We Shouldn't Tell Refugees, 'Don't Come' | Opinion

Some 100 years ago, Emma Lazarus' poem appeared on the pedestal of the Statute of Liberty. It invited countries to "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ... ."

Forty-one years ago, in 1980, to comply with its international treaty obligations, Congress passed the Refugee Act, which mirrors the language of the International Refugee Treaty, offering protection to people who are outside of their country of origin and have a well-founded fear of persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the international Treaty on Refugees, the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the U.N. declared June 20 World Refugee Day.

Then on June 7, 2021, at a press conference in Guatemala, in the context of Central Americans seeking refuge in the United States, fleeing their countries' poverty, corruption, gang and domestic violence, Vice President Kamala Harris said, "Do not come. Do not come."

When my father fled to Cuba from China in the 50s to escape Mao Zedong's communism, the Cuban government did not say, "Don't come." In fact, waves of Chinese left for the U.S., Canada, Central and South America, establishing restaurants, laundromats, grocery stores in Chinatowns throughout.

Ten years later in 1961, my father had to flee Cuba with my mother and me, this time because of Fidel Castro's communism. President John F. Kennedy did not say "Don't come." And more waves of Cubans settled in Union City, New Jersey and Miami, in 1964, 1967 and 1980, renting apartments, buying homes, opening small businesses, picking tomatoes in the hot Florida sun, helping to build an income base.

A view of the Statue of Liberty
A view of the Statue of Liberty with Jersey City in the background. Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

The previous administration detained and separated children from their parents, built a portion of an actual physical wall, paid Mexico to monitor their southern border and issued a series of executive orders to ensure that people didn't come. Is there a solution that balances our need to control our borders, while respecting the right of people to get help because of persecution?

If a country is stable, people will stay.

In the 19th century, had there been jobs, education, food and no potato famine in Ireland, the Irish would have stayed. So as Vice President Harris stated—addressing the root cause is a first step. Providing foreign aid will ensure that there is food, books in schools, medicines in hospitals and jobs for people. Strengthening their countries may stop people from coming and leaving Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, however, the flow of funds must be monitored to ensure that it reaches the people and intended purpose, and not the pockets of corrupt government ministries of health or education.

An analysis of U.S. government and private sector responsibility and intervention destroying farming soil, sale of guns and exploitation of labor has resulted in poverty and violence in the region. This understanding of the U.S.' involvement in the Americas is for historians and political scientists to further discuss.

A second solution would be to establish refugee camps in Mexico or Costa Rica. In other refugee situations, refugee camps serve as a temporary place of refuge. In Africa, Somalis, Ethiopians, Sudanese have fled to refugee camps in Kenya. In Southeast Asia, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians fled to refugee camps in Thailand, Hong Kong, the Philippines, or Indonesia. In the camps, developed countries interview individuals to assess whether they meet the internationally accepted definition of refugee, and if so, the governments resettle individuals and their families from the refugee camp to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and yes, the United States.

These are but two small recommendations to help our country live up to the ideals on which it was founded. If we invest to help vulnerable communities, and monitor flow of funds; and if we establish processes, such as refugee camps in the region, to ensure that refugees are heard, maybe we can start to live our stated ideals as found in the rest of the poem on the Statue of Liberty:

"Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Fernando Chang-Muy was born in Cuba and teaches international refugee law at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.