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It’s the Violence and the Poverty, Stupid

What do Pakistan, Syria, Iran, the West Bank and Gaza, and Jordan have in common?  If you answered “the most popular vacation spots in the world” you would be wrong.  If you answered “the five nations hosting the largest number of the world’s refugees,” you would be right.  Over seven million refugees and asylum seekers live in these nations.  (The United States sets an annual ceiling of 70 to 80 thousand for refugee resettlement here, but since 2001 has only resettled 30 to 50 thousand each year.)  Altogether there are 8.5 million refugees warehoused around the world.  Two thirds of them are hosted by nations where per capita GDP is less than $2000.  Nations with per capita GDP over $10,000 hosted five percent of the world’s uprooted people.  In addition to these warehoused refugees, there are an additional 26 million stateless or internally displaced persons in the world.

These numbers don’t include the documented and undocumented people that today are at the heart of our nation’s vitriolic anti-immigrant rhetoric.  In 2008 there were nearly 40 million foreign born people living in the United States as citizens or with varied immigrant status.  They represent a little over 12% of the total population, a lower percentage than our national experience every year between the Civil War and the Great Depression.  These numbers also don’t resolve the complex issues involved in securing borders, welcoming strangers, or providing pathways to citizenship.  But at the very least they ought to remind Americans that “it’s not all about us,” that the challenge of welcoming the stranger is a global challenge, and that those nations least able to afford this burden usually end up bearing the heaviest load.

At Ellis Island, the processing center for millions of “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” a video presentation depicts the immigrant experience through the eyes of a young woman whose jotted notes record her journey.  Visitors listen to anguished farewells in a village in Eastern Europe, experience the rough horse cart journey to the railheads leading across Central Europe toward Hamburg, and crowd together in steerage for the Atlantic crossing.  She documents her arrival in New York, the anxious examinations leading to quarantine and return for some, the ferry to New Jersey and the trains across the continent to the farms of the upper mid-west.  It is an epic saga shared by countless immigrants through the decades.  Although I saw the presentation years ago, I remain haunted by the poignant farewells to Mama and Papa, and to friends in the village, people she knew she would never see again.  What would prompt someone to leave everyone she or he loves for an uncertain future?

For most, of course, the simple answer – often overlooked – is desperation.  Violence, poverty, the crushing lack of opportunity at home, persecution, and the fear of watching your children die are what drove uprooted people on their migrant journeys decades ago.  The same factors are what uproot vulnerable people all around the globe today.  Only a tiny fraction of those who come to this country or, for that matter, any country leave a comfortable and stable life in their native land in search of what they perceive to be an even more prosperous future somewhere else.  Only a few are adventurers or self-serving opportunists seeking to take what legitimately belongs to someone else.  The vast majority of uprooted people are simply desperate, out of options, threatened by starvation and violence or forced from home by oppressive regimes.   Until countries like ours get serious about addressing poverty and war around the world, we will always have an “immigration problem.”  Or, to put it more pointedly, until North America decides that the physical and economic well-being of our neighbors in Mexico, Central America, and South America is a priority, there will always be those seeking to build walls south of San Diego, and others prepared to die in the desert of Arizona.

I have never worried that my children will starve to death or perish for lack of medicine readily available elsewhere.  I have never been herded into a concentration camp simply because I have an English and Welsh ethnic heritage.  Climate change has not brought Lake Michigan to the door of my apartment building – yet.  Canadian and U.S. military forces are unlikely to be battling for control of Hyde Park anytime soon, turning East 56th Street into a dangerous green line.  In other words, I have never faced the real and frantic need to uproot myself and my family and travel to a strange place where kindness and welcome cannot be assumed.   Even imagining such a thing is nearly impossible, but the effort might just open up some well spring of compassion that today seems so lacking.

In Old Cairo the Coptic Orthodox Church maintains churches in the warren of crowded streets that commemorate the hospitality offered to the members of the Holy Family when they were refugees from Herod’s terror.  These are the original “sanctuary churches,” places of refuge for desperate people bearing holiness in their arms.  They shape a narrative starkly different from that of Exodus, where Pharaoh engaged in ethnic cleansing and chased impoverished slaves on their flight toward the sea.  Today in Beirut the Chaldean Catholic Church provides places of sanctuary for Iraqi Christians fleeing the violence unleashed in their nation by the US invasion and occupation.  Along with Orthodox and Evangelical Christians in places like Damascus providing sanctuary to Muslim and Christian alike, they shape a narrative of hospitality in a region consumed by the narratives of suspicion and fear.

A politician once famously remarked, “It’s the economy, stupid.”  The immigration debate may be many things, but at the heart “It’s the violence and the poverty, stupid.”   I don’t presume to know all the answers to the debates over immigration policy.  But on the wall of my offices over the past thirty-five years I have hung a copy of a 15th century painting by Fra Angelico of the Holy Family on its flight into Egypt.  When I look at it I don’t really think about Sunday school stories.  I think instead of the refugee camps I’ve visited in places like Jerusalem or the outskirts of Bogota.   I think of separated families gazing across the obscene wall snaking its way between San Isidro, California and Tijauana, Mexico.  No, there’s a lot I don’t know about the policies underneath the immigration debate.  But that medieval painting and those very real places today tell me all I really need to know.

John H. Thomas

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