A Nation of Immigrants that Hates Newer Immigrants?

In a recent segment on his show, Jon Stewart, satirically addresses different discussion points concerning the “border crisis” on the U.S./Mexico border, especially in regards to the surge of unaccompanied child migrants. Within this segment he comments, “We have always been a nation of immigrants that hates newer immigrants.” While the U.S. is a nation founded by immigrants and generally welcoming towards new immigrants, the current reaction and backlash to the growing crisis on the border provokes further thought into this commentary.

As more and more unaccompanied children are attempting to cross from Mexico into the United States, the national government of the U.S. and state governments are being called upon to respond to this humanitarian emergency. Despite the fact that even President Obama has labeled the situation as an “urgent humanitarian situation,” politicians, activists, and regular citizens have aggressively reacted against providing a comprehensive humanitarian response. Demonstrators in Texas and California have forcibly blocked buses from transporting unaccompanied child migrants into shelter facilities; vandals have graffitied hateful messages of “no more illegals” on the walls of buildings, and politicians have begun a heated ‘blame game’ on the origins of this crisis. Local and national leaders have a confused idea about why so many minors are attempting to cross the border. The rhetoric ranges from the fact that these children are escaping endemic levels of poverty, pervasive and extreme gang and narco violence, state repression, familial abuse, are looking for better opportunities, are attempting to reunite with their families, or believe they will receive some sort of immigration benefit such as asylum or the Dream Act.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2008 laid out specific provisions for the protection of unaccompanied child migrants who cross the U.S. border and are from a non-neighboring country. The U.S. is currently struggling to find effective ways to house, protect, integrate, and administratively adjudicate (in Immigration Courts) the large number of children who have already crossed the border and are expected to cross before the end of the year. In addition to the needs in the U.S. to respond to this crisis there are clear needs to transform the dire situations in Central America that are prompting such high levels of out-migration. The Obama administration is working with governments of Central American countries to disseminate public service campaigns via TV, radio, and billboards that discuss the dangers of migrating to the U.S. and encourage parents not to send their kids. This plan is superficial in the sense that many children are fleeing real situations of violence and have legitimate fears of death or physical harm, and the risks of the journey outweigh the dangers that remain in their hometown. Substantial work will need to be done on rectifying extreme poverty and violence in the region to combat a significant portion of the out migration flows.

Despite these initiatives there still remains the question, why is there such backlash and indecisiveness about protecting children fleeing violence? Does Jon Stuart’s sarcastic comment about the U.S. being a nation of immigrants that hates the newest immigrant have a certain level of truth to it? Why is there such anger and resentment towards this wave of children seeking refuge in the U.S.? For a nation that prides it self on being a beacon of hope and refuge, the desire to “deport them” and “prevent them from coming” seems counterintuitive. The history books of the U.S.’s response to new immigrant waves is laden with backlash and restrictive laws from the East Coast attitude of “Irish Need Not Apply” to the Chinese Exclusion Act or the Japanese-American Internment Camps. This suspicion of new ‘foreigners’ is coupled with the U.S.’s active commitment to offer asylum to eligible applicants and resettle thousands of refugees fleeing active conflict zones abroad. In addition, the U.S. through its foreign policy initiatives encourages other national governments to welcome refugees from active conflict zones, such as those fleeing Somalia or Syria.

It is undeniable that a humanitarian emergency has knocked on the front door of the United States. What makes this crisis even more urgent is the fact that it so heavily involves children, without their families, who are escaping real situations of violence. Simply deporting these children or preemptively telling them not to come does not resolve the problem, and leaves the possibility of reentry highly probable. Hysteria that these children carry infectious diseases or will drain “the system” is misguided, if not completely misinformed. The need to protect the most vulnerable and the best interest of the child has been a priority for the U.S. in the past and the U.S. should continue to adhere to these principles. In doing so they should devise a comprehensive approach to the current crisis on the border that is built upon principled humanitarian response and best interest of the child initiatives, in addition to working progressively with the governments of the countries of origin to curb gang violence, narco trafficking, and extreme poverty.

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