Many are poor, most are tired, and all of them are yearning to breathe free as they disembark from buses at Montreal's old colossus, the faded Olympic Stadium. The vast concrete sanctuary is another rock-hard way station on a journey that started thousands of miles away, in Haiti or Nigeria or Mexico, and that in recent weeks has forced them to wander with their kids and their battered belongings across a vast and unmarked borderland, pleading their case for refuge to the border officers that took them into custody.
The refugees said they were deathly afraid for their safety if they stayed in the United States of America.
"It's a dream," Haitian native Inancieau Millien told the Toronto Star this week, describing his new life of sleeping on a cot inside the former home of the Montreal Expos while he meets with lawyers working to grant him asylum in Canada. "This is what we are looking for" — an escape from the terror of newfound anxiety after 17 years of living peacefully inside the United States.
It's a dream. The Canadian dream.
Some 41 summers ago, I spent an afternoon I will never forget in the upper deck of that stadium, watching shot-putters and sprinters from all over the globe compete, the name of harmony, in the 1976 Olympics. The idea that, in my lifetime, Olympic Stadium would become a refugee camp for people fleeing a backwards and repressive government in what for so many years was the New Colossus of international hope, celebrated in Emma Lazarus' beautiful poetry, is beyond mind-boggling.
But that's where we are in August 2017. Last month alone, some 1,674 people wandered across America's northern border, mainly in Quebec, and into the arms of Canadian immigration officers, where they pleaded their case that the threat of deportation by Donald Trump's U.S. government would risk them or their family to the political turmoil and violence of their native lands. And the pace of the exodus is accelerating dramatically. Many are from Haiti, the fraught Caribbean island nation where a recent policy reversal by the Department of Homeland Security has sharply elevated the likelihood of forced departure.
But that is just one twist in an immigration policy under Homeland Security since January 20, 2017, that has been nothing less a human-rights catastrophe, an American nightmare. Other twists include the nonsensical travel ban that targets nations for their Muslim religion and has ripped families apart for no other reason than keeping a campaign promise to Trump's most xenophobic supporters. And deportation policies by Homeland Security's Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) that claim to only target criminals but instead sweep up promising soccer stars and popular small town restaurateurs. And raids inside or near churches, schools, or courtrooms where immigrants are seeking justice — the latter situation leading New York State to look at banning ICE from its courthouses. This, as a high-ranking White House aide tries to argue that the America celebrated by Lazarus' poem never existed — just words that were "added later."
This didn't happen in a vacuum. The rapid moral deterioration of Homeland Security took place during the six months that John Kelly, the retired Marine general that Trump appointed to run the vast department, was at the helm. He was not a passive conduit just following orders from the White House. He'd teamed up with Attorney General Jeff Sessions in recasting immigrants as criminals — the journey that began with Trump's famous "Mexican rapists" comment — and joked with the president about using "a saber" on the media, hardly a laughing matter as the administration steps up its war against press freedom. Some Democratic senators quickly came to regret their vote to confirm Kelly at Homeland Security; Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey told the Huffington Post that his "hope that Secretary Kelly would be more evenhanded on enforcement … hasn't been borne out."
All of this makes it beyond laughable that some in the media are now casting Kelly — brought in late last month as Trump's chief of staff after a shake-up intended to jump-start a deeply troubled presidency — as the man who can save the White House. Newspapers such as the New York Times have already fawned over the military man's efforts to restore order to the dysfunctional West Wing — his missions to baby-sit who gets Oval Office access to Trump and to control the president's itchy Twitter fingers. These puff pieces ignore Kelly's track record as an enabler for the worst that the 45th presidency has to offer. The reality of change under the ex-Marine as chief of staff is that the push to destroy democratic norms — witness Friday's threat by Sessions to jail journalists — is simply getting more efficient.
The unsupported Kelly hagiography ignores the testimony of those such as the ICE agent who last month bared his soul to the New Yorker magazine. The agent told the magazine that he wasn't a fan of micromanagement and some policies during the Obama years, but now he was appalled at what was happening at the agency under Kelly and Trump. Things such as basic humane discretion, or simply calling an interpreter to resolve a problem, he says, have been tossed out the window because "[t]he problem is that now there are lots of people who feel free to feel contempt." The agent said he struggled to understand a policy change to deport children who had been placed in U.S. homes and given an education, only because they had turned 18 and were now legally adults. "We're doing it because we can," the unnamed agent told the magazine, "and it bothers the hell out of me."
One of those youths is 19-year-old Lizandro Claros Saravia, who fled murder and violence in El Salvador to reunite — undocumented — with family members in the United States when he was 11. A popular soccer star in Bethesda, Md., Claros Saravia checked in with an ICE officer to report that he had won a partial scholarship to attend college in North Carolina, only to be detained and deported along with his 22-year-old brother.
Like that whistle-blower ICE agent, these stories bother the hell out of me, just as it bothers the hell out of me that Kelly's abominable record at Homeland Security has been tossed down the memory hole to fit some story line that he is the potential savior of Trump. And it's more than a little disappointing that the media is playing up this bogus angle while — with one or two exceptions — ignoring the flight to freedom in Canada and the other awful impacts of the Trump-Kelly regime. The new chief of staff isn't altering the disastrous course of the Trump presidency. All he's doing is making sure that this political Hindenburg reaches its destination on time.