The refugee crisis and American accountability

By Benjamin Clabault

(Sahar Kassab, right, speaks to a reporter off camera next to her husband Basel Awarek, center, and daughter Laila Awarek, left. They are refugees from Homs, Syria.  John Gastaldo/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)
(Sahar Kassab, right, speaks to a reporter off camera next to her husband Basel Awarek, center, and daughter Laila Awarek, left. They are refugees from Homs, Syria. John Gastaldo/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

From Syrian refugees to Central American immigrants, recent years have repeatedly seen desperate people from other parts of the world seek safety on United States soil. How we react to these newcomers will say a lot about how we see ourselves in the world. Will we continue to act with only our own interests in mind, maintaining an imperialistic worldview that values American prosperity over the lives and well-being of anyone else? Or will we develop an empathetic view, acknowledging our own complicity in the misery of others and feeling obligated to react with understanding and compassion?

In the summer of 2014, a surge of Central American children arrived at the U.S. border, many unaccompanied by adults. They risked a difficult, potentially deadly journey across Mexico to escape violence and poverty in their homelands. One would assume that, even if some Americans hold strong beliefs about the need to enforce immigration laws, these courageous children would be met with a general sympathy. Tragically, this was often not the case.

A 2014 meeting of selectmen in Bourne, Massachusetts perfectly demonstrated the nastiest elements of the response to the migrant children. The meeting was called in response to then-Governor Deval Patrick’s plan to temporarily house several hundred children at the Camp Edwards military base, which is partly in Bourne. The plan seemed reasonable enough; whether they were to be deported or not, the children were here in our country and needed to be cared for somewhere. But, for the town selectmen and some Bourne residents, it seemed unthinkable.

Despite assurances from a state official that the plan would bear virtually no cost or burden to the town, selectmen voted unanimously to write a letter of opposition to Patrick. Bourne residents expressed various reasons for their stance, with one woman claiming that the immigrants were not “cute little kids” but rather adults who are intent on “sucking us dry.” Another attendee highlighted the need “to protect our children” in the face of people who “don’t have the same culture we have…in Bourne.”

These comments reflect not only American racism, but also an inability to see the migrant crisis in context. The people at this meeting saw the influx of children as an external threat to their community and way of life. They felt no obligation to help solve a problem they feel Americans did nothing to create. What they failed to see is that, as Americans, they have been complicit in the U.S. policies that contributed to the turmoil in Central America, which spurred the migration in the first place.

Decades of U.S. military intervention and the failings of the war on drugs created the conditions of instability and gang violence in Central American countries. Now, as children flee the problems that we helped create, we have no moral grounds to shirk our responsibility to care for them.

The fact is that, as a major imperialist power, the United States has played a huge role in world affairs and can rarely view external events as separate from our own actions. We have acted in our own interests in other parts of the world, often with devastating effect for the local populations. When the victims of our policies come seeking our aid, we reject them in accordance with the same self-interest that prompted the initial policies, but in doing so we must completely acknowledge our status as international bullies.

An alternative option would be to accept that the world’s problems are our problems, to act with compassion and to orient ourselves as a benevolent member of the international community. This would mean accepting the responsibility of assisting people who have been victimized by our policies.

In the case of the Syrian crisis, debates have raged about our acceptance of refugees. In discussing the issue, we must not forget about our own role in the escalation of the conflict. For years the United States has launched airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and sends weapons to the front. Furthermore, the 2003 American invasion of Iraq destabilized the region and provided the space for radical groups like ISIS to form. Without this intervention, the current situation would be drastically different.

The United States likes to tout itself as the leader of the free world. If we wish to maintain that label while shedding our imperialistic tendencies, we need to accept it when our leadership has brought chaos abroad and respond with compassion.

Benjamin Clabault is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]