The situation in Europe is causing tension in the neighborhood. Hungary has declared a state of emergency and sealed off its southern border with Serbia, which has for the last several weeks served as a shortcut to Germany. Those who disregard the barricade and try to enter Hungary anyway are being detained—something that neither the refugees nor Hungarian officials want. The result is chaos on the Serbian side of the border, where thousands of migrants are stacked up like overflow dolls that wouldn’t fit into a toy chest. Serbian officials are panicked and outraged. Riots are breaking out.
Meanwhile, President Obama has said that the United States will accept as many as 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next fiscal year, which begins on October 1. And, amid foreign intelligence reports suggesting that 2 to 5 percent of this pool of refugees might be affiliated with the Islamic State, Americans are trying to sort out whether they’re feeling accommodating or alarmed. If those estimated are accurate, we could be preparing to welcome to our shores between 200 to 500 potential terrorists.
But then again, perhaps Americans don’t need to worry about importing terrorists when we’re growing our own. In July, FBI chief James Comey told lawmakers on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that more than 200 Americans—whom he referred to as “homegrown violent extremists”—have either traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to fight alongside Islamic militants.
The Syrian refugee crisis is happening a long way from the U.S.-Mexico border. About 5,630 miles, give or take a hundred miles. And yet, when we’re confronted with a global phenomenon of gigantic proportions, it’s human nature to try to get a handle on it by framing it in the context of what we know. And in the United States, what we know is the national immigration debate, concerns over security and assimilation, the tension between labor demands and nativist impulses, and the assumption that our southern border is broken. So perhaps not surprisingly, when we watch stories about the refugee crisis on U.S. media or listen when the issue is discussed on talk radio, it only takes a few minutes for someone to bring up the U.S.-Mexico border and parrot the right-wing talking point that there is an “invasion” occurring right under our noses.
Those people don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. What Americans are experiencing on the U.S.-Mexico border is not an invasion or even much of a crisis. It’s a daily illustration of the economic phenomenon of supply and demand. Mexico—and a few other countries in Latin America—supplies the workers to meet Americans’ demand for affordable and dependable labor. The term “invasion” implies a measure of passivity and victimhood, and—when it comes to how the United States came to be home to an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants—Americans are not passive and no one’s victims. They made their own bed. Or rather, in homes and hotels all across America, they let illegal immigrants make their beds, clean their homes, raise their kids, cut their lawns, etc.
For something closer to an apples-to-apples comparison to what’s happening in Europe, where people who have been bombed and gassed by their own leader aren’t just trying to improve their lives but desperately running for their lives, think back to last summer when as many as 80,000 refugees from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—including thousands of unaccompanied minors—streamed across the U.S.-Mexico border into south Texas at a rate of more than 1,000 per day.
The “border kids” did not come to the United States to do jobs that Americans won’t do. While the national discussion about how to respond to the crisis drew oxygen from the overall immigration debate, these children weren’t migrants. They came from dangerous and impoverished places in Central America that became war zones where ruthless street gangs battle for territory, power, and control of the drug trade with Mexican cartels who are opening up satellite offices in the south. That made them refugees, more easily compared to those Cuban-Americans who settled in Miami 30 or 40 years ago.
The major difference: By the mid 1960s, Cuban-Americans had already amassed enough wealth and political power in the United States to force Congress to craft special accommodations like the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which guarantees Cuban refugees a pathway to legal status and U.S. citizenship if they can just make it to shore. Central Americans don’t have wealth and power, and so—politically—they don’t have it so good.
Last summer, there were so many Central American refugees, and they were coming in so fast, that Immigration and Customs Enforcement was overwhelmed. ICE responded by violating its own rules and policies regarding how long minors could be detained in federal custody. The rules say that a minor can be held for only 72 hours, but many of the border kids were being held for several days. During the incarceration, many of the new arrivals were warehoused—as many as 30 or 40 people in one room—in freezing-cold holding cells that came to be known as “hieleras,” or freezers. They were given sparse rations of food. They were also denied blankets, medical care, and access to lawyers who might have been able to challenge their detention.
Eventually, attorneys did become involved and filed suit. In July, U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee ruled that the Obama administration could not detain children for more than 72 hours and ordered federal officials to promptly release those minors who are being held at family detention facilities. Administration officials have until October 23 to comply with Gee’s order. We’ll see what happens.
So, this is how we treat refugees from elsewhere in the neighborhood, in this case Central America.
And, one imagines, it’s a far cry from the sort of treatment that awaits our Syrian visitors. Obama made the right call. The United States is still the world’s moral leader, and the one true indispensable nation. It sets the example.
Along those lines, Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that the United States would, in 2016, increase the limit on annual refugee visas to 85,000. That’s up from the current cap of 70,000. In 2017, the number would rise again to 100,000.
Let’s look on the bright side. For all they’ve gone through, our Middle Eastern visitors will at least have one thing going for them when they arrive in the United States: They’re not Latino. Which means that—unlike the Central Americans—it will be tough for those who want to keep them out to bake them into the existing narrative of an “invasion” on our southern border that threatens the country’s language, culture, and demographic makeup.
Instead, because of the possible affiliation of even a tiny fraction of these refugees with Islamic State, they’ll been seen as representing a very different and more tangible kind of threat. The concern will be over Americans’ personal safety, not about safeguarding their national identity. You can take reasonable precautions to reassure people about the first, but it’s much harder to put them at ease about the second.
The refugee story always boils down to a wrestling match between compassion and fear. Let’s hope that, this time, in the case of the Syrians, the former wins.