The image of the dead child on the beach is hard to shake.
What is our obligation as the people in the life boat, as the people on the luxury cruise ship, toward those adrift at sea? I'm speaking figuratively. What do we owe, as people in comfortable circumstances, to those who are suffering in war torn regions or in regions of famine?
In the 1980's I served on the Emergency Room committee at Georgetown University Hospital. One morning, one of the hospital administrators, who happened to be a priest (a Jesuit, no less) started fulminating about the burden placed on the Emergency Room by immigrants from El Salvador or Honduras, I can't recall which, who were flooding into the ER and many of these got admitted to the hospital and this was wrecking budgets left and right. "Why don't we just send these people back? Don't we have any rules about who lives here now? We can't just give free care. It'll bankrupt this hospital!"
One of the other doctors on the committee, a guy with a name like Cohen or something Jewish, looked startled and amused and he said, "Father, and here I always thought this was a Catholic hospital. Christianity, you know. Love thy neighbor as thyself and all that."
Georgetown at that time had an entire institute for the study of the ethics of immigration.
Now we are hearing arguments about whether people trying to cross international borders are "refugees" (in which case they qualify for more sympathy and rights) or "economic migrants" (in which case they don't.)
Apparently, our willingness to feel sympathy and to offer safe harbor has to do with whether or not their stories are heart rending, whether they have been fleeing some really dreadful, life threatening war or genocide or simply fleeing starvation or simply yearning to get out of a thatched hut in a muddy village to have a better life.
Donald Trump, who was born rich in America, has no sympathy for any illegal immigrant and wants to deport 11 million of them because they broke the rules written by members of his father's ruling class.
During the 1930's Cordell Hull, Roosevelt's Secretary of State, turned back a ship filled with Jewish refugees/ immigrants/migrants from Germany. They did not have the letter attesting to their good character from their local police departments in Germany. They had broken the rules. They went back to Germany, and, eventually to the ovens. Not our problem, said the man from Tennessee, who swiveled in his desk chair and pointed to the American flag behind his desk and said, "I could not allow these people who did not follow the rules to land on American soil without violating my own oath to serve that flag and the nation for which it stands."
Donald Trump, presumably, would applaud.
The instinct among many who live along the border with Mexico is the same as that of the Hungarians who are erecting a fence to keep out Syrians trying to breach their border.
It turns out, the boat people are only a fraction of the more massive influx coming along land routes from Afghanistan, Syria and Lebanon.
Ross Douthat has written some thoughtful essays about what Europe owes the desperate people arriving from Syria and from Africa seeking a better life. He suggests some nations like Greece and Hungary, which are not economically stable could be broken by a flood of immigrants.
Maybe part of the problem is figuring out whether we are in an overloaded lifeboat, precariously floundering in stormy seas, in which case taking on more bodies from the water is apt to sink our boat or whether we are on a luxury liner, in which case we would run no risk of sinking our ship by taking in the people from the water. This is the question of exactly how much of a threat are those people trying to get in?
There is the old warning, which is probably apocryphal, about the poll done in China saying 1/3 of the population of China says it would move to the United States tomorrow if they could. That would be what? Over four hundred million Chinese overnight? Would Chinese become the national language?
Then there is the problem of admitting groups who have no intention of assimilating. In England and France, there are Islamic groups who do not accept the virtue of tolerance, as a concept. Fundamental to both nations, which consider themselves democracies, is the idea you must listen to the other side. But some groups within the immigrant communities assert they know the will of God and accepting education for girls, allowing women to dress so their ankles or faces are visible, allowing women to walk in public without a male relative, premarital sex, dating, listening to criticism of the prophet Mohammed, listening to popular music, exposing children to ideas not coming from religious authorities, are all anathemas. In this case, do you really have the huddled mass yearning to breathe free or do you have, in essence, an invasion by a group intent on imposing its will on the larger society around it?
If you have members of a group who seek refuge, but then arrive and find themselves offended by the people who live in their adopted land, what do you do with these malcontents?
The American immigrant experience was, overall, one of a strong drive toward assimilation: Jews changed their names to sound more Christian. Daughters bleached their hair blonde to look less like people from their country of origin and more like the Marilyn Monroe idols on American screens. With this drive toward embracing group standards came a lot of self loathing among individuals. The desire to melt into the stew in the melting pot rather than to become part of a salad in a salad bowl took its toll on individuals, but overall, it provided America with its greatest strength: Hybrid vigor. It is not our missiles or even our factories which form the basis of our strength--it's our diversity and our embrace and celebration of differences and our desire to form a more perfect union. But what happens when you have groups who reject the idea of e pluribus unum (one out of many)?
I have no easy answers. I guess I'm not as smart as Donald Trump.