Last November, I stood on the riverbank of the Rio Grande. I was on the American side, in Texas. If I’d thrown a coin across the mucky brown water it would have landed in Mexico. I was with a 24-year-old Mexican man, Seven Flores. He’d crossed the river 15 years previously. His dad swam while tugging a small inflatable craft that carried him, his mother, and his two brothers.
Seven is an undocumented immigrant living in the US, and when his grandfather was ill he wasn’t able to cross the river and pay his respects before he died.
“We would have ruined our lives,” Seven said.
Humans are practical. When the indignity of abject poverty becomes too much of a burden to shoulder or if hopes for a better life, in our current circumstance, seem delusional, we will pack our precious cargo and move to a place where hoping doesn’t seem so silly after all.
This is what I imagine Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his wife Tania Vanessa Avalos were doing when they left El Salvador for the US with their 23-month-old daughter Valeria on April 3. The idea that their 2,500km journey through Guatemala and Mexico would end with Valeria and Óscar lying in a face-down embrace in the Rio Grande close to American soil, as Tania watched from the Mexican bank, likely never crossed their hopeful minds.
The family had left the violent and gang-run El Salvador for a better life, one where Óscar would work and return home with enough money to build his family a home. His own mother had begged him not to go. The family did go.
They spent two months in a shelter in Mexico, close to Guatemala, and when the family reached the American border, Óscar became frustrated that they could not present themselves to US authorities and request asylum.
Having completed their more than 2,000km journey already, Óscar and Tania probably looked at the width of the river and decided to take their chances, so they could just get going with their life. Óscar swam his baby girl across the river first and sat her on the American bank, so he could return for his wife.
On seeing her father leave her, Valeria, like any toddler might, threw herself back into the water. He swam towards her, but the current washed both father and daughter away. That was last Sunday and by Wednesday of this week, the image of Valeria tucked inside her father’s cotton T-shirt, her small arm across his broad shoulders made its way around the world.
The image and the issue of immigration were discussed on our national broadcaster. To paraphrase, this sentence was uttered: “Whatever your position on immigration is...”
Now is not the time for positions.In age of Twitter and Trump, Brexit and Boris, we have become utterly obsessed with politicising absolutely everything. What has happened to humanity? I suppose that’s too simple a premise to operate from, too mild a position to garner political support from.
Because, at the end of the day, most people leave families and homelands because they are either fleeing violence and persecution or the oppression of poverty, though the latter is not grounds for asylum, and yet economic migrants have and will exist for eternity.
In discussing immigration this week, I heard one person refer to a country’s supposed policy of allowing people in and if they don’t find work within a set number of months they have to leave. Under this statement was the belief that people arrive in a country to “freeload”.
It’s not “how can we assist people to make a life and a living for themselves in our land?” but “how can we stop people freeloading?”
In Ireland’s own case, we have a sizeable population of undocumented migrants. They don’t just work one job, they seem to work multiple, in order to make ends meet, as they’re regularly on below-minimum-wage hourly rates.
According to the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland, there are between 20,000 and 26,000 undocumented migrants in Ireland. Some 89% of them have jobs, with 32% of them working in the food and accommodation sector, 29% in domestic work, and 13% in cleaning and maintenance jobs — 84% of these people have lived here for more than five years.
For those people who like to stay home all day and from the comfort of their own couch tweet abuse and knowingly share inaccurate content online about fellow humans who are forced to leave their homeland — what exactly is your game? Is your goal just to hate? Is your goal to monetise your hate? Or is your goal to get elected to public office via your hate? Because human-centric solutions do not abound in your toxic cyber space.
Immigration is as old as time. It is not about being “for it” or “against it”. It is as real an issue as our collective need to breathe oxygen at least 20 times a minute.
There is no point wasting time debating the merits of the issue, unless of course your aim to attract followers to your social media platforms in the hope of attracting ad revenue. We need urgently to look at what’s happening in the countries people are fleeing and smooth out the channels of the countries they are landing in.
This week, as some people criticised parents who bring their children to new countries, there was one response above all that encapsulated the kind of humanity, and not politics, we need to strive for.
“If your response is ‘the parents should not have brought their children here illegally’, know this: I pray to God that you never have to flee violence or poverty or persecution with your children. And if the day comes that you must and your babies are forcibly removed from your arms, I will fight for you too.”
The writer of these words is social scientist Brené Brown, and from her home down in Texas, she and some friends managed this week to raise $2m in two days to help some of the children caught up in America’s barbaric immigration system.
Now that’s just a taste of the kind of real progress you can make for humanity from behind the comfort of your computer screen. For those people who like to stay home all day and from the comfort of their own couch tweet abuse and share knowingly inaccurate content online about their fellow humans who are forced to leave their homeland - what exactly is your game?”