Hurricane Katrina and Refugee Status
By Emma Rosenthal
My grandmother was a refugee. By the time she was six years old, she had lost her entire family to genocide. I don’t know if my great-grandparents and their children were murdered in the brutality of daily pogroms or if they simply died of starvation and poverty imposed by a racist regime on a marginalized population. Either way, my grandmother was part of a wave of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution and genocide in Russia and Poland at the turn of the previous century.
Legally, my grandmother was not a refugee. That is, she was not conferred refugee status. But by all current definitions of a refugee, my grandmother most certainly should have qualified as one. She came on the false passport of her dead cousin, traveling with her only living relative, her mother’s sister. Her Uncle was already living in New York City and through him, the family was able to immigrate to the United States.
When the media referred to the victims of Katrina as refugees, there was great protestation within the African American community at the use of the word, that it was racist, the victims of the hurricane were “Americans”, not foreigners, not refugees, that it implied that the victims of the hurricane and government policy were being dehumanized as less “American.” For some critics, it perhaps triggered memory of wave of immigrant and refugee group that displaced African American populations in jobs and housing, and then moved on, and in some cases, up.
For the most part, the media, to their credit, responded in uncharacteristic haste and stopped using the offending term, replacing it with the term, “evacuees”. Self-definition is a basic aspect of self-determination, so if someone doesn’t want to be called a refugee, then no one should impose the title. But I must raise a concern for the humanity of the huddled masses of the world in the battle for social justice, none can afford to wage a competition between the have nots and the have nots, the divide and conquer that allows the ruling class to use its manufactured divisions and its granting of spoonfuls of privilege to one group at the expense of both, what Audre Lorde refers to as horizontal hostility. Ours must be a battle of universal humanity, the determination that all life is equally of value. Many of the world’s refugees are the victims of the same hubris and greed, the same elite, the same multinationals, the same policies as the evacuees of New Orleans.
In dialogue with friends of mine from many ethnic groups, who have for years referred to themselves or their families as refugees, I heard “What’s wrong with being a refugee?” Some were markedly offended at the rejection of the term. I wasn’t as offended as I was disturbed by the divide birthed in the denunciation of this word. When I first heard “refugee” in reference to the displaced people of New Orleans, while I understand the offense taken, it did not strike me as a disparaging remark, but it did jolt me. Every year there are hurricanes. Every year people are displaced, but this disaster has a political and human magnitude that is unsurpassed in recent U.S. history. It marks, at the very least, the largest migration of U.S. citizens in more than a century. The thought of a refugee problem, as desperate as any calamity world wide, originating in the United States shocked me. I think it was the use of this word that first helped me understand the magnitude of the situation, the displacement of more than half a million people, the racism and classism of government policies and neglect. I can’t speak for the media establishment, or members of the ruling class. I am not part of either estate. But I would imagine that for many Americans, not least of all, those of Jewish, Irish, Armenian, Haitian, Central American, Arab (especially Palestinians) descent, the term may have also been a wake up call, an indication of the severity of the situation. It may very well have heightened our solidarity. I know it had that impact on me.
Perhaps this is a clash of narrative, for while many ethnic groups have been marginalized and massacred by U.S. governmental foreign and domestic policy, having faced injustice here, even while seeking refuge, African Americans, brought by force, are the only group whose human status has been specifically and legally diminished as 3/5 human, written in ink that has stained the fabric of the U.S. Constitution at its inception. The racism against African Americans has a unique grasp on American history, the American Psyche and the American narrative.
To many of us, who either arrived here as refugees or whose families did, the term offers no disparagement. We see refugees when we look in the mirror, when we pray, when we revisit family photo albums, when we tell our children our family narratives. For Jews it is the story of wanderings, expulsions. For the Irish, it is the potato famine, caused, not by natural disaster, but by colonization, poverty, poor land management, lack of indigenous rights, monocultural agricultural methods and greed. For Haitians it is boats unseaworthy, the cover of darkness and, if caught, return to brutality, tourture, death. For Central Americans it is the trauma of secret wars, torture, executions, death squads, the fight for labor and indigenous rights. For Armenians it is the struggle for recognition as the first major genocide of the twentieth century, For Cambodians, the killing fields. For Rwandans it is the million killed in 100 days, slashed to death with machetes, torn apart by the remnants of conflict sewn by retreating colonialism, replaced with neo-liberalism and neo colonialism, while the world turned its back. For Palestinians it is uprooted olive trees, checkpoints, exile, nakba, the key to a door to the house in the village that no longer exists, despair, mixed with the hope, that under international law of the implementation, eventually, of the right of return. And while many Palestinians live in desperate conditions in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, many Palestinians, who also refer to themselves as refugees, and also hope to return to their homes and villages, live and work and were born here in the United States. Many, living in first world comfort, are doctors, lawyers, teachers, businessmen and women, but they are, nonetheless refugees, deprived by both Israeli and U.S. policy of the right of return, of their most basic indigenous rights. For most of these peoples it is the story of genocide, displacement, eviction, policies meted out to rid the land of the people. Refugees are not just the tired poor huddled masses of foreign lands, they are a significant part of the narrative that built this country.
More offensive, in my opinion, was the priority placed on animal rescue, the chartering of private air conditioned busses and airplanes for the airlifting of dogs and cats, some traveling in first class accommodations while people, mostly poor and Black, remained in sub-human, life threatening conditions in the toxic soup that filled the streets of New Orleans.
For many of us, being a refugee doesn’t make you less of us, less “American.” it makes you one of us. It helps us to understand your story, the current situation. It is our language of suffering.
And yet, without a doubt, by international definition, the displaced people from New Orleans are not refugees. Under international and national law, refugees are people displaced by political turmoil due to their political affiliation or group membership that have crossed an international border.
Left to die in the flood waters, deprived of food or water or medicine for days, locked into a flooded region without supplies, then, days later, forced at gun point to leave their homes and their city, shot at for foraging for food and water, divided from family members, the victims of a class and race war that has been waged against the people of the United States, by the government of the United States, and multinational corporations, not having crossed an international border, the People of New Orleans, are not refugees. (Unless they took refuge in Mexico or Canada) they are Displaced Persons. Refugees (when recognized as such) have rights and status under both national and international law. They have the right of safe passage and the right of return. The displaced persons do not. They are at the whim of the government, their only hope, being the will of the people to find justice in a most unjust and deliberate storm.
Not that George Bush and Company caused the hurricane, but they saw it coming, literally, in the days leading up to the storm, and intellectually, in the years preceding it. While corporate spin masters reconstructed the English language to change the more declaratory term, “global warming”, to the more sanitized, “climate change”, scientists had been warning about the impending rise of sea level, the risk of harsher weather conditions. More specifically, it was clear that in the event of a massive hurricane, New Orleans was doomed. While government agencies blocked aid and waited to attend to the sick, stranded and dying, the port and offshore oilrigs were secured and private no bid contracts were awarded to Halliburton. Like the stolen elections of 2000 and 2004, these events don’t happen on their own, they are part of back room policy and planning. That the current administration has little concern for the opinions and lives of common folk is evidenced by the rush to war for oil and empire and the dismantling of the social and industrial infrastructure here at home, without our consent. This brazen grasp for power without even the pretext of popular consent is what is unprecedented, the hubris of a ruling class whose only mistake was not having a hand on the pulse of the nation. The dialogue on race has changed and they didn’t see that coming. While government abandoned the people of New Orleans, the people of the nation and the world set up lemonade stands, car washes, food and clothing drives, concerts, collections for the people of New Orleans. Many opened their homes and took in strangers. We were outraged at the brutality of the government. The overt racism and classism of government policies in the days after the hurricane, brought the issue of race and class to the fore of American dialogue. It is this dialogue that is the only hope, not only of the people of New Orleans, but for the rest of us as well. For while the levees broke in Louisiana, the poverty that locked the residents into the city so they could not evacuate before the storm, the lack of government planning and willingness (contrasted to the efforts when disaster has hit more affluent areas,) to assist and finance that evacuation, the forced evacuation after the storm, the disempowerment that threatens to keep them from returning to their homes is also a yoke around the necks of the rest of us as well. Decades of government policy, of both political parties has resulted in lower paying jobs without health care, the break down of our health care emergency system, our education system, our safety net, the build up of private industry and the sacking of public funds for private use including the newest form of slavery; the prison industry (whereby private businesses run prisons in which prisoners work as slave laborers for the profits of these enterprises.) Every mother who has had to fight for life saving health care, struggled with diminished educational, youth and public health programs, including mental health programs that allow our children to thrive, every family that struggles to put food on the table, to send children to college, to have options beyond prison, the military and Walmart, lives under the wheel of this machine. Both nationally and internationally, the impact of U.S. empire strangles the poor through overt military action or the discretion of neo-liberal policies and neglected infrastructure, where the poor drown and starve behind broken levees while the rich rush in to sweep up the profits and grab up the land.
U.S. immigration law provides right of entry and legal status to those it grants refugee status. Many would be refugees, (for example, Central Americans and Haitians running from death squads, Jews fleeing Nazi Germany,) have died because of a racist unwillingness to confer status on those fleeing persecution. Who receives refugee status also reflects the racist and political priorities of the ruling regime. During the cold war era, the Cuban upper class and Soviet dancers easily received refugee status. Mayan peasants fleeing death squads often did not and were returned, against all international law, to their country of origin to face certain death. Currently, U.S. Immigration prisons are full of men, women and children (yes, children) who cling to the (hated) word, “refugee” for dear life, hoping to be endowed with its status, people, whose only crime is a desire to flee persecution and take refuge in the United States. Refugee status is a lifesaver. It offers membership, privilege and status. Privilege that I fear the people of New Orleans won’t have. Once the water recedes, and the rebuilding begins, will the how and the why and the use of the billions Bush and the Congress promise be determined by the returning multitudes, or will the efforts of the government to refuse aid, so that people would leave, and not return, pay off for big business? Will the poor be gone, and high rise condos and the ports and oil fields be in the hands of the wealthy and powerful? Will the New Orleans French quarter be rebuilt like a Vegas version of Egypt, Paris or New York, or will power be endowed to the people? Seized by the people? Will the market determine the price of housing in the new New Orleans, or will we all insist that affordable, safe housing be built for the poor and working class who resided in the region before the deluge? Can the sons and daughters of former slaves and the sons and daughters of former refugees band together to insist that the rights of return and the right of safe passage, apply to displaced persons regardless of borders crossed or uncrossed? Can we insist that public funds, fund public jobs, build public infrastructure, in New Orleans, in the United States and abroad, that our resources, our labor, not go into the hands of multinational corporations in bids for power, profit, oil and empire, but build bridges and levees here at home and in solidarity around the world?