Laslo Boyd: Martin O'Malley and the Border Crisis

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By: Laslo Boyd 

You’ve probably seen the pictures. Crowds of angry white people with placards screaming at children of color who are trying to improve their lives. If you haven’t seen those photos of demonstrations during the integration of Central High School in Little Rock in 1957, it’s worth finding them on the Internet. They’re the faces of hatred and bigotry.

Or you could just watch the news of protests at the U.S. border today. A group of descendents of immigrants is making it clear that this next group is not welcome. What’s well documented is that most of those young children are fleeing from conditions of unimaginable violence, but it’s equally clear that the protesters couldn’t care less.

As is so often the case in our world of diminishing news quality, Jon Stewart did a great job of putting the issue in perspective.

Politicians and pundits on the right love to describe America as the world’s greatest country and as an inspiration for people everywhere. “Just don’t get that inspired.” And in a poignant twist of logic, the humanitarian crisis has provoked an outpouring of demagoguery by those same individuals. You can easily imagine that the next step will be a bill introduced in the House of Representatives to repeal the language on the Statue of Liberty. “We’ve decided we really don’t want your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.”

Looking at those images you have to wonder exactly what they mean when they contend, as they increasingly have, that the United States is a Christian nation. Are they merely talking about affiliation with a particular religion? Or does the assertion bring with it an obligation to treat others according to those Christian values set forth by Jesus?

If you are of the view that the correct response to a humanitarian crisis is a humane one, there are still many practical issues to deal with. The Obama Administration’s approach seems a mixed one. The number of deportations is up and the president has requested funds to more rapidly process the flow of immigrants crossing the border. But the President has also asked a number of state governors to provide short-term housing for children detained at the border.

There are laws in place, but it’s not clear that they provide an adequate framework for the issues that are being encountered. Moreover, Republicans in Congress want to repeal a law signed by President George W. Bush that guarantees a review process for people crossing the border from Central America.

And to add fuel to the fire, or a distraction from the real issues, the hyper-partisans in Congress are already suggesting that whatever Obama does will provide additional grounds for his impeachment. We are witnessing yet another example of how dysfunctional our national government is.

By contrast, it is worth looking at the response of Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley.  In an email last week, he noted:

“We are not a country that should rush to send children back to unstable places that are ravaged by violence. Through all of our great world religions, we are told that hospitality to strangers is an essential human dignity. Those principles should guide our actions as we consider how to handle the crisis on our border.”

That position has gained him national attention, put some distance between himself and President Obama, and differentiated him from the many public officials who are remaining silent on the problem.

For some critics, O’Malley is just being opportunistic, but that interpretation falls apart upon any serious examination. Opinion is definitely divided in the country on how to handle the influx of refugees and it’s far from clear that O’Malley’s position will improve his political standing.

However, what it does demonstrate is that he willing to take a position on a hard issue rather than either duck it or appeal to people’s baser instincts. 

Moreover, the Governor’s stance is entirely consistent with a long public record. His administration succeeded in passing a Maryland version of the Dream Act. He has been a vocal and strong supporter of comprehensive immigration reform. O’Malley also signed a law in 2013 that allows New Americans to get driver’s licenses.

It is also personal for O’Malley. When he talks about immigrants, he regularly reminds listeners that the grandfather whose name he bears came to this country speaking no English.

In addition to urging the Obama Administration to take a careful and humane approach, the governor has been working with non-profits and other organizations in Maryland to identify locations where children detained at the border could be housed until their cases are reviewed. His reluctance to use a site in Westminster — later defaced by an illiterate opponent of housing refugees there — does not contradict his strong support for responding humanely.

The current border crisis is, at many levels, complicated and without easy solutions. Our legal framework is not adequate and much of the political response has been nothing short of disgraceful. At the end of the day, however, it is really much less complicated than many are making it out to be.

How we as a country respond to the humanitarian crisis on our border — young children fleeing incredible violence — is a test of whether we really believe in the values that we claim America stands for. You don’t have to support Martin O’Malley on everything he has done as governor to recognize that he has stood up for those American values and has demonstrated real leadership in doing so.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.