Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore . . .
And we’ll kick the scum right back out the door.
—With apologies to Emma Lazarus
That’s not quite what is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, but my parody may be closer to the way we really feel about immigrants these days than the noble ideals the real poem expresses. This nation hasn’t been too friendly to newcomers for some time now, even those escaping torture and persecution.
Canada has been considerably better, letting in far more victims of oppression. But this week, that all changes for the worse. Though it’s been little noticed by the press, something called the Safe Third Country Agreement kicks in, which will make it much harder for refugees to gain asylum, especially in Canada.
What officials of both the United States and Canada say is that this makes sense, and will help both countries increase their security in an age of terrorism. “This is meant to reduce the abuse of the asylum system by stopping asylum shopping,” a Canadian government official told me last week. Those who spend their lives helping refugees say this is utter nonsense.
Here’s what’s going down: Up till now, far more refugees who’ve escaped horrible conditions in their homeland arrive in the United States, not Canada, mainly for logistical reasons. Many make their way to Freedom House in Detroit, which offers them food, shelter and legal aid. (The only other facility of its kind is in Buffalo.) A few apply for asylum in the United States, but far more apply to Canada, where the rules have been more lenient.
In the last year, for example, Freedom House helped 2,481 refugee adults apply for asylum in Canada, and only 286 who were seeking permanent sanctuary in the United States. Usually, the asylum-seeker has been allowed to stay here while awaiting a ruling from either country. If rejected by one country — the United States, say — the refugee could then apply to the other, and many did.
Now, however, refugees who arrive in either country will be required to apply for asylum where they land. And if they don’t get it, there’ll be no trying across the border; in most cases, they’ll be detained and deported.
Gloria Rivera, who runs Freedom House, says the agreement will create untold suffering. Sister Helen Petrimoulx, who runs the counterpart Windsor refugee office, is at least as upset.
“What this means, based on what refugees already here have told me, is that more refugees will cross our border illegally and more of them will be taken advantage of by smugglers,” Sister Helen says. Almost certainly, it means people will despair and people will die horribly, some by accident, some by suicides, some at the hands of malicious and evil governments in their native lands.
Why is this happening? The United States, or at least John Ashcroft, etc., became obsessed with the idea of terrorists swarming across our border with Canada after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Never mind that none of the terrorists had come that way; the United States put heavy pressure on Canada to negotiate a package of so-called “smart border” agreements. But at the same time, Canada was concerned with the steadily increasing number of asylum-seekers it was taking in.
They wanted fewer refugees. Exactly why isn’t clear, other than the time and energy and money spent processing their claims. Canada is a nation that, as its leaders often admit, doesn’t have enough people.
Matter of fact, why the United States doesn’t grant asylum to more refugees, especially those who make it to Detroit, isn’t clear either. Detroit, which has lost more than half its population in the last half-century, could use a lot more people. Of course, persecuted immigrants, as we know, never amount to anything. OK, there was that Albert Einstein guy, who made sure we got the bomb first and not the Nazis, and David Sarnoff, who made radio a mass medium and backed the invention of television. Locally, there were a few guys like Heinz Prechter, who pioneered the sunroof, and plumbing fixture king Alex Manoogian. Slackers all, obviously.
Listen: Both Canada and the United States were entirely made by immigrants and the children of immigrants. (Even the Native Americans had to come across the Bering Strait sometime.) Immigrants tend to work four times as hard and be three times as patriotic.
Unfortunately, we’ve always had a nasty two-faced streak about newcomers. Every generation of Americans believes, more or less, that immigration was a fine thing until they themselves arrived, after which it should have been cut off, or at least limited to their own ethnic group. The Germans would have kept the Irish out; the Irish wanted to keep the Chinese out, etc.
These days, nobody is arguing that we can or should accept everyone who wants to come. But the United States and Canada always have made a distinction between immigrants who wanted to come to better their own economic lot and those who were fleeing political or religious persecution.
Now, however, we’re going back on our promise and betraying our national ideals. Even apart from that, the “Safe Third Country Agreement” will cause us lots of problems.
“The agreement makes no sense at all for the U.S.” says Sister Helen, who’s been dealing with refugee problems for seven years. “The United States will now have to process far more refugee claims.” Naturally, we’ll also experience the delights of detaining and deporting lots more asylum seekers, with all the nice press that’s liable to cause.
We may be reminded of a refugee ship called the St. Louis, which sailed with a thousand Jewish refugees on it in May 1939. The idea was that they would go temporarily to Cuba and await permanent U.S. visas. But before they could land, Cuba changed its visa policy and wouldn’t let them.
The refugees begged President Franklin Roosevelt to help them. He wouldn’t, and most of them were forced to return to Europe, where most of them ended up in the death ovens. That was a black mark on our record.
Naturally, we vowed never to let the world down that way again. Of course, we vowed a few years later never to get involved in another Vietnam, another war where we did not understand who the people were.
Sigh. Gee, now, we may be managing to break both promises at once, while losing friends and our own integrity at the same time.
Six months from now, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees is scheduled to review how the new arrangement is working out and issue a report — which the nations involved may or may not choose to ignore.
I’ll do my puny best to update you. But it would be a good idea to pay attention yourselves and, especially, do whatever you can to help Freedom House (313-964-4320) or the Canadian refugee coalition run by Sister Helen (519-256-0506).
After all, almost nobody ever expects to be a refugee. Until it happens to them. You never can tell, and you can never stop paying attention, and fighting for what is right. Happy New Year, everybody.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org