SANCTUARY … REFUGEES AND IMMIGRATION

One of the joys of parenthood is introducing your children (as they reach appropriate ages) to significant pieces of culture from before their time (significant, at least, in the eyes of the parents).  A few summers back, my husband and I seized on the window of opportunity (our children being still at home but young adults soon to be off on their own) to introduce them to something that roughly coincided with their births – the best Star Trek series ever: Deep Space Nine.  When the series concluded in 1999, they were both too young to have watched it.

There’s always a risk when you do this that the storylines and production values (not to mention special effects technology) will prove to have not stood up well over time.  In retrospect, there was little chance of that happening with this particular series.  Many of the stories, as science fiction does at its best, offer commentary on issues that remain contemporary … perhaps because, well, human nature being what it is.  As my husband and I watched them again (and our kids watched for the first time), I was struck by a number of episodes that seemed as contemporary now as they did then … which is probably what made those particular stories (and the series as a whole) so memorable.

One episode that stood out when we watched it with the kids a couple years ago – and seemed perhaps even more relevant when I caught part of it a few weeks ago as hubby was amusing himself with the nightly “All Trek” broadcast on you-might-know where – was titled “Sanctuary.”

This episode came around the mid-point of the second season of the series.  To understand the story in the episode requires a little knowledge of the series itself.  Deep Space Nine, as the name might suggest, was set aboard a space station that the Federation of Planets (the heroes of the Star Trek stories) was now staffing after the occupation of the nearby planet, Bajor, by the Cardassian Empire.  The station is also close to a stable wormhole, a short-cut conduit between quadrants of the galaxy.   In this particular episode, a badly damaged space craft has come through the wormhole from another quadrant and is allowed to dock at the station.  The first people to emerge from the ship are strangers to everyone on the station.  Eventually we learn these people are called the Skrreeas, but initially even the fabulous universal translator cannot recognize their speech patterns and language.  But even without language, the female, who seems to be the leader of these new arrivals, and Major Kira Nerys, a Bajoran officer who is the second in command of the station, form a connection.  Eventually, the universal translator puzzles out the new language and communication is possible … and the story of the new arrivals comes into view.

They are refugees from a planet in the Gamma Quadrant.  First, their world was dominated by an occupying force, much as the Cardassians did to Bajor.  But then something even worse happened as another imperial force, referred to as the Dominion (which will eventually become quite significant in the storyline of the entire series) came and devastated the planet, rendering it uninhabitable for the Skrreeans.  The leader, Haneek, who was first to come aboard the station is seeking a new home for her entire people, some three million of them.

What Haneek does not so readily disclose to her hosts is that she has been following a prophecy once given to her people.  She has led them through “the Eye of the Universe” (the wormhole) in order to find Kentanna, “the planet of sorrows,” which is to be their new home. Gradually, she comes to recognize that the nearby planet Bajor is the Kentanna of the prophecy.  At about that point, the Station Commander, Benjamin Sisko, informs her that the Federation has identified a suitable new home world for the people.  She tells him that she has already found the new home world for her people: “Your planet,” she tells Kira; her people will settle on Bajor.

This request, or expectation, touches off an understandable debate among the leaders of Bajor.  Their population is already facing a famine because of the struggling recovery from the devastation of the Cardassian occupation.  The leaders don’t see how they could possibly support an influx of millions more people – and refugees at that, newcomers who are bringing very little with them, who have few resources of their own they can use.

Haneek counters that she has identified a currently uninhabited expanse of land on the planet.  She and her people can settle there; no one would be displaced.  But, the Bajoran leaders tell her, that area is uninhabited because it is uninhabitable; it suffered extreme devastation during the occupation by the Cardassians.  However, Haneek has her own counter revelation: she and her people are farmers.  All they need is land and they can support themselves.  This does not sway the Bajoran leaders; the land is devastated – nothing can be grown there.

In the end, the Bajoran leaders refuse to let the Skrreeans refugees settle on their world … and Haneek reluctantly accepts relocation to the planet the Federation is recommending.  It is only hinted and implied, but not clearly confirmed, (the writers were far too clever to be heavy-handed on this point) that these refugees are an answer to Bajor’s needs; in a rather literal sense, each could answer the other’s prayers.  The Skrreeans need a new home.  Bajor needs food.  It might be that these refugees know farming techniques that could restore the now-barren land to production and grow enough food to feed themselves and to ease Bajor’s famine. But the leaders of Bajor were too fearful to take that chance.

It’s more than just the “We are farmers” countermove by Haneek that hints at this.  Like the Skrreeans and their trust in a prophecy, the Bajorans are also a spiritually-minded people.  The wormhole that the refugees call “the Eye of the Universe” is referred to as “the Celestial Temple” by the Bajorans, who know that it is actually inhabited and sustained by extra-dimensional beings whom the Bajorans reverence as  “the Prophets.”  It does not seem to occur to the Bajoran leaders that perhaps their revered prophets have drawn these refugees to and through the wormhole to be of assistance to the Bajorans in their needs.  Perhaps that’s because, for some reason, the leaders did not include the Kai, their spiritual leader, in these discussions. (However, one of the Vedeks, a lower level of religious leader like a priest, is involved in the discussions with the Skrreeans.)  What the Bajorans stubbornly insisted on seeing as a burden that they absolutely did not need might actually have been a gift in the guise of a beggar’s request.  But they rejected the gift and will likely suffer more in the long-run for it as the famine persists.

How are immigrants viewed among our people in our country, one of many on this particular planet?  Unlike the fictional Skrreeans from a hypothetical Gamma Quadrant, elsewhere in the universe … inaccessible except through some special portal, the immigrants we are facing come from other countries on this planet, the same planet we are on.  There is a history between peoples; there have been interactions before and there will be interactions in the future.  Past actions by our nation have impacts on others on this planet.  Although we may speak different languages, the various languages are not unknown or unknowable.  Translation is readily available.  If we choose to do so, we can readily understand.

So, what do we understand in this?  Who are the immigrants coming here?  Why do they come?  What do they seek?

There seems to be little conflict over immigrants from other first world nations, reasonably prosperous countries who apply for an obtain one of the openings extended to residents of these types of nations, who come on the H1B Visas by which employers can support someone from another country to come.  These people are clearly capable, self-supporting, motivated, law-abiding and share in our common values.  We tend to see them as much like us; they will fit right In with the rest of us and be fine additions to the American population.

Most of the public concern is directed toward those who come from poorer countries, who seem to lack resources (wealth, education, potential to contribute value to our society).  Because of the generally lower level of education than is common in wealthier countries, these immigrants tend not to be able to speak English.  (In wealthier, more educated countries, English is one of the foreign languages commonly learned by school students.)  Often, their skin tends toward darker hues than is common for most Europeans or what is considered normal among a declining majority of Americans.  Immigrants and refugees (and there is a difference) often come with little more than the clothes they are a wearing and whatever they can carry with them.

Are they gifts – or are they burdens … coming with too many needs, too few resources, too many limitations and potential liabilities … a drain on our society in multiple ways?   Why are they coming anyway?  More importantly, what was the role of our nation in creating the very circumstances they are so desperate to escape?

First, there is the specific case of refugees.  All refugees are immigrants, but not all immigrants can be considered refugees.  Asylum-seekers are not refugees.  A displaced people group is qualified for consideration as refugees but the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.  Their plight is clear.  They have been displaced from their homeland, generally by some act of violence such as a war; they cannot return to the place they left and expect to survive.  Once that determination is made, preparations begin to relocate the refugee populations.  Representatives from the commissioner’s office work with families on their applications.  Applicants are interviewed individually; if the individually stories of the family unit do not match, all the family members will have their applications rejected.  There are basic health screenings and wellness checks.  The whole process takes well over a year.  Once approved, the refugees are sorted into groups and assigned to the receiving country.  They will spend a few months in preparation for their new locations, but they often do not know exactly where they will be relocated to until a couple of days before their flights.

When the US receives refugees, they are eligible for public benefits immediately.  (No other immigrants are eligible for these.)  However, they can only have those benefits such as food stamps and cash assistance for a limited period of time.  Once that time passes, the refugees are expected to be self-supporting.  Volunteers from refugee sponsorship groups often assist the new arrivals in managing the transition, settling into their new homes, finding work, etc.

Given our participation in recent conflicts in the Middle East, do we not have some responsibility for the refugees these conflicts have created?  This may be especially true in Syria.  There is no doubt the current ruler, Bashar Assad, has committed numerous atrocities against some of his own people.  The country would be better served if he were removed.  However, there are no clear replacements who would be reliable in doing good, not harm.  Furthermore, to take on Assad directly is to invite open military conflict with Russia, something no one wants (and with good reason).  Therefore, since we cannot resolve the conflict, do we have some role – responsibility, even – in doing what is possible to mitigate the very real suffering?

Asylum seekers come as individuals, rather than groups.  They are facing direct risk of violence or persecution in their homelands that is directed at them personally.  The threats may be due to a person’s political activities or affiliation, identity, life situation … any number of things.  By both international and US law, anyone may present her or himself at the border and request asylum.  This is a legal form of migration.

Many of the immigrants currently in the national spotlight on our southern border are seeking asylum.  They are fleeing violence in their homelands … sometimes from husbands, but mostly from gangs – gangs that may be menacing the whole family or just the sons.  The threats are real.  The governments are ineffective.  People would never risk the arduous journey from their homes in Central America through Mexico (where the risk is slightly reduced and the government is slightly more effective) if the homeland weren’t still more dangerous.  Parents would never send their children unaccompanied on “the beast” (the roof of a train many immigrants ride through Mexico to the US border) unless that was safer than keeping them at home.

We know why they come, but what responsibility do we have to receive them?  More, perhaps, than we want to acknowledge.  The hyper-violent gang, MS-13, has received much mention these days – usually in the context that it’s coming here from there courtesy of illegal immigrants.  That’s not actually the case.  The gang was born here among El Salvadoran immigrants in the 1980s who were into drugs (marijuana, mostly) and death metal music.  As part of the War on Drugs, they were sent to prison where they learned US gang culture, especially violence … which interacted with the satanic lyrics of death metal music in horrifying ways.  When these immigrants were released from prison and subsequently deported, they took what they learned here home with them.  Our culture played a significant role in creating the gang; do we owe it to the victims to help mitigate that damage?

While the argument that the governments in those countries should be protecting their citizens, acting to stop the gangs and end the violence is valid, the reality is the governments are corrupt and ineffective.  That, too, is a result of US policies.  Fearing the “domino effect,” that communism might spread in Central America and migrate north to our border, the US took sides with military aid, CIA operations, and the School of the Americas all supported countermeasures to be directed against communist insurgents.  “Communist” became a flexible term directed at anyone challenging the status quo.  A number of dictators and leaders were trained by or supported through these programs.  Having crippled governance by the will of the people and supported corrupt leaders, do we not have some responsibility for the current suffering of the immigrants requesting asylum here from the mess we cultivated there?

And then there are the “dreamers,” children who were brought across the border by their parents, most when they were quite young.  These children have grown up in this country, attended school alongside US-born children, participated in US culture for much of their lives.  Often, it’s only when they are seeking to do normal things for US teens – get a driver’s license, go to college, etc. – that they learn they lack the necessary documents, that they were actually not US citizens as they had thought themselves to be.  Their plight is not unlike that of Tom Hanks’ character in the movie The Terminal … no way forward and no way back.  They don’t have legal status in the US – and they likely lack similar documentation for re-entry to their countries of origin, countries that would be as unfamiliar to them as to any of their US-born peers.

They are here.  They identify as American.  Their peers who grew up here with them see them as belonging to their communities.  But for the accident of their births in another country, they are otherwise Americans.  What is the right thing to do?  Leave them in perpetual limbo?  Deport them to a country they do not know, that has not been home for significant parts of their lives (assuming the other country can be persuaded to take them back without documentation)?  Or do we acknowledge what is at present, let go of how they came to be here, and give the Dreamers a way to move forward as Americans?  There are no perfect answers to this particular dilemma.  However, which option is most true to how we imagine our nation to be?

Some years ago, I came across a suggestion to pray for our country over the weeks between Flag Day (June 14th) and Independence Day (July 4th).  During this time, I regularly use prayers that were written in late 1960s and published in 1970.  Among the petitions are these words:

We pray You would make this nation a haven for refugees, for the persecuted and the displaced.  We pray You would urge [people] in our nation to pursue always the search for human freedoms.  We pray You to stimulate the leaders of this nation to regulate our government that it will offer the hope of freedom for all who swear allegiance to it.  We pray you to forgive our sins of pride, bigotry, lawlessness, indifference, and license. … Forgive us our waste of natural and human resources, for the neglect of our own rights and the rights of others.

Is this who we are called to be?  Is this who we, as Americans, still desire to be?  Or has the time has come to send the Statue of Liberty back to France and donate the plaque from its base, with the words of Emma Lazarus’s poem, to Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany?  Just who are we going to be?

And here is one more layer, where the connection to the Deep Space Nine episode is particularly pertinent: we need more people.  Throughout its entire existence and into the foreseeable future, the Baby Boom has been the rat in the demographic snake.  Things expand to accommodate them at each phase … and the contract in the wake.  (I’m a Baby Buster, a member of Gen X – I’ve seen it firsthand by being part of a demographic disappointment my entire life.)  The retirement wave of boomers is reaching its peak.  Forecasts for Medicare as well as for Social Security are dire, in large part because the number of working adults per retiree is about to drop precariously.  We need more working adults – and we need them soon (like yesteryear, if it were possible)!

We can’t go back in time and have more children in the Gen X and subsequent generations.  We can’t magically conjure up workers right now.  However, if we welcomed the immigrants (however they find their ways to us) and gave them paths to citizenship and helped them hone their skills to become productive workers and full participants in our economy, then we might cooperate to address each other’s needs.  It would at least be better than whatever it is we’re doing right now.