Friday, July 18, 2014

Do NO longer give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses

The recent flow of unaccompanied children entering the United States illegally has caused a strong reaction, in particular amongst conservatives. The fact that many of these children are fleeing some of the most violent countries on earth, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, countries where gang members infiltrate public schools and threaten kids to either join their ranks or be killed or raped, doesn't seem to rank high in the discussion.

Many of these children have family here, but they can not come legally, since those family members are undocumented themselves. About 60,000 children are now crossing the border, waiting to be sent to their relatives, or worse, waiting to be deported back to their country of origin.

There are two factors that people forget when they talk about this issue, the first being that children are not adults and they should not fall under the same legal rules. Unlike the United States, EU Member States, have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which establishes the best interests of the child as governing all major policies regarding the treatment of minors. Although the best-interests principle is part of US domestic family law, the concept is absent from U.S. immigration and refugee law.

In Europe, unaccompanied minors mostly come from Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan, where they have been displaced by war and famine. The greatest difference between the European Union and the United States in regards to unaccompanied children is how they apply the principle of best interests of the child. Immigrant children in EU Member States are returned to their home country only if it is in their best interest. As a result, the number of unaccompanied minors who are returned is quite low.

The second factor has to do with the labeling of these unaccompanied children as 'illegal immigrants'. They might be that, but first and foremost they are refugees. UNHCR official Leslie Velez argued last month that “unaccompanied children and families who fear for their lives and freedoms must not be forcibly returned without access to proper asylum procedures”

Government Deval Patrick, who wants Massachusetts to host some of the 60,000 children, hit the nail on the head when he said: “My inclination is to remember what happened when a shipful of Jewish children tried to come to the United States in 1939 and the United States turned them away, and many of them went to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps.”

In 1939, Anti-Semitism fueled by the Depression, influenced immigration policy. 53 percent of Americans agreed with the statement "Jews are different and should be restricted." Between 1933 and 1945 the United States took in only 132,000 Jewish refugees, only ten percent of the quota allowed by law.

President Barack Obama has asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds to better respond to the immigration crisis, but it is unlikely that he will get what he needs. I wish someone in Government would have the guts to do what Joshua Dubois did in 1944. He wrote the famous "Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews," which convinced Roosevelt to create the War Refugee Board, which, in turn, set up refugee camps for the Jews in Italy, North Africa, and the United States.

I am one of the millions of immigrants whose first glimpse of America was the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. The Jewish American poet Emma Lazarus saw the statue as a beacon to the world and wrote this poem, which is carved on the pedestal:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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