It is wonderful to see the western world opening arms and hearts to the vast numbers of Ukrainian refugees. That compassion and assistance is badly needed by displaced and traumatized people. Watching the river of refugees admitted into Ukraine’s neighboring countries, as well as the huge financial outlays from the US and offers of resettlement, my thoughts turn to the streams of Central American refugees destined for capture and subsequently treated with contempt and a cynical attitude toward their applications for asylum.
Why are these refugees considered unwelcome invaders and, once in custody, treated like prisoners? The majority of Central American refugees are in circumstances as desperate as those who are displaced by war in Ukraine. If they appear to have lost less, it is because they had less to begin with since they are mainly poor people with few material or educational advantages. Psychologists who have contact with Central Americans people seeking asylum in the US know that their stories of violent assault and constant intimidation and threat are terrifying. Professionals hear about mistreatment of refugees in government custody where they regularly are regarded with dehumanizing suspicion and disrespect, and often returned to physically and psychically traumatizing environments.
Our suspicion and contempt for our own neighbors likely has tangled roots. Among them is bias against the poor and those speaking a foreign language. Also contributory is a sense of danger because the refugees are at our border and humans have an instinct to reinforce borders and to regard whoever breaches them as threatening, even disgusting. Demeaning these people allows us to indulge that self-protective revulsion in a relatively guilt-free manner. You don’t feel guilty about wiping scum from your dwelling place.
We also see the impact of years of a cruel administration that showed no hesitation in dehumanizing others if some political advantage—and self-inflation—was associated with doing so. The machinery of the administration found its tone and tenor from the individual at the top, the former President, who is expert at degrading others in order to bolster his self-regard. That psychological stance–magnified until it empowered a network of government agencies–has supported widespread cruelty and disregard for others’ humanity. The administration also promoted the zero sum psychology that has contributed to intergroup hostility, even genocide, throughout the world over the millennia. The zero sum mindset pits groups of people against each other by stirring anxiety that one group’s gain is another’s loss. Given that mindset, poor people at the border who are in need of money, goods, and employment immediately threaten the resident population with loss of resources. This zero sum psychology is regularly exploited by politically powerful (or aspiring) individuals who seek to gain clout by promising to empower a disadvantaged group whose contentiousness (toward another group) the aspiring ones have promoted. They also divert envy that could be directed toward them–the highly privileged–so envy’s narrowed gaze lands on poor and needy people.
We need to keep extending the hand of support to Ukrainian refugees but I hope, while doing so, that we will look with more compassion on refugees who are our southern neighbors.