Oscar was twenty-five; his daughter, Valeria, two years old. They, along with Tania, Oscar’s wife (and Valeria’s mom), came to the Mexican-US border, at Matamoros just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville Texas. They were a desperate family fleeing the crime and violence that is endemic in their native El Salvador. Fear of crime and violence in one’s home country does not necessarily qualify for political asylum, but Oscar and Tania with their child Valeria in tow were going to try and plead their case to American immigration officials, which they were entitled to do.
So, seeking political asylum, when they finally reached Matamoros, they went immediately to the US Consulate where they were told to come back at a later date— apparently a much later date, as the consulate was metering asylum appointments. “Metering” is the Administration’s word for deliberately slow-walking asylum applications. It is a monstrous, sanitizing word to describe a monstrous process designed to discourage people from pursuing the very legal process the Administration demands they follow.
They are, as we all know by now, no longer a family, not a living family anyway, because Oscar and his daughter Valeria are both dead, having drowned in the raging waters of the Rio Grande as Tania watched in horror. Actually, Oscar and Valeria made it to the American side where they planned to turn themselves in to border personnel (as the law requires) as soon as Oscar could return with Tania. Oscar had placed Valeria on dry ground and told his daughter to wait while he went back for her mother, who was waiting on the shore just across the narrow river. But the child, Valeria, panicked and tried to follow him back. Oscar turned back to save his daughter and, moments later, they were both dead. Tania watched it all in horror.
This essay is really not about blame, although there is so much blame to go around. We have an utterly dysfunctional Congress consisting of two political parties that won’t work together to seriously address the problems of immigration, especially at our southern border. That’s been a long running failure of many Congresses. As soon as the gut-wrenching pictures appeared of the father and daughter lying face down among the reeds on the Mexican shore of the river, a chorus of politicians from two-bit congressmen to the President of the United States rushed to the microphone to finger point and yell “your fault” at their political rivals. It was stomach-turning pathetic.
The governments comprising the notoriously dangerous triangle of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, from where most of the immigrants are fleeing are inept…or worse, at dealing with the crime and corruption that are indigenous to the area.
The Trump Administration, meanwhile, is dealing with this humanitarian crisis by slow-walking the asylum process and countermanding US law that says an applicant for political asylum must, literally, present himself or herself anywhere on American soil and not necessarily at a legal point of entry. That is literally what the law says. US consulates are not supposed to be processing points for asylum seekers. In fact, under our law, US consulates in foreign countries are, technically, proscribed from acting as political asylum processing centers.
We don’t know if Oscar, and Tania and their little daughter, Valeria, would have been granted political asylum, nor do we know whether they would have returned to El Salvador if their applications had been rejected by our government. It is true, many asylum seekers do not show up for their asylum hearings, although not nearly as many as Administration officials say.
The world knows about Oscar and Valeria and Tania because their pictures and tragic stories have been displayed all over the world. These graphic photographs are rare, but these stories are not.
A short time ago, a group of four—two babies, a toddler and a woman were found dead in the Arizona desert, overcome by sweltering heat. At about the same time, three kids and an adult from Honduras tried to navigate the Rio Grande on a raft. It is a treacherous and unforgiving river. They all perished. And earlier this month, a six-year-old child from India…from India of all places, was found dead, again, in the Arizona desert.
People are born into this world and have, perhaps, a tiny chance of a decent life, let alone a good or prosperous life. A small fraction still looks to America as the promised land, but for most of them, the American dream is apt to be an American nightmare.
And as we talk about walls and tell the world “we’re full, sorry we can’t take any more,” thousands think if they don’t make the trek now they’ll never get another chance. So, our politicization of the issue, our threat to shut down or curtail immigration, actually generates greater numbers of desperate people who think it’s now or never and begin walking, or swimming or hitching rides or joining caravans wherever and whenever they can to head to America. Politicization of the issue adds to the masses heading our way.
Few nations are motivated to help, especially in this era of populism and nationalism. Politicians will often have hell to pay by even showing sympathy for those souls hoofing it to whatever perceived safe harbor they think they can reach.
This essay will attract commenters who will give reason after reason why we can’t take more refugees or immigrants. Their emotion is real. Their reasoning often isn’t. We, with our declining birthrate, aging population and industries for which Americans do not want to work, need sensible and robust immigration. Ironically, our own safety net programs actually benefit from both lawful and unlawful immigration. The majority of all undocumented workers pay handsomely into social security and Medicare, and none will ever draw benefits from those same programs.
It’s true. According to the Social Security Administration, about 340 million unclaimed social security tax forms have accumulated and are sitting in the social security trust fund (compared to 270 million a decade ago), most of which can be assumed to belong to undocumented immigrants. In fact, illegal immigration is considered largely responsible for the mushrooming of the Social Security suspension file which tracks money that has been paid in and for which there are no actual real names of payors—undocumented workers paying billions in taxes for retirement benefits they will likely never receive. These undocumented workers also pay state sales and excise taxes, and state income taxes and property taxes thereby contributing to a myriad of other services. The contention that undocumented workers burden social services while contributing nothing is patently false.
It’s time for the Administration and the Congress to try something really novel. It’s time to work with other well-developed countries with well-developed economies to try to lighten, rather than exacerbate, a worldwide humanitarian crisis. Not because it’s an easy task, but, as John Kennedy said when he committed the United States to send a man to the moon and returning him safely to earth, because it’s hard.
It’s also necessary and vital. Millions of decent human beings depend on it.