The United States has long presented itself as a humanitarian nation. Our immigration history tells a different story.
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Wendy Neuhalfen calls herself a “new American.” Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, she now lives on Staten Island, known as the most conservative borough in New York. She was previously a teacher, but for more than two decades, she’s run the food distribution nonprofit New Direction Services that she co-founded with her husband, an American U.S. Army veteran. Neuhalfen’s goal is simple: to give people in need “fresh, healthy food”—a point she is adamant about, arguing that the shelf-stable canned food most food pantries rely on does not give families the nutrition they need to thrive.
When Neuhalfen learned that New York City Mayor Eric Adams transported a number of Venezuelan migrants to two hotels in Staten Island, she decided to head over with juice and bananas in her trusty minivan she uses for distribution. As soon as she arrived and opened her trunk, she says a number of mothers with small children encircled her, desperate for fresh food.
“You would not believe the reception,” Neuhalfen says. “Migrants need the kind of dignity and respect that we would want for ourselves, and for me, that’s where the food comes in. People were good to my parents when they migrated here. When people are good to you, you have to reciprocate it. You have to give back.”
In recent weeks, the situation in Staten Island has become what can only be described as dangerous. Gothamist reported that many residents are angered over the appearance of migrants in their community, and some believe the conspiracy theory that the migrants—many of whom are women and children—are “violent convicts released from Venezuelan prisons.” Local men outfitted in Make America Great Again apparel have reportedly begun unofficial patrols in the area. Gothamist reported that some local residents, like Karen Prisinzano, have taken to covertly filming migrants to keep tabs on them. These videos appear on the Facebook group Travis Neighborhood Watch, where Prisinzano recently commented that the neighborhood is “becoming a wasteland.” Her employer, the organization Project Hospitality, currently works with the city to provide support for migrants.
Neuhalfen doesn’t care what it’s called—humanitarianism, mutual aid—all she knows is that she’s in it for the long haul. “This is not political, she says. “I only want to feed people, whether they were born here or came here looking for a better life. It does not matter to me. Everyone needs to eat.”
When I spoke to Dr. Jana Lipman, Ph.D., a Tulane University professor and scholar of U.S. foreign relations and immigration, to discuss humanitarianism as a deeply held American value and as a lens for viewing the immigration system, I could almost hear her tense up over the phone. “In the context of immigration, I can understand why humanitarianism is a compelling narrative frame, but the problem with the concept of humanitarianism is that it’s so malleable,” Lipman says.
For one, she explains, the humanitarian framework is structured as one group of benevolent actors assisting a group of people in need, which is “not at all” how immigration laws have taken shape in the United States. Agreed, but her second point is even more insurmountable.
“I’m not sure if there is a core set of American values,” Lipman says. “If you were to ask me if humanitarianism is a core American value, I guess I would say no. Not because there aren’t humanitarian people or groups doing humanitarian work, but because I think what we call ‘American values’ are currently being debated in our society.”
This sentiment is what lies at the center of the conflict in Staten Island—between Americans like Neuhalfen and Americans like Prisinzano.
The United States has long presented itself as humanitarian and a steward of democracy, but a look at our immigration history tells a different story. How we treat immigrants says a lot about us, and our track record says we are deplorable. This is the great paradox of America, the “melting pot” that never was.
In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in the history of humanitarianism, with a number of scholars turning their attention to the subject. In a 2018 issue of the historical journal Past & Present, historians discussed why the field has taken off and how humanitarianism is a lens through which they could examine a vast array of subjects, including political ideology, the abolition of slavery, and decolonization.
In the Past & Present article, historian and Emory University assistant professor, Dr. Tehila Sasson, Ph.D., is identified as a “skeptic” to the field. Growing up in Israel, she says that humanitarianism was often used as “empty rhetoric to justify forms of intervention and governance rather than to offer any real political alternative to minorities and refugees.” It was her introduction to the works of philosopher Hannah Arendt, anthropologist and sociologist Didier Fassin, and philosopher Jacques Rancière during her undergraduate studies that later solidified her political and intellectual perception of humanitarianism as “a thin political framework” that is “stripped of any robust notion of obligation, responsibility, and rights.”
While harsh sounding, the United States’ last two administrations illustrate just how thin this political framework is. The Trump administration showed us the way that “humanitarianism” can so easily be bulldozed over in favor of nativism and xenophobia dressed up as patriotism. President Joe Biden fully aligns with the Democratic Party when it comes to his administration’s approach to migration—that is to say that migrants are not seen as people to help so much as a “humanitarian challenge” to politically maneuver. But how did we get here?
A nation of immigrants (or not)
Many Americans conflate humanitarianism with charity or as a crisis response to war, famine, or natural disaster that requires a temporary injection of aid. Lipman explained that modern notions of humanitarianism began to take shape in the 19th century as a way of creating rules for war. This is when the Red Cross emerged, as well as the first Geneva Convention in 1864 that led to an international treaty requiring armies to care for the sick and wounded on the battlefield. It’s during the 20th century that humanitarianism really gained a foothold and became inextricably linked to notions of charity—or as Lipman says—“a minimum standard of care in times of crisis.” In large part this was in response to the horrors of World War II, which also led diplomats to gather again in Geneva in 1949 to adopt treaties that expanded the rules of war to protect civilians.
The core humanitarian principles that govern how a response is carried out are humanity, impartiality, independence, and neutrality. Admittedly, these principals appear to be in tension with each other. How do you operate around the politically charged atmosphere that often goes hand-in-hand with a humanitarian crisis? This is a question many grapple with in immigration advocacy circles. It’s a common refrain that migration to the United States is needlessly politicized and polarized, but sadly this is not a new phenomenon. This was also true during the greatest humanitarian crises of the 20th century.
This history is explored in The U.S. and the Holocaust, a new documentary series co-directed and produced by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein that examines America’s response to the Holocaust and dispels the foundational myth that we wholeheartedly embraced our identity as a “nation of immigrants.” Early on, Novick says that she understood that this film would primarily be an immigration story.
“Are we a nation of immigrants or not? Is this a core value or not? Immigration was this lens that allowed us to explore these larger questions about whether we actually welcome people here and under what circumstances and in what way,” Novick says. It is too generous to say that the United States simply had an inadequate response to the Holocaust. America turned its back on Jewish people fleeing Nazism and it wasn’t due to a lack of information or understanding regarding the brutalities that were unfolding.
Sprinkled throughout the film are polling numbers that tell a painful story: As Americans received more information about the persecution of Jewish people—including confirmation of mass murder—it did virtually nothing to change their stance that the number of Jewish refugees allowed to enter the United States should be severely restricted. This polling was conducted throughout the rise of Adolf Hitler, throughout World War II, and even after the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed through reporting and images during the last year of the war.
“This happened in the context of this pervasive antisemitism and racism and white supremacy that are just in the blood chain of America,” Novick says. “The fear of ‘the other’ was exploited for years and then even as people suffered catastrophic annihilation, the response was still to turn them away.”
In the years preceding the Holocaust, the United States took in millions of Irish, Jewish, and Italian immigrants, but the pendulum soon swung in the opposite direction, giving rise to a racist, xenophobic, and antisemetic backlash informed in part by the eugenics movement (that later influenced Hitler). The U.S. laws that emerged during this period were fundamentally discriminatory, including the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1924 National Origins Act that completely prohibited immigration from Asia and instituted a quota for immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe.
This was the environment Jewish people fleeing death and persecution were attempting to break through. They were overwhelmingly rejected because Americans embraced the beliefs that the United States should be a white, Protestant country and that allowing certain immigrants to enter would destroy the nation.
These remain pervasive talking points in what is routinely framed as the “national debate” on immigration. The hate from one of our democracy’s greatest threats—white Christian nationalists—routinely dips back into the same racism and antisemitism that’s been wielded for more than a century by those who want to maintain power.
The limitations of American benevolence
It’s true that our immigration laws have never had much to do with humanitarianism, but many who work in the U.S. immigration space hope against hope that one day, our country will adopt a more humanitarian response to those arriving at the border. Lipman, who has spent years studying refugee camps, is of the opinion that providing humanitarian support, such as shelter and basic aid, is only “a first step.”
“I’m obviously not opposed to a more humanitarian approach, but I also think we can do better,” Lipman says. “A stronger way of looking at migration issues would have us thinking about democratic practice and inclusion and questions of justice, rather than charity that implies an American benevolence.”
As a person from an immigrant family and a journalist who has covered immigration for more than a decade, I know the United States is often indefensible and astounding in its cruelty. But because I get to regularly speak to asylum seekers, economic and climate migrants, and other newly arrived immigrants, I also know the promise that America continues to hold for people from across the world in search of safety, stability, or simply a chance at something more or better. Nothing will stop people from traversing borders, and no amount of politicizing, intellectualizing, analyzing, or theorizing about our nation and its borders will undo this one simple fact.
Yet immigration remains a horrendously misunderstood and volatile subject. This is reflected in our nation’s laws and policies, which continue to focus on exclusion, deterrence, and enforcement despite a preponderance of evidence that these tactics do not accomplish their intended goal of curbing migration. And the political theater surrounding migration is only getting worse.
In recent months, Republican governors from Texas and Arizona have taken to bussing thousands of asylum seekers and other migrants to Democrat-led cities like New York City and Chicago. In September, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed this already cruel and inhumane political stunt to breathtaking levels by flying about 50 mostly Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. Those flown halfway across the country were falsely told they were headed to “sanctuary” in Massachusetts where they could access housing and jobs. The sheriff of Bexar County, Texas, Javier Salazar, has launched a criminal investigation into the flights. Depending on the outcome, these migrants could potentially access special visas for immigrant victims of trafficking.
In New York, political leaders like Adams are illustrating Lipman’s point about the limitations of “American benevolence.” Adams, a Democrat, characterized the recent arrival of more than 20,000 migrants as “an assault” on the city and his office has diligently uplifted the narrative that the migrants have pushed the New York shelter system and other state resources to their breaking point. According to Ángeles Donoso Macaya, just one player in a widespread mutual aid coalition, the recent arrival of migrants has simply shined a bigger spotlight on the disconnect between progressive laws and the “precarious and undignified” conditions all people in need of shelter and resources are subject to.
This is the problem with relying on the “humanitarianism” of government agencies, says Donoso Macaya, an immigrant educator, activist, and professor at City University of New York. “All you have to do is look at the response from state and federal governments to understand the limitations. It is the bare minimum. It is unprepared and unplanned; it’s reactive. It shows little respect for human dignity. Our leaders devote millions of dollars to solutions everyone knows will fail. It’s irresponsible,” Donoso Macaya says.
Moving toward a more humane future
Mutual aid groups in New York City, many formed two years ago in response to Covid, have jumped into action to help address the needs of newly-arrived migrants left homeless and hungry as part of a manufactured crisis. Donoso Macaya pushes against the characterization that this too is humanitarian work.
“This is mutual aid and it’s fundamentally different from charity,” Donoso Macaya says, explaining that some migrants who’ve been assisted by mutual aid networks are already joining in to help others. “This work is led by Black and Indigenous people who have a tradition of mutual aid in their communities, and it comes with political education that we are all interdependent. These relationships and this work does not stop after the crisis. These are lasting bonds. Charity leaves everything the same. Mutual aid work keeps growing—and that’s how it really tries to tackle systemic inequalities.”
Neuhalfen’s approach may be different, but she also believes in the power of a community response and she says she chooses to “focus on the good.” While Neuhalfen has spent her days feeding newly arrived families, other Staten Island residents have donated warm clothing and a local Muslim group recently distributed hot meals. Businesses have also stepped up, like Verde’s Pizza & Pasta House, which continues to provide free pizza despite threats from locals to boycott the eatery for supporting a migrant “invasion.”
But sometimes focusing on the good is hard. A few hours after speaking to me, Neuhalfen called back, nearly in tears. A wholesale vendor she’d been doing business with for nearly two decades confronted her after seeing bananas and other fruit in her van that she was going to distribute to migrants. According to Neuhalfen, the man picked up one of the bananas and pointed it at her, saying he hoped that she wasn’t going into his neighborhood to distribute the fruit to migrants. When Neuhalfen confirmed that she indeed was, he went on a loud tirade about how “these people don’t belong here.” These five words continue to haunt our nation.
Global displacement is at a crisis level. The rate of people forced to migrate due to war, violence, persecution, climate chaos, and human rights abuses is consistently outpacing the solutions that exist for these migrants and refugees. In the United States—where we are becoming increasingly polarized and in growing danger of succumbing to anti-democratic beliefs and principles—it seems unlikely that we will ever even nominally agree on what to do about the human tragedy unfolding at every border.
Neuhalfen argues that we have gotten too caught up in politics and quibbling over words. Democrat, Republican, humanitarianism, mutual aid. Who cares? The real issue, she says, is that we have strayed very far from doing what we know is right and just. While she acknowledged that handing out fruit to migrants does nothing to fix the system that landed Venezuelan families on Staten Island, it is the small, loving thing that she can do in her corner of the world.
“When you see a family cold, hungry, and suffering, you extend your hand,” Neuhalfen says. “We all know this to be true. As humans, as Americans, we have a duty to help in any way we can. I do not know how this became so complicated.”
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