Immigration reform and invisible costs

Friday’s immigration announcement by President Obama was a great moment in a lot of ways. Seeing the reactions to his announcement that the Department of Homeland Security is stopping the deportation of DREAM Act eligible students was a good reminder of the spectrum of opinions that the U.S. population holds on immigration issues. Many people were celebrating, knowing that they might have an opportunity to work or continue their studies. Others were decrying the fact that this was done via executive action rather than Congressional legislation, claiming that this was nothing more than a political decision to appeal to Latin@ voters.

All of this has put me in a reflective mood about border and immigration policy, especially in the context of the massive wall that I cross at least twice a day now. One of the rallying points behind No More Deaths is that these issues shouldn’t be political—they’re human rights issues. I firmly believe that thousands of bodies piling up in southern Arizona’s deserts are a human rights issue. And in March, when I was here doing work in the desert, it was easy to see immigration in only those terms. The people I interacted with on a daily basis weren’t policymakers or strategists. They were people like me, except that they needed work and had the misfortune to be born on the wrong side of the line.

Perhaps the clearest part of being out in the desert was how visibly wrong and ineffective our border enforcement was. It seemed clear that people weren’t being deterred by the militarization or the wall itself. Crossing numbers are certainly down in recent years, but there’s no real way to tell if this is because of the U.S.’s poor economy, increased border enforcement, or both. What is clear is that plenty are still choosing to cross—it’s just that more of them were dying in the process. A week out there convinced me that our currently policies couldn’t continue for much longer, because they were inherently unsustainable. I figured that they would collapse under the weight of their own inhumanity, that reform could happen if enough people knew what was going on and called for change.

Now, I’m in an urban area, talking to tons of different people on a daily basis and hearing dozens of stories from migrants. A lot of them have left desperately poor town in central and southern Mexico, where a good wage is $30 a week. Some of them are my age, except instead of attending a liberal arts college and blogging about politics, they have a three-year old child at home who they need to support. Most of them aren’t coming to the U.S. to pursue higher education. Many of them don’t want to live there permanently or assimilate into U.S. culture. The majority are simply looking for work, having run out of options at home.

I was speaking to a group of women in the Migrant Resource Center where I’ve spent the past week working. They were discussing the poor wages in their home states that had led them to try to cross the border, while I chimed in occasionally with questions.

One of them turned to me and asked, “If you were in my position, if you couldn’t find any work at home and had four children to support, would you try to cross into the U.S.?”

I looked at her and froze for a moment, unable to answer because the circumstances of my life had never forced me to consider something like this. Eventually, I said, “I don’t know. But maybe. Probably.”

She nodded, looking satisfied. “Until you’ve been in this position, you don’t know what you would do,” she said.

In the desert, I heard stories like this and wished people safe passage. On the Mexican side of the line, though, these stories carry an entirely different meaning. The people who tell me these things have just been deported, and, with very few exceptions, most of them are headed back to the towns they came from in Mexico’s interior. Having seen the reality of the desert or the brutality of the Border Patrol (nobody I’ve spoken to who was in custody overnight was fed more than one meal, and most of them were housed in detention facilities where sitting down was impossible because of crowding), most of them are giving up and heading home.

From a political perspective, this is a win. Comprehensive immigration reform has been discussed for a long time in U.S. politics. All of the strategies I’ve heard rely on essentially three actions—providing a path to citizenship for the undocumented immigrants already here, changing our visa system to grant temporary work visas and possibly increase quotas for nations like Mexico with high demand, and increasing enforcement on the border to prevent unauthorized crossings. No matter how people feel about Mexicans or what to do with the undocumented folks once they get here, everybody seems to agree that preventing migrants from crossing illegally is a good thing. Policy, as much as it could aim to provide better jobs for Mexico or legalize those who’ve already made it here, is going to favor border militarization.

Out in the desert, it seemed like this couldn’t go on forever. The degree of suffering was so great, the injustices so stark, that I knew a better world couldn’t be too far off. From the city, though, abuse becomes mundane. The people I talk to everyday who come in dehydrated, forced into the back of vehicles which look like they’re designed to carry animals, crying because they can’t find work at home and don’t know what to do—all of them fade together, human casualties in a policy system which doesn’t care about their suffering. Which isn’t going to care about their suffering.

In the midst of all this, it’s good to know that the undocumented migrants who have already made it to el norte, who have lived there for years and built lives there, might be able to stay. But immigration reform which only tweaks our visa system isn’t going to solve the issue. Reagan’s 1986 comprehensive immigration reform—the last large-scale legalization we’ve had in the U.S.—was supposed to provide enough border enforcement to make sure people stopped crossing. And we all know how that worked out.

As long as there are people who are desperate to find work, I have to believe our border wall won’t make a difference. If we build a twelve foot wall, they’ll find a thirteen foot ladder, or so the saying goes. But being here makes me afraid that our awful policies are working in some twisted way, that the suffering I’ve seen this week is simply supposed to be another form of collateral damage.

The physical border is a space often forgotten in political discussions. We talk about who ICE chooses to deport in the U.S. and what it’s like to live life undocumented, always afraid that one misstep could get you sent back to a country you don’t remember leaving. We don’t talk about the border militarization in real terms, what it means for the people who live on either side of the line, who conduct their day-to-day lives perpetually in the shadow of that fence. We say we’re adding enforcement and agents, and people see it as a good or accept it as a necessary compromise to push for reforms in the system. We’re sold a specter of drug cartels and devious migrants sneaking across our borders, and we don’t often pause to consider what that added enforcement will mean or how many more bodies will pile up in the Arizona desert because of it.

I want comprehensive immigration reform, and I’m so happy to learn that many of the people I know won’t have to live with the specter of deportation hanging over their heads, at least for the next two years. I hope, though, that we can bring these spaces into our national dialogue too, that in our push for legalization of those already here, we don’t forget about those who would still come. I want us to see the human rights side even as we acknowledge its political dimensions. I don’t want the suffering in the desert, the costs on the Mexican side of the line, to forever remain invisible.

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