This past mid-term break I went with a group of people from Assembly Mennonite Church to the U.S.-Mexico border to get a better understanding of our migration system and the challenges immigrants face before and after they arrive in the U.S. I spent a lot of time in the border town of Douglas, AZ, and its neighbor Agua Prieta on the other side of the fence.I ate with families on both sides of the border, listened to their stories, talked with border patrol officers and detention center officials, and visited the graves of those who’ve died in the desert. And then I came back, and realized that I cannot possibly convey the depth of everything I learned to those so eager to hear about our trip. How can I make people understand the impossibilities people go through both in their home country and in the way they are treated once they arrive here?
One of the things I’ve come to realize is how little our country understands about immigration. I keep shuddering as I am drawn back to the image of having a wall built along our entire border.
There are many reasons why this is a bad idea. It’s ineffective as it is; people who want to find ways to cross the current wall still will. It doesn’t address the problems causing people to need a new home. It’s also a terrible way to treat our neighbors who are searching for a different life.
Migrants are not the enemy, so why do we treat them like criminals who need to be kept out of our society and locked up in detention centers? There are some things we need to consider in order to better understand the immigration situation.
First, why do people cross the border?
Three of the most common reasons I heard on our trip for why people cross the border are to avoid the violence of cartels, to find jobs that will support them, and to rejoin families already in the U.S.
Cartels are a serious problem. They are extremely powerful – they hold more power than the police, and maintain it through violence. Anyone who disobeys them is putting their life at risk; but obeying them may mean even worse. They are the perpetrators of crimes that include forcing young girls into abusive relationships with them. How is it that the media is so concerned with the immigration but continues to ignore the injustices just across the other side of the wall?
Many will then ask, so why don’t immigrants just cross legally?
Ok, fair question. We have methods for immigration that we consider acceptable. But if you take a more critical look at these, you will realize it takes years and years for people to even be considered when applying for visas. When people are facing life-threatening issues, it’s hard to tell them they have to wait 15 years before they can hope for even the possibility of a solution.
So what is the problem with our immigration system?
When Border Patrol catches undocumented immigrants the men are separated from women and children and sent to different detention centers, where they are given a court date and must wait months until their hearing. They are given minimal instruction by immigration lawyers about what to do, and are expected to defend themselves while navigating through a judicial system they aren’t familiar with in language that they may know little of. Once deported they are given a criminal record and may not be able to enter the country legally.
So where do we find hope for the future? When we were in Mexico we went to another place called Dougla Prieta, a cooperative that teaches women skills relating to horticulture, cooking, learning English, how to sell their handiwork, and many other things. This cooperative doesn’t address every hardship people face, but it improves living conditions and makes it more feasible for people to support themselves in an economy where it is otherwise very difficult. This is where I find hope.
In Tucson, AZ, I talked with a pastor who visits people in detention centers. She showed me some wallets composed of chip wrappers made by a man in a detention center. She sells them so that he can earn a little bit of money while he’s stuck there. This shows that people who are most involved in the border issues are some of the most caring. If they care, so can we. This is where I find hope.
Both in Arizona and Indiana I’ve now heard from immigration lawyers who represent migrants in court. They say it’s so hard because there are so many cases and they just don’t have enough time to represent everyone. But they keep on trying. This is where I find hope.
I don’t find much hope in our political climate – I hate the fact that our country is so hesitant to let in refugees and support those outside our borders – but there is hope out there. I don’t expect everyone who reads this to hop on board the pro-immigration train, but I hope you at least understand the complexity of the issue and continue to educate yourself about it. As human beings we’ve got to support each other, no matter our country of origin.