Let me tell you a story. Forty-two years ago, I walked into a police station in Greece and requested political asylum. I signed a piece of paper stating that I was against the communist regime in Romania, my country of origin, and surrendered my national passport. My act required some courage, but I don’t consider myself a hero. In those days, anyone defecting from a communist country was granted, with relative ease, an entry visa and work permit to any of the four western democracies that were also immigration countries: Australia, New Zeeland, Canada or the United States of America. In the context of the Cold War, each person switching sides was a victory of sorts, a propaganda coup.
At the police station I declared I wanted to immigrate to the United States. My file was transferred to the United States Catholic Commission (USCC), one of several charitable organizations that took care of people like me — refugees. I was sent to a modest, but decent hotel in Athens and given the equivalent of five US dollars a day for food and miscellaneous expenses. It wasn’t much, but I made do. USCC presented my case to the American Embassy and coached me on the next steps. I learned that I was taking part in the ‘third country program.’ The first country was the place of origin (Romania, in my case), the second was the destination (the US) and the third country was where asylum seekers waited to be cleared. At the time, besides Greece, several other European countries played that role: Austria, Italy, France, Germany and Sweden. While we waited and were checked through and through, charitable groups like USCC took care of us. There were thousands of refugees at any given time in any of the third countries, many from Eastern Europe, but also from Southeast Asia and Africa.
The American Embassy contacted the Romanian Security Services and received a report. I went through a physical. Everything was done above board. The US rejected people who had TB or syphilis, homosexuals (it was 1977!), people with criminal backgrounds, or members of the Communist Party with an unusually active past. My clearance arrived in five months. USCC found me a sponsor in the US and bought me an airline ticket. The Greek government issued me a passport for a person without a citizenship (a Nelson passport, some people called it.)
I landed in New York where it was hot and humid — a typical summer afternoon.
It was smooth sailing from there. I spoke the language, and was college educated and white. Not quite Norwegian, but close. Forty-two years later, here I am, able to write about my experience from my air-conditioned American suburban home on a sweltering July day.
The crisis on the southern border bothers me terribly. A few days ago I watched an interview with Mike Pence on TV. He had just visited a refugee holding facility in Texas. He repeatedly praised the border guards for the job they were doing and blamed the crisis on human traffickers and loopholes in our immigration laws. He is ostensibly a deeply religious man, yet not once did I hear him say that the people coming across from the south and waiting in subhuman conditions at the border deserved our help. He didn’t say they were desperate, fleeing poverty, violence and war. He didn’t call them refugees. But that is who they are, and our values and our legal system require us to help them. Instead he blamed Mexico, the Democrats and Congress. Let’s be clear: the crisis at the border is a humanitarian disaster that his administration has created with its policies and its cruel approach.
The other day, my wife shared on Facebook the story of a South-American family on the border that was told that only one of the parents could accompany a sick, three year old girl to be treated in the US, and that the child had to decide which one of the two. The other parent and her siblings would be sent back. Someone commented that the story could not be true; that it resembled Sophie’s Choice too much. Of course, others disagreed, and arguments flew back and forth. It was sad. I know the person who could not believe the story. She is a kindhearted and intelligent woman. She is an immigrant and she is Jewish, which means she knows only too well what discrimination and violence are. The Holocaust is only a generation old. I understood her perfectly. It is ungodly to believe that we can do something like this to other people, to another human being. This simply can’t happen. We are American, after all! The story of this little girl had to be false. Fake news!
I understand that we are now using a practice called ‘metering’ to inform the asylum seekers that the US border facilities are full and that they must wait in Mexico. This reminds me of ‘the third country program.’ Could we repeat that experience and adapt it to the conditions encountered today in Central and South America? Could it be implemented fast — no gimmicks or shortcuts –out of generosity, and out of the goodness of our hearts? We would be rewarded a hundred fold. I am hopeful it might work because I benefitted from such a system.
Immigration is who we are.
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