Attending the Fulton Montgomery Community College “Searching for Sanctuary” event on Monday, I was struck by something one of the event speakers said about the perceived differences between how France and the United States treat immigrants and refugees. Albany Episcopal minister James Brisbin was talking about his time spent working with Burmese refugees at his congregation in Albany, and he said he had recently encountered a muslim refugee who told him about how he was treated in France versus the United States.
“My personal experience has been that where we live is very welcoming of other cultures, other beliefs. I’ve never been to France. I don’t know anything about France, but he did,” Brisbin said. “He said America —in every aspect — was more welcoming, more caring and he was really impressed that someone not only accepted him, but would go out of their way to say, ‘Listen, I’m glad you’re here.’”
I would doubt that when our local area voted heavily for President Donald Trump there was ever any intension of making the U.S. more like France, but there it is, the attitudes expressed in Trump’s executive orders banning travel from a number of muslim majority countries, and all refugees, and his proposed Mexican border wall, are simply more French in character than American. Brisbin says he’s personally never seen Americans mistreat refugees or immigrants — and I can’t say I have either, not beyond negative words, which I have heard plenty of, and perhaps some neglect of migrant farm workers, which I’ll elaborate on more in a bit. When I was at Trump’s inaugural in Washington D.C., I did see the visceral anger present in many attendees whenever the topic of illegal immigration or “banning muslims” came up. When U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., spoke of the many people left behind by the global economy, I heard one woman in Trump’s crowd scream, “Oh, boo hoo!”, and that did seem to be the prevailing view.
The Searching for Sanctuary event was sponsored by the FMCC President’s Council for Diversity, which I think was a brave choice for an event deep in the heart of Trump Country.
Another one of the speakers was Guillermo A. Maciel, an organizer with Cosecha Upstate, which is seeking permanent legal protections for illegal immigrants in the U.S.. Maciel is a natural-born American with undocumented parents from Tijuana, Mexico. I thought Maciel made the mistake that most liberals make when they talk about immigration in attempting to appeal to people’s decency, talking about the fear he felt growing up, never knowing if his parents would be deported. I know many people around here would be happy to hear he or his parents were suffering in almost any way. Arguments that do not include self-interest first and foremost are a waste of breath on the unempathetic.
When I advocate against refugee bans or walls on the Mexican border, I aim straight at national pride and economic self-interest. I did not grow up in a country that built up walls, mine was a country that tore them down, a country that broke down barriers between races and religions and ethnicities and sexes and orientations and all of the things that divide human beings from one another. Mine was a country that saw the risk, that braved the danger, that refused to surrender its values in the face of terrorism, even in what we thought then was our darkest hour after Sept. 11 and has only recently, with this past election, chosen the path of barring refugees like 2016 FMCC graduate Grace Rutagengwa, whose family was slaughtered in horrific fashion in the Rwandan genocide, as a futile means of protecting ourselves from all possible dangers. The travel bans quite simply represent the coward’s route, and a Department of Homeland Security report obtained by the Associated Press in February, which showed most foreign-born violent extremists in the U.S. do not become radicalized until they’ve been here for several years, proves it to be a misguided one. The U.S. has, so far, avoided a terrorist attack like the November 2015 attack in Paris precisely because our system has always been so much better at welcoming and assimilating foreigners than the French, or probably any other country on Earth.
As for the illegal migrant workers, I know first-hand how much anger there is locally about the issue. On my radio show on WENT, I remember mentioning once how dependent U.S. agriculture is on migrant laborers, saying that most agricultural workers are foreign born. I was immediately inundated with calls from people claiming I was either wrong or didn’t have the facts to back up what I was saying, but even a simple Google search will tell you that the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated in 2009 that about 71 percent of all crop workers in the U.S. are foreign born, and about half of crop workers are probably illegals, the others working on legal agricultural visas.
I covered a story once about an illegal migrant working on a local farm who died from smoke inhalation, after accidently setting a fire while smoking in bed. I took a picture of the perfect outline of his body where the fire had burned a hole in the wall of the building where he and the other migrants slept. I was told the workers had phony social security numbers, which means they were paying into the system, and were part of a network that supplies migrant labor to U.S. farms. I have been told by local farmers that migrants are needed because today’s American youth are simply too lazy to do agricultural jobs. I think the real reason is the nature of agriculture itself, which is that it must be done when it needs to be done, or else the farmer loses the crop, and farmers can’t expect to retain a captive workforce of teen laborers who might leave for an easier job at any time. Agricultural work is suited to the migrant who stays on for a season, sends his pay home to Mexico and then leaves when the season is over. I was told by one farmer that the U.S. has a simple choice: import labor or import food, I would rather import the labor.
The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the Leader-Herald or its editorial board.