Plug the hole in American compassion

Posted January 13, 2018 12:10 a.m. EST

One of my worst moments as a reporter came when I wrote about an impoverished rural couple and referred to their home as a "shack." Two days later, the woman whom I had hoped would benefit from the sympathy my article might generate called, crying. "It's a cottage," she wailed. I was mortified that my careless word choice had been so hurtful.

Donald Trump seems to feel no such remorse for referring to several poor nations, whose citizens he doesn't want to see in the United States, as "shitholes." Nor does he appear at all sorry about his comments last year that Haitians "all have AIDS" and that Nigerians would never "go back to their huts" once they have been in the United States. Compassion is not among our president's strong suits.

Trump is right, of course, that we need to fix our immigration system, a notion accepted across the political spectrum. Among the problems needing attention is the fact that we do not generate respect for the law, which is fundamental to order in any society, by allowing people to ignore it. So we need a solution to the millions of people from other countries who are here illegally, and we ought to clarify what we mean when immigrants with "temporary" rights to stay in the U.S. are allowed to live here for more than 15 years.

But America is a rich and powerful country, built on principles of human rights that have defined our place in the world, so our decisions need to reflect the ideals that have historically set us apart - including compassion for those described in the Emma Lazarus poem at the Statue of Liberty's base as "huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

And we must speak with one voice, laying partisanship aside, against the racism implied by the president, who makes it clear he doesn't want black or brown people to come to America, though he would welcome people from, say, Norway. White people, you know.

But perhaps you consider these thoughts to be just so much sloppy sentiment. Then let's get hard-headed, and weigh the very practical side of the immigration policy being pursued by the Trump administration.

Sending hundreds of thousands or even millions of people away from America, to countries where they may never have lived or haven't seen in many years, could create economic instability in those countries, yielding political chaos that, in turn, will make American borders even less secure.

Consider El Salvador, a country torn apart by a U.S.-fueled civil war in the 1980s, which remains divided today by the political progeny of the war's combatants. Nearly 2 million Salvadorans live in the U.S., 200,000 of them allowed to stay here "temporarily" because earthquakes in 2001 made it difficult for them to return to their country. The Trump administration says they have to go home within the next eight months.

Researcher Manual Orozco told NPR that perhaps 85 percent of those "temporary" residents send money home, amounting to about $600 million annually. That's 2 percent of the nation's GDP, and represents its entire annual growth rate.

What happens if those hundreds of millions of dollars evaporate from the Salvadoran economy, just as 200,000 people show up looking for work?

Here's what: A country that already has the highest homicide rate in the world for a nation not at war would be convulsed by more crime, and its government would be at risk of overthrow. The turbulence would drive people to flee north, attempting the dangerous crossing to the United States in numbers not seen since the Salvadoran civil war.

I saw the effects of that war. In the mid-1980s, I reported from El Salvador and made the trek war refugees did from the country's poverty-struck villages to a safe house in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.

Back then, I got to know Salvadoran refugees living in the New York suburbs, perhaps three dozen in a single suburban raised ranch, their privacy provided by sheets strung across rooms between their beds. They were working in factories that couldn't find American-born laborers, making just enough money to get by and send a few hundred dollars a month home to keep their families alive.

The humane policy of allowing Salvadorans to stay in this country isn't perfect - the "temporary" status makes no sense - but it's folly to push them out and set in motion the chaos that would likely result. More than that, it's cruel to treat neighbors in our hemisphere that way.

Maybe you think worrying about such things interferes with America being great again. To some of us, though, America's greatness has always been measured in part by our compassion - that is, how we have treated the least fortunate among us.

Rex Smith is editor of the Times Union. Share your thoughts at http://timesunion.com/rex_smith.

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