A ViewPoint by Anne Linstatter
“Pray for us,” said Martha, standing at a street corner on the Mexican side of Nogales, the city split in two by the US-Mexico border.
She, her sister Maria, and Maria’s husband Tomas were waiting for the coyote (immigrant smuggler) to pick them up and drive them outside the city to an area where the 30-ft.-high wall ends and they would be crossing into Arizona to begin the 70-mile walk to Tucson.
Never mind that it was a cold January morning with snow on the ground in the 5,000-ft. mountains of the Coronado National Forest where they would be crossing. No amount of talk could convince them that trying again would not be a good idea. I gave Maria my warm gloves.
The three had been deported days earlier by the US Department of Homeland Security after being apprehended while trying to enter Arizona illegally.
Martha and Maria’s story began a year earlier when they learned that their mother was terminally ill in their home state of Zacatecas, Mexico. They had not seen her for over fifteen years, since emigrating to the US, but through phone calls and photos they had stayed in close touch with her while living in Phoenix and raising their children.
Martha’s children are grown now, but Maria had to make arrangements for her two children ages 7 and 10 to be cared for by family members in Phoenix while she and her husband travelled back to Mexico. They arrived in Zacatecas in March, and in December their mother died. As it turned out, Tomas’s mother died also. In January they were all three returning to the US when they discovered that the border had changed in the last fifteen years, especially since September 11, 2001. It’s a lot harder now to cross into “El Norte” (the term commonly used by Mexicans to refer to the United States).
I met them when they came to El Comedor, a soup kitchen for deportees close to the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales. My guide, Shura Wallin, a founder of the Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans, already knew them and had been helping them. She had been unable to persuade them to wait in Mexico until they were able to obtain a legal entry visa. This process can take years, and their children in Phoenix needed them.
“We’ll be okay,” Martha assured us. Unlike most coyotes, who are now controlled by gangs smuggling drugs, the man they were waiting for was a friend and they trusted him; he had been able to help someone they knew cross the border a few months ago. “We’ll call you when we get to Tucson. Pray for us,” Martha said—in English.
I lay awake that night in my motel, praying and thinking of Martha and Maria and Tomas climbing up rocky mountainsides in the darkness with temperatures of 20 degrees or so. Just one misstep could cause a sprained ankle or broken leg, making it impossible to get to safety, perhaps causing death from hypothermia.
As days passed, I imagined that they must have made it back to Tucson and Phoenix. Toward the end of January I emailed Shura and asked if she had received a call from them. No, she said.
Perhaps that’s the worst part of being a modern-day Samaritan in southern Arizona: you may never know if the persons you have hugged and tried to help are living or dead. Laws prevent you from taking a shivering immigrant to shelter: actions like those of the kind traveler in Jesus’ story are currently illegal in the US. You can provide food, water, blankets, jackets, shoes—but for transportation you could be punished with 15 years in prison.
The injustice of US laws on immigration became apparent to me during the few days I spent with the Samaritans in Arizona.
- There’s a huge scary wall topped by barbed wire along many miles of the US- Mexico border. It reminds me of the Berlin Wall and of the wall between Israel and Palestine. From 150 to 250 people die trying to cross this wall each year in Arizona alone. Much of California, Arizona, and New Mexico belonged to Mexico two hundred years ago; as recently as the 1930s there was only a small wall down a central street of Nogales marking the international border. How did this fiercely protected wall get here, and why are my tax dollars paying for it?
- On one side of the wall there is wealth, on the other side poverty. People who can’t feed their families in Mexico can usually find some kind of low-paying work in the US if they try hard enough. Threats can’t stop someone who is desperate.
- The waiting time is many years for unskilled people who apply for a legal visa. As rules change, a Mexican applicant who has been told to expect a wait of 20 years can find that time period changed to over 100 years.
- For those who enter the US illegally, there are many penalties. First of all, they can never go home to visit their parents and others in their home town. If they do, they will be risking their lives to reenter the US. Secondly, they can be deported at any time. A broken taillight can mean being pulled over by an officer, being held in prison for months, and finally being deported. They cannot get a driver’s license or a work permit or a Social Security number—except illegally—and to have a fake ID is considered “moral turpitude” and cause for deportation.
- Without legal status, immigrants are vulnerable to exploitation and crime. An employer can rape a housekeeper and threaten deportation if she reports the crime. No amount of education, learning English, or years of hard work can protect them from being forced to leave the home they have built and the family ties they have woven.
Like health care reform, immigration reform has been proposed off and on for decades, but very little has happened until recently. The two sides of the issue are polarized, even within families. My brother thinks that illegal immigrants are costing US taxpayers millions of dollars, and they should all be deported—but I think the wall should be torn down.
New Rules and Further Proposals Being Considered
Last April a new rule was proposed by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to stop some of the most egregious deportations. The rule adopted on January 2, 2013 “reduces the time US citizens are separated from their immediate relatives (spouse, children, and parents), who are in the process of obtaining visas to become lawful permanent residents of the US under certain circumstances,” states a USCIS news release.
On March 4, 2013, people like Martha and Maria who have immediate relatives who are US citizens can file for a “provisional unlawful presence waiver.” If their waiver is granted, they can go back to Zacatecas and then go to the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez to apply for a legal immigrant visa. After having their visa interview, they can return to their spouse and children in the US while waiting for the slow process of legal immigration to grind on.
What a humane solution! Rather than separating families for years or causing desperate people to risk their lives with repeated attempts to cross the border illegally, people can care for their children or older family members while waiting. The only sobering detail is the requirement to have the interview in Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, and currently known as the murder capital of the world because of the lawlessness of the drug cartels there. In 2009 it was declared “the most violent zone in the world outside of declared war zones” with 2,600 killings.
In addition to this new waiver, a bipartisan group of senators proposed a plan for immigration reform on January 28, and President Obama presented his own plan a day later. There is hope for some kind of bill to pass both houses of Congress in 2013.
The main areas to be decided are:
- Should there be a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are already in the US?
- What kind of “border security” do we want?
- How do we reduce the backlog in legal immigration and make the process more reasonable?
- How do we welcome the agricultural workers and highly skilled immigrants that our economy needs?
- How can we shift penalties from workers to the employers who hire them illegally?
Both President Obama and the bipartisan group of Senators have said yes to the first question—but getting a “path to citizenship” bill through Congress is going to be difficult. For one thing, those who are more wary of immigration reform have said this path is “contingent upon our success in securing our borders.” But ranchers and others who live and work right on la frontera say that these borders can never be secured. Whatever fences you try to build up mountain cliffs are still going to be penetrable by those determined to cross. To hold up a path to citizenship while waiting for some kind of “Superwall” that is closely policed sounds like just another way of saying no to immigrants.
The Senate plan also includes drones with high-tech cameras to fly up and down the US border, more border patrol agents, and more surveillance equipment, thus further militarizing the wall. If this is what we need to get support for immigration reform from those in Congress who oppose it, it’s hardly worth the effort.
For example, Shura Wallin, my guide, told me what often happens when helicopters police the border. If the agents spot a group of migrants who have crossed, the pilot engages in “dusting”—tipping the helicopter so that a cloud of dust is stirred up by the rotating blades. This act terrifies the migrants and causes the group to split up, running in all directions. Border agents on the ground hope to arrive by truck and on foot to capture the people, but in the confusion other things can happen. Bandits who may be in the vicinity are alerted to the presence of migrants and can arrive, shoot them, steal their money and take them to locations where they can be forced to carry heavy backpacks of drugs. Or migrants can be held hostage for thousands of dollars, required to call relatives and try to get money delivered to save their lives. Another sad outcome is that one or two persons can be permanently separated from the group and die in the desert without water or directions to get to safety. Our goal should not be to strengthen the wall between the US and Mexico but to make it more humane and less necessary.
When I drove down to Tijuana, Baja California, a few weeks ago, just 150 miles from my home in what was once known as “Alta California,” I saw a small sign as I crossed the border: “Guns Are Illegal in Mexico.” This reminded me of the huge number of guns and assault rifles we export to a nation where drug cartels have become totally out of control.
Americans focus on the wall as a means of keeping out migrants and drugs we don’t want, but we conveniently ignore the rest of the complex commerce going on in spite of the wall. US-manufactured guns are going south, and dollars are flowing south to keep the drugs coming. We fund the trade in cocaine and marijuana that keeps drug cartels alive and Mexican citizens in terror. Human trafficking also continues in spite of the wall, and 60% of the fruits and vegetables we eat during the winter come into the country through the Nogales ports of entry.
What Can Caring American Citizens Do?
What can we do? Support President Obama’s plan for immigration reform, which he says he will push only if the bipartisan proposal fails to pass in the Senate and/or House. Contact our senators and representatives, asking them to support either the Senate plan or the President’s plan. As in the case of health care reform, we can’t really hold out for the kind of immigration plan we would actually want—one that is just and humane. We can only get some kind of legislation passed, even though less than the
Another thing we could do is go to visit the borders with Mexico and Canada ourselves. Visit often. Exercise your right to cross in and out of this country. Check out the $11 million, 2.8 mile new fence in Nogales. Look into how migrants and deportees are being treated. Have picnics and demonstrations next to the wall, and pray that like the Berlin Wall, it will have a short life. Give to organizations like the Samaritans, Borderlinks, and No More Deaths.
Remember that borders between nations are made by humans, not by God. Pray for solutions that reflect Micah 6:8—justice, kindness, and humility—and pray for those suffering and dying on our southern border.
Note: The real names of the persons referred to as Martha, Maria, and Tomas were not used, in order to protect them.
For further information (in addition to links embedded in the article):
Anada, Rose, “Death in the Desert.”
KRWG TV, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces. “Sending Immigrants to the Back of an Endless Line.”
Rodriguez, Cindy Y. “New immigration rule helps undocumented families.”
Anderson Cooper 360. “KTH: Reality of US Border Security,” 1/29/13.
Leopold, David. “Obama’s Stateside Family Unity Waiver.”
Green, Matthew H. “Stateside Waiver Program Good for Family Immigration.”
American Live Wire. “Senate Immigration Plan Revealed,” 1/29/13.
New York Times, “Mexican Drug Trafficking (Mexico’s Drug War),” 10/9/12.