Health: February 2010 Archives

Haiti quake line.jpgOn one level, I appreciate the decision of Paul Mayer, a U.S. Department of State (DOS) employee stationed in Canada, to travel to Haiti to assist in the evacuation of U.S. citizens stuck in Haiti after the earthquake.  For one thing, it's certainly more than I've done to date in response to the quake.  For another, I'm a U.S. citizen, and if I were stuck in Haiti after the earthquake, I would want to be helicoptered out of there asap. 

I know from my interactions over the years with DOS that many foreign service officers join DOS because they want to improve U.S. relations with other countries or show non-Americans that we're not all in thrall to Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin.  In fact, I completed an internship at the Rome Embassy in college and once dreamed of becoming a foreign service officer, or "FSO" for those in the know.

But Mayer experienced some inner conflict in Haiti that he didn't quite know how to deal with:

To say that it was heart-wrenching to do this work doesn't fully capture the feeling. Many tears were shed and many voices were raised. Time and time again, we would hear people begging us, "Please, what are we supposed to do?" It was so, so hot, and we all perspired copiously, but we knew that the people waiting in the queue were hotter and thirstier than we were. As much as it hurt, we had to say no to the unqualified cases; not doing so would be against the law and would also disadvantage those American citizens whose safety and well-being was our first priority. Under U.S. law, the State Department has very clear guidelines for the aid and assistance we provide American citizens in times of crisis, and our office of Overseas Citizen Services in Washington is there to support and guide us every step of the way. The Foreign Affairs Manual (we call it "the FAM") explains things in precise detail.

The FAM, however, doesn't prepare you for the feeling you get from saying, "No" and "I'm sorry" over and over. The FAM doesn't tell you how many bottles of water you will need to give people who've been standing in line for six hours. The FAM doesn't tell you how quickly you need to take the Power Bars you'd bought at Wal-Mart out of your backpack, just so you can give them to the people who are saying, "Please, j'ai faim." The FAM does not tell you whether you're permitted to shed a tear when you see the look of resignation in a person's eye after you've said, firmly, "I'm sorry, but you do not qualify." People just walked away, with their kids in one hand and their suitcase in the other. There were 500 more in the queue, waiting for their turn to come. This was Day 6 after the earthquake.
I propose that this inner conflict stems from Mayer's job description: to prevent the poorest and most vulnerable from coming to the U.S.  It is the organizing principle of the entire immigration system.  As he points out with some regret, the laws are clear and he must not stray from enforcing them.  Yet as Consular Section Chief  at the U.S. Embassy in Montreal, Mayer has uncommon insight into the impact of the screening function of the immigration bureaucracy.  He knows that the people he turns away will suffer; he knows that some will die.

This is the particular tragedy of FSOs around the world: cosmopolitan and compassionate, their instinct is to give refuge to the dispossessed, but rules are rules and must be obeyed.  Who are they to challenge the System That Keeps Us Safe?  Those who question authority tend not to work for the most powerful institution in the world, policing the boundaries between Us and Them. 

But there are other paths.

(Via BIB)

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This page is a archive of entries in the Health category from February 2010.

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