Last week, the lifeless body of three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi washed ashore in Turkey. News coverage and photographs of this tragedy have resulted in international dialogue about protecting children and migrant families and a global outpouring of support for generating solutions to address the crisis in Syria. Yet when faced with persecuted children and families dying at our doorstep, our compassion seems to evaporate.
Those of us living near the U.S.-Mexico border are most likely to witness firsthand the serious humanitarian situation among refugees and immigrants in our communities, yet the U.S. response is more likely to stigmatize immigrants and wall off our country than it is to embrace those fleeing violence and starvation. Who among us did not choke back tears witnessing Aylan Kurdi’s father recount an anguished tale of despair as he tried in vain to save his wife and children from drowning as they fled persecution? And when faced with such a humanitarian crisis, why does one nation — Germany — open its arms and another — Hungary — build more walls?
In the U.S., there is little discussion of the humanitarian situation at the U.S.- Mexican border: thousands of migrants and refugees escaping violence, starvation and seeking to reunite with families. Children have suffocated in trucks, died of dehydration in the desert, become victims of violence, all on U.S. soil as they were fleeing persecution. As part of my work on the border, I have seen children and families crossing in ever more unsafe areas and have found the bodies of migrants in the desert. The world turns a blind eye, and too many of us in the United States have stopped seeing a precious, suffering child when she or he is a foreigner seeking refuge. The U.S. has turned a blind eye to immigrants dying on our own doorstep and accepting border walls and derogatory “anchor baby” slurs makes us a weaker country. Dehumanizing people who are seeking survival or a better life by dubbing them “illegals” and “aliens” only fuels the fear and hatred that results in cruel immigration practices. Children and families fleeing harm should be met with compassion, showing the best side of our country’s values.
In 1994, the U.S. began the construction of the wall on the U.S.-Mexican border. And since that time, thousands have died, many of whom were children, just like Aylan. Our leaders cannot respond to a humanitarian crisis with hate speech. We’ve seen how hate speech leads to hate actions. We need solutions, not stigma.
Some will say that the U.S. is the world’s most generous country in welcoming migrants, but sadly that is not true. Although the U.S. welcomes the largest number of immigrants, when that number is viewed in terms of percentage, the U.S. ranks 22 in the world with regard to number of immigrants, with Canada accepting twice as many immigrants per capita as the U.S.
During conversations about human rights violations at the U.S. border and horrific stories of the journeys families undertake to flee harm, I often hear indifference in response to undocumented individuals’ struggles or the notion that these individuals just need to wait and “get in line.” But the problem is that, for most, there is no line. For example, Marco Antonio Villasenor was five years old when he died with his father and 18 other undocumented immigrants just after crossing the U.S.-Mexican border. Yet, rather than calls to resolve gridlocked immigration reform and enact refugee programs, our public conversation was about prosecution and sending a message across the border that becoming a refugee in this country is not safe.
The time is now for humane immigration reform. Like the gripping photographs of Aylan that spurred a global response, we cannot turn away from the tragedy unfolding before us on the U.S.-Mexico border. We must call for an end to political hyperbole that fuels stigma and hate and demand solutions instead. There are lives depending on it.
Morones is founder and executive director of San Diego-based Border Angels. He is a 2012 Opportunity Agenda fellow. In 2009, he was awarded Mexico’s National Human Rights Award.