Viewpoint: Plight, rights of indigenous peoples, refugees a global responsibility

Karen Rubin

On the same day as he issued a proclamation for Columbus Day, Trump’s White House issued a “fact sheet” blasting “Activist Judicial Rulings Block the Administration From Enforcing Our Nation’s Immigration Laws.”

Except that the Trump Administration is not “enforcing” existing laws, it is defying them – separating children from families and incarcerating people who are trying to make a legal claim for asylum.

Columbus Day is now being celebrated as Indigenous Peoples Day in many places.

At the time of Columbus, there were an estimated 7 million and 18 million indigenous people in North America, a number that was decimated to near extinction; today, there are an estimated 5 million. It is important to be reminded that unless you are descended from the indigenous people, you are or are descended from an immigrant.

I was reminded of this after a biking trip in Black Hills of South Dakota where I visited the Crazy Horse Memorial. Crazy Horse, a Lakota Sioux warrior, serves as a symbol of the resilience of the indigenous people of the Americas.

A patch of quartz glints in the light like a tear on his cheek. He stretches out his arm pointing to the Pine Ridge Reservation, where his people in an act of ethnic cleansing, were forced to live after gold was discovered in the Black Hills, breaking treaties the US government signed.

Not only did the American government stiff the native peoples from the stipends, supplies, and royalties they were promised, the atrocities included massacring villages on an invented pretext and intentionally infecting villages with smallpox.

And now we have the latest example of the United States breaking its bond, abandoning people to genocide and ethnic cleansing. Well over 100,000 Kurds in northern Syria, under the assault of Turkish bombs (how is this not a war crime?), are fleeing, some to be massacred on the road.

The Kurds are responsible for whatever success the United States had in beating back ISIS, and now hundreds of ISIS terrorists are unleashed to attack again.

In 1492, Columbus bumped into the New World expecting to sail to India on a shorter route to India’s spices. That year was the Inquisition when Jews were forced out of Spain (Portugal went along in 1497).

Marranos (secret Jews) are believed to have been aboard Columbus’ ship and actually were among the first permanent European settlements in the New World. On my Global Scavenger Hunt around-the-world last spring, I find myself basically tracing the route of Jewish merchants and refugees of the Inquisition – Vietnam, Myanmar, Greece, Morocco, Gibraltar, Spain, Portugal, New York. And who can forget or forgive Franklin Roosevelt for turning back the St. Louis, crammed with Jews fleeing Hitler’s Holocaust.

Columbus Day, in addition to showing penance to indigenous peoples, should also be Worldwide Refugee Day, paying tribute to the courage and sacrifice of all people forced from their homelands.

And now, Trump has cut the number of refugees the United States will accept from 110,000 (in Obama’s last year) to 15,000.

Trump has not only prosecuted “illegal” immigration (it is “illegal” because there is almost no mechanism for “legal” immigration; moreover it is not “illegal” to seek refuge), but gone after legal immigration – declaring virtually overnight that people who have deferments for life-saving medical treatment must leave (that one was temporarily put on hold), throwing out thousands of people who have been here decades after natural disasters, and setting new requirements that would bar anyone who has or might seek any form of government assistance as ineligible for a green card under the Public Charge law.

There was a time when the U.S. eagerly welcomed immigrants – and then didn’t. The European colonists were so desperate for labor, they brought over scores of indentured servants, but out of that practice of indentured servitude came slavery.

Barack Obama’s ancestor, John Punch, was an indentured servant in Colonial Virginia who fled his servitude in 1640; after he was caught, he was punished with enslavement for life, the first documented case of slavery for life in the colonies. (

After slavery was abolished, the U.S. was desperate for labor again, as the Industrial Revolution and western expansion were taking hold – needing manpower to build railroads, mine and process coal, work in the factories and mills – and eagerly recruited immigrants from Europe and China. Until immigrants became the scapegoats for social and economic ills. Like now.

The number of international migrants globally reached an estimated 272 million in 2019, an increase of 51 million since 2010 and comprise 3.5 percent of the global population, up from 2.8 percent in 2000, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). Of these, the number of refugees and asylum seekers in 2019 hit 29 million, 11 percent of the total, the greatest number since World War II.

A good share of these migrants are being recruited for jobs – such as in Abu Dhabi where most of the workforce consists of migrants – and in general, the report finds, immigration bolsters economic development, both in the adopted country and in the home country because of remittances.

But, “Forced displacements across international borders continue to rise. Between 2010 and 2017, the global number of refugees and asylum seekers increased by about 13 million, accounting for close to a quarter of the increase in the number of all international migrants.”

There are over 272 million migrants around the world living outside their country of birth today, a figure that is expected to grow, the UN states, due to “population growth, increasing connectivity, trade, rising inequality, demographic imbalances and climate change. Migration provides immense opportunity and benefits – for the migrants, host communities and communities of origin.

However, when poorly regulated it can create significant challenges. These challenges include overwhelming social infrastructures with the unexpected arrival of large numbers of people and the deaths of migrants undertaking dangerous journeys” as well as their exploitation. (

The UN, as a result, undertook its first-ever Global Compact for Migration, which establishes a kind of Bill of Rights for migrants, comprising 23 objectives for better managing migration at local, national, regional and global levels.

The United States, under Trump, refused to participate.


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