Nearly two years ago I sat in my office late on a Friday and sent frantic emails to a coalition of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian colleagues. We learned that the new president’s campaign rhetoric might be more than ugly posturing, but in fact the putting into policy of the worst prejudices we could expect.
On World Holocaust Day, President Trump would ban Muslim travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. In moments like these, you wonder – will anyone notice what he is doing? Will my neighbors stand up for each other? The country seemed so divided, and I wasn’t sure if anyone would step up to the metaphorical plate.
The next morning I woke up to texts from friends at airports. First New York and Washington D.C., then San Francisco and Los Angeles. Friends from high school that I hadn’t spoken to in years reached out asking how they could support travelers impacted by the ban. Thousands of courageous volunteers, including immigration attorneys, flooded airports across the United States with messages of welcome and offers of support. They believed, as I do, that all people have rights, and that they deserve dignity, fairness, and respect. They condemned the ban for its premise, and how its execution left thousands of students, refugees, travelers, and family members in limbo.
Now, the president has declared a “national emergency” to block a caravan of refugees and migrants from Central America approaching the southern border to claim asylum and seek to rebuild better lives in safety.
Of course, we’re dealing with a different community of people this time. Unlike in 2017, this ban is to address the so-called “threat” of the first caravan initially estimated to be 5,500 people, about as many people as could fill two suburban high schools. More caravan groups are on their way and the total number is between 8,000 and 10,000 caravan members moving through Mexico. A quarter of the caravan members are children; many are elderly, and many more are in desperate need of support. According to the Washington Post, one person has died along the journey, some pregnant women gave birth, and others have miscarried.
Amnesty International researchers in Mexico recently travelled to observe and document the unfolding human rights situation. They heard from those interviewed: “no quiero regresar a El Salvador” (I don’t want to go back to El Salvador) and “no salimos porque queremos” (we didn’t leave because we wanted to). One Honduran woman said her family was attacked a month ago and how “si regreso, me matan” (If I go back, they will kill me). The community of people have one thing in common: the hope of safety and security for themselves and their families.
The President’s new rule, using the legal decision approving the “Muslim ban” to restrict immigration processes, would force all people seeking asylum to pass through ports of entry along the border to have access to protection. It’s not an outright ban, but a narrowing of the funnel. This denies the right of asylum to anyone who crosses the border irregularly, putting more people at risk of deportation back into harm’s way instead of hearing their asylum claims. It also means that people who do arrive at ports of entry could be stuck on the Mexico side of the border for days, or even weeks, as the lines clog up with thousands of people from the caravans arriving. The longer they wait, the more the people stranded on the Mexican side of the border are at risk of being victims of organized crime- kidnapping, extortion.
The new rule could be compared to removing all the crosswalks along a road so that pedestrians can be arrested for jaywalking. Like the “Muslim ban”, it is conceived and executed without considering cost in human suffering and in the values it sacrifices. It destroys the US asylum infrastructure that has functioned for decades, and it’s rooted in a non-existent threat in a transparent effort to stoke fears. And again, the US public must make a choice between standing by in silence or standing for the values of dignity and respect.
President Trump’s response to the caravan is as shortsighted as it is cruel. The administration’s answers to people seeking asylum have been to imprison, separate families, and now push back and keep out some of them as they seek safety here. Soon, exhausted families, women, men and children will be approaching the border. And as they arrive, those of us on the other side will need to make a choice: do we stand for human rights? Or will we succumb to fear and demagoguery?
We can choose to continue standing up for the same human rights we did nearly two years ago when the ban was announced and hold the Trump administration accountable for the human rights violations that threaten the values we aspire to uphold.
Take action to support families who have fled violence and want safety and security in the United States.