Over the past few months, the news has been full of stories about the plight of terrified children who are fleeing across the US border to escape violence and poverty in their Central American homelands. I read a wise editorial in the Houston Chronicle on that theme by Oscar Arias, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 and former president of Costa Rica from 1986 to 1990 and from 2006 to 2010. His article reminded me of several Buddhist principles. He points out that many conservative Republicans want to cut off all aid to Central America, claiming that the root cause of the flood of illegal undocumented youngsters is lax immigration law, weak protections, and insufficiently severe punishments. But no punishment, no wall and no army can solve this problem. As the Buddha taught, all life is interconnected, so that we suffer when our neighbors suffer.
According to Arias, poverty needs no passport to travel. He asks, if these children are willing to risk their lives atop the infamous train through Mexico known as La Bestia (“the Beast”), face rape and abuse, sell their possessions and their bodies, and give their life savings to nefarious smugglers, what else could possibly deter them? Arias wonders what the U.S.A. could do to these children that would be worse than what they are already suffering.
Instead of blaming immigration laws or the policies of one U.S. president for this humanitarian crisis, we would be more honest to admit that the root cause is violence and poverty that makes these children’s lives at home unbearable. The root cause dates back to the 1980s, when the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union used Central America to work out their own power struggles. These superpower nations sent money to transform students into soldiers, and they provided plentiful weapons. Meanwhile, Arias reminds us, “We provided the dead.”
After leaders in Central America ended their conflicts in the late 1980s, the U.S.A. and Russia lost interest in that region of the world, contributing very little aid and support to help those countries rebuild after decades of war. The superpowers missed an opportunity to act compassionately, in a way that would have benefited all concerned. Arias warns that the U.S. policy is still tragically flawed: “If the USA continues to offer minimal aid to Central America with the goal of putting out wildfires that spill into its own territory, poverty and illiteracy will continue to grow.” The cycle of violence will not end until those who are responsible make a commitment to address the immigration crisis. As Arias, says, “It is unforgivable that countries so poor, with income inequality so drastic, have some of the lowest tax burdens in the world.” Wealthy residents in both Central America and in the U.S.A. must practice the Buddha’s remedy for the impediments of greed and avarice: generosity. The only real way to avoid losing another generation is to stop treating Central America as a pawn in the war on drugs and to start taking concrete steps to reduce poverty and to improve education in the region.
How can all U.S. citizens wake up and become mindful of the suffering on our borders? Arias asks us not to fail these frightened children the way we failed their parents and grandparents. His editorial ends with the grim words, “If we do, their hell will increasingly become our own.”