Border wall talk is affront to American creed

Refugees have long looked to US for hope

SOME HAD NUMBERS stenciled on their forearm. Some carried pictures of relatives lost forever. They came from a different place. They spoke a different language. Most came with only the shirts on their backs. They did not want to come. They came to escape persecution and certain death. That was my childhood dinner table.

The story of immigrants has changed little since my refugee family escaped Nazi-occupied Europe. Now, in Central America, the Gestapo has been replaced by MS-13 and drug cartels. Persecution of the innocent continues with murder, enslavement, and poverty. Women and children are not spared. Again there is an exodus.

The departure from one’s homeland is abrupt. The journey is long and terrifying. Deprivation is a daily companion. And fellow refugees facing terror along the route are mostly supportive, but sometimes exploitative. Not all are good. This is true whether the diaspora began in Europe or Central America. Today’s refugees have marched hundreds of miles in brutal weather, without shelter or food, women and children alike. Some have died. Others wait.

So it was for my family decades ago. My mother and grandmother escaped the Nazis, but my grandfather was lost. My mother hiked for weeks from Central Europe, across France, sleeping in barns, dodging the Vichy, sometimes beaten. Finally, onto Lisbon and safety, they shipped out to wherever the ship was going. They spent four long years in Brazil, learning a new language, earning money for passage, waiting for a visa for the US, learning my grandfather was dead.

My father managed to get to England where he was interned for several months as a “foreign alien,” waiting to be screened, waiting for a US visa, waiting for word from his mother, which never came. She died in Auschwitz.

What has changed from then to now is how America responds to inhumanity. Once we were cautious but offered hope. Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “New Colossus,” inscribed on a statue in New York Harbor, is worth repeating: “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.”

Today, instead of soothing tears of the tempest-tossed, we fire tear gas into the huddled masses. We seek to send the wretched refuse back from where they came. Back to their Gestapo, MS-13. Back to persecution and poverty and death.

No doubt we need to be a nation of laws. But border walls and tear gas are symptomatic of a failed foreign policy. We are sifting sands against the tide. No wall will ever hold back populations living in danger, squalor, and oppression who see safety and opportunity beyond the border. The injustice of such relentless depravity and deprivation, such income inequality, cannot be sustained or contained. We can no longer simply deal with symptoms and not the root cause.

If we, the privileged, were born in Honduras, or Guatemala, or for that matter Gaza, Yemen, or Syria, living in fear and without a future, without education or health care or a job or hope for their children, and we saw the opportunities of the west, would we not rebel against an unjust world? Would we not cross borders? And if we could not get out, who among us would not fight for those freedoms, as our forefathers did?

And if some unduly fear today’s migration, they should truly fear the next, from the flood to come as millions race from the rising tide of seas and climate change that will surely destroy low-lying nations. Just as we must deal with global economic inequality, we must deal with global climate now or cataclysmic death and a far greater exodus will follow.

My father taught me many lessons. He was eight years old at the end of World War I, living in war-ravaged Austria. For food he stood on the bread lines provided by the United States, administered by Herbert Hoover prior to his presidency. My father learned to love America for a very simple reason. We fed him.

The lesson is clear. America would do far better in the world if we fed people, rather than armed them. For far less money than we would spend on border walls or our military, we could ease tensions around the world by focusing on economic opportunity, education and health care. We could relieve the exodus if we elevated the poor and supported a better life in their native land. If so, like my father, they may learn to love America.

And while the temporary occupant of the White House feeds fear, fires tear gas, and denies climate change, new leadership in America will hopefully better support impoverished nations, value science, raise the rising tides of economic opportunity, and fight the rising tides of climate change. If we achieved that, we would not need a wall.

Meet the Author
George Bachrach is the former president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, a former state senator, and the son of immigrants.