Do we know who we are as a nation?
Nursing infants separated from their mothers. Children warehoused in cages, then moved to tent cities without parents. Thousands of youngsters unaccounted for after separation at the border. Officials fumble and point fingers trying to lay the blame elsewhere. America’s human and humane dimensions seem lost. Is this who we are as a nation?
Even before American independence, settlers in the New World frequently saw themselves as morally superior: residents of the “city on the hill” serving as a beacon to others. While this beacon sometimes dimmed, we usually regained our moral compass with the passage of time — and a period of historical reflection.
Refugees and asylum seekers proliferate in the world as we close our doors to them. What has been our historical record?
The persecution of Jews in Germany was well known before Europe exploded in war in 1939, even though the death camps had not been established. Just before combat began, thousands of Jewish parents were able to send their children to safety in Great Britain and Canada. The Czech Kindertransport alone saved 669 children. These acts of hospitality by other countries are now almost universally praised — in contrast to the nearly insurmountable barriers erected then by the U.S.
After World War II, America did resettle some hundreds of thousands of refugees collected in Europe’s Displaced Persons camps. We did so while trying to avert our eyes from refugee surges in Asia. After the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and the 1968 Czech revolt, we helped resettle many of those who fled their native land via West Germany.
Closer to home, as Castro’s grip on Cuba tightened, thousands of Cuban youngsters came to the U.S on the “Peter Pan” flights (1960–1962). They came without their parents, and with no assurance of being reunited with them. Our country was (and remains today) at odds with Cuba politically, yet we welcomed these children and integrated them into our society.
In the two decades following the Vietnam War we resettled over a million refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. I know because I was in charge of elements of those programs, intermittently from 1975 to 1989.
The Vietnam programs had a separate category for unaccompanied minors. We worked closely with refugee camp administrators in countries of first asylum to afford these vulnerable children special protection in the refugee camps, and the potential for rapid resettlement in the U.S. and elsewhere. Yes, we were aware of, and dealt with, attempts at misrepresentation. And yes, we suspected that some refugee parents may have callously risked a child’s life to provide an “anchor” for the parent’s future migration. But the child was there.
When I was with the refugee programs in Malaysia and Thailand, my duties included urging the host countries to treat all asylum seekers humanely. In that we proudly led by example. U.S. policy then was dictated by the greater good of protecting minors who were at risk through no fault of their own. Now, decades later, many of those refugees who entered our country in poverty have become personally successful, greatly contributing to our country. They include doctors, teachers, senior military officers, scholars and job-creating entrepreneurs.
Today, on our southwest border, we are confronted by a similar challenge. Today our response is much different, and contrary to our basic values. Rather than offering asylum seekers a cloak of protection, our government seems to purposely make their lives as harsh as possible (and at great expense). Is separating families, caging children, and pressuring people to request removal who we are? Now the pretext of investigating the suitability of placing a minor in a relative’s home in the U.S. has become a vehicle for finding more deportees!
This is, alas, done to the cheers of a minority of people in America. Does it make our nation “great”?
Who are we as a nation anyway? Do we know?
Bruce A. Beardsley is a retired U.S. diplomat. During his 31 years in the Foreign Service, he oversaw what were then the U.S.’s largest refugee (in Thailand) and visa (in Mexico and the Philippines) operations