The night of the November 2015 ISIS attacks in Paris, I was suddenly grateful for the miracles of Facebook as my friends all checked in safely. The few days earlier ISIS attacks in Lebanon had me worrying about an aid-worker friend who I last knew to be living there; luckily, I found a few days later that she’s now living “safely” in Libya. Here in America, the overwhelming reaction? Just say no to Syrian refugees. This, after months of tittering at how quickly European nations went from “welcome all” to “uh oh.” This, given that most Americans were ignorant that we, via the Department of State, have a Refugee Admissions Program that works in concert with the United Nations to resettle refugees here. Which is how we wound up with the latest election-year political football narrative of states refusing to take Syrian refugees.
That violent extremists seek to enter the United States and harm us is a credible fear. That there might be violent extremists amongst a pool of vetted refugees just waiting for their chance (like the Russia-loyal Communist sleeper cells of the Cold War era) is a credible fear. That young men, whose desire to belong make them susceptible to messages of righteousness, salvation, violence and hatred by groups like ISIS, want to harm us is – given how we symbolizes all that they hate – a credible fear. If you think that U.S. state governors who’ve made no-Syrian-refugees-welcome-here statements are hard-hearted or misguided, that’s certainly a viewpoint to take. Accepting refugees is a benevolent thing to do, and that compassion for suffering is an American value we should cherish. But at least take a moment to recognize that your elected officials represent everyone in your state, and many people are afraid and do look to those whose job it is to protect them to do so. Political football or not.
And now yet another reminder that we have own homegrown actors. For me, the most frustrating thing about a Facebook feed of dueling liberal- and conservative-bashing memes, is that while concern over how our country conducts itself in the world, or passionately promoting one candidate over another for no good reason whatsoever is the flavor of the day (although c’mon, I’m a political scientist, so yes, in reality I’m secretly enthralled by any display of political passion), what about here? New Mexico. Where you actually live.
French economist Thomas Piketty believes that economic inequality caused by the West drives these “radical losers,” while American scholars point instead to a host of social factors. U.S. scholars rarely like to confront their “orientalist” tendencies when talking about the Middle East. God help me, but Piketty has a point (see here or here). When you can’t join in. If one missteps results in a detour or setback so severe that you can’t recoup your losses. If you are raised amidst disaster and mayhem. Then you will find yourself making some very interesting life choices that while perfectly rational given your milieu, others will judge you harshly for.
New Mexico’s own statistics tell a tale that should make us realize that we run the risk of failing ourselves long before ISIS gets to us. The NM 2015 State of the Workforce Report shows incomes lower than U.S. average and high poverty levels; one out of every five N.M. residents lives below the poverty level; almost two-thirds of those below the poverty level have a high school education or less; our labor force participation rate is declining more than neighboring states. And over one-third are saddled with unskilled jobs – those jobs with no career development or advancement.
Why does this bother me and why does arguing about Syrian refugees make me think about it? Just over 50 miles away, my prior home Ciudad Juarez has a booming local market for cheap heroin. Like the United States and unlike the rest of Mexico, heroin is becoming the thing. And it’s that way in part because of the “lost boys,” the large underclass of users and addicts who were raised by and within the violence of the city over the last decade. You may have heard them called “ni-ni’s” (for no education, no job), but it’s worse than that. It’s no education, no job, and they see violence as the norm. So when the cartels come a callin’, they are the warm bodies that fill the low-level slots because, for the short time they have the job, selling drugs is quite lucrative. Rehab won’t necessarily offer an escape given cartels often use those facilities as both places of recruitment and places of retribution. There’s even drug tourism in Juarez; hotels set up so visiting users from El Paso can walk across the bridge, buy a hit for about the same cost as a cup or two of Starbuck’s coffee, and then hang out at the hotel until the high wears off enough so that they can return home.
We’ve got the recipe for a perfect storm here. Poverty. Unskilled labor. Per a recent DEA report, we’ve got the Sinaloa Cartel and the Juarez Cartel right here, plying their trade. Heroin is popular here too. Our New Mexico Department of Health tells us that between 2010 and 2014, 36% of drug overdoses in New Mexico were due to heroin. And our perfect storm gets worse when you include what happens when those that did start out advantaged find themselves behind the eight ball. Two young men, with college degrees, both of whom were injured serving in the military. They had every advantage, but became disillusioned when their passion betrayed them. And now? They are under indictment for drug trafficking in Miami, the ringleaders of one of the largest synthetic drug rings in Miami history. Crockett and Tubbs would be amazed at how things have changed.
I won’t chastise you for not wanting refugees because you think there is a risk. Nor will I chastise you for snap judgments made in the wake of the horrific attack in San Bernardino, CA. Human evolution spent hundreds and thousands of years teaching us all to in-group and out-group our way to safety. And being aware of world events is a good thing. But there are things right here that need your attention too. Because if crime were to target you, the probability that it’s someone from far away is unlikely. As to the how? Robert Putnam is right, we cannot bowl alone. One of the very best things about living in an open society under the rule of law with a tradition of individual civic involvement is that we have a veritable smorgasbord of choices to suit every budget, every willingness to act, every political persuasion. But of course, I still must say: why not try donating your own money or even better volunteering your time before just saying “we need more laws to solve this.” For ideas, page A24 of the latest Las Cruces Bulletin or its November 2014 & 2015 Community Wish List are great places to start – it’s what I did.