OPINION: The wall is American

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Sony Ton-Aime

The United States government has been locked in its longest government shutdown in history over dispute to build a wall at the southern border. The president and his supporters believe it is necessary for the security of the nation. The democrats believe it is a waste of money to begin with, but mostly, it is immoral and un-American. As a Haitian, it is hard for me to accept the idea of a wall as un-American. A wall has always existed between me and the U.S. Growing up, I used to call the U.S. the eye of the needle, and the rich man rides on the camel’s back to go through it.

To say that building a wall to keep immigrants away is un-American is both misleading and harmful. It is misleading in that it ignores the real history and the mechanism of the United States’ immigration system. It is also harmful to the immigrants as it ignores the system that makes it impossible to come here legally, a system that offers no alternatives for the poor other than illegal immigration. It disregards the lives of the millions of people who have hit this invisible wall that has been building around this country since the mid nineteenth century. It asks us to forget the HIV prison camps in the early 1990s, and it allows people like William Barr to thrive with impunity in the harms they have caused through the immigration system.

The American immigration system has always been mired in racism and bigotry: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, the HIV Travel Ban of 1987 and  the Muslim travel Ban of 2017 are just some examples. There has always been a wall for the less fortunate or for the people with the colors and cultures that the American people have deemed unworthy. For the Haitians, the wall was built starting in the mid-1980’s when they were fleeing death from the tyrannical dictatorship of the Duvaliers backed by the U.S. (because of the Red Scare).  

That wall was cloaked under what Americans so casually call the American Foreign Policies and that we – on the other side – know too well as the plague that has caused the death of our friends, our cousins, or our siblings. When it is not outright war or occupation, it is through discrimination and imprisonment that it manifests itself. For example, the price to apply for a visa interview in the U.S. embassy in Haiti is almost equal to the annual average income of a Haitian. While the French can afford an application for a U.S. visa on his daily average income, the Haitian should spend almost his annual income. So, when the Trump administration barred low-skilled work visa applicants from Haiti, it was not targeting the poor Haitians, they could not afford a visa anyway.

In 1991, late president Georges H. W. Bush decided to send Haitians who were fleeing the country after the military coup against the first democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to prison in Guantanamo Bay. In 1994, president Bill Clinton continued the same policy when he decided to bring back to Haiti Aristide and the military and their families were fleeing for their lives. At one time, there were more than 12,000 Haitian and Cuban refugees in prison in Guantanamo Bay without due process. The government justified their action with the congress’ HIV Ban of 1987 by saying that the prisoners were HIV infected. That was a lie. Only 270 of them either had HIV or were related to someone who did. Just like the belief that a wall is un-American is a lie which only purpose is to make one forget the ugly past.

This ugly past has planted a discriminatory wall afar from the everyday American’s sight and now president Donald Trump is bringing it home in its physical form. If we continue to ignore that wall or pretend that it is un-American, the potential for a physical one will be there through people like Donald Trump, William Barr, Steve King, etc.   

Sony Ton-Aime is a columnist. Contact him at [email protected]