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The Right to Migrate

Posted on June 28, 2019
Migrant child behind fence

By Ana V. Diez Roux, MD, PhD, MPH

The beginning of summer has always been for me a time of optimism and possibility, a time to refresh and step back and think about it all: luminous mornings with a gentle breeze, lazy hot afternoons, and long refreshing evenings, the sense that there is something different in the air, something slower and relaxing, and perhaps because of this, an ability to see things differently, more clearly and sharply, the benefit of an uncluttered mind.

There is of course nostalgia in this, a remembrance of what my summers were like when I was growing up. But even today, when what I do does not change that much in the summer, as the days lengthen and academic activities wind down, I still feel a change, a difference, a sense of refreshment and opportunity. Perhaps you do too.

But I know that this feeling is a privilege, something that some of us benefit from, but that is denied to many. To many, perhaps most in the world, summer just brings heat (increasingly so) or rains and floods or mosquitos or disease or longer hours at work.

The lack of fairness and justice in our world was starkly illustrated this week by the photo published in many newspapers and across social media of Oscar Martínez and his 2-year-old daughter Angie, face down, dead, crossing the Rio Grande. We now know some details of the story: a family from El Salvador fleeing economic hardship, seeking a decent life (as we all do), the father carrying his daughter across the river on his back tucked close to him under his T-shirt, his wife Tania behind them carried by a friend, the father almost at the other edge struggling in the current and pulled under water, the wife watching it all, calling out, desperate, devastated….

The life pulse is what drives people to do what they need to do to seek a better life, to seek opportunity, to seek health and well-being for themselves, and especially for their children. The man was almost across the river when the current took him and his daughter, almost ready to set his daughter on the other shore and breathe a sigh of relief. She is safe he would have thought. She is standing in the land of opportunity. She is just a little girl, she has not made any mistakes that make her unworthy, she deserves every opportunity that we as a society can provide. She is blameless and full of potential.

Humanity has always migrated seeking a better life or simply fleeing famine, war or persecution. We have all benefited from the determination of our ancestors near and far to move in search of opportunity. Why should where you were born determine your life, its quality and duration, as it does so strongly? If we cannot ensure that all places have the opportunity for life, health and fulfillment that we all aspire to, why block and punish those who at great sacrifice move, migrate, use everything at their disposal, to move to the places that they believe can give them a better life?

As a school of public health that prides itself in its commitment to health as a human right, these are the questions we need to pose, as a university these are the questions we need to ask our students to reflect on, to see perhaps in a new light unburdened by preconceptions and historical precedents. What does it mean to have a right to health? What does it imply not only for health care coverage but also for global justice, for immigration policy, for social policy, and for the organization of our economy, our cities and our neighborhoods?

If we could, as a society, leverage the power, ingenuity, determination, and sheer hope of those like the family from El Salvador, who braved unimaginable hardship in search of a better future, imagine all that we could do together to protect our health and the future of our planet. 

May we as a school of public health, but most fundamentally as humans and citizens of the world, have the clarity of mind, the honesty, and the courage to make the right to a decent life (and the right to health) a reality for everyone.