Winter had already settled when my team and I began distributing aid kits in Porte de la Chapelle.
The refugees that make it to Paris squat in this neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, their tents a paper-thin mask against the bitter cold. On a Friday night in December, my team came with bags filled with material needs — gloves, hats, socks and toiletries that we had collected over the past weeks. The refugees lined up and began to wait. The police flanked all of us, pacing with a heavy gait, the gravel audible under their feet. The line rounded the corner today.
A fight broke out as soon as the pushing began. The yelling prompted the guards to begin spraying tear gas. The line dissolved as everyone ran. The wheezing becoming a cacophony. Our materials were wasted, scattered where people dropped them.
On our way out of Porte de la Chapelle, my team waded through trash and broken furniture left out on the street. “Where is my dignity?” was spray-painted in English onto a couch that had been torn apart.
In the ensuing weeks, the process repeated itself. By the end of the month, the temperature dropped and the death count rose.
That is a humanitarian crisis.
In his recent speech on immigration, President Donald Trump used the same language to describe the United States' border.
“This is a humanitarian crisis," he said. "A crisis of the heart, and a crisis of the soul.” Preceding this statement, however, he condemned not what I had hoped, what I knew a crisis to be, but the violent crimes immigrants from Mexico supposedly commit.
The purpose of this tired refrain is to suggest the inborn criminality of the outsider, as the root of our nation’s wavering greatness. This renders immigrants our right-wing populist regime’s convenient scapegoat. Yet, statistical fact in context suggests a different conclusion than what President Trump misleadingly purports about our nation’s immigrant population.
A study in Texas published by a libertarian think tank in early 2018 concluded that native-born residents were “most likely to commit and be convicted of crimes,” whereas the conviction rate for immigrants was 50 percent lower.
The President’s sweeping generalizations about immigrants raise the question of whether the distinction of innate criminality oft lobbed at the latter group is a valid point. At least in Texas, immigrants “appeared to be the most law-abiding,” with 86 percent fewer convictions than their native-born counterparts.
But my goal isn’t to throw fact at the president, who is prone to manipulating it. My purpose is to bring attention to the power President Trump wields by misidentifying a humanitarian crisis.
A humanitarian crisis is defined by its urgency and its severity. It is also most importantly defined by power — who has it and how it is used.
What is urgent is that immigrants at and beyond the southern U.S. border are being detained at unsustainable rates. What is severe is that many of those detained children are suffering molestation by federal officers, psychological stress or death. And the power to address what is urgent and severe rests with President Trump, who believes that the nation’s problem is not people suffering at the hands of his own petulance but the fact that those people exist at all.
This narrative in which immigrants are the nation’s "antagonist," their suffering has not been accorded its proper consideration as a humanitarian crisis. Even when the crisis foments at the hands of the "protagonist's" broken system, the protagonist-antagonist narrative that President Trump has touted reframes the humanitarian crisis within the motivation of a highly problematic administration.
So, in order to protect the protagonist’s apparent suffering, our commander-in-chief furloughed 800,000 federal employees over a rather symbolic, though useless, $6 billion wall.
It is not beyond reason to consider the various domestic issues associated with immigration. But to recast and appropriate someone else’s story of survival into one’s own does not make it a humanitarian crisis.
As I watch the expansion of ICE forces and the use of tear gas near my home in San Diego, I am reminded of dark memories in Porte de la Chapelle. Just as I witnessed in France, the in-group and out-group mentality the Trump administration is propagating will continue. If left unchecked, it will dictate who is deserving of care, humanitarian assistance and most importantly, dignity.
Contact opinions writer Jessica Winkler at firstname.lastname@example.org.