An unknown number from San Diego was calling me. Earlier that day, I’d reached out to San Diego LGBTQ+ bars and businesses for a non-profit supporting LGBTQ+ asylum seekers. I picked up the phone, expecting to hear a friendly voice on the other end who wanted to talk about supporting the non-profit I was interning for during the summer.
Instead, the man who called me started ranting about how, even though he was gay, he didn’t support LGBTQ+ asylum seekers — or any asylum seekers and immigrants for that matter — who were coming to the border. He yelled about how they were coming illegally and about how his grandmother was on food stamps and her welfare was being taken advantage of by immigrants.
My hands were shaking while he was ranting; I wanted to argue back, but what was the point of engaging with someone who clearly would not be swayed by anything I said, who lacked empathy for those fleeing persecution and trying to find a better life? It was draining to listen to him, so I just hung up. I cried for a while after. His phone call was an all too familiar reminder of the anti-immigrant sentiment and policies that were happening over the summer, of the unwillingness of our government to recognize the humanity of other people, regardless of their national origin or documentation status.
Everything the man said was misinformed and based on stereotypes. No, asylum seekers and immigrants are not coming to the border illegally — they are going through legal ports of entry. But the Trump administration has actively made it harder for asylum seekers to claim asylum by “metering” them, meaning Customs and Border Protection officials wrongly turn asylum seekers away at ports of entry because they say there’s no room to process them. This and other policies under the current administration — like “Remain in Mexico” — violate both domestic and international law.
It isn’t like asylum seekers and immigrants have been coming for an isolated reason either. Many of them are fleeing Central American countries such as Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, for various issues such as gang violence and a lack of accountability by the state. It’s important to remember, though, that the current instability is affected by U.S. intervention in the region during the ‘80s and ‘90s (let’s also not forget the long-term consequences of colonialism, too). There’s a tragic irony in the fact that the U.S. is turning away the very people who have been harmed by the country’s actions (for example, creating conflicts in the region and supplying guns to gangs). Many of the asylum seekers identify as LGBTQ+, escaping a region that has the highest rate of reported murders of transgender people. Other reasons include indigenous peoples fleeing persecution and farmers and environmentalists who have had to leave because of worsening environmental conditions.
As for this man’s comment about welfare and immigrants: If he wanted to blame someone for the inadequate amount of welfare Americans receive, he should look at Ronald Reagan, who drastically cut back on welfare in the ‘80s, and Bill Clinton for nailing the coffin on welfare in the ‘90s. Undocumented immigrants, despite paying taxes and social security fees, can’t even access health care or reap any of the benefits for the things they pay for. Refugees receive only nine months of government assistance and asylees receive none. And up until 2009, immigrants with documentation were barred from Medicaid and CHIP for five years after entering the U.S. (Androff, David K., et al.) My parents and I felt the effect of this kind of legislation; we didn’t have health care until after we were naturalized five years ago.
I wish there had been a way for me to tell that stranger on the phone all of this — though I doubt it would’ve really changed his mind. Our country has become so polarized on immigration that even when people are faced with facts, they still buy into the misinformation and stereotypes. They forget to see the people behind the numbers and the policies: people who have hopes and dreams and fears and stories that expand beyond a border.