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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Migration from the Mexican side

I like to think I’m pretty good at seeing the complications of issues, of looking at things from a variety of angles. I’ve realized, though, after my first day working in the Migrant Resource Center here in Agua Prieta, Sonora, that my thinking on migration has been missing a huge chunk of the picture. I’ve spent time thinking about the border wall, U.S. immigration policy, drug wars, deportation proceedings and racism. What I’ve really forgotten to think about is what happens to migrants once they’re repatriated to Mexico.

The intricacies of U.S. immigration law are really complicated, and I still don’t fully understand them. Some people who enter the U.S. without papers are legally deported, meaning they’re barred from re-entering the country for a certain number of years (5, 20, life) and will face criminal charges if they disobey. Some people are charged criminally for unauthorized entry to the U.S. and serve jail time before being deported. Some people simply sign a voluntary departure form. Regardless of the method by which they return to Mexico, though, the process is pretty much the same. People spend time in a detention facility, usually run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and then they’re bussed to the border and dropped off, often without their stuff.

This means that Mexican border towns—Nogales, Naco, Agua Prieta, Ciudad Juarez—have had to come up with an entire infrastructure to deal with the busloads of Mexican nationals who come through them. Most Mexican migrants to the U.S. are from central and southern Mexico, and taking care of everyone and getting them home is a huge logistical challenge. There’s a Mexican federal agency, Grupo Beta, which provides assistance to migrants. One of the big things they do is help people pay for bus tickets home. They’ll cover 50% of your bus fare home, and can also provide transportation around the border towns if people need to get to shelters or the hospital. They also run a public service campaign telling people not to try to cross into the U.S. through the desert (No vaya usted—no hay suficiente agua). The Mexican consulate can also buy you a bus ticket home, but this only works once per person in your entire life.

The Migrant Resource Center here tries to provide people with the things they’re most likely to need once they’re repatriated. There’s free food (bean burritos) and drinks, basic medical care, clothes and shoes, free phone calls to both the U.S. and Mexico, assistance locating belongings and family members, and assistance with bus tickets. Phil, the guy who runs the center, said that traffic really varies. From May 2010-December 2011, the center didn’t serve any migrants, because ICE had stopped deporting people through Agua Prieta for whatever reason. Then, in January 2012, they had a trickle which picked up to thousands of people per month by March. It’s started to slow again now, and we might go this week without serving more than a dozen or so people. But the plan is for me and Jeff to work 8 hours a day at the center this entire week, then take Saturday off. (I’m thinking about just taking my camera and a ton of water and walking along the border wall until I get bored.)

I’m looking forward to talking with the center’s regular volunteers, almost all of whom are Mexican. I had a long conversation with Sergio yesterday, a man who volunteers every Sunday. Besides being nice Spanish practice (those parts of my brain are slowly waking up again), it was a great way to learn about Agua Prieta and Mexico. I always have to remember to take conversations like that with a grain of salt, to remember that no one person is speaking gospel truth and that anyone I’m talking to in that context is usually going to be middle or upper middle class.

One thing I’d like to learn more about, though, is why Agua Prieta is a relatively safe town when so many other border towns have become increasingly violent. Not that the media narrative of border violence isn’t overblown, but Agua Prieta in particular is, by all accounts I’ve heard, perfectly safe. Sergio told me that if you want to get into trouble, you can do that, but if you stay out of bad activities, you’ll be fine. Phil and Tommy, another church guy, have dismissed most of my safety questions by telling me it’s fine. Yes, I can walk around Agua Prieta at night by myself. The worst problem they’ve had with female volunteers solo is getting catcalled, and that’s something which is hardly unique to here. I did end up walking through town by myself last night, because we went to a minor league baseball game and I didn’t want to wait in the hour-long car line to cross the border in Tommy’s car, so I just walked about a mile and a half back home (mostly on the U.S. side). And nothing felt sketchy. I know my anecdotal perceptions don’t mean much, but everyone I’ve talked to has consistently told me that violence in Agua Prieta is way, way lower than in Nogales, much less Ciudad Juarez. Anyway, if I do figure that one out, I’ll be sure to write about it.