Refugees, Immigration, and You (and Me)

One of the (very few) upsides of living in a city with poor public transportation is the opportunity to converse with cab / Uber / ride sharing drivers. Unlike the unspoken rule of leaving everyone else alone on the subway / metro, cab drivers are normally eager to chat a bit, with limited refuge in the quieted radio, and a near-constant presence of traffic to slow things down further.

One particularly memory encounter of late via a hellacious 2-hour jaunt to the municipality of São Bernardo do Campo (onetime homebase of Lula, as well as the highly recommended Cantina do Zelão) to resolve some Brazilian bureaucratic nightmare and meeting a second-generation Japanese-Brazilian driver. He told me about his experience growing up in outer São Paulo alongside hundreds of other Japanese immigrants sent to Brazil, and we chatted about the baseball-playing Brazilian population, mostly of Japanese descent. This was a conversation I would’ve never had if not for the inviting nature of the cab ride chat.

Over the weekend, I took an all-too-short trip back to the United States to visit an ailing grandparent and help out however I could. My Uber driver back to JFK was named David, who informed me shortly after we set off on the 1.5-2 hour trip that his English wasn’t very good, as he was from Venezuela. Seizing the opportunity, we began chatting in Port-onhol-glish — a hybrid of the three languages which enabled us to understand one another.

The story that he shared with me was one that I was familiar with from the newspapers, but had never heard in person. David was a civil engineer in his native country, previously working on Caracas’ metro system. However, two years ago he fled his country, immigrating to the US and joining an Uncle of his wife’s in New Jersey. Along with David, many in his family had left Venezuela, dispersing across South America, the United States, and Europe, joining millions of others who have fled the failed state as its leader, Nicolas Maduro, continues to rob the country of its resources while creating civil, social, and fiscal disfunction.

As he shared stories of living with hyperinflation and empty supermarkets, rationing, starvation and senseless and pervasive violences, oftentimes crying or fighting tears, I began to reflect a bit on refugees and our common responsibility to the suffering of individuals succumbing to state failures across the world.I pushed David on some of the latest news out of Venezuela: who did he believe was behind the drone-bomb-assassination attempt against Maduro? (Maduro himself, who had previously regulated drone flight and seemingly orchestrated the parade for such an event.) What of Trump’s rumored support of a military coup against Maduro, and the United States’ history of supporting coups against democratically elected leaders in favor of military strongmen promoting stability and rooting out communist influence? As previously recounted, David pointed out that the military are just as corrupt as Maduro, and deeply involved in the illegal drug trade. Better to round them all up and start over, leaning on the pre-Chavez Venezuelan Constitution. Would he go back? In a heartbeat.

While I could hardly argue against David’s answers, I felt like answers to the situation were somehow incomplete (sidenote: useful editorial in the NYTimes for thinking through the situation.) In addition to driving for Uber, David had risen within the ranks of his day job to become a supervisor, and was building a life for his wife, two children, and himself in just two short years in the United States. But David was fortunate to have skills and a college education, and even luckier to know someone to support his immigration to the United States, and the means to get there. Millions of venezuelans are not as lucky, and are either stuck in the country (and starving) or fleeing to neighboring countries. In one example, after seeing hundreds of Venezuelans crossing the border into the quiet Brazilian town of Pacaraima over the past year+, and given support by the Brazilian government, the citizens of the town pushed back against the massive influx of Venezuelans and their strain on the small town, destroying migrant camps and other acts of violence against the Venezuelans trying to survive.

Across the world, refugees seem as unwelcome as they’ve ever been. Nicaraguans fleeing the right wing repressive regime of Daniel Ortega have flooded into Costa Rica, leading to more than 200 asylum cases per day. Today, Nicaraguans make up 1/10 of all people in Costa Rica, putting strain on the country and its civic systems. Hundreds of thousands of other Central Americans have fled violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, mostly heading north via Mexico to the United States, and meeting President Trump’s no tolerance policy towards the border (short of an actual wall.)

As This American Life exposed in an incredibly powerful and informative episode called Let Me Count the Ways, Trump is not only trying to limit immigration via US’ Southern border. Refugees from Haiti, Syria, Sudan, and other war- and weather-stricken parts of the world, and even talented STEM workers (yes, the “best and brightest”) have been turned away from the United States through well-oiled US immigration routes, met with Trump-appointed bureaucrats empowered to delay, obfuscate, and generally make the United States a less welcoming place to those in need.

Unfortunately, this anti immigrant environment is far from limited to the United States. In Sweden, notoriously one of the most refugee-friendly countries in the world (welcoming 163,000 Syrians in 2015 alone), the misleadingly folksy, “keep Sweden Swedish” far-right Sweden Democrats party has grown into a formidable political force, forcing one of the country’s more moderate political parties to build a coalition with a party with Neo-Nazi roots, lest the centre-right and left band together (gasp.) Across Europe, from Germany’s emboldened Alternative for Germany, to France’s National Front and Italy’s Five Star Movement, we are seeing a widespread backlash against refugees, and immigration in general.

I have many more question than answers in this post, but I’m left contemplating the stark reality that in today’s society, with global warming continuing apace and natural disasters damaging cities and claiming lives across the world, how the world will accommodate the continued (and likely growing) influx of refugees with compassion for their hardships, and recognition for the passion, intelligence, and perseverance, not to mention skills, that these people are bringing to their adopted countries. People like my Uber driver, David, and millions of others.

4 thoughts on “Refugees, Immigration, and You (and Me)

  1. Very insightful Ethan.
    As you know – I am an immigrant myself. As an immigrant – one has received an opportunity of a lifetime – sometimes out of choice or necessity. But one has the duty to adapt, treasure, respect, contribute.
    One aspect to consider is that certain areas in Sweden are off limits to police and regular people. Such places are occupied by immigrants that feel that they can create their own enclaves – disregarding the laws of that country. Immigrants in these places are mainly from the Middle East and certain African countries. This never happened with immigrants from Turkey (in the 60’s and 70’s), or people from China, India, etc. It is these individuals that do not respect the culture or appreciate the opportunity awarded to them by these countries.
    This unfortunately has led to to this ugly rise of the right – even amongst people that never belonged to that segment.
    Continue to share your experiences.


  2. Hi Ethan,

    Your post is insightful and reflective of many conversations I have had with acquaintances and through news stories, who have clearly felt that immigrating to the United States was a last ditch effort to save their lives. While I absolutely believe that Immigration reform is essential to provide a clear legal path towards legal employment, I believe the underlying drum beat is to better understand the forces making certain places around the world inhospitable. Is there some aspect of US Policy that could be better directed? Will there be a point where we will think about Global Citzenship? Does it benefit or harm other nations when our neighboring nations are in such significant degrees of distress? Those are the questions I ponder.


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