Friday, August 21, 2020

Jack Amick: The Downward Stickiness of Fear

Today's post is by Rev. Jack Amick, Director of Global Migration and Interim Team Lead for International Disaster Response, UMCOR.

Many years ago, before I became a clergy person, I studied economics. One concept I recall is the downward stickiness of prices. Prices are downwardly sticky. Yes, sticky is a term of economics. Prices, in theory, rise and fall in response to supply and demand. And yet, prices do not adjust downward very quickly, for a variety of reasons.

I think the same could be said about fear. When we are afraid of something, we take a lot of convincing that those fears are false or no longer relevant. If we once saw a bear in the woods while camping, it is hard not to maintain a nagging fear of bears every time we camp.

In the face of COVID-19, countries have closed borders to prevent the spread of the virus. One of the first steps the U.S. government took was to close the U.S.-Mexico border to nearly all asylum seekers. In the name of public health, those fearing their lives were left to live in close proximity in makeshift camps without adequate water and sanitation facilities – a sure formula for spreading the disease, but keeping it just on the other side of the border.

Similarly, people in detention were deported to prevent the spread of disease in the U.S. In Greece, people are being “pushed back” to the maritime border with Turkey. Even some asylum seekers who have landed are being carried out and dropped off in lifeboats at that watery boundary.

A fear of foreigners, especially black and brown-skinned foreigners, was mixed with a fear of a new mysterious disease to justify implementation of racist and xenophobic immigration policies that some in the administration of the U.S. and other governments have been seeking for years. These policies and practices are being “hardened.”

For instance, in the middle of the pandemic, the U.S. government is raising filing fees for asylum applications to $50, a price prohibitive for many applicants, and all while officers have been instructed to dramatically reduce approvals for fee waivers. Meanwhile, people who process visa applications in the U.S. are being furloughed, because there are no longer enough visa applications for them to process.

Once in place, these policies and practices that are harmful to immigrants who seek safety in a new country will be virtually unnoticed by the rest of us. And once they are a part of our fabric of fear that insulates us from those we consider “illegal,” coming to America “the legal way” will be nearly impossible for most. We will be reluctant and slow to dismantle the policies created to protect us from our fears, as unrealistic as those fears may be.

One of the concerns that watchers of U.S. migration have right now is that the policies that protect countries from COVID through transmission across national borders will become “sticky.” This is because the COVID excuse is the razor wire crowning the policy that has been building during this administration.

Many nations, including the U.S., have already pre-ordered untested vaccines. As always, the poor in this world will be the last to receive (or will be the least able to afford) the vaccine. We have already seen examples of how shunned refugees, migrants, and displaced persons are relegated to camps where they have little or no access to medical support and no way to earn a living. We have seen those who migrated decades ago to urban centers (such as Mumbai, India) walking back hundreds of miles to their home villages, only to be rejected there.

The economic impact of COVID on migrants is tremendous. First, many immigrants work in sectors of the economy that have experienced significant layoffs. Secondly, many immigrants, depending on their legal status, may not be eligible for certain unemployment or other relief benefits. Consequently, the global level of remittances—people sending money back “home”—is predicted by the UN to drop this year by as much as 20%. (International foreign direct assistance is historically less than remittances globally. For some countries, such as the Philippines or Nepal, remittances are a major portion of GDP.) In many countries, foreign workers are being fired and sent home, without much, if any, compensation.

Proceedings in immigration courts in the U.S. have slowed dramatically. Those filing inside the U.S. for asylum are now being assigned court cases in 2023. These cases are slow in the best of circumstances, but this is as bad as it has been. Refugee resettlement is all but shut down, except for Special Immigrant Visas, such as translators for the US military seeking refuge in the US.

Migrants are bearing the negative burden of COVID and are tied intrinsically to how we address (or do not address) other global issues collectively. Conflict transformation and reconciliation, disaster response and mitigation, and climate change are all issues that have profound impact on migratory flows. And yet, the nations who, collectively, were seemingly so eager to collaborate for the greater good in the mid-20th century have either shunned recent compacts and talks or have failed to comply with previous understandings, or both.

In recent years, there has been a major erosion of international understandings of how nations are supposed to behave and the shared responsibilities we have for the most vulnerable. It is sad that some of the things the U.S. pushed so hard for with the international community in the 1940s and 1950s, for instance, the Refugee Convention, are no longer adhered to (at least vis-a-vis asylum seekers), even by the U.S.

Given that context, when a need to protect citizens from a disease comes along and borders can be closed to asylum seekers and refugees fleeing harm’s way and seeking a new life, we seem eager to close the doors of hope and safety.

As Methodists, we need to do no harm and continue to work for global cooperation on peacemaking, climate change mitigation, and migration in a way that ensures that the methods we use to combat COVID do no harm and do not unfairly shift the burden of this disease to the poor. As Christians, if we close borders, we also need to advocate for finding ways to open them as soon as possible, so that we can get back to our calling of welcoming the stranger.

We need to make sure that Christianity doesn’t inadvertently undergird the “us first” mentality that goes hand in hand with nationalist, xenophobic, and racist agendas and policies that end up excluding. We need to offer constant reminders to these forces that we are so much better off with the diversity of migrants in our nation, our communities, and our churches. 50% of those employed in the agricultural sector in the U.S. are immigrants. Immigrants account for 20% of all U.S. health care workers. Immigrants are an important part of our communities in many ways. Immigrants make the U.S., and the world, function well.

The church has an important role to play to call everyone back to the table so we can move forward in positive ways in these arenas and not get stuck in our fear. Simultaneously, the church is called to welcome the stranger. It is time for the church to boldly proclaim that message that appears 82 times in the Bible: “Fear Not!” If the church can show people, through small actions, that it is not only safe, but beneficial, and consistent with our faith, to truly welcome into our lives people who speak differently, look differently, and maybe even think differently, we may be able to reverse the sticky downward descent into fear.

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