We often wonder what it might be like to be a parent in different locations or points in time. Take Gaza for example. Set aside any political or religious differences as best you can. Imagine for a moment being a mother or father (or other caregiver) trying to raise a family in Gaza City, striving to be thoughtful, dutiful, and loving. Imagine trying to get access to a home in a safe neighborhood. Imagine trying to secure a job where you can do something meaningful that enables you to support your family. Imagine your daughter heading out in the evening in search of clean water. Imagine your son negotiating the life or death choices between Fatah and Hamas.
Now step away from Gaza. Imagine being a parent in Darfur or Congo where roving gangs can destroy everything precious in a few random moments. How about raising a family in the slums of Mumbai or Nairobi, where a type of poverty thrives of which it is difficult for modern Americans to even conceive? What steps would you take if you lived in Iran or North Korea and wanted to create a better future for your friends, neighbors and descendants? Would you protest and thus risk a grisly prison term or midnight execution? Would you keep your head down and stay out of trouble? Picture yourself in Guatemala or Oaxaca, knowing that there is no way you can feed your family through subsistence farming and no way to change that except by leaving.
As American children begin to learn of abject poverty and injustice around the world, they reasonably ask, “Why don’t they just move?” as if that response was so obvious. When an adult American steps into the shoes of a person struggling against deeply engrained economic despair, political abuse, or cultural and religious intolerance, it is natural in many cases to think of how we might fight back; yet, in so many situations the best response for a reasonable person would be to leave and seek a better life elsewhere.
Those whose ancestors came to America by choice came here in search of better conditions, whether they came from the potato farms of Ireland, the shtetls of the Ukraine, or the rice paddies of Cambodia. Political, economic, and religious freedom have driven people to our shores since long before we crafted a Constitution or used it to justify the creation of the US Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration.
That sense of mobility also has driven Americans internally ever since Roger Williams left Massachusetts Colony for the relative religious freedom of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Gold-seekers and fur trappers pressed the boundaries of America westward. Okies streamed west in droves from their repossessed and soil-depleted Dust Bowl farms, fleeing one way of life and creating another. Black Americans who were free but disenfranchised streamed north to Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia; more recently, many have moved back south to Charlotte, Atlanta, Houston and points in between.
While the pressures on families in America and around the world remain intense, human mobility is complicated by two trends that often arise in times dominated by fear and uncertainty.
The developed world—which on a relative basis remains far wealthier and healthier per capita than developing or undeveloped societies—has increased its aversion to those seeking opportunity in their countries. Sure, some desired changes in immigration policy and its enforcement are based on a firm belief in law enforcement for its own sake, but one has to wonder if that is truly the motive across the board. Roma being kicked out of France, North Africans refused entry into Italy, Zimbabweans rounded up in South Africa, and potential immigrants from Mexico and places south being told that they are no longer welcome here because their immigrant culture undermines what makes America America, a common refrain used in other times of economic crisis to keep out the Scots, Irish, French, Italians, Poles, Jews, Cubans, Haitians, Russians, Iraqis and Afghanis, as well as many other families from around the globe.
It has become much harder for Americans to move internally to seek a better life. With 25% of Americans in homes that carry loans greater than the home’s current market value, the math of moving is not compelling or even possible for many. With suddenly risk-averse banks curtailing their lending activity, who is there to financially support the risk inherent in leaving one place and going to another even when a new job is in the offing? If Americans cannot create sufficient opportunity where they are because of oppressive social conditions and they can no longer move in search of opportunity, then what have we become? It’s not just about housing.
Political debate around the immigration and housing crises would be better informed if more of the actors in those discussions possessed empathy for those impacted most personally by these situations, if they had developed a better sense of the true personal and social ramifications of the ideas that they espouse. For us to remain human in the true sense of the word, we must possess the ability to stand in another person’s shoes—whether a refugee mother in Darfur or an unemployed dad in Detroit.
Imagining life as a parent from somewhere else will not make solving humanity’s problems any easier (indeed, it may make them more difficult because we will know more), but it will help us keep those problems human-scale. It is hard to get people inspired about raising GDP; it is easier to motivate them to seek to provide a better life for the people they care about most.
Somewhere in the world right now, there is an adult in a small village without clean water, without a school, without police who serve and protect, and that adult is wondering, perhaps wistfully, “What would it be like to be a parent in America, that land of wealth and promise and opportunity?”
Let’s hope that America long remains the type of place that people dream about, and let’s make the hard decisions necessary to keep America worthy of their dreams.