“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” From a poem by Warsan Shire (Somali).
Throughout its history, the United States has been a sanctuary for people around the world who have fled persecution, genocide and terrible hardship. At the end of World War II, refugees and displaced persons sought asylum in this country. As the Vietnam War wound down, many thousands of refugees from that country and its neighbors were admitted and granted safe haven. As a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the U.S. agreed not to return refugees to countries where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.
Notwithstanding these historic commitments, this country is turning away, deporting, arresting and detaining thousands of persons who present themselves at the border for asylum. The difference now is that the immigrants are from Central and Latin America. Tonight, thousands of beds in detention centers, many of which are operated by for-profit corporations, will be filled with individuals who are here because what’s at home is riskier than arrest and incarceration here.
Attention to the issue of forced migration has been focused on a recent caravan of families and children who travelled from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to the border at Tijuana. Most of these refugees have friends or family connections in the States and will try to be placed with or near them. They are symbolic of the many thousands who preceded them in the past two decades. They have made this perilous journey northward fully aware that they are likely to be rejected, but they came anyway. Why? The circumstances they face at home include extortion, abduction, kidnapping, arson, death of a family member, assault and state-imposed violence. As a professor, researcher, and volunteer, I have met with hundreds of forced migrants from Central America and Mexico over the past decade. What I have learned is that they do not see that they had a choice in the matter; their survival and family well-being depended on getting away from cities like San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, Honduras or San Salvador, El Salvador.
The decision to deny entry to refugees comes at great cost to those who seek sanctuary. With the danger of returning to their hometowns looming large, many will languish in Mexico or make repeated efforts to cross the border, resulting in long-term detention and deportation, even in the absence of a criminal offense.
Over the long term, our foreign policy can help turn the situation around in Central America through economic development, technical assistance, job creation and investments in schools. The improvement of conditions in their countries of origins would also stem migration. In the meantime, we might consider that we too are the progeny of immigrants and we could use the help of refugees and immigrants in building a stronger economy by filling jobs that are stepping stones to a better life, much as our own ancestors did.
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