Is immigration something that people do, or is it something that gets done to them?

You might get confused if you spend too much time listening to American politicians.

Everyone agrees that migrants are on the move worldwide in numbers not seen since the end of World War II.

There is also no real dispute over where they are starting out: the Middle East, Central America and parts of Africa.

But the people who want to stop the flow of immigration into the United States would like you to think that the immigrants themselves are not the most important people in the story. In grammatical terms, they’ll tell you that the migrants are not the subject of the sentence, but the object.

Remember Donald Trump’s 2015 assertion that America was getting other countries’ rejects? (“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best.”) Or Maine 2018 Republican U.S. Senate nominee Eric Brakey’s claim that migration was a plot by socialists “to transform our political culture” through the “mass importation of new voters”?


Both ideas are ridiculous: Social science and common sense recognize a “migrant advantage,” in which the people who make the most arduous journeys tend to be the most goal-oriented and persistent members of a community. And only citizens can vote, so when Brakey conjures up images of an electoral caravan stealing elections, he’s just talking about the monsters under his bed.

But under the surface there is a bigger lie – that it’s not the migrants who are calling the shots.

You get a very different picture when you hear from them. Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram Staff Writer Rob Wolfe spoke to some of the asylum seekers from Africa who are receiving temporary housing at the Portland Expo building and relayed harrowing stories from people who describe how hard they fought to get here.

They talked about things like leaving home in the middle of the night to avoid arrest or murder by agents of an oppressive government. They talked about walking from South America to the U.S. border with Mexico, at times hacking their way through jungles, preyed on by bandits, working to find food and shelter every step of the way.

They didn’t mention anything about anyone “sending them.” They didn’t say that they were “imported.” They didn’t say that they had ever wanted to leave their lives in Africa, but they described making a series of agonizing choices you would make only if you were desperately threatened and had no good options.

You have to admire the toughness of anyone who could survive under those conditions.


Which is the point of making them look like passive objects in somebody else’s story.

The nativist politicians will tell you that asylum seekers are tools used by invisible players who have a secret agenda. It’s not us who are making the migrants suffer in inhumane conditions, they tell us – it’s the mysterious financiers, the socialists, the bleeding-heart liberals with selfish motives who are “sending” or “importing” these poor people half-way around the world.

But none of that holds up when you consider that maybe it’s not shadowy figures making the choices. Maybe they are being made by people just like you.

What would it take to drive you from your home in the middle of the night and head off to another continent, to a place where the people don’t look like you, don’t speak your language and may not be happy to see you arrive?

How far do you think you could get with the money in your pocket and the knowledge in your head?

Would you bring your children on the dangerous journey, or leave them with friends, where they would face another kind of danger – and could you make that decision in a split second?

When I ask myself those questions, I’m in awe of the people who have made it here. And I can’t think of them as anybody’s pawn.


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