Helping Refugees Is Not Rocket Science: Lessons from Maine and Uganda

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Photo from report of DHS Inspector General

As everyone from lawyers to doctors to Congress members to the Department of Homeland Security’s own Inspector General report on appalling conditions in detention camps on the border, two stories show that there are better ways to handle massive influxes of refugees and asylum seekers. 

Immigration officials have been shipping large numbers of asylum seekers to Portland, Maine

“Portland’s first warning came at 7 p.m. on June 9, a Sunday evening, in an email from San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh.

“It simply said he wanted to give Portland City Manager Jon Jennings a “heads up on an issue.”

“By the time the two spoke on the phone Monday morning, dozens of migrants from Africa had arrived at a bus station in downtown Portland. And Walsh told Jennings that 150 asylum seekers were still on their way to Portland from his city near the Mexico border….

“While some voices in the community have argued that the newcomers will take scarce resources from citizens in need, those were drowned out by more than $500,000 in cash donations, a flood of 1,200 volunteers and a variety of offers to house the newcomers in college dorms, vacant apartment buildings and spare bedrooms.”

Portland and other cities have mobilized volunteers and cobbled together public and private funds to meet a clear humanitarian need, with little help from the federal government. Thousands of miles away, one of the poorest countries in the world has responded to a far larger influx of refugees in sharp contrast to the U.S. government’s punitive and squalid detention centers. Haydee Diaz, whose family came from Cuba as refugees, now works in Uganda for Catholic Relief Services. She described the response to refugees there:

[Uganda’s] economy is smaller than New Hampshire’s, with a gross domestic product of $26 billion compared with the $21 trillion of the United States. If one of the poorest countries in the world — with help from the United States — can shelter more than 1 million refugees, educate their children and teach parents a trade, why can’t the United States at least provide safe temporary facilities for those fleeing horrors in Central America?

“I know from personal experience the ability of the U.S. government to extend a welcoming hand. In 1980, my parents fled Cuba in the Mariel boatlift. I was 5 years old. I vividly remember landing in Key West, stepping ashore. A U.S. Coast Guard officer handed me an apple. Then, my family and other refugees were shown to an airplane hangar where we were supplied with fresh clothes, the chance to shower and beds to rest. Treating refugees with dignity just isn’t that difficult.”  

And in other news:

Pro Publica uncovered a secret—and disgusting— Facebook group of Customs and Border Protection (CBP or Border Patrol) officers. The group has about 9,500 members, some of whom may be ex-officers or others, though the group is explicitly geared to the border[ patrol and its “green line.” The total number of border patrol officers is about 20,000.

“Members of a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents joked about the deaths of migrants, discussed throwing burritos at Latino members of Congress visiting a detention facility in Texas on Monday and posted a vulgar illustration depicting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez engaged in oral sex with a detained migrant, according to screenshots of their postings….

“These comments and memes are extremely troubling,” said Daniel Martinez, a sociologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson who studies the border. “They’re clearly xenophobic and sexist.”

The postings, in his view, reflect what “seems to be a pervasive culture of cruelty aimed at immigrants within CBP. This isn’t just a few rogue agents or ‘bad apples.’”

The news of the Facebook group came the same day that several Congressional representatives, including Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, visited multiple border detention facilities and spoke to the media about inhumane conditions in the facilities

“Lawmakers described how migrant women were being held in a cell with no running water and told by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers to drink from a toilet at a Texas detention center amid widespread concerns about deplorable conditions.”

On Tuesday, the administration conceded that it will withdraw the citizenship question from the 2020 census, after an adverse Supreme Court decision. 

In other actions, Trump said that arrests targeting thousands will begin after July 4, and the Department of Homeland Security is sending notices of fines up to $500,000 to targeted immigrants.

About Mary Turck

News Day, written by Mary Turck, analyzes, summarizes, links to, and comments on reports from news media around the world, with particular attention to immigration, education, and journalism. Fragments, also written by Mary Turck, has fiction, poetry and some creative non-fiction. Mary Turck edited TC Daily Planet, www.tcdailyplanet.net, from 2007-2014, and edited the award-winning Connection to the Americas and AMERICAS.ORG, in its pre-2008 version. She is also a recovering attorney and the author of many books for young people (and a few for adults), mostly focusing on historical and social issues.
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