America’s Aylan Moment: The Moral Challenge of Fighting Immigration on Border

When a father and his toddler’s dead body captured in Rio Grande, the American political elite came to face the grim reality of unintended consequences created by the rejection of immigrants on the southern border.

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Photo Credit: Associated Press

The wrenching image of dead bodies of a father and his daughter found in Rio Grande sparked a bitter controversy over shortcomings of the U.S. strategy to curb the illegal border crossings and how to deal with its moral implications in the face of fatal tragedies.

As the U.S. House of Representatives finally overcame its partisan bickering and divide to assemble a new $4.5 billion humanitarian aid to shore up the depleting resources of immigration shelters and facilities, the photo captured the essence of the drama obscurely playing out in certain parts of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The image unmistakably evoked the photo of a Syrian toddler washed ashore in Turkey’s Aegean coast in 2015, something that created a collective response in Europe to help migrants fleeing the protracted fight in Syria. It was in that year when Europe (and the world) came to appreciate the far-reaching consequences of Syria’s unresolved war when migrants swept through Greece and Balkans in their bid to reach Germany and other prosperous E.U. countries.

The unceasing waves of immigrants spurred an international action and, after months of painful diplomatic wrangling, resulted in a mutual agreement between Turkey and the E.U. (in 2016) to stem the tide of this massive movement of people cutting across a dozen countries. Four years later, the U.S. experiences its own European moment as the entire immigration system shows signs of fraying in the face of a surge in legal and illegal crossings across the U.S.-Mexico border.

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The photo of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi sparked a worldwide reaction. (Photo Credit: Reuters)

Representative Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas and the chairman of Hispanic Caucus, was quick in pointing to a resemblance between Aylan’s heart-rending photo with the latest one in Rio Grande. In remarks to the New York Times, he conveyed his emotional reaction in clear terms:

“It’s very hard to see that photograph,” Mr. Castro said. “It’s our version of the Syrian photograph — of the 3-year-old boy on the beach, dead. That’s what it is.”

During the first round of Democratic debate of presidential hopefuls in Miami on Wednesday night, Democratic National Committee’s Chairman Tom Perez invoked the image, tossing other issues into the sideline while, unwittingly or not, elevating the dreadful and polarizing theme of immigration above other topics. No matter how Democrats try to avoid being drowned in the immigration issue, something that arguably bolstered presidential prospects of Donald J. Trump in 2016, the matter never leaves them.

Many candidates, as Benjamin Wallace-Wells from New Yorker noted, would return to the image and the politically-charged issue of immigration many times than it was normally thought. The unavoidable evocation and powerful symbolism of the image appeared to haunt the candidates, however different their original thoughts about the setting and form of the debate might be.

The New York Times, before finally acceding to publish the image, went through an excruciating internal deliberation session among editors about the ethical dimensions of publishing such a disturbing picture. But it finally did, producing a snowball effect across the political spectrum and social landscape, sparking a mushroom of reaction and emails from emotionally-charged readers.

It might have contributed to the bipartisan effort to push through the latest aid package after credible reports of shortages and mistreatment of unaided children fueled a growing public resentment. But whether it would play the same role in the U.S. the Aylan picture had played for spurring the bold E.U. action remains to be seen.

As the U.S. is entering a new election wilderness, any wide-ranging and comprehensive overhaul of the entire immigration system is bound and tangled by the demands of electoral politics. However powerful that image may be, politics still has the final say over immigration.

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