CHICAGO – We’re nearing the end of a long, harrowing year in which Latinos have faced daily demonization as a threat to the American people. We’ve watched horrifying images of women and children from Mexico, Central and South America caged like animals at the border, and we have endured public humiliation and violence from people emboldened by President Trump’s rancor toward virtually anyone who isn’t white and male.
Last week, the president released a Thanksgiving proclamation valorizing the pilgrims who arrived on Native American land to “establish a home in the New World” after facing “illness, harsh conditions, and uncertainty, as they trusted in God for a brighter future.” Just days later, we saw American border patrol officers shooting rubber bullets at families massed at the border who were seeking to exercise their legal right to plea for asylum.
Only the willfully blind could ignore the parallels between those white, angelic pilgrims of the past and the dusty, dark-skinned migrants now caravanning from Honduras and other Central American countries to the U.S. border, telling reporters along the way that they hoped Trump would “open the doors for us.”
And yet here we are, again gaping at photos of what sure looks like international human rights violations: U.S. Border Patrol guards shooting chemical weapons canisters into a crowd on the Mexican side of the shared border at Tijuana, as mothers choking on tear gas cover the faces of their babies and children still in diapers.
So much for “treating all with charity and mutual respect, spreading the spirit of Thanksgiving throughout our country and across the world.”
It is painful to see these events unfolding, though there’s always the hope that such gruesome visuals will shock people into mustering an ounce of pity for fellow human beings who are in such dire straits that they’ve put their faith in Trump’s capacity for compassion.
Is that hope misplaced, though?
Even the globally viral image of 3-year-old Syrian migrant Alan Kurdi’s dead body on a Turkish beach in 2015 did nothing to prevent the deaths of thousands more Syrian refugees and more European countries from closing their borders. So what hope do Central Americans have?
A sliver, at least.
For one, to the sizable pan-Hispanic population in the United States, the migrants we see on TV and in photos aren’t frightening or foreign – they look, act and sound like our families, friends and neighbors.
Additionally, migrants from south of the border have a long and proven track record of being able to enter the U.S. and not only thrive, but contribute greatly to both the economy and our culture while simultaneously assimilating completely – seeing themselves as fully “American” – while exhibiting deep pride in their heritage.
Better than that, however, is knowing that we, as seemingly impotent onlookers, actually do have some power to influence what happens to the modern-day pilgrims at our southern border.
“Think back to the zero-tolerance policy that the president put in to place earlier this year; there was a tipping point over the summer when he realized he clearly overreached,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a nonpartisan advocacy organization. “That tipping point occurred when local institutions started to press their elected representatives to take action.”
Noorani told me that the most effective way to relieve the migration crisis would be for the U.S. to help get the Central American countries on their feet economically, and for us to recalibrate our relationship with Mexico. But he said that the best thing that individuals can do is speak up.
“Every day Americans have to stand up and say, ‘I am a leader in my community and I think this is wrong.’ They have to press their institutional leaders – go to their pastors, police chiefs and school principals and ask them to go to legislators,” Noorani said. “Online dissent and sharing of these images is important. But what’s going to capture the attention of the administration in a different way is for our local civic institutions to help speak to government leaders for us and say, ‘This does not represent us, or who we are.'”
There are many organizations you can donate to that are attempting to aid the migrants who have amassed in Tijuana. But even just reaching out to anyone who has the clout to talk to people in Washington can move things in the right direction. Contact your community leaders and let them know that lobbing tear gas at women and children is unacceptable. It will have more impact than just feeling helpless and sad in front of your TV or social media feed.