The humanitarian crisis of Central American refugees

STUART APPELBAUM President, Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union | 5/9/2019, 6:42 p.m.
Ever since the day Donald Trump began his campaign for president, and in the over two years of his administration, ...
Stuart Appelbaum

Ever since the day Donald Trump began his campaign for president, and in the over two years of his administration, he has focused on Central American immigrants. As his administration continues to ring alarm bells about immigrant caravans while calling for a pointless and expensive wall, much of the rhetoric has been disturbing. And so, New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, and myself decided to make a trip to see for ourselves what is creating the crisis at our southern border. The three of us traveled together once before, to Bangladesh in 2013 following the horrific collapse of the Rana Plaza building in which over 1,100 garment workers were killed.

What we found in the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) was much different from what the president has been talking about. We saw a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions where violence combined with poverty leaves many people with no choice other than trying to escape. Extreme poverty, gangs and violence oppress families there. To describe the stories we heard as heartbreaking would be an understatement; mothers spoke of daughters and sons who contracted HIV because of rapes. Mothers and fathers describe the crushing poverty they live in, and extortion by gangs that adds to their difficulty in providing their families with even the most basic of needs. One woman told us of the fear they have of even attempting to seek help from corrupt authorities who tell gangs when anybody reports crime or seeks justice. A grandmother tells us that she hasn’t seen her neighboring grandchildren in months because they live in a gang’s territory where travel is forbidden.

Here in the U.S., a callous president says “the country is full” while he leads a tide of fear-mongering and xenophobia against these desperate refugees in hope of winning another election.

No parent wants to take their children on a 3,000-mile journey through gang territories where there are real threats of rape, kidnapping and human trafficking. Parents do not want to send their children—often unaccompanied—on such a dangerous journey. But for these people seeking asylum for themselves or their children, they simply see no other choice. These people are coming for survival, not to steal our jobs or mooch off taxpayers’ money.

We are being led down an immoral path of scapegoating and fear, and it’s a path we must not follow if we hope to maintain any kind of moral authority in the world. Members of my union, the RWDSU, have families in the Northern Triangle, and they are worried and scared about their well-being. At meat-processing plants in Ohio last year, RWDSU members endured the frightening spectacle of an armed ICE raid. This persecution of hard-working people trying to support their families with dangerous jobs brought with it a sense of shame and sadness; these people deserve to be treated humanely and not threatened with automatic rifles.

We need to change the rhetoric and understand that just like many of our families did in the past, people are fleeing to the United States for refuge.

Stuart Appelbaum is president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (www.rwdsu.org).