America First, Human Rights Too

The past few weeks have highlighted an important issue: the United States’ enforcement of border security, in particular its separation of children from their parents. The United States has a responsibility to pursue its citizens’ interests, but traumatizing children, whether they are Americans or not, is not a legitimate means to do so. Putting American interests first does not require putting human rights second.

Immigrant children in a detention centre

Children in the McAllen detention centre, Texas |US Customs and Border Protection

The United States has often drawn back from the world towards isolationism when it felt it was in its best interests. Its refusal to accept Jewish refugees during the Second World War, for example, was established on the basis that Jews could be spies, would be a burden on the nation, and that their rescue would benefit the enemy financially. However, a 1944 Treasury Department report ‘determined that such justifications were unfounded or immaterial’ and speculated that officials had suppressed information about the Holocaust ‘in order to dampen public pressure to assist refugees’.

Today, most would agree that helping refugees flee the horrors of the Holocaust is an imperative that should be carefully balanced with national security, but greatly outweighs the latter concern. President Kennedy stated that the risks and costs of action ‘are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction’. Is it not better to err in doing right rather than succeed in failing to do so? If so, what risks are we willing to take so that others can have the same privileges and opportunities we benefit from?

It seems that we are willing to sacrifice little for the common good. The new administration has accepted only eleven Syrian refugees in 2018, a mere trickle compared to the thousands in previous years. Our officials separate children from their parents at the border, striking fear into the hearts of innocent children. Children have been unable to recognize their parents after the separation, blinded by their tears. And we do this because we are afraid they will commit crime or drain the government’s purse, as though their nationality makes them somehow less human than us.

Are these fears rational? Hardly. Fear has some basis in reality, but such fears have been blown out of proportion for political gain by leaders who disdain truth. Native-born Americans are far more likely than legal and illegal immigrants to commit crime, and undocumented immigrants contribute an estimated net $12 billion to the Social Security Administration. Clearly immigrants crossing the border are not primarily ‘rapists’ who are ‘bringing drugs’, as Donald Trump stated in his presidential campaign.

The more we accept such a narrative, the more it will ring true. If we look at alarming incidents in the news through the lense of despair, we will confirm this pessimistic worldview. But this is a poor way to see the world, and the majority of immigrants do not fit such a grim portrait. The majority of immigrants are families fleeing evils greater than most citizens of a prosperous country can imagine, greater than the crisis of ethics and empty consumerism plaguing America. These families want to make a better life for themselves and their children. Who are we, the sons and daughters of immigrants, to deny them their own American Dream?

The United States has every right to secure its borders, but it need not resort to such primitive, merciless tactics to do so. The lives of strangers, especially children, should never be the stage of political theatre. As the self-professed ‘shining city upon a hill’, we as Americans have a moral duty to help those we can. This means taking action, even when it is not simple, even when it has its risks, and it is necessary to shine brightly as a beacon of hope.

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