Stories that linger: A nation of immigrants closes its doors

  • This Aug. 23, 2019, photo shows a stuffed animal hanging to dry at the Comayagua, Honduran home of a 3-year-old who was separated from her father when they tried to seek asylum at the U.S. southern border. She was sexually abused in U.S. foster care, according to court records. She was later deported and arrived back in Honduras withdrawn, anxious and angry.   AP FILE PHOTO

Night managing editor
Published: 12/30/2019 2:47:28 PM

The 3-year-old girl traveled for weeks cradled in her father’s arms, as he set out to seek asylum in the United States. Now she won’t even look at him.

After being forcibly separated at the border by government officials, sexually abused in U.S. foster care and deported, the once bright and beaming girl arrived back in Honduras withdrawn, anxious and angry, convinced her father abandoned her.

So begins an Associated Press story from Nov. 13, one small illustration of the consequences of the White House’s manipulative, punishing program of immigrant blocking. Egged on by his éminence grise, Stephen Miller, President Trump has pushed policies, from the Draconian to the spiteful, designed to make acceptance into the U.S. as a refugee as arduous as possible. He has moved to end all possibility of asylum for most migrants — aimed squarely at Central Americans — who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border, an order upheld by the Supreme Court after two months of legal fights. And he has charged asylum seekers a fee to process their applications.

Exploiting the broad powers of the presidency, Trump has underlined his signature campaign issue with a series of orders designed to slow immigration, by making applicants prove they will have health insurance or can pay for medical care before they can get visas; to push a “merit-based system” by denying green cards to legal immigrants who use public assistance; or to harass vulnerable individuals by having immigration authorities threaten people in church sanctuary with outlandish fines. No fish is too small to fry for this administration.

The most obvious effect of Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign has been to inundate the border zone with detention facilities, a situation hurriedly patched up in late June by Congress’ swift passage of a $4.5 billion bill to alleviate the miserable conditions faced by detainees. 

The numbers don’t tell the stories of the sundered families and the traumatized children, but they give a broad outline. Most ever: 69,550 migrant children held in U.S. government custody over the previous year, according to a November report on government data. Least ever: 18,000, the number of refugees the State Department proposed to accept in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, the lowest since the humanitarian program was created in 1980. In fiscal year 2016, the United States resettled 84,994 refugees. In 2018, the number was 22,491. 

The polls say at least 40 percent of Americans either support this trend or don’t care. Fortunately, here and in many places, that’s not our experience. First Congregational Church in Amherst and the Unitarian Society of Northampton have provided sanctuary, to a Guatemalan man and a Russian woman. Religious leaders and dozens of supporters have journeyed to protest and bear witness to the inhumanity of childhood detention. People have stepped up to help refugee families find a home in a new land. Groups known as circles of care have formed, with hundreds of volunteers, municipal resources and the Catholic Charities agency in Springfield, to provide housing and other support to incoming refugees. In May, Judson Brown wrote in the Gazette, “nine families comprising 46 individuals, mostly Congolese, who formerly lived in refuge camps in Rwanda and Burundi, are currently receiving support from circles of care.”

Globally, the problem only worsens. A record 71 million people were forcibly displaced around the world in 2018, according to a June report by the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR. New hot spots emerge regularly. Late 2017 saw the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar; a June U.N. report found Venezuelans representing the largest group worldwide filing new asylum claims. In Texas, in one week in June, the U.S. Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector stopped more than 500 African migrants walking in separate groups across the arid landscape after splashing across the Rio Grande, children in tow. Compare that to the fiscal 2018 total of 211 African migrants detained by Border Patrol along the entire 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. 

Across Massachusetts, groups working with refugees are squeezed by government policy. Refugee advocates say 421 refugees were resettled in Massachusetts from Oct. 1, 2018, through May 31. The state reports 783 refugees resettled in fiscal 2018, and 1,993 in 2017. It’s discouraging that the circles of care stand ready to do so much more than they’re able to and that the resources shrink along with the caseload.

It’s no secret that the Trump administration wants to throttle the life out of refugee resettlement in this country. When it slashed the refugee quota again for this fiscal year, it also told state and county governments they had to actively consent to accept refugees for resettlement or be considered ineligible for the program. White House officials went so far as to discourage state officials from taking any action so as to put the burden on the resettlement agencies to petition them. 

But so far, hearteningly, not a single state or county government has said it would refuse to accept refugees. More than 30 governors, many from red states, have signed consent letters. “I have to be honest,” Brad Wilson, a Republican legislator in Utah, told the Washington Post. “I don’t have any idea why it’s a partisan issue nationally. It’s never been one here. Regardless of political party, we value [refugees].”

It’s a thought we’d all do well to keep in mind in the coming year.




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