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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Building a border wall

My alarm on Monday went off at 3:40 a.m. After a cursory attempt to get dressed and put my contacts in, I walked out the door fifteen minutes later with a mug of green tea. My heart was racing as I walked to the library. Starting at four, a group began to assemble on the front steps. All told, there were about ten of us. We carried wooden pallets and metal stakes from cars, busted out the hammers and nails, and got to work. Our task was simple: to build a border wall.

After two hours of work, we’d driven stakes into the grass, put the pallets on top, and stapled cardboard to the whole thing. Our wall stretched from the library to the tennis courts, blocking off a funnel pathway for students walking to and from class.

We spray-painted the side facing the library with graffiti in a variety of languages—German, Arabic, Spanish, English—and made references to the U.S.-Mexico border, the Berlin Wall and the Israeli occupation.  This side was the “occupied” side of the border, the side that traditionally has graffiti on it.

I added my favorite piece of graffiti from the U.S.-Mexico border wall, though it’s since been painted over: Las parades vueltas de lado son puentes. Walls turned on their sides are bridges.

The other side was blank, except for a large proclamation: International Border. Please have documents ready.

It wasn’t a serious impediment to travel—people could easily go around the library or through the tennis courts—but it was big enough that people had to stop and look at it, think about how they could navigate around.

I won’t speak for the other members of the group, but I was motivated to participate in this project because of my experiences on the U.S.-Mexico border over spring break. Spending a week in the Arizona borderlands made it abundantly clear to me just how much is broken about our immigration policies, their enforcement, and the very notion of a border in the first place.

The wait to get a legal visa for Mexican nationals is currently about twenty years if you already have a close relative living in the U.S., and the U.S. government has yet to recognize the drug-related violence in Mexico as a legitimate conflict, which means people threatened with death can’t apply to get asylum. U.S. policies, including free-trade agreements like NAFTA, the continued criminalization of drugs and the unwillingness to stop weapons from being smuggled into Mexico, account for many of the problems pushing people north—realities that our immigration laws largely refuse to consider.

Border fence from Arizona, near Nogales.

The U.S. enforces its immigration laws through a physical border in the Southwest, which pushes migrants into the desert, where many die of dehydration and other injuries in the attempt to cross into the United States. Still, to focus only on that physical border fence would be disingenuous. The U.S.-Mexico border has worked its way into communities across the country, and the line separating us from them is redrawn constantly in day-to-day interactions between citizens, migrants, law enforcement, government officials and the mixed-status families affected by immigration policy.

In short, U.S. border and immigration policies have combined to make movement a privilege, something accorded based on citizenship and skin color. As a U.S. citizen, I can enter 90 countries around the world with no visa, including virtually every Latin American nation. If I want to walk into Nogales for a day of shopping, I’m free to do so. Driving through the American Southwest, I can sail through Border Patrol checkpoints without having to show ID—my whiteness is enough to tell the uniformed men that I “belong” in this country.

Border Patrol checkpoint near Tucson, AZ

Perhaps most insidiously, these things are simply part of my life. Part of having these privileges is not having to think about them. When I flash my passport coming back to the U.S. from Mexico, I don’t have to consider that the blind luck of being born in the States has given me the ability to move freely from country to country. I don’t have to think about the fact that there are people moving through the desert around me who might die in the attempt to simply make it into my country, even without any guarantee of legal status in the future. My family will never be split by deportation, unable to reunite on either side of the border because it’s too risky.

For me, this is the value in building a border wall on campus. Whitman students as a group are largely privileged. Virtually all of us are U.S. citizens, and international students are generally here with documentation and visas. There are fewer than a dozen undocumented students on campus. For most of us, movement is not a privilege we have to think about. Most of us will never encounter a border that we are not legally allowed to cross. Most of us will never have to consider the possibility of being deported.

When we first put the wall up, students reacted to it. It made crossing the path impossible, so people were forced to interact with it. Some students were frustrated by the boundary. I overheard several comments such as, “I don’t get the point of this,” “This is ridiculous, it’s in a public space,” and “It’s not fair; they’re blocking the path.” A lot of people stopped to read the graffiti. But every single person, no matter their thoughts on the project, had to think about it. At the very least, they had to consider their own movement—how can I get around this wall?

I was tired after our 4a.m. construction call, so after breakfast with the construction team, I went back to sleep from 8 to 10:30. After my nap, I went back to look at the wall. Apparently, we’d frustrated some people enough that they felt compelled to knock down two pallets in the middle of the wall. It was a small gap, but it changed the wall completely. With the hole there, students no longer had to think about their movement. Some still stopped to look at the graffiti, but far more walked by talking with friends or texting.

If there’s one lesson I got out of this, it’s that reconceiving the ability to move as privilege is a challenge. I think it’s important for people to recognize the things they take for granted, and important to push people to think about what those things are. I had a ton of fun building the wall, and I hope that we were able to get at least a few Whitties thinking about all the borders in the world, visible and invisible, that have much more serious implications than just being a minute late to class.