I fled El Salvador as a youth in 1981 with my parents and sister The migrant caravan crossing Mexico is no threat to the United States.
When I consider the rhetoric deployed to describe the group of mostly Honduran men, women and children making their way through Mexico up to the U.S. border to ask for asylum, I am filled with profound sadness. Words such as “invaders,” “violent” and “vicious” counter what I see in the faces of mothers carrying babies in their arms, in toddlers collapsing from exhaustion, in the stance of women walking all those miles in flip-flops, in men whose eyes betray desperation and anxiety.
Perhaps I see vulnerability and despair where others see aggression and cunning because I come from one of the countries these asylum-seekers are fleeing. I fled El Salvador as a youth in 1981 with my parents and sister weeks before the civil war was officially declared. Having experienced terror from not knowing whether you will be killed at any moment from the violence around you, and knowing what it is like to have a loved one targeted for murder, I can attest that a person who leaves everything they love and value behind to embark on an uncertain and perilous journey is against indomitable circumstances.
We left with a little more than what these people are carrying, which is to say nothing. We had at least a small suitcase each. My sister carried a small stuffed animal and I a doll. In that sense we were no different from the thousands upon thousands of Italians, Germans and Irish immigrants who, huddled in ships, made the penurious and dangerous trip over an ocean in search for a better life with hope folded carefully, neatly, into the breast pocket of their tattered clothing.
Hope, one of those simple four-letter words that pack a punch, is completely absent from the vocabulary used to describe the individuals walking hundreds of miles to reach the U.S.-Mexico border, who continue their march day after day knowing full well that they are not wanted here, knowing that a campaign is being waged to discredit whatever claims of asylum they might have. They do this because hope, the ardent song that guided every European immigrant that made it to these shores going back to when this territory was not yet the United States of America, also beats in their hearts.
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Today, as a middle-class citizen, I can also attest that in the safety and comfort of our homes it is hard to imagine such fear and hardship; it is hard to imagine what it might be like to have nothing else left but courage and hope. It is easy to cast unkind, malicious labels that erase people’s individual dignity as humans. I see the photographs, I read newspapers, I am on Twitter and what comes back to me again and again is the Golden Rule. I see myself in the faces of the folks in the caravan, a terrified 14-year-old holding on to my mother’s arm. I am no different from them, and by extension I know that among them are future professors and doctors like my Honduran friends, who arrived in the U.S. at roughly the same age I did. Among them are nurses and small business owners like my cousins, and poets and writers like myself.
Words bear different weights. When my family arrived in the U.S., The Evening Times, a Florida newspaper, wrote a story with the headline, “America offers one family a chance to forget fears.” Our story was framed as America offering us something — a chance. Like thousands from the old continent we took it gratefully and squandered not a crumb. I say the tired, poor and wretched making their way through Mexico up to our southern border would do the same. What if we framed these people’s experience with words such as “courage” and “hope?” I believe we would restore a measure of dignity to their very human response to an untenable situation. In so doing, we would also hear the fervor radiating from those very words flowing within ourselves.