world at that task.  Every time there’s a disaster anywhere on earth---tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes---our rescue teams and our Coast Guard and our National Guard, and our Marines, with all their ships and aircraft and trucks and ambulances, and thousands of eager young people who want to make a difference in the world, show up to help. 

I’d like to invite the President and the Speaker to please get their heads out of their darker and more political body parts.  But if they can’t manage that, maybe the rest of us can.  Let’s take care of those children.  We can assign blame, and choose what path we want to take to make the world harsher, and colder, and less human, when we’ve got the current flood of children cared for.

Or---once the immediate crisis is under control---maybe we can undertake the radical (from the root) solution everyone says they want.  But that won’t involve some fiddling fix to our immigration laws.  Since, as Arias argued above, nothing we can do here will make our border harsher or colder than the situation these people have left behind, why don’t we take the alternative path.  Instead of making things worse for them here, why don’t we work with the Central American countries they’re escaping to make things better for them there? 

Naah.  Maybe that’s a bit too radical.

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