"Tell people not to come to our country illegally," was President Donald Trump's comment to reporters as he boarded a plane to Europe on Tuesday. "That's the solution. Don't come to our country illegally. Come like other people do. Come legally."
What was he responding to?
A quick review, first -- lest we allow ourselves to grow numb to the horror of what the Trump administration has done at the border. It made a strategic and cruel decision to separate children, including toddlers and babies, from their parents — most of whom have come to the border from Central American countries seeking asylum -- and then used those stolen children as leverage to get those parents to rescind any asylum claims and return home, and to dishearten future migrants.
Now, under pressure from the courts, officials are struggling to reunite separated families -- and oops, it turned out they didn't have a functional tracking system in place, so they can't easily figure out which kids belong to which parents. It's a colossal train wreck, unparalleled in recent memory, and with dire consequences: Frightened children trapped in cages, desperate and terrified parents not knowing when or whether they will see their sons and daughters again.
Instead of taking responsibility, Trump and his aides have dodged and deflected, first blaming Democrats for the policy (which they had nothing to do with) and now pinning the problem on a new scapegoat: The parents. A federal court ordered the administration to reunite parents and children under the age of 5 by Tuesday. The administration can't; they're so screwed up and chaotic they're going to blow the deadline.
And all Trump can say is: "Don't come to our country illegally. Come like other people do. Come legally."
It's a nice thought, and a powerful talking point. Unfortunately, it's not all that easy. The United States, a country of more than 328 million people, lets in fewer than 200,000 legal immigrants from Mexico every year. Far more want to come, either because they're fleeing violence or because they are escaping crushing poverty and hope to work for a reasonable living.
From El Salvador the United States grants legal status to just over 23,000 people; from Guatemala and Honduras, it's about 13,000 apiece (the last available Department of Homeland Security statistics are from 2016).
These are all countries rife with gang violence, and where members of vulnerable groups are particularly targeted. Gay men, lesbians and transgender people face sometimes deadly violence and discrimination, while women who are abused by their husbands or boyfriends find little protection from the police (a problem often exacerbated if their partner is a gang member).
Fear is a feature of their lives.
"Come here legally" sounds simple enough, but we don't let in the overwhelming majority of people who want to come here legally. And so people take calculated risks.
Know this: Virtually no one crosses the desert with a scared child or children for fun, or even for greed. When we talk of immigrants as faceless hordes or as insects who "infest" our country, it's too easy to forget they are simply human beings who don't have the same good luck Americans did to be born here.
The United States is far from a perfect place, but the right to travel that Americans take for granted -- the right to cross so many of the world's borders, enabled simply by a US passport to which we are entitled by the randomness of birth -- is a distant dream for most of the world.
And most people in most of the world are just like you and me: preferring to stay near home if it's safe and if we can feed our families. Barring that, we will do anything to protect our loved ones.
After all, what would you do if you were a mother in El Salvador, knowing gang violence could claim your daughter's life at any moment? Would you want to go somewhere better? Safer?
What would you do if you were a father in Honduras, and you went to bed nightly feeling the failure of your kids' hungry bellies and knowing there will still be no options when you awake? If you were a trans woman in Guatemala, living in fear that each step outside could be your last, and the police wouldn't protect you? Would you really rely solely on the narrow legal channels, knowing the chances of getting legal status in America any time in the next decade was slim to none?
Or would you flee, enduring hardship that comfortable and mainly well-protected Americans can't even imagine, and head to a country that has harbored people just like you since it began?
Human beings don't take the great risk of migration for fun and games. If the Trump administration wants immigrants to come legally, it can certainly make it easier for them -- and especially for asylum-seekers. Instead, the administration has made it more difficult, leaving desperate people with few choices. Imagine what it is like for them.
And they are, by the way, people -- not hordes, not insects, not "illegals." Just human beings, like you and me, without the safety and stability so many of us assume. We are lucky that the bottom has not fallen out of the American economy and that our dollars are worth something; that gay and lesbian people here at the very least enjoy basic legal protections (if not total and complete safety); that we have not had a war come to our shores; that gang violence, though a serious problem, is not a pervasive and endemic threat across all corners of the nation.
We are a nation of plenty (if also of great inequality -- a fixable problem). We can be a nation of great humanity, and we should choose to extend that humanity to the vulnerable human beings who need a hand up, not a wall of separation.
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