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Asylum Seekers in the 21st Century

The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting
The oranges piled in their creosote dumps
They’re flying ‘em back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again

From Deportee or Plane Wreck at Los Gatos by Woody Guthrie

Once upon a time it was all about the Mexicans.  Farmers in California, Texas, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico opened their arms to welcome the hard-working migrants from below the border.  Whole families worked long hours at minimal pay for as long as the picking season lasted.  Then they returned to their homes.

On occasion, when the farmers got greedy or their expenses ran greater than expected, they called in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) service to round them all up for immediate deportation without collecting their final paychecks.

Usually they made it home to their friends and families.  Though disappointed at how they were treated, they would head north again when the time came.  It was a way of life.  It was the way of their fathers and mothers.  It was the only life they knew.

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria
You won’t have your name when you ride the big airplane
All they will call you will be deportees

The farmers knew it was wrong but they did it anyway.  They did it because they could.  They did it because they knew their migrant labor force would return next harvest.  Many were the same people and the same families.  They knew the jobs and could do them better than anyone else.

The truth is the farmers didn’t consider them equal human beings.  They were illegals.   They had no rights.  They had feelings, sure.  They cared about their families and friends.  Some of them might even care about the farmer and his family.  But when it came down to it, they were something less than true American.  They were Mexicans.  They were wetbacks.  They didn’t belong in this country beyond the picking season.

But every once in a while something would happen to remind the white folks that they were real human beings and they deserved better than what they got.

The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon
A fireball of lightning that shook all our hills
Who are all these friends all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says: They are just deportees

It’s not about the Mexicans these days but in many ways it’s the same story.  It’s about how we regard other human beings.

Those who are familiar with Central America call it the Northern Triangle.  Consisting of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the United Nations estimated it was the source of some 294,000 refugees in 2017 alone.

They scatter over the borders and migrate to neighboring Belize or head south to Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Columbia or north to Mexico and the United States.  For a time some nations like Belize and Mexico offered shelter and made some effort to accommodate their needs but the wave of migrants keeps coming and coming.

They are fleeing a place where the police and the government cannot be trusted to protect them.  Too often they are in the pocket of the gangs and cartels that run the streets and neighborhoods.  If they ask you to join them you have a choice:  join or face the consequences.  They will take whatever money you have.  They will rape your daughter.  They will decapitate your son.

The American Department of Justice has ruled that facing terror and oppression from gangs and cartels is no longer grounds for asylum.  If you are a woman, being raped and beaten by your husband is no longer grounds for asylum.

To qualify for asylum you must belong to a victim class – an oppressed race or religious group.  Strangely, the Justice Department does not seem to consider that same status grounds for special treatment of any kind within our borders but it is essential to foreigners seeking refuge in our country.

A former British colony, Belize has a population of 360,000.  Its official language is English.  The first wave of refugees, fleeing wars fueled by American imperialism and corporate interests in the 80’s and 90’s, increased the country’s Spanish-speaking population by some 30,000.

The new wave began around 2011 and intensified in 2014, spurred by an explosion of violence, extortion, rape, kidnapping and murder.  It includes street gangs like MS-13 of El Salvador (by way of Los Angeles) that are trying to establish a foothold in Belize.  The authorities in Belize are resisting.  They do not wish to assimilate any more refugees so the asylum seekers move on.

Mexico expected 20,000 asylum applications in 2017.  Beyond that they too are unable to accommodate the wave.  But the wave keeps coming.

After a long hard journey coursing thousands of miles, some of the refugees finally reach the southern border of the United States of America – a nation that once took pride in being a nation of immigrants – only to find that they are no longer welcome.  The American president has warned us that this wave of refugees consists largely of criminals, rapists, killers and kidnappers posing as asylum seekers.

They are no longer considered equal human beings deserving of fundamental human rights.  They are to be treated as animals, the children separated from their parents and shipped hundreds of miles away with little hope of being reunited.

The Trump administration ordered the border patrol to turn away asylum seekers at the ports of entry so that everyone crossing over to American soil would be considered criminals – having broken the law by crossing the border.  The Trump administration ordered a policy of “zero tolerance” so that everyone crossing would be arrested and detained.  The Trump administration ordered its agents to separate the children from their parents and informed the disbelieving American public that they were not really parents.

Fortunately, some enterprising journalists took pictures and recordings of the children so victimized by this inhumane treatment and the people reacted as people do.

This is not America!  This is not what we stand for!  This is not what Americans do!  We will not tolerate separating a child from her parent.  We will not place a toddler in a cage.  We will not imprison people for the crime of fleeing intolerable conditions.

The sound and images informed our hearts what our minds could not process.  Our minds are obstructed by our prejudice.  Our minds did not object to the president’s hardcore policies but our hearts did.  Our hearts reminded us that we were not dealing with scum as the president misinformed us.  We were dealing with real, feeling human beings – parents, children, families and friends.

The policy of zero tolerance was rescinded but the attitude of intolerance remains.  Now that public attention has shifted – as it inevitably does – the administration will be inclined to return to its former policies.  Reuniting families will give way to mass deportations.

We need to delay action until the November election.  We must hope that the new congress will be inclined to new policies and a new approach.  Constructive recommendations include the creation of Safe Zones strategically located in Central America so that refugees have somewhere safe to go while they await adjudication of their status.  We should provide funding for Mexico’s asylum program along with any other nations willing to accommodate legitimate candidates.  We need to expand the criteria for asylum to include spousal abuse and gang violence.  We need to provide asylum for worthy candidates.

Fundamentally, we need to regard the people of the Northern Triangle as human beings deserving of justice and freedom from harm.

More articles by:

Jack Random is the author of Jazzman Chronicles (Crow Dog Press) and Ghost Dance Insurrection (Dry Bones Press.)

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