As I walked in the Arizona desert where so many migrants have passed, miles away from my privileged life at the University of Virginia, I felt overwhelmed by the vast separation between the United States and Mexico. I had traveled to the border with fellow students and church members to meet with activists and organizations from both sides of the border responding to the needs and suffering of migrants. One of the first things I noticed was a child’s scuffed shoe lying discarded among the red rocks. The entire sole of the shoe was gone. Once the soles of the shoes are destroyed, that is often the end of a person’s journey. It’s impossible to walk a long distance through the small rocks and cacti that scatter the desert. My thin-soled Converse sneakers had left me ill-prepared for our mere two mile journey. Had I been forced to walk 20 miles, the approximate distance between me and the border, I have no doubt my soles would have also been ripped to shreds.
Unless the child who wore those shoes had an extra pair, there is a possibility that she died on her journey. I thought of the girl those shoes belonged to. Her feet must have been only a little smaller than those of my younger sister. Had she died here or struggled to walk on in only her socks until her bloodied and bruised feet could take her no further? Or perhaps border control agents found her there and brought her to a detention center? The horror stories about the lack of medical attention given to detainees and rampant abuse continue to haunt me as I think of the story behind that shoe. Perhaps she faced an Operation Streamline trial where up to 70 defendants at a time are shackled together. Public defenders represent several defendants at each trial and are given just a few minutes to speak with their clients. Maybe she was one of the lucky ones found by No Más Muertes or the Green Valley Samaritans who gave her medical attention and water. But I fear that she was one of the 2,000+ people who have died trying to cross through Arizona since 2001. She is another statistic, another body, another faceless migrant, another person that some politicians with fierce rhetoric and flying spittle warn will destroy our country.
We met with several migrants who put a face to this issue we hear so much about in the news. I looked into the eyes of a young man so different from myself, but it was not a stranger I saw. He was no longer just another statistic. In his eyes and words I saw the complicated mixture of cynicism about current events and politicians that I find in so many of my peers at university and often myself. Yet within him was such strength of faith and hope. My friends know me, sometimes to my fault, for my optimistic idealism. Yet here was someone who had managed to maintain such optimism in the face of greater trials than I can even envision.
It's hard to convey the deep sense of connection I felt. I looked into his eyes and saw sadness, yet as our conversation progressed it seemed that our smiles were contagious. He gradually allowed himself rare, small smiles, which slowly grew more frequent and more confident. He said we heard him in a way that he had not expected. In light of the current political climate surrounding immigration, even if he does make it to America, with or without a visa, the chances that the Americans he encounters would care about his story feels increasingly small.
What does this say about our country, our “nation of immigrants”? We must lament over our country’s abysmal record on treating immigrants well throughout our history. We decimated the original inhabitants of this land and pushed them onto reservations. We defined slaves as 3/5 of a person with no rights as citizens. Women also weren’t citizens with political rights, nor were non-land owners. This was followed by decades of discrimination against Catholic, Irish, Jewish, Eastern European, and Chinese immigrants, as well as the internment of legal US citizens of Japanese descent during World War II. We are proud to be a nation of immigrants, but we’re also a nation that has abused, attacked, discriminated against, and exploited those immigrants.
What would policies that honor the dignity of the men, women, and children seeking to immigrate to the US look like?
We should start by seeking policies that treat those who come through our borders as fellow human beings. Our current rhetoric and vision for increasing security along the border is neither humane nor sustainable. Mere decades ago, crossing the border temporarily was done frequently by people from both sides of the fence, and undocumented immigrants were not hunted down in the same way they are today. Now, in direct contrast, extensive resources are being poured into tracking down and prosecuting migrants who are guilty of no other crimes. In May of this year, the Obama administration announced a plan to increase deportations. This plan explicitly targeted migrants from Central America who were denied asylum and those with children who have become ineligible for legal protections because they turned 18 while trying to appeal their deportation in court. These are some of the most vulnerable migrants crossing our border, and surely there must be ways that our country can treat them with more dignity and respect.
While my group stood along a section of the U.S. and Mexican border wall discussing the increased securitization in recent decades, an American border control agent stood outside his van scrutinizing us closely. Our guide asked this agent how he felt about capturing drug smugglers versus the economic migrants or refugees his job also requires him to arrest. The agent replied that his job was to uphold the law and he would do so with equal vigor regardless of the intentions of those crossing. This is the official stance of the border patrol as determined by government and agency policy, but it eliminates space for human judgment. While the decision of when to enforce the border should not be left purely to the discretion of individual border agents, I believe that both the Mexican and American borders would benefit from the introduction of more leniency. Cutting back on the criminal proceedings against undocumented migration and simplifying the legal immigration process would enable migrants to abandon ties with smugglers connected with organized crime and allow security forces to focus their energies on the real criminals traveling across borders.
-Alicia DeJager has just finished her first year at the University of Virginia studying foreign affairs and Latin American studies. She is passionate about bringing greater awareness about diversity and international issues to UVA.