“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.”

While child immigration to the U.S. from Central America is nothing new, the large influx of over 52,000 children seeking asylum since October of last year has been startling to many. To me, what is more startling is the overwhelmingly hostile and uncooperative response to the crisis.

Most individuals crossing the border have traveled thousands of miles, across deserts and on top of trains, and upon arrival to the nation self-proclaimed to be the land of the tolerant, the land of peace, the land of freedom and justice and prosperity, these unaccompanied children (ranging from toddler to teen) and single mothers have been met with hatred and violence.

They have been met with protesters screaming at them in a language they may not understand. They are housed in understaffed detention centers where some are cared for and given donations of clothing, toys, and food, while others are denied basic human necessities and robbed of their innocence while they live in a state of displacement and fear.

The debate at hand–instead of focusing on how to handle the situation in a way that is both pragmatic and respects the fundamental human dignity of all people–has been about why this crisis is occurring. Never mind that it is happening and lives are at stake–the principle objective of our politicians is to place blame–particularly on President Obama. I’m no expert, but, after reviewing facts available to the public, I believe the drastic increase in child immigrants is directly related to dire economic conditions (due largely to U.S. trade agreements that crush rural agriculture) and rising levels of violence in Central America (sparked and fueled by U.S. sponsored wars in the 1980s). Levels of violence that should qualify these immigrants as refugees, fleeing the turmoil of political repression and gang warfare (which originated in the U.S. and spread to Central America through mass deportations).

A travel warning put out this week by the State Department said that “since 2010, Honduras has had the highest murder rate in the world,” citing the homicide rate of 75.6 per 100,000 people in 2013.

Sure, the belief that children will receive citizenship as a result of Obama’s 2012 Dream Act may have influenced many to come. However, the majority of children are seeking to reunite with family members who have already fled and even for those unaccompanied minors, immigration has doubled every year since 2011. Additionally, there has been a monumental increase in asylum seeking in multiple countries–not just the United States.

While the United States received around 85 percent of all applications for asylum, the UNHCR report also found a 435 percent increase in asylum requests from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in other countries — Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize.

Many are blaming Obama for wanting to keep these kids in the country and for the institutional failure of our border security facilities to accommodate them. But–as many Tea Partiers are clamoring for–Obama wants to facilitate their deportation. It was George W. Bush’s 2008 anti-trafficking law that mandates immigrant children from countries not bordering the U.S. receive safe haven and a full trial before it can be determined whether they stay or return home.

Whatever the reason for this humanitarian crisis, politicians (and the scores of people calling for these children to be “Returned to Sender”) have lost sight of the fact that human worth transcends nationality and borders. Yes, there are homeless children in the U.S. Yes, there are a multitude of problems that need to be dealt with at home and, yes, figuring out what to do with the projected 90,000 children isn’t going to be easy. But, to quote a thought-provoking piece on this issue by CNN’s David Gergen and Daniel Katz:

Surely, we as Americans are capable of coming up with creative solutions that are compassionate as well as sensible, solutions that tell the world (and ourselves) that we still aspire to be good-hearted, noble but pragmatic people.

They are children. They are suffering. They have been faced with the most unfathomable of dilemmas–leave and you may die, stay and you likely will. And whatever the reason for their coming, they are here. This wave is turning into the largest influx of asylum seekers crossing U.S. borders since the 1980 Mariel boat-lift out of Cuba. While my mom was not a part of this wave of Cuban refugees, she did make the journey from Havana to America. My mother–whose talent for writing I hope to one day match–wrote down her story.

Mom Collage

Left to right: Ten years old, a year before moving to the United States. First birthday party in Cuba. Six years old in Lima.

 

 The nightly news of late is saturated with stories of the immigration border crisis taking place in several states. Although illegals crossing borders on foot is hardly front page news anymore, the massive arrival of children, teens and single mothers has by now caught everyone’s attention. Indeed, the last time so many unaccompanied foreign minors reached our shores was during the 1961-62  Operation Pedro Pan. Prompted by a rumor that Fidel Castro planned to remove children from their homes in order to indoctrinate them, parents anxiously put their trust in the US government and sent them alone to be met by volunteers of the Catholic Archdiocese and government officials. Over 14, 000  Cuban children were welcomed in Miami and placed in foster homes or with other relatives until they could be reunited with their parents.  During that mass exodus, the United States was welcoming and popular sentiment against “illegal immigrants” was not as widespread.

My personal immigration story is not so dramatic and it most definitely had a happy ending. Our journey was devoid of physical danger. Our departure had no clandestine, late night meetings with corrupt coyotes that carried me across treacherous deserts. There were no gang killings at my doorstep, no abject poverty to escape from. It only involved some rather hushed and hurried plans and a short airplane ride across the ocean. Luckily at that time there was no embargo, the borders were open and we could still leave with a few dollars in our pockets. . Unlike these children today, I left behind an idyllic childhood when my family left Cuba as a response to Castro’s Communist ideology and incipient acts of violence. The decision was made in anticipation of the brutality and change of lifestyle that would come later.  When I left Cuba I left behind a nice home with a swing set in the back and memories of a glorious 5th birthday party, afternoons on the beach, my neighbor’s floor to ceiling aviary and my grandparents’ beloved Doberman Pinscher. My parents left so much more- a home with all its belongings, an established career, lifetime friends , and family. They were forced to make a drastic change in their lives that they did not ask for, with no money and two small children in tow. Perhaps the greatest thing they left behind was the optimism of youth, the feeling that life unfolding as it should meant that they would have continued prosperity and happiness. Although the land of opportunity beckoned them and embraced them, it was not a choice they would have made if they felt safe in their homeland. No matter how frightening the prospect of leaving was, staying was scarier. And that is perhaps at the root of many immigrants’ story, regardless of the circumstances of their departure.

So now, 54 years later, my heart hurts while watching this current immigration crisis. I don’t think there is anyone who has left their homeland under adverse conditions who looks at these children and doesn’t think “This was me”. I was so lucky that in 1960  we were considered “political refuges” and granted unequivocal asylum and acceptance. I’ve heard people say there is a difference between being a political refugee and an illegal immigrant, but really it’s all semantics. For those who leave their country of origin to escape violence and poverty or an oppressive regime, the experience of being uprooted feels the same. The fervent hope that life across the border is better is the same for all groups. And the idea that America is where one goes for a fresh start has been in place since the first set of immigrants left Europe seeking religious freedom. So maybe the names have changed and so have the countries we emigrate from but the United States has always been a nation of immigrants and needs to continue to remain this way. These children who are being turned away don’t deserve the wrath and contempt they are being met with. It is bad enough that the sadness of this exodus will always be with them to a certain degree, they don’t need this additional lack of compassion at this point in their journey. They most certainly don’t deserve the death sentence, the unhappy ending some of them will meet if returned to the violence ridden place of their birth.

Like I said, my immigration story had a happy ending. Our family completely assimilated into our new culture after 4 very difficult years. We initially moved to Puerto Rico because neither one of my parents spoke English. My father, a registered architect in Cuba, taught martial arts, did carpentry work, and anything else he could. And while they worked, they slowly learned to speak English. Because there was so little money, 5 couples shared one small home and pooled their money together to put food on the table and pay the rent and electric bills. “There was only one bedroom and we would take turns staying in it”, my dad would  laugh and wink everytime he told that story.  I’m sure it was not that funny at the time.Since my mom’s family was all in South America my brother and I went to live there with my grandmother so we could attend good schools and have other family members in our lives. For a period of two years I saw my parents infrequently, whenever one of them could travel to spend time with us they did. And after some time, once there was a steady job, a car and a small apartment, they sent for us .We eventually moved to  Hollywood, Florida and prospered in the USA. One of my earliest recollections of Hollywood was an overnight stay at a motel on the beach, courtesy of my aunt and uncle. My brother and I sat across a table from each other, curiously eyeing the small, rectangular packages of strawberry, orange and grape jelly. It was the first time I had ever tasted anything like that. By the end of breakfast we had stuffed our pockets with what we had not already consumed and I clearly remember thinking to myself “If this is what America is like, I love it here!” Upon entering our new little home on a pristine suburban street in Hollywood Hills all I needed was the sight of my own bedroom with a new transistor radio on the dresser to convince me that I had died and gone to heaven. We all became American citizens in 1965 and at some point my brother and I started speaking only in English and that troublesome chapter of our lives was closed.

Yet, I can’t watch any documentary on the history of the Cuban revolution without feeling sad that that happened to us. And when I see images of those little Cuban girls dressed in their cotton dresses and turned down socks, clutching their dolls as they walk off  airplanes and onto the tarmac in Florida, I tear up. The adults are hugging each other, crying as they reunite with relatives, but the little girls are just looking up at their parents with an expression of total bewilderment. Many year later maybe what they will recall will be their parents’ pain in those early years. They will hear the stories over and over until they can’t differentiate between their own sad memories and what their parents told them. And they will enjoy wonderful happy lives in their new homes. Even though they will feel as American as anyone else born and raised here, they will also feel uniquely Cuban.  One day they may be confronted with the same images of puzzled, expressionless children making another journey they don’t quite understand and they will feel a sadness and compassion the depths of which you can’t comprehend unless you have been on a similar journey.

My parents never set foot in Cuba again. I was hoping to one day be able to go back together. My mother said it would be too sad. My father said he would never support the Castro regime by traveling there. They are both gone now . Years ago my dad gave me the deed to our house in Havana and said “Someday you will be able to go and get our house back.”  The expression on his face carried a hint of sadness still, only when he and his friends would sit around and talk about Cuba. So maybe now I am the keeper of this sadness and when I see and read about what is happening on our borders today it doesn’t take much to recognize that their story is my story. Politically speaking, I don’t have a solution and like many others I am sick of the vitriol and finger-pointing by politicians on both sides. To me, this is a story of emotional displacement and families being torn apart. It is a matter of the heart. And I hope there can be a happy ending.

What can you do?

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