Report from the Border
by Judith Katten
In the wake of the latest horrors from the White House this week, I write to report on my personal experiences at the southwest border to where I traveled last month with a group of 28 participants on a “mission” organized under the auspices of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in NYC.
Insofar as neither reporters nor members of Congress have had much access to the detention centers, it was not surprising that we encountered restrictions as well. But even within these parameters, I can report that what we heard and witnessed throughout the better part of an intensive week corroborates the reportage of the NYT, NPR and MSNBC.
Let me tell you a little about my trip.
We were based in Tucson, Arizona, and neighboring Nogales, a town located directly on the border that is cut in half by barbed wire fencing running down the middle of International Boulevard, its main thoroughfare.
Nogales is a prime exemple of how intricately the two nations are intertwined and how divisive is our current situation. Typical of hundreds of other southwestern communities, family members reside on both sides of the border, laborers cross back and forth, and the products of both Mexican and American agribusinesses comprise important components of ongoing and economically crucial international trade.
Nogales has four legal points of entry. At one of them, I spoke with a young girl who passes through every day to attend school in the US, an entitlement afforded because she is a US citizen and her father is American even though she resides in Mexico with her undocumented mother, who was deported. Her story is hardly unique.
Nor, for that matter, are the not-infrequent border incidents. In fact, we had an unobstructed view, through the fence, of the mural painted on a building just into the Mexican side that marks the spot where a child was shot and killed by a US border agent. The officer was later acquitted.
The drive from Tucson to Nogales wends through miles and miles of vast and empty desert, some of which land is tribal and much of which is US government-owned. (Our president, who has obviously never taken this drive, has said that America cannot accommodate any new immigrants because we are “full”). The terrain is harsh and forbidding, with intermittent towers soaring above otherwise empty space, towers, we learned, that have infrared sensor capacity to detect any movement within a 30-mile radius. As was explained by the Border Patrol, detection would automatically signal for helicopters – and clearly raises the question as to our need for any “great big beautiful wall.”
In Tucson, we had a series of impactful meetings, starting with three recent immigrants, each of whom had journeyed from Central America to seek asylum, each with a harrowing story of personal survival. We met with the lead journalist from the Arizona Star who reports on immigrant issues and who, that very week, had broken a story about racist Facebook entries by members of the Border Patrol. The second-term liberal Democratic Mayor, Jonathan Rothschild, who is a third generation Jewish Tucsonian, spoke to us of his anguish in the face of recent racist and anti-Semitic incidents, previously unknown in his once welcoming city. We met with a criminal defense attorney who represents immigrants facing deportation, as well as with members of community and religious organizations who work tirelessly on behalf of the immigrant community.
We also heard from three Border Patrol agents who presented a well-crafted “dog and pony” show, the essence of which was that they were just doing their jobs. Their slide show was somehow selectively limited to pictures of immigrants carrying weapons or drugs.
We also spent several hours in Tucson federal court, watching as a hundred or so young women and men appeared before a judge under Operation Streamline, a program addressing illegal entrants that began under the Bush administration but greatly expanded under Trump. These people, each of whom had been picked up by the Border Patrol somewhere in the desert, entered the courtroom in tattered and dirt-caked clothing, their wrists shackled. They had not been allowed to shower. Their approach to the bench was in groups of 10, where, on the record, they entered the guilty pleas through an interpreter that had been previously agreed to through a court-appointed attorney. Arguably, this offers the trappings of due process, but in fact, each of these first-time defendants has in essence written his/her own deportation order by entering a plea. In fact, we were informed, each person who came before the bench that day would, by midnight, have been deposited back on the Mexican side of Nogales. If they are subsequently picked up a second time for illegal entry, they will be charged with a felony and subject to several years in prison. Yet from all reports, facing incarceration is well worth the risk since return to their native countries would mean a death penalty from local gangs. And the beat goes on.
As has been said repeatedly, we have an immigration crisis, in the face of which our policies are an abject failure. The complexity and nuance of the issue, the sheer magnitude of the problem, and, needless to say, the human tragedy presented, cries out for responses that go well beyond cheap-shot politically motivated bumper-stickers.
There are families fleeing for their lives and seeking asylum and there are economic immigrants who cannot support their families in the imploding economies of their own countries. There are thousands who attempt to cross the border illegally and as many who surrender themselves at ports of entry in the hope of making their case before an immigration judge. (There is presently a backlog of 900,000 asylum cases pending). There are those who, with the support of the various groups and agencies working on their behalf, are fortunate enough to find a “sponsor” or can connect with a family member living in the US, and others who are separated from their children and held in cages pending a hearing – and likely repatriation to their native land.
If ever there were a need for vision, for leadership, for compassion, that time is now. Criminalizing the pathetic affords none of this. Not one person with whom we spoke wanted to have left his/her homeland, no more, I suppose, than did my grandparents when they fled from Czarist Russia or my in-laws when they managed to escape from Germany. Now is not the time to be cutting off aid to El Salvador, to Honduras and to Guatemala, countries all beset by unimaginable challenges, many of which are in fact the result of years of policies and exploitation by our government and corporate giants. No, vision, leadership and compassion would adopt policies that work to increase opportunity, better living conditions, and assure public safety – which, collectively, would remove the incentive that has had thousands upon thousands of desperate people travel 2,000 tortuous miles to an uncertain future.
It is a cliché to speak of the US as a nation of immigrants, but I could not help but conjure up that familiar trope. Just imagine the value-added to America were we to harness that incentive, to invest in opportunity rather than in incarceration and to live up to our nation’s promise. If I took nothing else with me from this extraordinary trip it was the passion of the human experience, the pathos of those whose only crime is the longing for survival and betterment, and the amazing grace of all of those organizations and individuals who labor in support of those in need.
That, and how crucial it is to work for the election of whomever will emerge as our Democratic candidate in 2020.