My friend Naomi recently returned from volunteering with a humanitarian organization called “No Mas Muertes – No More Deaths” based in Arizona. In our conversations, I learned a lot about what is going on at our southern border. I want to share with you some of what I learned.
The U.S. border with Mexico stretches 1,989 miles along the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. I have flown over parts of this border and peered down at parts of the wall already built. (Physical walls currently exist in all of the urban areas at the U.S./Mexican border.)
I have walked across the border from New Mexico into Palomas, Mexico. In this rural town, I found many doctors’, dentists’, and pharmacists’ offices with signs in English. This is where many U.S. citizens go for inexpensive health care.
There was a day when people freely crossed the border – when family members lived on both sides of the border – and they visited each other with ease. Now, people from the same family still live on both sides of the border, but how freely they can visit one another depends on their documentation. The land on the U.S./Mexican border used to be Mexican territory before the U.S. annexed it in 1848. Many of the people who lived on the borderlands were indigenous. U.S. citizens of Mexican descent who live on the U.S. side (formerly Mexico) still identify as Mexican. “The border crossed us,” they say.
Who can cross the border has long been an economic issue. The most significant example is the “Bracero Program,” a guest worker program that began in 1942 when there was a shortage of agricultural laborers in the States. Mexican workers were recruited to work in U.S. fields and factories. They labored long hours. Many of the Mexican-Americans in the U.S. today can trace their history to the Bracero Program, which lasted until 1964.
On the Mexican side, U.S. businesses like Wal-Mart and Victoria’s Secret have sweatshops to manufacture their goods more cheaply. There is also a drug smuggling economy with operatives on both sides of the border and a market in the U.S. Naomi says that the drug smugglers have very clear routes that they use to cross the border. Finally, there is an economy of coyotes and guides who find routes to get people to and across the border.
Since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) after 9/11, the U.S./Mexican border has become part of the conversation in the “war on terror.” The Border Patrol, a part of DHS, is one of the largest enforcement agencies in the United States, and it is larger than the military of most countries. The Border Patrol is responsible for investigating, detaining, and removing people who cross the U.S. border illegally. People who cross the border illegally and are caught for the first time are charged with a federal misdemeanor. If they cross a second time and are caught, they are charged with a felony. Often when we hear reports in the media of a federal criminal getting caught crossing the border, the crime may simply be crossing the border more than once.
The U.S./Mexican border today is not just a line demarcating the national boundary; it is also a militarized zone. There are internal checkpoints from 15 to 100 miles north of the border. Agents patrol the areas between the border and the internal checkpoints by motorcycle, car, mountain bike, horseback, drones, helicopters, towers, and motion-detectors. Most of the terrain between the border and checkpoints is gravelly mountainous desert, difficult to navigate.
The Border Patrol officers are not the only ones who are trying to keep people from crossing illegally. On the U.S. side of the border many self-appointed volunteer militias also patrol the border; most if not all are armed. To discourage people from crossing into the U.S. they destroy water, food, and other resources left by humanitarian groups for people trying to cross through the wide, expansive, and arid land.
Crossing into the U.S. from Mexico on foot is a very dangerous journey. And yet many take this risk. Why?
- to reunite with family (many have already lived with their family in the U.S. and are simply trying to return to them);
- to seek work and a better life;
- to escape violence and political persecution in countries south of Mexico like Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
There is much talk these days of building a wall along the U.S./Mexican border. I believe that a wall will not address the complexity of issues we face at our southern border. The issues are international in scope. They are economic, social, political, and moral. More brick, cement, rebar, and surveillance will not solve these problems, especially not the human rights abuse and economic disparity.
What would happen if we shifted our perception of how we view those who want to cross into our country? What if we saw them as humans seeking a better life, not as aliens and criminals? What if we moved from a strategy of deterrence to one of addressing the needs of those affected? Could that be possible?
Thanks to Naomi Halpern for sharing her experiences with “No More Deaths – No Mas Muertes”, a humanitarian organization that provides support to stop the death of migrants in the desert borderland areas of Arizona. For more information see: http://forms.nomoredeaths.org/en/