November 24, 2015

30 years ago, a New Mexico governor accepted refugees

Algernon D'ammassa

Algernon D’Ammassa is a writer, theatre artist, and founder of the Deming Zen Center.

This week most of us will celebrate Thanksgiving, perhaps with the traditional turkey and mashed potatoes, and since we live in New Mexico there might also be tamales, capirotada, perhaps cranberries laced with local pecans.

Algernon D'ammassa

Algernon D’ammassa

Amid overeating and football, a few might even reflect on the meaning of Thanksgiving for a moment. The story of the first Thanksgiving is the story of a vulnerable population welcomed to the home of another people. In a nation torn by political battles over immigration and refugees, particularly the Syrian refugee crisis, Thanksgiving is highly significant.

Here is a New Mexico story for Thanksgiving.

On Good Friday in 1986, Governor Toney Anaya started a political wildfire by declaring New Mexico a “sanctuary state” for refugees seeking political asylum from the killing fields of El Salvador and Guatemala. Anaya argued that the Reagan administration discriminated against refugees from Central America  by declaring them “economic refugees,” denying their persecution and deporting them while treating European refugees with more deference.

Anaya was declaring conscientious resistance to federal law, stating that employees, officers, and agencies should not “assist or voluntarily cooperate with Immigration and Naturalization Service investigations or arrest procedures relating to alleged violations of immigration law by Salvadorans and Guatemalans.” The governor stood on symbolic rather than legal ground. Then as now, states could not countermand federal immigration law or foreign policy. Anaya succeeded, however, in bringing political asylum into the national spotlight. He paid a steep political price for it.

The Governor argued that the federal government was violating the Refugee Act of 1980 as well as the Geneva Conventions by deporting legitimate political refugees to face persecution and murder.  In an article for the Hofstra Law Review, Anaya cited U.S. policies in Central America to show that foreign policy goals were conflicting with our humanitarian obligations under Geneva. Those obligations are binding under international law.

Almost 30 years later, New Mexico is once again bucking federal policy on political refugees – but from the opposite side. Last week, Governor Susana Martinez jumped on an anti-refugee, Muslim-bashing bandwagon along with 30 other governors in a race to the bottom of a political sewer. Citing the November 13 terrorist attack in Paris, Martinez stated that she “strongly opposes the Obama Administration’s plan to accept more Syrian refugees until there is a very clear plan in place to properly vet and place the refugees.”

For starters, none of the Paris shooters identified at the time I write this were Syrian. They were European nationals. (Who will protect us from the Belgians?) Syrian refugees are the victims of ISIS, not its collaborators.

As for the vetting process: refugees go through the most intensive security checks of anyone admitted to the United States, and Syrian refugees go through an even tighter process already.

President Obama has committed the United States to accepting 10,000 refugees from the civil war in Syria, a very modest number compared to some of our allies, notably Germany (a much smaller country). Days after the November 13 terror, France actually increased its commitment to welcome refugees from Syria.

We cannot shirk our responsibility for the instability we have produced elsewhere in the world. Our policies of regime change, bombing countries into smithereens and slaughtering innocents in non-declared wars with no definable end, produce the very chaos that breeds terrorists like standing water breeds mosquitoes.

We are bound not only by international law to assist refugees, but by human decency. Accepting refugees is reasonably safe – and the duty of a moral society.

It is also consistent with the spirit of Thanksgiving.

Algernon D’Ammassa is Desert Sage. Write to him at