The dictionary tells us the difference between empathy and sympathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another by intellectually identifying oneself in another versus the feelings of pity or sorrow for another’s plight.
Let’s us begin gently on that note. As the President of the United States heads to Argentina to the G-20 Summit, he faces a crisis largely of our own making on the U.S. Southern border as a caravan of Central and South American refugees seek asylum from the violence and abject poverty in their home countries.
White House staff has been quick to point out they have sympathy for what’s going on, but the sympathy is limited. “Certainly the White House would never want children to be in harm’s way in any capacity whatsoever,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a rare monthly/daily briefing this week. She was quick to defend the administration’s actions which included lobbing teargas at some of the refugees; “However, that is why we are continuing to encourage people to follow the law and go to ports of entry. Law enforcement officials have used appropriate, non-lethal force to protect themselves, and prevent an illegal rush across the border.”
Certainly the administration is demonstrating limited sympathy, but no empathy in this matter.
The image of children being greeted at the U.S./Mexican border with canisters of teargas evokes primal emotions among many people. Some imagine themselves in the position of being gassed. Some wonder aloud why parents would put their children in harm’s way.
It appears everyone is upset.
The issue is then simplified to its basest emotions and objective consideration of the issues at hand are nearly impossible – thanks largely to social media and inappropriate tweets from our Commander in Chief.
It is a complex and perplexing issue and both the president and his detractors are conveniently and arrogantly showing a disregard for the facts while they moan and wail.
The problem did not begin with Donald Trump, though he has used unique, and some could argue, dehumanizing methods to deal with the crisis.
The cause of the problem is deeply rooted in the American experience and involves problems brought about by the Monroe Doctrine and the Posse Comitatus Act. The Monroe Doctrine of course dates back to 1823 and the Posse Comitatus act dates back to the administration of President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1878.
President James Monroe’s doctrine served as a warning to the Old World powers. Its stated objective was to free the newly independent colonies of Latin America from European intervention and avoid situations which could make the New World a battleground for the Old World powers – and by the way it gave The U.S. the ability to exert its own influence undisturbed in the region – which many saw as the real message.
Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan are among the presidents to invoke the Doctrine and its corollary “Big Brother” policy that tried to rally Latin American nations behind U.S. leadership and open their markets to U.S. traders.
Here’s where things get sticky. While initially Latin and South American leaders appreciated the Doctrine they also were concerned about a “Big Brother” approach that they feared would amount to American hegemony in the Western hemisphere.
If that’s too much swallow, you can boil it down to a fear that the U.S. would exploit the Latin and South American indigenous populations for cheap labor. Diego Portales, a Chilean statesman famously said those in South and Central America had to be very careful, “For the Americans of the north (from the United States), the only Americans are themselves.”
After the Monroe Doctrine, the U.S. military often got involved on the border with George Patton famously being involved in a quest to capture Pancho Villa in Mexico.
The Posse Comitatus act became law to keep the military from being used as a police force on the border with mixed results.
Flash forward to today. The United States hasn’t served as a good “Big Brother” for some of the countries in Central and South America.
Yes, one can argue and rightfully so, these countries haven’t done a very good job governing themselves. But we shoulder at least some of the responsibility for the poverty, ignorance and danger spawned there.
One can argue, especially with our history of slavery, that the United States exploited the indigenous population south of us far more than we enlightened and educated them. Certainly we’ve taken advantage of the cheap labor.
Historically we’ve shown sympathy for the plight of our neighbors, but we haven’t empathized much. If you want to argue with that, I’ll point to the caravans on our Southern border.
And that brings me to the horrifying things I’ve personally seen while covering the ongoing immigration crisis.
I’ve seen people cut in half by moving trains as they tried to leap aboard. I’ve seen mothers who nearly drowned trying to save their children, illegal immigrants stacked like lumber in trailers, eight rows high and with the bottom row of immigrants dead from suffocation.
Imagine, again, what it takes to make the trek. You face dangers of disease, hunger, thieves, death. What drives you do this? Why would you bring young children with you?
It isn’t a joy ride. And the journey as perilous as it may be still won’t keep you from coming. Why? Is it greed? A handout? Avarice?
No, what drives you is the hope that there is something better. It is the torch of the Statue of Liberty and the ideals of a nation that encouraged the world to send their tired, their poor and their huddled masses.
For here there is hope. Here those you spit on can become something. Here we are all equal. Here the poorest can become the richest. Here it is your character, heart and head that matter – not the social status of your parents. Here you can work hard to live and that hard work will reward you with a good life.
Or it used to be like that.
Emma Lazarus wrote the sonnet that has epitomized our immigration policy and was symbolic of the Statue of Liberty:
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “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!”
This country does have a need to regulate immigration in today’s world and I know of few who would advocate “open borders.”
But you can build a wall 100 feet tall and teargas everyone who tries to get to the United States illegally and you will not end the rush to the bright light on the hill.
You can deal with this in only two ways: either extinguish the light or deal with the root cause of the illegal immigration.
After failing in the latter since the time of the Monroe Doctrine, the United States is now trying the former.
We are no longer the shining light personified by the Statue of Liberty.
We can find no way to deal with a mess we helped create.
We’ve given in to the craven desires of the “storied pomp,” according to Lazarus.
Or as I’m fond of quoting Pogo, I will merely say that once again we have met the enemy and he is us.
— Brian Karem lived on the U.S./Mexican border in Laredo for a year and in San Antonio TX for five years. He has covered immigration problems since 1983