While Americans spent Sunday celebrating Father’s Day, a darker commemoration drew much of the world’s attention. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees marked June 20 as World Refugee Day.
For many Americans, the term “refugee” spurs thoughts of war-torn and famish-plagued countries in Africa, Asia or the Middle East. Many refugees find their way to the United States, however, and the growing unrest in Mexico could send new waves of people to our border seeking sanctuary.
This adds new urgency to the need for our elected officials to do something — anything — to address the woefully inadequate process under which immigrants are screened and processed. Most importantly, we must decide what level, if any, we are willing to accept of refugees escaping Mexico’s drug violence and political instability.
The United States traditionally has accepted refugees on humanitarian grounds, and in large numbers. Many people surely remember the Mariel Boatlift of 1980, in which more than 100,000 people came to this country from Cuba. The UNHCR reports the United States took in some 823,000 refugees from Indochina after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
But the millions seeking to cross though our southern border could dwarf those numbers. The Center for Immigration Studies estimates nearly 40 million U.S. residents are immigrants. About 60 percent are from Mexico and a third of them are here without residency permits. Most Mexican nationals came here for economic reasons, but growing numbers are fleeing the violence. The UNHCR reports that as of January, 6,435 official refugees had left Mexico and another 20,413 have sought asylum in other countries — mostly the United States. Many of them are former police officers, journalists and business owners who already have been threatened by drug dealers or corrupt police.
The U.S. and Mexican governments invest more and more resources to fight the illicit drug trade, which only begets more violence. That’s compounded by open gang warfare for territory and drug-related business.
No matter what outcome this war has, its effects on Mexico’s development will be felt for decades to come. More than 15 years after the Medellin and Cali cartels were officially defeated, Colombia remains unstable; thousands still flee the lingering violence. Drug-related killings have subsided, but gangs continue to fight and guerrilla warfare continues. Ninety percent of those who left Colombia as refugees still don’t want to return to their homeland.
About 10 percent of Mexico’s total population has come to America; most of them are working-age — 18-40 —the very people Mexico needs to progress; their absence further retards the country’s economic growth. Those whose children are born in the United States tend to stay here, depriving Mexico of the next generation of workers as well.
We note also that many Central and South American refugees fled to Mexico. As the situation deteriorates there, how many will decide to continue north toward the United States?
All this sets the scene for growing numbers of refugees — with valid reasons for leaving their country — knocking on our doors. This country historically has shown compassion and taken in many of those who are simply looking for a peaceful place to live. But can we afford to allow what could be millions of people from the South who wish to escape real violence — violence that our own drug policies have helped foment?
It’s a big question, one that our elected officials already should be discussing. After all, their refusal to address this problem isn’t going to keep the refugees from coming. We’d better know what to do when large numbers of them start arriving.