Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Refugees & Hysteria: A Modern Day Witch-hunt?

As the new year 2016 gets under way, and we have completed our good tidings to all, I tend to wonder what might be in store for the thousands of immigrants who suffer violence and displacement from their homelands either south of us — especially in Central America — or across the Atlantic. I wonder what awaits all refugees suffering the endless pain and miles of degradation as they journey toward hope, only to arrive at a land that does not welcome them. I wonder, if we were in their shoes, what would we feel? How would we react? What kindness might we show toward others sharing our same circumstances? How understanding might we become, if we were to suffer only one hour in their shoes?

Yet we have never had to.

Donated shoes at the Humanitarian Respite Center in MacAllen, Texas
© Ana M. Fores Tamayo
But if ever we had to suffer such indignities — like our parents, grandparents, or great grandparents did — we have most likely forgotten.

Although the Salem Witch Trials in Massachussetts may not have been initially traced to one specific immigrant or refugee, it was a well-known fact that between 1689 to 1692 Native Americans had been striking out against English settlements, so that many people were displaced, and there was an influx of refugees to the area near Salem. Thus the fear that surfaced everywhere in the general population — plain folk panicking with unfounded beliefs running amok because of "witches hiding as neighbors among them" — caused innocent women and one old man to end up losing their lives, based on groundless fears.

Today, the Salem Witch Trials are a dark stain in the history of our country.

19 "witches" were hanged, 1 "wizard" was pressed to death, 4 other women died in prison awaiting trial, another 13 may also have died while waiting for their hearing — though it is not known for certain — and hundreds were incarcerated out of fear that they were witches or warlocks.

Medusa, silk screen by Jesse Fores, 1972/1973
A witch, or a stranger? 

Those who imprisoned these "demon lovers" took no pity on age or sex: in fact, most held captive were women, children, and old people.

Sound familiar?

We look at this time of history with shame, yet it was only 20 people who were purposely put to their death (too many to be sure, but we need numbers to compare). How many people today — mostly women and children again — are losing their lives because of this fear of the "other," the "unknown"? As of January 2014, at least 83 deportees have been murdered on their return to their home country. How many more are unaccounted? And how many have been deported yet again, to never be heard from?

Many more than during the Salem Witch Trials...

Yet within our own "freedom loving" country, why have churches and supermarkets emptied these past few weeks, a reaction to the senseless — and often times illegal — immigration raids across many states? Why is attendance down at schools where the population is largely poor and brown? Why are activists going crazy trying to keep up with the demand for information in both languages to keep families safe, and to keep families together? Why does a presidential hopeful, Ted Cruz — who seems ashamed of his own name and immigrant background — plead for a stop to Syrian resettlement when these people are running for their lives?

And then folks often wonder why Americans are so largely disliked.

Our reputation precedes us.

It has for a long time.

I, for one, could not understand any other country seriously listening to a man like Donald Trump.Yet his popularity is unprecedented.

How does anyone like the narcissistic billionaire bully Donald Trump ever make it this far as a presidential hopeful, and why does he have such an appeal to some in the American base? Why do trolls come out of the woodwork to follow him, and when it comes to matters of immigration, how can they say and write such nasty and objectionable untruths?

What is it about immigration and the real need of others that brings out the worst in people? I wonder what these Trump followers are like in their real lives.

They seem to be everywhere on paper, yet they are everywhere in the streets too, next to us, speaking to you and me. They look at me with disdain when I tell them I help refugees seeking asylum. They bombard a lawyer's mailbox because he writes a cogent op-ed defending refugees' rights to ask a judge for their day in court.

Where is our mercy?

Some do their utmost, however, to fight the prejudice and hysteria of fear that's taken over part of our nation.

The CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project has been instrumental in obtaining temporary stays for 12 of 13 families rounded up in questionable immigration raids at the beginning of the year. Of the 121 mothers and children who were taken to Dilley, Texas — a sham of a place called the South Texas Residential Family Center — CARA won stays of removal for 12 families. This means that 33 mothers and children are now temporarily safe from persecution, since these refugees were fleeing domestic violence, or they were targeted for recruitment by maras, gangs that run rampant in most parts of these countries, causing violence to spike disproportionately.

Moreover, the criminal elements in these Central American countries have taken over many government functions, so that no one feels safe; the police are as crooked as the criminals they are supposed to apprehend. Such is the case, that most recently the United States suspended our own Peace Corps mission to El Salvador, and in Honduras, we did the same in 2012, also for safety reasons.

Yet we keep deporting mothers and children to places we think are not safe.

Where is our logic?

Worse is thinking that what this group of lawyers has done, or other groups fighting for the welfare of immigrants and refugees, is only one small drop in the bucket that tries to improve human misery.

How many other immigrants are being deported daily? On this particular day, it was 121 minus 33. But on other days?

Everyday this torture keeps happening, without respite.

If we look at the letters these incarcerated mothers write to President Obama to hear their case, in either Spanish or English, their sentiment will break your heart:
"We are not criminals who you have to keep locked up. We have not committed any crime and it is unjust that our children, at such an early age, know what it's like to be in a jail under guard 24 hours, when at this moment they should be in school living life with dignity like every child deserves to."
We need to protect the most vulnerable, yet we always forget until hindsight shows us the way.

This refugee baby fell asleep after her first safe bath in over a month of travel northward. Are we going to deport her and her 18-year old mother because we are afraid?
© Ana M. Fores Tamayo

All of us look at the Salem Witch Trials, and we shudder in shame.

Let us look to history then, to these same Salem Witch Trials, and make a conscious effort not to repeat the evil of history: not to repeat the evil of fear.

Let us find our way back to the light, and help the refugees seeking comfort at our door. We already have the shame of the Salem Witch Trials.

Let us not blacken our history any more with further ignominy.

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