Every plane leaving Puerto Rico is full and 80% of them land in Florida. The “natural disaster” of Hurricane Maria has been followed by the human-made disaster of failed emergency support. The response of many on the island has been to leave.
Florida with a population of over 1,000,000 citizens of Puerto Rican descent, already, is the destination for many. The Guardian reports surveys suggesting that between 10 and 14% of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million people are considering moving to the US mainland.
US Congressperson, Darren Soto, Florida’s first Puerto Rican representative writes: “Only time will tell whether we have enough resources” to welcome these newcomers. “We’re doing our best to meet the challenges… Our schools are enrolling children even if they don’t have all their paperwork, we’ve extended two months of food stamps, …we’ve opened a shelter for those who need short-term housing.”
Meanwhile our President tweeted this morning a threat to cut FEMA support for the island’s population even before many interior areas have received any support at all. “We can’t support Puerto Rico forever,” he complained after less than a month. I do not remember him complaining about FEMA expenses in Houston or Texas. Did I just miss that?
The climate change movement has long forecast that one of the significant results of global warming, with its rising sea levels and intensifying storms, would be the dislocation of populations, the creation of new classes of refugees. We may be seeing one example now in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. We may well look back on what Florida is beginning to experience today as the trickle that became a flood.
To see this movement of people as caused by global warming means that we must claim some collective responsibility. To see this movement of people as immediately precipitated by the failure of our emergency response places us solidly on the hook.
The people of Puerto Rico are all US citizens, thanks to our colonial past. We acquired Puerto Rico as a territory from the Spanish Empire. Because of their citizenship, there is no legal barrier to their relocation, even if they do bring a different language, culture and racial history with them. This is not so with the relocation of other peoples.
The proposed (or is it threatened?) wall on our border with Mexico is the symbol of one response, which attempts to isolate the US and avoid our being forced to provide sanctuary to refugees from Mexico and further south in Latin America. It is an attempt to prevent the further diversification of our people. The wall is, at its heart, a desperate attempt to hold onto a definition of who “we” are that is mono-cultural and white.
Other responses are available, including the decision to welcome more refugees, rather than attempt to shut them out. We could, for example, have welcomed more refugees from the Syrian disaster, rather than shutting our doors.
Movement of peoples has always been part of the human story. Not only did refugees from Europe create our democracy and its dominant culture, but the native peoples whom the Europeans killed and displaced had come from Asia many generations before. The fall of Rome was caused by “barbarian” peoples moving west. The human population of the entire planet began with refugees from Africa’s Rift Valley.
In a political climate that fears difference and tries to wall difference out, the question “Where do you come from?” can be an assault. In a time of deportation raids, the ending of DACA and the attempt to close our borders, that question can cause a justifiable fear.
At the national level, we need to change that paradigm, so that we can see our responsibility. The interdependent web is not some distant theory and that web does not end at our borders. We will need to evaluate and plan for the demands that refugees will place on our systems of relative comfort and privilege.
We will also need spiritual and even artistic resources to reframe this conversation as well. Artist Ai WeiWei’s work is a step in that direction. His public art (the Good Fences Make Good Neighbors Project) critiques walls between peoples.
One of his pieces is a golden fence surrounding a fountain in Central Park…near Trump Tower in Manhattan. This is one of 300 installations around New York City that tries to showcase the ‘narrow-minded’ attempts being used to ‘create some kind of hatred between people.’
He also presents movements of people with a view other than abject misery in his film Human Flow.
Spiritually, dealing with refugees and dislocation of human populations asks us to deepen our understanding of sanctuary. It asks us to remember our own family stories, all of which will involve refugees if we can go back far enough. It asks us to remember our privilege and imagine what it might be like to find ourselves in a circumstance in which the best decision is to become a refugee.
What would it mean to make our first response to difference not “Where are you from?” but “Welcome.” And even “Welcome Home.”
P.S. The sales of pumpkins last Sunday by our Immigrant Justice Group raised over $1,000, enough for two more scholarships to defray application costs for extension by DACA Dreamers.