I read a lot of news websites and newspapers and, for as long as I can remember, I’ve gotten a knot in my stomach on reading the word “flee” in a bold, black headline.
There are many words and phrases that one can use to describe the act of leaving — depart, hit the road, skedaddle, vacate — but fleeing, to me, has always meant escaping some life-threatening danger.
“Jews Flee Persecution” (The New York Times, March 20, 1933)
“Negro Pickets Flee Tear Gas in Mississippi” (Chicago Tribune, April 6, 1966)
“More Flee Angry Mountain: New Killer Volcano Threat” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 20, 1980)
“55,000 Cambodians Flee Homes as Khmer Rouge Increase Raids” (New York Times, April 4, 1994)
“‘All You Can Do Is Run’: Central American Children Fleeing Violence Head for Mexico” (The Guardian, Feb. 10, 2016)
But then I wake up this morning and see this headline from CNN: “Fleeing America: Why refugees are risking life and limb to escape to Canada.” It seems that this country’s anti-immigrant/anti-refugee policies are so bad and so frightening that people are willing to risk dying to leave. Five Somali refugees trudged through several feet of snow to get from North Dakota to Manitoba.
“I could pay whatever it takes because the price is my life,” Ahmed told reporters. “I know if I stay in the United States, I would be deported.”
These are people who escaped violence and terror in their home countries. They wanted a better life, and for a lot of refugees and immigrants, the United States has been the best option. After all, we are the home of the American dream. You can have anything you want if you’re willing to work hard and sacrifice.
But things aren’t like that anymore.
This is a new America where people in power decide what the facts are. This is an America where fear and hatred are starting to overtake compassion and understanding as the national emotions. This is an America where our president insults those who speak out against him and devalues their opinions. This is an America that people flee in fear.
The new American dream is one of lily-white isolationism wrapped up in catchy phrases like “America First.” It’s a place where immigrants like Martín Esquivel-Hernandez came when they were forced to flee the violence of their home countries. Most people, by now, know Esquivel-Hernadez’s story. A member of the Mexican military, he fled threats on his life in Mexico City, came to Pittsburgh to join his family, and became a well-regarded community activist. Since then, he has been detained and charged federally; last week, he was deported.
He and others like him are labeled “illegal” because it makes it easier for people to treat them poorly. But he wasn’t illegal; he was a refugee who tried to go through proper channels to get asylum. He was denied. So what should he have done? For some people, the answer is easy: Get out of the country. If your own life were endangered by going home, you wouldn’t go there. But that’s what we’re ordering people to do — forcing people to do.
Over the weekend it was reported that refugees are fleeing to Canada in record numbers. Do you know what Canada is doing in response? It is welcoming them. Unlike our moronic president who tweets bile at his critics, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted this after the U.S. enacted its travel ban:
“To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength. #WelcomeToCanada.”
Many refugees in the United States are taking him up on his offer. They are willing to risk losing limbs to frostbite if the alternative is being shipped back to their home countries where they’re likely to lose their lives long before their time. Right now there are millions of Syrian refugees who have been displaced by that country’s civil war. Hundreds of thousands are living in camps at their country’s borders, hoping for someone to take them in.
Not only are we not doing that anymore, I’m starting to imagine that before the end of Trump’s presidency we will have our own refugee camps set up on the Canadian border. Laugh now, but I don’t see any other future as this country continues on the path of pig-headed isolationism all in the name of national security.