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Immigration Crises: View From The Borderlands

by Kathleen Staudt
August 30, 2018

Kathleen (Kathy) Staudt is a retired political science professor living in El Paso. Her most recent book is titled Border Politics in a Global Era: Comparative Perspectives (2017).

border politics in a global era

We are all living in a time of renewed attention to the US-Mexico border, but especially to “border security.” The border security narrative operates during politicians’ campaigns for elective office, around budget times, and/or after the latest Hollywood films about organized crime in Mexico. After all, who can disagree with “security”? Until recently, too many people in the US always seemed willing to believe the worst about people of Mexican heritage or of people from the Global South, but images of children made a difference in the summer of 2018.

Writing here from the US-Mexico borderlands and sitting in what was formerly northern Mexico until 1848, my lived experience consists of everyday insights about migration, refugees, and children in detention camps and tent cities. The borderlands, at the frontlines of so much recent political rhetoric, consists of cities and towns, which like San Diego, rest at the top among safest cities in the US, unlike many cities in the heartlands of the country. Borderlanders live in interdependent communities with people in counterpart cities and towns of Mexico.

Here in the borderlands, our vantage points offer frontline vision for how Washington DC policy hits practice, particularly the demagogic policies and cruel practices. We have had our share of marches, protests, and emergency outreach to vulnerable people exposed to the illegality of border guards refusing to accept asylum-seekers. Family separation and a "zero tolerance policy" in 2018 have roused the conscience of people nationwide. I am elated, even relieved when I see pictures of both borderland and heartland people and their evocative signs: “no family separation,” “this is not America,” and so on. 

Yet I wonder about the absence of attention all the years leading up to the current crisis. Migrant children have been living in detention centers for years. Asylum seekers fleeing violence in Central America and Mexico have been denied temporary shelter in the US for years as well, though irregularly depending on the judge and the places where judgments are made (see the Syracuse University tracking system of judges and in different parts of the U.S.). Here in the borderlands, genuinely non-profit organizations and churches—not non-profit contractors with government agencies—have opened their doors to temporarily shelter those with documents awaiting hearings in other parts of the country and those without. Many people who assist do so out of commitment or of faith in action. Their service is temporary, direct, and responsive to emergency needs. Their motivations vary: they heed Biblical passages; they remember the Holocaust and the resistance refugees faced seeking entry to nations that refused them; they exercise their convictions based on decency, social justice, and empathy. They understand the artificiality of man-made constructed borders that change over time.    

However, the country needs long-term justice in the form of comprehensive immigration reform—one based on the historical knowledge of the talent so many of our immigrant and refugee ancestors once brought so easily to US border crossing, unlike the way they are currently criminalized. The recent marches against family separation, massive in numbers, helped push back an outrageous policy with long-term damage to the children and their families. Thank goodness for people's support in mounting court challenges—the "rule of law" that may be hanging on by a thread with the politicized court-packing in process—that put a timetable in place but has now, not surprisingly, been delayed. Why? Some parents have already been deported, others may be needed for DNA matches, and the sheer bungling and clerical mistakes made by too many bureaucratic agencies are some reasons. For many refugees, legal counsel is neither mandated nor available. We need to remind ourselves of the vulnerability of a three-year-old migrant or even the baby, bottle in hand, sitting before a judge in an imposing US courtroom.

Heartlanders, please keep up the support and exercise your voting rights! We here in the borderlands, the frontline where US policy hits practice, will continue to act on conscience over the long term, as we did in the past. Please also maintain an interest in the borderlands beyond the rhetoric of border security, nationalist style. After all, shouldn't security be about humans, whatever side of a border they were born?  The faces of children roused so many; let their faces, plus the faces and stories of adults, do the same as we forge ahead with more just and humane policies.