How The American Government’s Decades-Long Indifference Towards Refugees Has Created a Hostile Environment

It catches me off-guard because my dad doesn’t make many offhand comments, much less to me. As the Texas sun, unrelenting in its ambition to cover all those unfortunate enough to be in its 94.458 million mile radius with painful burns, seems to raise wisps of smoke from the pitch-colored parking lot pavement,  he pauses in front of a car with a sticker on its bumper reading CAL POLY in green block letters.  “God,” he mutters, (breaking another steadfast rule I have in my head when it comes to my father: he doesn’t care enough about God to invoke his name) “that place was beautiful.” I’m left wondering if the ninety-nine degree heat has finally caught up to what I presume are more than fifty years of his age and cracked him. What reason would my father have to know the sprouts of the budding flowers on the California Polytechnic State University campus from the Sprouts Supermarket we’re in front of? He’s never been to California.

It’s January 1986.  Lycra has just barely begun its grip on middle-aged women, but take a stroll through any newly built mini-mall and it would be difficult to go a few feet without passing someone wearing neon-colored spandex. Sylvester Stallone’s wedding to his Rocky costar, Brigitte Nielsen, is barely a month old but already on its last legs, as StarMagazine would be remiss not to mention. And my father stands at the LAX arrivals gate, all alone. In my mind’s eye, I picture him standing in the dead center of the room, the other travelers giving him a wide berth, leaving him isolated in the middle of the arrivals gate of that airport, à la Tom Hanks in The Terminal. But my father isn’t Tom Hanks. He has his weird eighties glasses perched on the end of his long nose and a worn leather suitcase dropped next to his shoes, maybe even a passport clutched in his hands, maybe even hair on his head – an occurrence I personally haven’t been around to witness. But I don’t know any of this. This mental picture I have of him is borne of hazy fragments, photos I glimpsed at before the photo albums were tucked hastily away, or memories my mom felt inclined to jog from her brain. I don’t know about his glasses or his suitcase or his shoes or even his hair. All I really know for sure is that he’s alone.

“Wait-” I interject into that miraculous occurrence of one of my parents voluntarily sharing information from their Before lives with me. “Did you speak English?” I’ve been on this planet seventeen years and it hasn’t occurred to me until today that there was a time when my father, the man sitting in the drivers’ seat next to me on this highway in suburban Texas as fast food chain adverts flash by the car windows, didn’t speak English. In my mind, my dad came into the world the exact way he is next to me in this car right now, without language barriers or crushed hopes or passports that may or may not be fake. He’s always existed as an authority figure with stress-inducing expectations for his daughter and never as an English-less twenty-year-old in the middle of Los Angeles’ biggest airport.

Even if I weren’t trapped in the car with him, I’d still be unable to move from my seat given the sheer shock I’m facing that it took me (a girl for whom which listing ‘fun fact: I’m bilingual’ in first-day-of-school-get-to-know-you assignments is both a guilty pleasure and a toxic trait, because in truth I’m only just passable in my parents’ first language) seventeen years to realize that my father came to America clueless when about a single word of English. I’m trapped in the car with him and I’m starting to wish that I wasn’t. I’m starting to wish that I had the guts to open the passenger-side door and launch myself onto the road, because I don’t deserve to be in the car with him.

“Not even one word?” Coward? Big Mac? Liberty? Future?

“No.”

It’s January 1986.  Bloody revolution in my parents’ home country has booted my father out of his birthplace, the only real place he’s ever known. My father stands at the LAX arrivals gate, all alone. Forged papers of identification in hand, because he couldn’t get to the departures gate by walking past all those new government police armed with menacing assault rifles in hand with his real ones. Leaving behind his eight siblings – all but one waiting with racing hearts by the telephone in his childhood home to hear if he made it out of the country alive. And leaving behind his youngest and most favorite brother imprisoned somewhere he can’t let himself think about ever again, awaiting a future that isn’t really a future at all. He’s in Los Angeles’ biggest airport and he’s alone.

For the first time in my life, I feel sorry for my dad.

He slowly pulls into the driveway of our three-bedroom house and brings the car to a halt. The first and probably last conversation I’ll ever have with him about his experience as an immigrant is over. He won’t talk about his trip to LAX ever again, but I would go on to think about it almost every single day. 

My father’s story is a sugarcoated reverie in comparison to the increasingly hostile environment greeting migrants to America in recent years: In 2021 alone the United States was projected to receive over 300,000 asylum claimants; unaccounted for in that statistic, however, were the countless undocumented immigrants who sought refuge in America knowing they were unwelcome by both their neighbors and government legislation, which makes it increasingly harder and harder for them to exist. By the end of last year — despite promises from a new presidential administration to repair the damage that Title 42 legislation had done —  Border Patrol agents had carried out over 1,000,000 expulsions and deportations. The number of people displaced due to conflict worldwide has never been higher, yet refugee resettlement in the U.S. is decreasing at a staggering rate. Even in the face of multiple worldwide crises forcing people to flee their homes, such as the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war and domestic instability in countries such as Haiti and Afghanistan, the nativist ideology that has been consistently on the rise continues to permeate all levels of government, resulting either in inaction when it comes to rebuilding resettlement infrastructure from the federal government, or open hostility towards those who seek to cross the border on a state level. Refugees are stuck. Their home countries have been made unlivable due to circumstances out of their control yet they are unwelcome almost everywhere else, especially in the United States. 

“My problem is with how we were deported. We were deported like people who [are worthless], like people who are not intelligent. There was no one to defend us.”

— An anonymous Haitian woman, speaking with VOA News in September 2021, following the Biden Administration's mass deportation of Haitian migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Many argue that no one nation is responsible for refugees. Because their plight is so difficult to understand and relate to, and therefore easy to ignore, for many it matters not what happens to them, only that they don’t endanger the systems first world countries already have in place. Every so often, however, a catastrophe takes place that makes it impossible to ignore the degree to which our collective sense of humanity has been lost and we continue to fail them. On Monday, June 27, 53 migrants were found dead in the sweltering San Antonio heat in the back of a tractor-trailer rig after attempting border crossing. Among them were citizens from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, all countries which have faced extreme political instability. Their deaths resulted directly from the reluctance of both American citizens and government officials to act on the responsibility we all have to be guided by humanity and not condescension and resentment — unlike Texas governor Greg Abbott, who — despite the fact that the deaths in San Antonio were not the first nor last of their kind — continues to back an immigration policy from the former presidential administration dubbed the ‘Remain in Mexico’ program, which allows immigration officials to send asylum-seeking migrants on the Texas-Mexico border back to Mexico while they await the determination of their ‘credible fear’ screenings, which establish whether or not the individual is facing life-threatening persecution if they return to their home country.

When my father immigrated to the United States, after making his way through the airport surrounded by armed guards and fleeing a government that wanted to kill its own people,  he also had to establish the ‘credibility’ of his fear upon arrival to America. Migrants aren’t stupid. They know the risks of the border crossings they undertake. The victims of the San Antonio tragedy didn’t plan to die in that trailer but they did know they would be taking a great risk when they boarded it. The fault for their deaths lies not with them but with those who make the process for claiming asylum so inaccessible and difficult, those who don’t understand the reality of human suffering and therefore the extent of what human desperation will make one do. 

Sitting in the car that day with my father, I was reminded through his unfamiliar anecdotes that while I have always taken being an American — and the freedoms and privileges I am thus afforded — for granted, that sort of fortune had not always favored my family name. I was reminded that I had the grace of open borders and forgiving immigration policy to thank for my own life. Yet in the thirty years since that day my father landed in Los Angeles, things have only been moving backwards for refugees. It isn’t enough to simply refrain from treating immigrants with open hostility; until there is a clear pathway to America for refugees, one which doesn’t involve falling prey to exploitative smugglers and heat exhaustion in a desperate bid for safety, the body count on the border will only continue to rise.