How Ordinary Americans Can Welcome Migrants and Refugees With Open Arms

In 2015, ordinary Europeans welcomed refugees with open arms. Will we do the same with the caravan from Central America?

Khury Peterson-Smith

Honduran migrants heading in a caravan to the United States, jump atop a truck near Pijijiapan, southern Mexico on October 26, 2018. (GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Thousands of people from Central America are courageously making their way north to seek refuge and compassion. What awaits them is a hostile U.S. border, the U.S. military and a nationalist frenzy whipped up by right-wing politicians.

The migrants’ heroic decision to band together and move as one isn't without precedent.

It’s worth looking briefly at how we got here — and how we might get somewhere better.

President Donald Trump has framed the migrants’ entire journey as a plot of the Democratic Party and liberal donor George Soros. That’s an obvious lie — and one shared by dangerous anti-Semites and white supremacists like the Pittsburgh shooter.

The notion that the people in the caravan are criminals” attempting to enter the United States to do harm to Americans is also false and offensive. First, given the violence carried out by American white supremacist terrorists in the last week alone, the notion that the threat to the safety of people here lies outside of the country — among refugees — is bitterly absurd. But secondly, there is actually nothing illegal about approaching the U.S. border and pursuing asylum or refuge. 

The case for Central Americans receiving asylum or refugee status is clear when one looks at the situation that they are fleeing — which the United States bears tremendous responsibility for creating. In 2009, for example, the Obama administration legitimized a right-wing coup in Honduras, which sparked a wave of repression and violence that continues to devastate Honduran society today. 

This came amid decades of funding and arming right-wing governments and forces in the region, negotiating free trade agreements and other economic policies that have made it impossible for many to earn a living. The Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) with the United States, which was passed under the Bush administration in 2004, has led to widespread austerity and the loss of jobs throughout the region, forcing people to leave.

Through cycles of oppression, incarceration and deportation between U.S. and Central American cities, the United States has played a key role in producing the notorious gangs that many Central Americans are fleeing.

So the realities of desperation and displacement in the present — and hope for better futures — shaping the migration from Central America are more complicated than most U.S. politicians let on. But the outcome needn’t be more repression, nor a boon to the right.

Europe’s Shining Hour

The migrants’ heroic decision to band together and move as one isn’t without precedent.

In 2015, people displaced from as far south as Central Africa and as far east as Central Asia streamed across the Mediterranean and into Europe through Greece and Italy. With migrants drowning in the sea in shocking numbers year after year, the world watched as those who survived the journey walked together in their thousands toward Europe’s urban centers. 

It was moving and inspiring. And then in the fall came more inspiration: Ordinary Europeans gathered to welcome the refugees.

They mobilized and arrived at train stations in Vienna and Munich with clothes, toys and food, applauding and embracing migrants as they exited the trains. They rallied in Copenhagen and London, raising words of welcome for refugees and protest against the governments that had resolved to turn them away. 

These were the most visible acts of solidarity, but there were countless, less visible ones. In Austria, rail workers vowed to transport refugees to where they needed to go, even if it meant working without pay. In Greece, which was reeling from disastrous levels of austerity, residents and vacationers received migrants on the islands, sharing what they had, building community and assisting them — in some cases in violation of the law.

In all of these cases, ordinary people didn’t wait for governments to open borders or treat refugees with decency. In many cases, ordinary people — refugees and residents of Europe — acted in defiance of governments.

Getting Ahead of the Right

Unfortunately, the situation for refugees trying to get into Europe today is grim.

One could, then, see the shining and hopeful moment of 2015 as a fleeting one that merely gave way to the resurgence of far-right, anti-migrant racism. After all, the news out of Europe is dominated by rising fascist and fascist-adjacent politicians and parties.

An interior and deputy prime minister in Italy is making racist policies targeting shops owned by immigrants and designed to humiliate them. A policy in Denmark separates children as young as one year old from families that live in largely migrant ghettos” (the government’s term) and enrolls them in mandatory Danish values” classes. 

And then there are, of course, the walls and fences. Macedonia and Hungary, which notoriously cracked down on refugees in 2015, used the migration as an opportunity to build barriers on their borders. Bulgaria, Slovenia and Latvia built fences in the same period, followed by Britain and France building a barrier at Calais to prevent migration across the English Channel.

While anti-migrant politics are hardly new in Europe, right-wing politicians seized upon the 2015 situation to turn the tide. But it didn’t have to go that way. 

In Europe, the right wing and the forces of repression were better organized than those in solidarity with refugees. They were able to take advantage of the situation for their purposes.

As thousands of refugees from Central America approach the United States, those of us who want to welcome them face the challenge of building the networks of support to receive them, and of raising our voices in solidarity with them. The public conversation is dominated by the president and the right-wing media, and desperately needs an intervention from those of us who believe that the freedom to migrate is a human right.

Though the past few years have seen a racist backlash sweep Europe, over 1 million refugees were able to enter the continent in 2015 and begin new lives there. That’s a victory, and was due to both the heroism of the refugees themselves and the solidarity of Europeans who stood with them. And despite Trump’s outright lies, the migrants haven’t produced rampant crime in places like Germany. For what it’s worth, crime has actually declined in Germany since 2015.

The outpouring of solidarity in Europe in 2015 has been eclipsed by anti-migrant reaction. But just because things played out that way then doesn’t mean they will again. We don’t have to surrender to history’s past events; instead we should learn from them. 

This time, let’s be better organized than the right. With Trump threatening to deploy the military to the border, it is time to speak out.

This article was produced in partnership with Foreign Policy In Focus.

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Khury Peterson-Smith is the Michael Ratner Middle East Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.
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