Thanks to a rare unscripted moment for Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ big secret is out: It’s not only President Donald Trump and his supporters who loath immigrants knocking at our doors. Too many Democrats also reject “migration,” she reminds us.
How could I forget?
Before Bill Clinton was president, we were called Cuban refugees.
Even during the unruly Mariel boatlift of 1980 that brought 125,000 people to South Florida during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, it remained so. But as Clinton faced the challenge of thousands of Cubans taking to the seas in rickety homemade rafts — 35,000 by the exodus’ end — we became “migrants,” so named by his administration. Haitian refugees, too, fleeing bloody regimes and poverty earned the title, both groups intercepted at sea and detained at newly erected refugee camps at the Navy base in in Guantanamo, Cuba.
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Migrant, a word coined by government types to lump together people fleeing for their lives, has a flightiness to it that I detest. It implies people in desperate circumstances have a choice to make — and they choose the convenience of fleeing. It is not so.
But most of all, this vague word keeps privileged, safe people detached from the view of life being sucked out of others.
With a vocabulary stripped from humanity, you can talk about “the migration issue,” as Hillary Clinton has done in an interview with The Guardian, and sound perfectly logical to herself as she encourages European leaders to withhold “refuge and support.”
How easily she disregards those immigrants across the United States who voted for her when “embrace immigrants, not denigrate them” was her immigration platform in the 2016 presidential election.
“I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame,” Clinton said in the interview, conducted before the midterm elections Nov. 6. “I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message — ‘we are not going to be able to continue provide refuge and support’ — because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.”
Oh, how very inconvenient for Democrats that the world has a refugee problem that has brought bigots out of the closet to win elections in the United States and Italy and claim victory in Britain’s Brexit referendum — and threatened to do likewise elsewhere in Europe.
But if you can’t count on the Democrats in this nation of immigrants to lead on immigration with facts, intelligence and compassion, then who?
Both Republicans and Clinton-styled Democrats fail to understand that most people love their homelands and don’t want to leave them, but are forced to do so.
You don’t know what it’s like to be a refugee fleeing political persecution or the cruelty of a dictatorial regime unless you’ve been in our skin.
You don’t know what it’s like to be an immigrant struggling to rise above poverty, hunger, and hopelessness unless you’ve been poor, hungry and without hope.
You certainly have no idea what it’s like to flee a war unless artillery is ripping through your walls, bombs are falling over your head and your children are being gassed to death.
But at least, we thought, some elected to lead could rise above the politics of exclusion, division and racism to provide solutions, not add another deplorable level to the nativist narrative that immigration is what’s wrong with the world.
Clinton’s words feel like betrayal.
Good people like Dreamers, their parents, and temporary protection status holders who’ve lived in this country for decades are counting on the Democrats’ good sense to bring permanent legal status to their lives.
If top Democrats aren’t going to fight for them, then who?
She throws her weight with the Republicans for the sake of “the body politic” at a moment when President Trump has taken extraordinary measures to curtail legal immigration and to keep asylum seekers away from the border, where they do, according to U.S law, have the right to request it.
But, then again, his latest move to force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico as cases are processed is reminiscent of her husband’s tent-city detention in Guantanamo.
“You don’t counter racists by giving in to them just like you don’t fight fire with gasoline,” Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of Washington-based America’s Voice, tells me. “You fight right-wing populists by building a majority coalition that stands up to their divide-and-conquer strategy and stands for populist economic policies that improve lives. That’s what Democrats just did, and they soundly defeated Trump’s version of ethno-nationalism — without throwing refugees and immigrants under the bus.”
There is the slimmest of silver linings to Clinton’s ill-timed and misguided comments.
It allows the rest of us to confront what we had forgotten was always there.
For once, it’s not Donald Trump’s lack of humanity making me so angry I can’t breathe.
And, at least now, I can stop mourning Clinton losing the presidency.
Follow Fabiola Santiago on Twitter, @fabiolasantiago