Crisis of children at the border brings out worst in some adults

July 22, 2014

detainees

Child detainees sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Brownsville, Texas, on June 18. Photo by Eric Gay/Associated Press.

 

I feel sorry for the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children who have crossed our Southern border, desperate to escape the widespread violence and poverty in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

But the people I pity are the adults in this country who — wrapped up in selfishness, mean-spirited politics or misguided patriotism — have tried to make the lives of these vulnerable kids more miserable than they already are.

Protesters have tried to block buses taking young refugees to shelters. They gathered in cities across the country last weekend — including a dozen or so on a New Circle Road overpass in Lexington — to hold up signs such as, “1 flag, language, country” and “Americans First.”

Some members of both parties in Congress are shamefully seeking to revoke refugee protections they passed during the Bush administration so these children can be deported without hearings.

Some Kentucky politicians fretted that these kids might be given shelter at Fort Knox pending deportation hearings, but Health and Human Services officials chose other locations. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, pandering to his right-wing base, called out the Texas National Guard at a cost of $12 million a month to assist the U.S. Border Patrol, which didn’t ask for his help.

Republicans are blaming President Barack Obama for lax border security. But the problem of child refugees has been building for more than a decade. Overall, illegal immigration is down and deportations are up in the six years since George Bush was president.

A former colleague, Mike Luckovich of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, summed up my thoughts in a recent editorial cartoon. It showed the Statue of Liberty with a new inscription: “I’ll trade you your huddled masses for my racist nitwits.”

Immigration controversies are nothing new. “We have always been a nation of immigrants who hate the newer immigrants,” comedian Jon Stewart said recently.

“Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens?” Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1751, about the time some of my ancestors were arriving in Philadelphia from a village near Stuttgart.

Ignoring the fact that the English took Pennsylvania from Native Americans, Franklin added that “swarthy” Germans “will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion.”

America’s immigration policies have always been twisted by prejudice, politics and powerful economic interests. Chinese immigrants were banned for 60 years after thousands were allowed in to build the Transcontinental Railroad because they would work cheaper than Irish immigrants.

On the eve of World War II, a ship carrying nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees from Hitler was turned back from our shore amid anti-immigration public sentiment. Anyone feel good about that decision?

Many of today’s protesters insist they aren’t against legal immigration. And they point out — rightly so — that America can’t take in everybody. But our immigration system is broken, and protesters like those hanging banners that say “No Amnesty” are the biggest obstacle to fixing it.

Complex problems rarely have simple solutions. Progress in a representative democracy requires compromise, which today’s angry fringe abhors.

There are a couple of claims that need addressing. The first is that these children are “not our problem.” That assertion ignores the root causes of Latin America’s chaos: a violent drug trade whose demand we fuel, and more than a century of U.S. support for oppressive “banana republics” — either to advance American business interests or out of anti-Communism paranoia.

The second claim is that undocumented immigrants are a drain on our economy and society. In most cases, I would bet they give more than they take. If all the undocumented immigrants in Central Kentucky disappeared tomorrow, the equine, agriculture, construction and many low-wage service industries would be crippled.

No, the United States cannot take in every refugee and immigrant. But I cannot look at the pictures of these frightened children without thinking of my grandson and his mother and her sister when they were young.

The United States needs a just and rational immigration system. Until our dysfunctional elected leaders achieve that, I would much rather my tax dollars go toward treating these children with fairness and compassion than building more fences, which never have and never will solve the real problem.

This a humanitarian crisis, both on our Southern border and in our national soul. How we resolve it will say a lot about what kind of people we are.


Andrés Cruz toasted as his La Voz newspaper turns 10

June 7, 2011

Journalists are often not popular. People love to fuss about their local newspaper.

But you would not have known that Saturday night. A dozen Latino groups and businesses threw a fancy dinner party that packed the Bell House to pay tribute to Andrés Cruz, editor and publisher of La Voz de Kentucky.

The bilingual newspaper, which publishes more than 8,000 copies every other Thursday and online at Lavozky.com, has covered Central Kentucky’s growing Latino community for a decade.

Tertulia Latina de Lexington, a social club whose members gather each month to share food and culture from the many Latin American countries of their origins, organized this impressive outpouring of affection.

“He does a lot of wonderful things for the community,” Tertulia member Rosa Martin said, “so we decided to do this for him.”

There were performances by amazing musicians who had immigrated from Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico and Ecuador. There were award presentations and remarks by Latino community leaders and Mayor Jim Gray.

La Voz means “the voice” in Spanish. “He really is the voice of our community,” Freddy Peralta told the crowd.

Cruz is a physically small man, lawyer Joshua Santana noted in a formal toast, “but his intellect, passion and courage have allowed him to cast a huge shadow within the city of Lexington and beyond.”

“I don’t know what to say except thank you,” an emotional Cruz said after the tributes were over. “Thank you for helping me to feel useful.”

“Useful” has been Cruz’s watchword for La Voz since he bought the newspaper in 2003 from Alejandro Gomez, a Mexican immigrant who started it two years earlier.

Cruz, 42, came here from Costa Rica in 1993 to study history at the University of Kentucky. “I got to UK and fell in love with Kentucky,” he said. After school, he did translation and literacy work for several years, then La Voz captured his imagination.

Cruz said the newspaper has allowed him to use his training as a historian to chronicle the dramatic growth of Central Kentucky’s Hispanic population. “Being able to witness all of this has been an incredible privilege,” he said.

Hispanics accounted for more than half of the nation’s population growth from 2000 to 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau reported recently. Kentucky’s Hispanic population more than doubled, to 132,836. Hispanics represent 3.1 percent of the state’s 4.3 million people, well below the national level of 16 percent. The Census counted 20,474 Hispanics in Fayette County — 6.9 percent of the population — with more than 15,000 of them of Mexican heritage.

La Voz’s coverage focuses on Hispanic businesses, community resources, education, the arts and sports — especially the local baseball and soccer leagues that are meeting places for Latinos of all nationalities.

By publishing all articles in Spanish and English, La Voz aims for wide appeal — recent immigrants trying to make their way, and Anglos looking for a better understanding of their new neighbors.

Because Cruz sees La Voz as a community voice, he has not shied away from advocacy on immigration issues. He has urged passage of the DREAM Act, which would give undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children a path to higher education and citizenship. After La Voz helped to organize a huge immigrants-rights rally downtown in April 2006, Cruz said, he received several death threats.

Illegal immigration remains a controversial problem with no easy solutions, but La Voz tries to reflect the contributions documented and undocumented immigrants are making to Kentucky.

“I have come across incredible stories, incredible people,” Cruz said. “There is an incredible desire in this community to work, to get an education, to better ourselves.”

The weak economy has been hard on La Voz, as it has been on all newspapers. Cruz now runs La Voz out of his home in the Kenwick neighborhood with help from friends. His wife, Jennifer, who is from Elliot County, works as a nurse.

“At La Voz, we have a responsibility to help make Lexington a better place,” Cruz said. “I don’t make a lot of money, but it’s a great way to live my life.”