Whether we are talking about the rights of Syrian refugees, the rights of black Americans, child soldiers, girls being trafficked for sex, or students being shot while at school, a discussion on human rights seems very timely. Not just because it’s Human Rights Day, but because of the upheaval that is putting record numbers of people at risk in conflicts here and around the world.
In his 1941 State of the Union address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt articulated what he called the “Four Freedoms”. He asserted that people “everywhere in the world” should have: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
Events this year — whether in the wake of the uncertainty and violence in the Middle East or the heated rhetoric of the Presidential debates — are testing our values as a human and humane civilization.
Countries from Venezuela to China silence political prisoners who dare to speak out. A U.S. presidential candidate advocates closing our borders and mosques to millions of Muslims. Floods of refugees flee war and violence that has decimated their lives and left them without food and shelter. Parents send children on treacherous journeys to escape murderous gangs in Central America. And these are only a few examples of the tumultuous times that we live in.
According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”
It’s at times like these that leaders are called upon to draw the line between the urge to react in fear and the need to balance safety and security with humanity, compassion, and reason. It isn’t easy. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, opened the borders to hundreds of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. While this has earned her the honor of being the Time Magazine Person of the Year, it has also cost her politically as right-wing ideologues push back against the tide.
Other countries have responded by closing borders. Americans are torn on the issue. On the one hand, we have a compassionate president and a populace that does not want to repeat mistaken decisions of the past that were made in similar times of fear. We have a tradition as a nation of immigrants as inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:
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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
On the other hand, Congress has passed laws to increase scrutiny of visa applicants and added hurdles to those seeking asylum. Republican governors have refused to accept Syrian refugees, even though they technically have no authority to do so. Whether these Republicans are acting out of fear, an abundance of caution, or pandering to a nativist base, it’s clear that they are being swayed by the zeitgeist of the moment and succumbing to the impulse to react to fear by building literal and figurative walls.
San Diego is no stranger to those seeking asylum. In fact, San Diego County is home to one of the largest refugee populations in the country. From the fall of Saigon in the Vietnam War to the Iraq War, San Diego has taken in about 3,000 vulnerable refugees every year and helped them establish successful, productive lives and raise their families in peace and safety.
Our county has an extensive network of resettlement organizations that offer a wide range of resources to help refugees integrate into their new home. They assist with finding jobs and housing, enrolling children in schools, and obtaining drivers’ licenses, healthcare, and counseling. The refugees are eager to leave the horrors they’ve experienced behind and ready to build a future filled with hope.
This has never been easy. Each new wave of immigrants — Italian, Irish, Polish, Jewish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican — has encountered discrimination, rejection, and vilification. And yet, each has overcome these obstacles and become part of the fabric of our society. They have enriched our communities with their cultures and values.
Today the local San Diego refugee community is standing in solidarity with those seeking asylum. It is a reminder that refugees have been the victims of war, not the perpetrators, and that as Americans, we are at our best when we live up to values.
This evening at 5:00 p.m at Waterfront Park, adjacent to the County Administration Building, you are invited to join them in a march sponsored by the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans.
Chair, San Diego County Democratic Party