Like many Americans, I have found it hard to stop thinking about the heartbreaking photo of the bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter, Angie Valeria, migrants from El Salvador who drowned while attempting to cross the Rio Grande to seek asylum in the US. I think about the hopes and fears that might have caused them to make such a dangerous journey—hopes for a better life in America, fears of having to return to face gang violence and economic hardship in El Salvador. I have especially been thinking about Óscar and Valeria this Fourth of July week, a time to celebrate the country’s founding, and the ideals of freedom and opportunity that characterize this nation at its best. These ideals are important to all Americans, but, I would argue, they are particularly important to immigrants. Indeed, they are the reason many immigrants come to this country, often in the face of difficult circumstances.
The deaths of Óscar and Valeria reflect an influx of asylum seekers trying to cross the southern border, and an immigration system that is ill-equipped to handle them. Border Patrol apprehended 58,474 members of family units last April alone—a record high. Yet, on this Fourth of July, we live in a country that is failing to adequately address the challenge of immigration. This issue calls for sensible, humane solutions, such as improving conditions for migrants being processed at the border—especially for children and families—and, in the long-term, addressing the economic and political challenges in Latin America that drive so many people to risk danger for a better life in the US. It also means creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already here, particularly for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program, whose fate has been subject to much uncertainty in recent years.
Sadly, these solutions are not being applied to the present crisis. Instead, the Trump administration has demonized immigrants at almost every turn, and embraced policies that threaten the health of this vulnerable group. Examples of anti-immigrant rhetoric abound in the President’s public utterances, from his characterization of Mexican immigrants as criminals to his use of the word “infest” to describe the people who come to this country without documentation. More recently, the President has threatened to deport millions of undocumented immigrants through a series of ICE raids. Even if the raids never materialize on the threatened scale, the President’s rhetoric creates an environment of fear that undermines the health of immigrants. It also shifts the Overton window towards policies that further threaten our values and health. Family separation, keeping children in crowded, unsanitary conditions, attempting to deter immigration through cruelty—such policies, once unthinkable, have been normalized by a political discourse that has gradually moved towards an overt assault on the dignity and basic humanity of “the other.“ These conditions have created a status quo in which our country has, once again, excluded a minority group from fully participating in the national life celebrated on the Fourth of July.
Even under the best of circumstances, the immigrant experience—the experience of being alien, of being “other”—is not easy. It is full of dislocations, uncertainty, and the ongoing challenge of building an identity in a country that does not always know what to make of newcomers. When I immigrated from Malta to Canada in 1985, I was lucky enough to have many advantages. I spoke English, traveled with a supportive family, and never lacked basic necessities. As near-optimal as these conditions were, however, I still dealt with the same hurdles faced by many immigrants, from the difficulty of fitting in at school, to the strangeness of navigating unfamiliar terrain (I had, for example, never seen a highway before moving to Canada), to tense encounters with authority figures—from airport police singling me out for searches, to the high school teacher who refused to give an immigrant any grade higher than a C because he did not think such people could ever produce quality work.
These challenges are hard enough on their own, without the added stress of government policies tailored to make life worse for immigrants. This is especially true for immigrants facing circumstances far more difficult than those I encountered—for example, migrants fleeing war, poverty, or domestic abuse. Governments have the power to help the vulnerable, or to make their lives worse. The difference between the former and the latter matters not just for immigrants, but for everyone. When cruelty informs our immigration policy, it is not only the immigrant who suffers. I have written many times that a healthy society is one that embraces love and compassion. Compassion helps us to see the underlying social and economic structures that create poor health, and challenges us to fix them. Love helps us to counteract the effects of hate. When we reject love and compassion, we reject the chance to build a healthier world for all. When we exclude immigrants, or any group, from the full promise of the US, we deny all Americans the chance to live in a country that is as healthy as it can be. Such a country is one that extends the possibility of a healthy life to as many people as possible by advancing policies that are infused with a spirit of compassion, inclusivity, and love. We have seen the possibility of this healthier country in recent years. From the crowds that protested the administration’s ban on immigrants from Muslim majority countries, to the communities that have welcomed immigrants with open arms, to the SPH students, faculty, staff, and alumni who work each day to support the dignity and health of immigrants, there are many reasons to hope a healthier country is not so far away, despite our current politics. That is indeed worth celebrating, this Fourth of July.
I hope everyone has a terrific week.
Sandro Galea, MD, DrPH
Dean and Robert A. Knox Professor
Boston University School of Public Health
Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Eric DelGizzo for his contributions to this Dean’s Note.