Can US reconcile its immigrant roots with its anti-immigrant politics?
Within hours of the news that more than 50 migrants had died in the back of a tractor-trailer near San Antonio last week, the men, women and children having been baked alive in the blistering Texas heat, anti-immigrant Republicans quickly descended into blaming President Joe Biden. Not because he had anything directly to do with this disaster, this act of mass torture, this surreal tragedy; this was clearly the work of human traffickers taking advantage of desperate people willing to risk everything for a new life in the United States. The finger-pointing also wasn’t because the president lacked compassion for those trying to circumvent restrictive border policies; quite the contrary: He had demonstrated too much.
In the eyes of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Biden is at fault because he’s too soft on the Southern border. His walls aren’t long enough, his border guards not numerous or aggressive enough, his detention facilities not overcrowded or inhumane enough, his unwillingness to treat asylum-seekers as chattel a sign of weakness instead of what it is — an act of civility and kindness.
“These deaths are on Biden,” Abbott pronounced on Twitter before any bodies could be buried or, in many cases, even identified. “They are a result of his deadly open border policies. They show the deadly consequences of his refusal to enforce the law.”
On July 4th, the nation celebrated its independence, gained 246 years ago by people who had much more in common with the San Antonio victims than with grandstanding politicians — their families rooted even further from the U.S. border than the new arrivals who died getting here. People like Greg Abbott or Donald Trump can’t bring themselves to see today’s generation of immigrants as human, let alone equivalent to the founders. They prefer to call them “illegals.”
Let us take a moment to recall our history as a nation of immigrants. How can we care so little about the welfare of people seeking a better life from beyond our borders, as our forebears did? How much stronger could the United States be if more people were legally admitted at the southern border? In the middle of a labor shortage, why is this not the obvious solution?
Could it be about race?
How could it not?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness.” Except, of course, we don’t hold all men equal. Or women for that matter. We did not in 1776. We do not in 2022. Yes, we have outlawed slavery. We have taken steps to support equal rights for women (then rolled some back). But to exist as a person of color in this country today is to face a lower life expectancy, a greater likelihood of imprisonment or violent death, and a host of systemic obstacles to success — including a denial by conservatives that these disadvantages exist at all.
When Europeans die 5,000 miles away in Ukraine, we immediately and rightly look for ways to help protect them, to defend them, to find homes for them. Can’t we show the same compassion for those fleeing economic disaster in Mexico or Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador? They are not our enemies; although those who would take advantage of them and leave them in a death trap should be regarded as such. Let us never forget that eight of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were not born in America. Helping our fellow human beings doesn’t make us weaker, it makes us stronger — and a step closer to achieving the lofty ideals the framers had in mind.