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← The fundamental right to seek asylum

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Showing Revision 10 created 07/17/2019 by Brian Greene.

  1. Last summer, I got a call
    from a woman named Ellie.
  2. And she had heard about the family
    separations at the southern border
  3. and wanted to know
    what she could do to help.
  4. She told me the story
    of her grandfather and his father.
  5. When they were kids in Poland,
  6. their father,
  7. fearing for his son's safety,
  8. gave them a little bit of money
    and told them to walk west,
  9. to just keep walking west across Europe.
  10. And they did.
  11. They walked all the way
    west across Europe,
  12. and they got on a boat
    and they got to America.
  13. Ellie said that when she heard
    the stories of the teens
  14. walking up across Mexico,
  15. all she could think about
    was her grandfather and his brother.
  16. She said that for her, the stories
    were exactly the same.
  17. Those brothers were
    the Hassenfeld Brothers --

  18. the "Has" "bros" --
  19. the Hasbro toy company,
  20. which, of course, brought us
    Mr. Potato Head.
  21. But that is not actually why
    I'm telling you this story.

  22. I'm telling you this story
    because it made me think
  23. about whether I would have the faith,
  24. the courage,
  25. to send my teens --
    and I have three of them --
  26. on a journey like that.
  27. Knowing that they wouldn't
    be safe where we were,
  28. would I be able to watch them go?
  29. I started my career decades ago
    at the southern US border,

  30. working with Central American
    asylum seekers.
  31. And in the last 16 years,
    I've been at HIAS,
  32. the Jewish organization that fights
    for refugee rights around the world,
  33. as a lawyer and an advocate.
  34. And one thing I've learned
    is that, sometimes,
  35. the things that we're told
    make us safer and stronger
  36. actually don't.
  37. And, in fact, some of these policies
    have the opposite of the intended results
  38. and in the meantime, cause tremendous
    and unnecessary suffering.
  39. So why are people showing up
    at our southern border?

  40. Most of the immigrants and refugees
    that are coming to our southern border
  41. are fleeing three countries:
    Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
  42. These countries are consistently ranked
  43. among the most violent
    countries in the world.
  44. It's very difficult to be safe
    in these countries,
  45. let alone build a future
    for yourself and your family.
  46. And violence against
    women and girls is pervasive.
  47. People have been fleeing Central America
  48. for generations.
  49. Generations of refugees
    have been coming to our shores,
  50. fleeing the civil wars of the 1980s,
  51. in which the United States
    was deeply involved.
  52. This is nothing new.
  53. What's new is that recently,
    there's been a spike in families,
  54. children and families,
    showing up at checkpoints
  55. and presenting themselves to seek asylum.
  56. Now, this has been in the news lately,

  57. so I want you to remember a few things
    as you see those images.
  58. One, this is not a historically high level
    of interceptions at the southern border,
  59. and, in fact, people are presenting
    themselves at checkpoints.
  60. Two, people are showing up
    with the clothes on their backs;
  61. some of them are literally in flip-flops.
  62. And three, we're the most
    powerful country in the world.
  63. It's not a time to panic.
  64. It's easy from the safety
    of the destination country
  65. to think in terms of absolutes:
  66. Is it legal, or is it illegal?
  67. But the people who are wrestling
    with these questions
  68. and making these decisions
    about their families
  69. are thinking about
    very different questions:
  70. How do I keep my daughter safe?
  71. How do I protect my son?
  72. And if you want absolutes,
  73. it's absolutely legal to seek asylum.
  74. It is a fundamental right in our own laws
    and in international law.
  75. And, in fact --
  76. (Applause)

  77. it stems from the 1951 Refugee Convention,

  78. which was the world's response
    to the Holocaust
  79. and a way for countries to say never again
    would we return people to countries
  80. where they would harmed or killed.
  81. There are several ways
    refugees come to this country.

  82. One is through the US Refugee
    Admissions Program.
  83. Through that program, the US identifies
    and selects refugees abroad
  84. and brings them to the United States.
  85. Last year, the US resettled fewer refugees
  86. than at any time since
    the program began in 1980.
  87. And this year, it'll probably be less.
  88. And this is at a time when we have
    more refugees in the world
  89. than at any other time
    in recorded history,
  90. even since World War II.
  91. Another way that refugees
    come to this country is by seeking asylum.

  92. Asylum seekers are people
    who present themselves at a border
  93. and say that they'll be persecuted
    if they're sent back home.
  94. An asylum seeker is simply somebody
    who's going through the process
  95. in the United States
  96. to prove that they meet
    the refugee definition.
  97. And it's never been
    more difficult to seek asylum.
  98. Border guards are telling people
    when they show up at our borders
  99. that our country's full,
    that they simply can't apply.
  100. This is unprecedented and illegal.
  101. Under a new program,
  102. with the kind of Orwellian title
    "Migrant Protection Protocols,"
  103. refugees are told
    they have to wait in Mexico
  104. while their cases make their way
    through the courts in the United States,
  105. and this can take months or years.
  106. Meanwhile, they're not safe,
  107. and they have no access to lawyers.
  108. Our country, our government,
    has detained over 3,000 children,

  109. separating them from their parents' arms,
  110. as a deterrent from seeking asylum.
  111. Many were toddlers,
  112. and at least one was
    a six-year-old blind girl.
  113. And this is still going on.
  114. We spend billions to detain people
    in what are virtually prisons
  115. who have committed no crime.
  116. And family separation has become
    the hallmark of our immigration system.
  117. That's a far cry from a shining city
    on a hill or a beacon of hope
  118. or all of the other ways we like to talk
    about ourselves and our values.
  119. Migration has always been with us,
    and it always will be.

  120. The reasons why people flee --
    persecution, war, violence,
  121. climate change
  122. and the ability now to see on your phone
    what life is like in other places --
  123. those pressures are only growing.
  124. But there are ways that we can have
    policies that reflect our values
  125. and actually make sense,
    given the reality in the world.
  126. The first thing we need to do
    is dial back the toxic rhetoric

  127. that has been the basis of our national
    debate on this issue for too long.
  128. (Applause)

  129. I am not an immigrant or a refugee myself,

  130. but I take these attacks personally,
    because my grandparents were.
  131. My great-grandmother Rose
    didn't see her kids for seven years,
  132. as she tried to bring them
    from Poland to New York.
  133. She left my grandfather
    when he was seven
  134. and didn't see him again
    until he was 14.
  135. On the other side of my family,
  136. my grandmother Aliza
    left Poland in the 1930s
  137. and left for what was then
    the British Mandate of Palestine,
  138. and she never saw
    her family and friends again.
  139. Global cooperation as a response
    to global migration and displacement
  140. would go a long way towards making
    migration something that isn't a crisis
  141. but something that just is,
  142. and that we deal with
    as a global community.
  143. Humanitarian aid is also critical.
  144. The amount of support we provide
    to countries in Central America
  145. that are sending refugees and migrants
  146. is a tiny fraction of the amount
    we spend on enforcement and detention.
  147. And we can absolutely
    have an asylum system that works.
  148. For a tiny fraction of the cost of a wall,
  149. we could hire more judges,
  150. make sure asylum seekers have lawyers
  151. and commit to a humane asylum system.
  152. (Applause)

  153. And we could resettle more refugees.

  154. To give you a sense of the decline
    in the refugee program:
  155. three years ago, the US resettled
    15,000 Syrian refugees
  156. in response to the largest
    refugee crisis on earth.
  157. A year later, that number was 3,000.
  158. And last year, that number was 62 people.
  159. 62 people.
  160. Despite the harsh rhetoric
    and efforts to block immigration,

  161. keep refugees out of the country,
  162. support for refugees and immigrants
    in this country, according to polls,
  163. has never been higher.
  164. Organizations like HIAS, where I work,
  165. and other humanitarian
    and faith-based organizations,
  166. make it easy for you to take a stand
  167. when there's a law that's worth opposing
  168. or a law that's worth supporting
    or a policy that needs oversight.
  169. If you have a phone,
  170. you can do something,
  171. and if you want to do more, you can.
  172. I will tell you that if you see
    one of these detention centers
  173. along the border
  174. with children in them -- they're jails --
  175. you will never be the same.
  176. What I loved so much
    about my call with Ellie

  177. was that she knew in her core
    that the stories of her grandparents
  178. were no different than today's stories,
  179. and she wanted to do something about it.
  180. If I leave you with one thing,

  181. beyond the backstory
    for Mr. Potato Head,
  182. which is, of course,
    a good story to leave with,
  183. it's that a country shows strength
  184. through compassion and pragmatism,
  185. not through force and through fear.
  186. (Applause)

  187. These stories of the Hassenfelds
    and my relatives and your relatives

  188. are still happening today;
    they're all the same.
  189. A country is strong
    when it says to the refugee,
  190. not, "Go away," but,
  191. "It's OK, we've got you, you're safe."
  192. Thank you.

  193. (Applause)

  194. Thanks.

  195. (Applause)