World's refugee crisis comes to U.S. and Maryland

Humanity faces its biggest refugee crisis since World War II, and Rep. Andy Harris, the Republican congressman from Maryland's 1st District, pledges to do everything in his power to keep a tiny fraction of Central American children out of a shelter in Carroll County.

Harris is a doctor, but apparently not a compassionate one. Maybe he should start his own organization as a conservative counterweight to rampant humanitarianism. He could call it Doctors With Borders, Medecins Avec Frontieres.

An even better nickname for Harris is Dr. Dolittle, because little of what he does is of consequence. He opposes the Affordable Care Act, though an estimated 70,000 people in his district will benefit from it. He even voted against emergency funding for the federal flood insurance program in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy, which caused flood damage to parts of his district on the Eastern Shore.

But give him a chance to grandstand about something — abortion, a mosque in New York City, marijuana in the District of Columbia, unaccompanied children from Central America crossing the U.S. border with Mexico — and Harris is right there. Most recently, he pledged to save Carroll County from an influx of small Guatemalans.

Of course, this idea never got off the ground. Federal officials had briefly considered using an abandoned Army Reserve Center outside Westminster to house some of the thousands of kids who have crossed the border to escape poverty, gang violence and human trafficking or to be reunited with their parents. Had this happened, the kids would have been confined for a time to the military facility, as far as we know, and would not have been playing futbol in the streets of the charming Carroll seat.

Even so, there was Harris, pledging to keep the little people out, even though the Army Reserve Center is not within his district. "These unaccompanied minors who have entered our nation illegally must not be brought to Carroll County," he said.

Dr. Dolittle wasn't alone in his opposition to the use of the Westminster facility. Some local officials joined him, and an unidentified hater spray-painted "NO ILLEAGLES HERE NO UNDOCUMENTED DEMOCRATS" on the wall of the center.

Given this, I suppose it made sense that Gov. Martin O'Malley advised the Obama administration against using the facility. Why introduce the children to another hostile environment?

But at the same time, I have to question the Obama administration's skittishness and its eager deference to disapproving Democrats more concerned about "local reaction" and the next election than about doing the right thing.

The Westminster Army Reserve Center is listed as "available excess property" by the General Services Administration. If this isn't good use of a vacant federal building, what is? And who cares that some local residents don't like it? They didn't pay for these places, we all did.

Other proposed sites for shelters for the border kids have been rejected, too. In Michigan last week, some men carried rifles and handguns during a protest of a proposal to house Central American teenagers through a nonprofit that serves abused or neglected boys.

Too many Americans are myopic and too quick to hate.

The world has its biggest refugee crisis in decades, and the sixth-wealthiest nation in the world can't muster enough political will and popular empathy to shelter even a fraction of them.

The United Nations reported Friday that the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and displaced people worldwide climbed again last year and exceeded 50 million. Such a level has not been seen since World War II.

The crisis is being driven mainly by war — the one in Syria, for example, where three years of civil violence has led to 2.5 million refugees and another 6.5 million people who have been "internally displaced." Major new displacements are happening in Central African Republic, South Sudan and, most recently, in Iraq. As violence escalates in Gaza, Palestinian displacement has soared, and most of the besieged refugees cannot access asylum in another country.

The U.N. report said half of all refugees worldwide came from three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.

Half of all refugees are children under 18 — not surprising, considering what we're seeing at the border of Mexico and the U.S.

Are the children and young adults from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador refugees from dangerous conditions? Do they deserve asylum in the U.S.? One of the reasons for holding them here is to determine, by law, why they came.

Of course, Republicans want quick deportations. And many Americans cry, "Enough!"

But for those who think the United States already bears the great weight of this human crisis, the U.N. report points out that Lebanon, Pakistan and Iran serve as hosts to the greatest number of refugees. Kenya has hundreds of thousands, too. Around the world, we expect poor countries to take in refugees from violence, but when similar refugees show up on our border, way too many Americans want to send them back where they came from.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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