On Thursday something magical happened: the sun came out. Instead of drudgery, my early-morning trip to the Russian Peoples Friendship University was a delightful morning walk. I even managed not to slip on any ice.
The Peoples Friendship University is, in some ways, a relic of the Cold War. Established in 1960, its purpose was to educate students from the “Third World,” providing them access to high-quality teachers and facilities that were not available in their home countries. During Soviet times, the University carried the name of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically-elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sadly, the United States was convinced that Lumumba was a communist, so President Eisenhower ordered the CIA to kill him. In the end, he was murdered by Congolese militants with the help of the Belgian military. About a month later the Soviet Union memorialized him by adding his name to this idealistic university.
Today the University still serves students from Asia, Africa, and Latin America alongside students from across the Russian Federation. Plus, it seems like the University’s mission is now growing to unite students from the BRICS countries. (BRICS stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa– it is an association of “emerging” economies). There is an idea being floated around of starting special BRICS programs of study where students from the B and ICS countries spend an undergraduate year in R.
This was my second time giving a lecture at the University and, I have to say, each time the students have challenged me to think more deeply about what it means to be an American.
In September I spoke in English to a cosy class of four people, all Masters students studying international labor markets and migration. They were from Germany, Ukraine, South Africa, and Mexico. I explained how the 1996 North American Free Trade Agreement had fundamentally affected migration in the Americas and how U.S. immigration laws had reacted to the resulting influx of migrants. This is a topic I’d spoken about many, many times before and it’s not a pretty one. U.S. laws have contributed to the deaths of thousands of people who make the trek on foot to reach the United States and those deaths happen every year in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, i.e., my backyard. I’ve given this talk so many times I never imagined that I’d hear a new question, but I did. The student from Mexico asked me, “Why do Border Patrol agents kill immigrants?”
Whoa. I had to take a deep breath on that one. At first I wanted to say, no, border patrol agents don’t kill immigrants, they just imprison them, but that’s not true. In fact, Border Patrol agents do kill immigrants. Over the past ten years, the Border Patrol has killed at least fifty people, most of them unarmed. Seven of them were under age eighteen. One of the most infamous cases is that of José Antonio Elena Rodriguez, a 16-year old who was shot by the Border Patrol, through the border fence, in Mexico.
I didn’t have a good answer for this student and I still don’t. Legally, the Border Patrol is only supposed to shoot people that threaten the lives of Border Patrol agents. But we, the public, are rarely given information about these killings and, as this report notes, not one officer has ever been disciplined for any of the killings. So why does the Border Patrol kill immigrants? I guess because we let them.
This time my lecture focused on the history of U.S. immigration laws. But it didn’t take long before my talk veered off into ugly territory again. After all, the first U.S. law on citizenship only allowed “free white persons” to apply to become citizens, thus ignoring the forced migration of thousands of African slaves. I then had to detail how immigration laws have always consciously sought to sustain a certain mix of races and cultures. For a time, we excluded all Chinese people; later we set up a national quota system to make sure that not too many people of one kind or another were admitted to the U.S. Only in the 1950s did we eventually get an immigration law that did not refer to race.
So when we got to the question-and-answer period it was not unexpected that there would be some other uncomfortable moments. For example, “What do Americans think of Syrian refugees?” Well, the majority of Americans don’t want any Syrian refugees coming to the United States because they think that there will be terrorists hiding among the refugees. But this belief comes from a misunderstanding of the process by which refugees are admitted. Still, it’s how most Americans feel and that means that there is little motivation to improve the situation of Syrians.
In speaking openly and honestly about the history of my country, I’ve got to confront some ugly truths. The People’s Friendship University, as an incubator of future leaders from across the developing world, reminds me that the United States is not universally heralded as a beacon of truth, light, and justice. I wonder if our leaders would act differently if they were similarly confronted with uncomfortable truths in American history?