The other night I was watching “The Butler”, a movie loosely based on the life of a Black butler who served in the White House for 34 years and lived through the cathartic events of the Civil Rights Movement. The movie was not bad, but there was one moment that made me take particular notice. It was a scene where a mob of Ku Klux Klan members attacked a bus carrying Freedom Riders. The angry white people wearing white robes and pointed hoods threw rocks and bricks at the bus, slashed tires and smashed windows with bats and pipes and finally threw a firebomb through a broken window. Holding placards infested with hate speech, they kept on screaming “N….. go home,” “N….. go home.” It made me hold my breath.
Cut to the present and the scenes we have witnessed on the border as busloads of Central American children, some as young as five, seek refuge and freedom from the extreme violence and the legacy of civil war in the region, mostly aided and abetted by the United States. As happened this weekend in El Paso, a bad imitation of the Klan showed up, the so-called Border Convoy, whose Marlboro Macho Man probably is Rick Perry. (Just think of the photo of Perry wearing a baseball cap turned front backward like a Rap God, traveling in a helicopter over the border looking down the barrel of a gun.)
Secure the border! Stop the Invasion! Stand for America!
The same angry, twisted faces. The same racism and hatred fueled by ignorance. Just juxtapose the Freedom Bus scenes from “The Butler” with the video from the border—and the similitude will be lost on no one.
What the Civil Rights Movement was fighting for in the early 1960’s, the ultimate goal, was equality and freedom. This is the core truth of what is known as the American Dream, a phrase coined by the historian James Truslow Adam in his seminal work The Epic of America. For Truslow Adam, the American Dream was not “a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” That is the pursuant of the American Dream, not the mirage of a land flowing with milk and honey.
It is this dream of a better social order that drives what is happening at the border. It is what drove the more than 12 million men, women and children through the portal of Ellis Island, part of the largest human migration in history, seeking freedom from poverty and oppression. Clutching their few belongings, they poured out of the ships to an unknown land and uncertain future. They were greeted not by the jeering countenance of abhorrence and undisguised racism, but by a mighty woman with a torch, the Mother of Exiles. She lifted her lamp toward the golden door and welcomed them in. They went on to become the sinew and muscle of America and made her great.
Some will argue that in the case of the immigrants coming through Ellis Island, none of those who emerged from the ships did so illegally. And in the case of the Civil Rights Movement, we are talking about people that were U.S. citizens, which actually makes what happened to them and their struggle much more poignant and unjust. The undocumented children crossing the border unaccompanied by the thousands are seen as illegally entering the country, as they flee places like San Pedro Sula, Honduras, today the murder capital of the world. But America, Congress and the world need to understand what they really are: refugees fighting for their life.
The Freedom Riders of Central America.
America, as a nation, must have within its collective DNA not to turn away those that have no other recourse. The discourse must be changed from one of illegal immigrants to a refugee crisis. Congress going on a five-week recess without resolving it leaves a very bad taste in the mouth of a community that will be key in electing the next occupant of the White House. This is not about immigration reform, it is about being human. Just as it was insuring that every man be thought as created equal.
This is where I find that America’s present day hypocrisy sticks in my throat like a barely contained fist of expletives. These children, believed to reach 70,000 this year and now a humanitarian crisis, labeled as invaders, a surge and diseased hordes, are truly “the poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” America, which has always sold itself as a nation of immigrants, where an Irish man and an African-American rose to the presidency, now detains, deports and refuses to acknowledge a legacy of the Cold War it fought in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said that President Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot. I beg to differ, Baroness. Shots were fired all over Central America. Blood was spilt and families torn apart. The homeless and tempest-tost you see today are their sons and daughters. The same who will now be greeted by Marlboro Man’s National Guard, not by the Mother that lifts her lamp beside the Golden Door.
Susanne Ramirez de Arellano is the former News Director for Univision Puerto Rico and a writer and journalist living in New York City. She has a blog in El Nuevo Día called Susanne en la Ciudad. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. You can follow Susanne on Twitter @DurgaOne.