by Tammy Alexander
Just a few years after President Ronald Reagan stood in West Berlin and proclaimed “tear down this wall,” the United States began building its own separation walls on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Then, in the heightened security environment after September 11, 2001, Congress passed laws mandating the construction of hundreds more miles of walls and fencing along our southern boundary. In order to speed construction, they waived dozens of environmental, health and safety, and cultural preservation laws.
This heightened militarization of the border came in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which encouraged the free flow of goods but not the free flow of persons. Small-scale farmers in Mexico could no longer compete with crops imported from the U.S., but migrating to the U.S. in search of jobs became increasingly difficult.
Seasonal laborers used to return to their home countries in the off-season, but, as it became more dangerous and expensive to cross the border, many remained in the U.S.–and brought their families with them. As a result, the stepped-up border militarization actually led to an increase in the undocumented population in the U.S.
By building border walls, U.S. policy focused on the symptoms rather than the causes of the problem. As long as poverty, lack of opportunity, and violent conflict push people to come to the U.S.–and, as long as opportunities, safety, and family members pull people here–there will be migration. When the legal routes are either not available or severely restricted, as they are in the U.S., people will come whatever way they can.
And no wall will stop them.
On my last visit to the border I saw a couple of young men climb over a section of the border wall into Mexico. It took them less than ten seconds. Later, on the Mexico side of the border, I spoke with a father recently deported after more than 30 years in the U.S. It was easy to see that no wall would keep him from trying to reunite with his family.
In addition to walls on the border, the U.S. has built dozens of detention centers to deter would-be migrants. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants are held behind these walls each year, some for months or even years, awaiting deportation. The private prison companies running most of these facilities have profited nicely from tougher immigration enforcement laws.
Behind these walls are immigrants such as Mennonite pastor Max Villatoro, who was held in detention before being deported to Honduras in March. Pastor Max had been in the U.S. for 20 years and has a wife and four children in Iowa City. He was targeted for deportation due to document fraud and drunk-driving convictions from the 1990s. His case is not an exception.
While the Obama administration claims to be deporting “felons, not families” they are in fact picking up primarily nonviolent offenders with old convictions.
Behind the newest detention center walls you can hear the cries of babies and small children. In 2014, three new “family detention centers” were opened to hold thousands of mothers and young children fleeing violence and poverty in Central America. These immigrants did not climb over a wall but crossed the Rio Grande in Texas and turned themselves over to authorities–the beginning of an internationally-recognized process for claiming asylum in another country.
Most have credible asylum cases and could be released to extended family in the U.S. while awaiting their court dates, saving taxpayer money and saving the families additional trauma. In August, a federal judge ruled that such detention is not suitable for children. The children–hopefully, with their mothers–could be released later this fall, unless the case is held up in an appeals process
The only immigration bills currently being debated in the U.S. Congress, though not likely to pass, focus on harsh enforcement measures, more deportations and more walls. It could be several years before we see a serious immigration reform bill. (Some experts estimate it could be 2022, which would be the first Congress after the redrawing of congressional districts following the 2020 census.) Any comprehensive immigration reform bill should address the root causes of migration to the U.S. and provide compassionate solutions both for immigrants currently here and those wanting to migrate.
What can I do?
Anabaptists all over the country today are reaching out to migrants in amazing ways. In Georgia and Colorado, groups host families who have loved ones in detention centers. In Arizona and Texas, they help refugee families arriving from Central America. In Iowa, the Friends of Pastor Max group continues to advocate for Pastor Max and others like him. These are just a few examples of folks walking in the footsteps of Christ, risking, reaching out, and being filled.
– For immigrants
– For the church
– For political leaders
– Read the news, skim reports, discuss a book on immigration in your book club
– Get to know immigrant brothers and sisters in your community
– Learn about your own family’s migration history
– Sign up for immigration action alerts at washington.mcc.org to learn about legislation and participate in national call-in days
– Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper
– Hold a public witness event such as a prayer vigil or forum
– Teach a small group or Sunday school class using the Mennonite Church USA Radical Hospitality curriculum (mennoniteusa.org/tag/radical-hospitality)
– Bring the MCC People on the Move exhibit to your church, college, conference or relief sale (mcc.org/peopleonthemove)
– Find other groups in your area working for justice for immigrants
– Volunteer with an organization that helps recent immigrants with documentation and other needs
– Go on a border learning tour
– Participate in a visitation program at a local detention center
Resources at washingtonmemo.org/immigration.