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Guest opinion

Twelker: UA eye doc looks at 'caravan' through lens of experience in Honduras

I am an optometrist and faculty member at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. For years we have been doing basic eye care development work in poor and developing countries. That is what brought me to a small town called Guacamaya near San Pedro Sula, Honduras. I was running an eye clinic for several summers as part of a greater health promotion project called Salud Juntos, or Health Together.

When I heard about the caravan headed from Honduras to the U.S. border, I saw the photographs and watched the interviews posted online. I thought: I know these people. They were my patients. Honduras is very poor and its main economy is to export food, coffee, and clothing to the United States. So, if you eat bananas, drink coffee or wear clothing, you most likely have a connection with the migrants — whether you know it or not.

What is mostly missing in the discussion in the media is how U.S. policy has directly affected Honduran people, creating poverty, crime, and overall insecurity. San Pedro Sula, the airport we flew into, was the most dangerous city in the world. One arriving flight of U.S. student volunteers had to make their way around the body of a person shot just minutes before. The people I served made one or two dollars a day working in the fields planting, tending, and harvesting fruit and vegetables. The U.S. has been relying on the cheap labor of Hondurans for over a century.

What is outright false in some media portrayals of the situation is the claim that these people are criminals and terrorists. They are unarmed poor people participating in a remarkable and perhaps quixotic protest. They are human beings. This is what concerns me most, the dehumanization of the migrants. Words describing people as animals or as an infestation are clearly dehumanizing. It should be obvious that once you characterize a person as a dangerous animal or insect, that the next step is to eradicate the threat. Students of history will remember this is how Nazis described Jewish people in the decade or so leading up to and during World War II.

Militarizing the border or closing it will only heighten tensions and raise the level of fear. It will do nothing to address the core issues that are creating the situation. The Mexican people understand this. By and large, the Mexican people have reacted appropriately, cooking large vats of soup, providing tortillas, and offering medical care when needed. Remember, we are talking about a number of people that would fill just half of McKale Memorial Center, the UA's basketball arena. The people are unarmed. This is not a serious threat to U.S. security.

Obviously, I don't know what is going to happen. What I do know is that this is an opportunity to consider the root causes of poverty, crime, and corruption and address them. It would take remarkably few resources to greatly improve the lives of millions of people, and by the way, reinforce our role as a responsible leader in the Americas. The militarization of the border will initially cost $50-$100 million. I am convinced the migrants do not want to leave their homes. The path forward is to improve the safety and security of their lives in Central America. It's time to open up our minds and hearts, to increase our wisdom and understanding, because if we don't we're doomed to repeat the painful mistakes of the past.

Dan Twelker, OD, PhD, is an associate professor of Ophthalmology and Vision Science at the University of Arizona.

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Verónica G. Cárdenas for TIME

Honduran migrant Norma Leticia López, 21, poses for a photo on Oct. 26, 2018, in front of the migrant shelter Casa del Caminante Jtatic Samuel Ruiz García near Palenque, Chiapas. She left her country four days before she arrived at the shelter leaving behind two kids. Norma used to work at a bakery shop and says she did not make enough money to support her children; she says she could only afford rice and beans. 'I want for my kids to have a better life, an education,' she says. 'A mother would do anything for her kids.' Norma plans on crossing to the United States, working and sending money to her mother who takes care of her children.