If you were born in modern-day America, congratulations, you’ve hit the geographical jackpot! You are one of roughly 4% of the global population to be a citizen of this exceptional nation. You most likely experience relative safety in your daily life, have access to food and clean water, and hold at least some agency to determine your own beliefs and shape your own future. You have a say in how we are governed, and you can challenge our leaders without fear of imprisonment or execution. It’s hard to grasp if you grew up here, but these circumstances are atypical.
In reality, though, it wasn’t luck at all which made us Americans. It was the grit and determination of previous generations who left everything they knew behind in hopes of a better future. And it’s thanks to our migrant ancestors that we are a nation of dreamers and doers.
The same holds true today. Migrants continue to risk everything in search of what they need to survive and thrive – safety, food, water, agency.
While our ancestors faced challenges coming here, today’s immigrants have an even harder time, often traveling thousands of miles on foot through treacherous conditions, carrying their children on their backs. They make the unavoidable 65-mile trek through the Darien Gap, a thick roadless jungle infested with poisonous snakes and insects, armed guerrillas, criminal gangs, and the skeletons of those who tried and failed to make the journey before them. They do this knowing there is a chance they’ll be sent right back from where they came, or they may not make it at all. And that if they do get to the promised land, they will be starting over with nothing.
So why do they put themselves and their children through this?
By examining two of our current biggest sources of asylum seekers arriving at the Southern border, it’s clear they do it because they feel there is no alternative.
Venezuelans, for example, have become one of the most common nationalities attempting to seek refuge in the U.S. This wasn’t always the case. While the nation’s history is complex, it was a stable democracy with a fast-growing economy just a decade ago. But its dependence on oil for its GDP made it especially vulnerable to falling oil prices in 2014, and the nation experienced an economic collapse worse than the Great Depression. Nicolás Maduro was elected to the Presidency shortly before the crisis, which many say he exploited to consolidate power. In the years since, he has enacted policies and taken actions that human rights groups have flagged as signaling authoritarian rule. Today, 59% of Venezuelans do not have enough income to buy food, according to the World Food Program. The United Nations reports that seven million Venezuelans urgently need humanitarian assistance. More than five million have fled for their survival.
Another origin nation for today’s migrants is Haiti, a country that has experienced one humanitarian crisis after another. In the first 21 years of this century, a spate of natural disasters destroyed crops, crumbled infrastructure, and left hundreds of thousands without homes. In 2021, a constitutional crisis was triggered when their President, Jovenel Moïse, refused to abide by term limits. He was then assassinated, and the declared interim president, Ariel Henry, has since postponed elections multiple times as governmental institutions collapsed and criminal gangs took control in major cities, including the capital, Port-au-Prince. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced due to the recently escalating violence.
These are just two examples of the desperate situations in nations from which people are fleeing. As was the case with many of our ancestors who sought a better life in this country, every single person who arrives at our border today has a story, and that story is often one of pain, loss, and hardship.
Too often, we focus on the most recent part of their journey – arrival in our communities – instead of the horrific experiences that motivated them to leave, and the grit and determination it took to get here. If we tried to see our own ancestors in them, would we see them as individuals in need instead of “caravans” and “invaders?” If we imagined what it was like to risk everything for the slim chance at a better life, would we be more welcoming?
The Statue of Liberty was one of the first visions of America for many of our ancestors. On Lady Liberty’s plaque, she states, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” She is speaking of immigrants – past, present, and future. She is speaking of us all.