The Other Side Of Sympathy

January 3, 2019 Opinion , OPINION/NEWS , United States

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Sarah Ito



Random Thoughts on the Migrant Caravan from a Conflicted American



America is a strong nation because of its beginnings as a nation of immigrants. Immigrants, regardless of how they arrived on her shores, have strengthened her economy, defended her constitution, and enhanced her cultural diversity in countless ways. Whether it be through the visa-granting process, or as refugees and asylum seekers, or climbing over, under, and around walls, they came, are coming, will come, in resolute pursuit of the American Dream, which still exists in the hearts and minds of these people.


America has had bumps in its immigration road long before the Trump presidency. In 1939, the captain of the refugee ship MS St. Louis, with his 900 Jewish passengers seeking escape from Nazi Germany, was denied docking in the United States by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The refugees were returned to several European countries, where approximately one third later died in concentration camps. We have experienced the Haitian boatlifts of the 1970’s, and the 1980 Mariel boatlift under President Jimmy Carter, where Fidel Castro cleansed the prisons and psychiatric wards of Cuba by sending his unwanted into the care of the United States. People who lived in Miami, Florida during this time will attest to the chaos brought to some areas of the city by the unmanaged arrival of the boat people, many of whom were incapable of adapting or even caring for themselves. President Reagan, in his succession to Carter, attempted to streamline and humanize the asylum-seeking process with some positive results.


Every American president in recent times has had to deal with this difficult and politically-charged issue. From the displaced Vietnamese and Cambodians of the Vietnam War to the peoples of the Middle East and Asia, victims of never-ending wars, to people fleeing drought, starvation and civil unrest on the African continent, people in crisis have historically turned to the United States for refuge. But something is different now, something more insidious and troublesome than an American president who denigrates and marginalizes a migrant population. In fact, any population will have its share of criminals, sociopaths, “bad” people who rape and murder. The conflict with the current migrant caravan does not have to do with lack of sympathy or empathy for these folks, nor the President’s negative stereotype; it is more grounded in the hard reality of what is in the best interests of the American people at this particular waypoint in our history.


In the matter of the caravan, the migrants did not randomly come together as one to undertake this trek to our southern border. Those entities in Central and South America who take money from impoverished people to “guide” them, who tell them falsehoods about what to expect when seeking asylum, and in fact, misrepresent this complex process to desperate people with little or no education, are motivated by both political and criminal intent, and one would expect that our diplomatic channels would be utilized to work with governments in these regions to rectify this situation. There seems to be a difference between these migrants and those who have come, both legally and otherwise, from Mexico. The Mexicans seem to have purpose, a plan of some sort. Those from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras do not. As such, they are ill prepared for the challenges they face.


When ICE recently released, unexpectedly, several hundred of the caravan migrants in El Paso, Texas, causing a crisis within the city, social service organizations had to mobilize to feed and house these people. This leads one to wonder: how did these migrants think they were going to live if they were granted asylum? Were they under the impression that the United States would meet their housing needs, feed and clothe them, and provide medical care?


Most of the migrants, if admitted, would initially end up in California, a state devastated by natural disasters during the last few years. Should we, the American taxpayer, be supporting those seeking asylum on the basis of economics and crime ahead of those Californians from Paradise, who lost everything? And what about the citizens of Puerto Rico, largely forgotten by our current President? Do they take a back seat to the needs of people from Honduras? What about our homeless veterans and their need for shelter and mental health care? How do Americans of good will define fairness and equity in these difficult times? Who should be on our short list of priorities?


Finally, there is the question of potential communicable disease within the caravan itself. As evidenced by the tragic deaths of two young migrant children, it becomes the responsibility of the United States of America to provide medical care to the migrants once they are on U.S. soil, awaiting their day in court. To be clear, no one begrudges urgent medical care to these folks, especially the children. In the case of the deceased boy, this child, with obvious symptoms of flu, was returned to a public area where he could easily have infected hundreds of other, largely unvaccinated, people. Indeed, the hospital that first treated this child must be held accountable, but we, the American people, will pay for this and all subsequent medical treatment for those who are waiting for asylum claims to be heard while on the U.S. side of the border. And yet, in our infinite wisdom and abundant folly, we cannot provide affordable, if any, medical care to our own citizens.


The immigration laws of the United States dictate that a person or persons must be physically on United States soil to request asylum. That does not mean that we must admit hundreds of people at any one time. Smaller groups and families are safer to monitor, feed and care for while their claims are being processed. This, of course, requires a good working relationship with the government of Mexico, which would be the custodian of those migrants in waiting. Given President Trump’s befouling of the Mexican people and their country, this type of relationship seems unlikely to happen.


So once again the American people are placed in the midst of a conundrum…to honor our cherished history of welcoming migrants to our shores, in this instance fast-tracking them due to their homelands’ economic and crime problems, or to require those whose immediate needs are less desperate to seek admittance through the established channels of immigration and simply wait for their visas to be issued.


If the American immigration system is biased, broken, or unfathomable, let’s fix it. If it is not, let’s respect it. As Americans, we should be able to do this, and without pushing our own citizens to the back of the bus, or by the demonization of those who wish to make the United States their home. After all, the migrants may be the last believers in the American Dream, and its only hope for survival.





Sarah Ito

I am a novelist (GROWING UP GREENWICH, Outskirts Press), blogger and essayist, and occasional poet.

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