Monday, June 24, 2013

Only a Checkpoint Marks the Difference

Read this reflection about the Southern border written by Melissa G. Davis, coordinator of the Office of Immigration Issues for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as the Senate debates the Corker-Hoeden amendment, which doubles down on unnecessary and excessive border militarization provisions.

The border is not this inanimate object. It is not a place that indicates the end of one thing and the beginning of another. My observation is probably laughable to the hundred or so people I met while visiting the border region of Arizona last month. Particularly to the woman I saw carrying a birthday cake and small blue tricycle through the checkpoint and into Mexico. The border, and border life, is fluid. It is a space more than a place. It represents a way of life, a way of being, and most importantly, a way of thinking. To think of the border as an object sanitizes it of its life and ignores the people shaped by the border land and culture.

I realized how fluid the border is and my own privilege as a result of my white skin and U.S. passport when my colleague and I were leaving Mexico one. We were exhausted and distracted by our talking and laughing. We knew our hotel was close and followed the migratory pattern established that morning. Unfortunately, we were attempting to leave Mexico via the entry point, not the exit. We were stopped by two Custom and Border Patrol agents, who lightly and humorously scolded us then let us pass. Our hotel was so close that we had momentarily forgotten that we had to get “there.” Only the checkpoint acknowledged the difference between here and there, the sights, the smells, the air – it all felt the same.

On another occasion, I stood with my colleagues at a checkpoint waiting to reenter the U.S. and a man pointed out how the barrier altered a centuries old street. It was clear that the checkpoint was built on an existing road, cutting one end from the other. The longer we waited the more stories he told. He pointed out a building on our right that was charred from a recent fire. He shared with us how fire trucks from the U.S. got as close to the barrier as possible and then shot water over the checkpoint to help extinguish the flames. There was a tremendous amount of commerce and community building taking place at this barrier. Many U.S. citizens I met traveled to Mexico for dental work and to have their prescriptions filled for a fraction of the cost in the U.S.

Bipartisan immigration reform legislation has been proposed and it has sparked an immigration debate. Our country is having this debate in sound bites. This creates, usually, a false and simplistic view of a complex policy and it leads the American public to believe that our options are few. As a result this debate has focused on only two aspects of reform: a legalization program for people already living and working in the U.S. and border maintenance. It is further believed that these two things are in tension with one another. Politicians and the public are therefore forced to make this false choice between “securing” the border or providing a pathway out of the shadows for families who have already given so much to this country.

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church has policy on immigration reformthat calls for comprehensive reform of our nation’s immigration laws. This policy
advocates for a pathway to citizenship for the millions of people already living and working in the U.S. and opposes the militarization of our southern border. The General Assembly, in its wisdom, recognizes that we can have safe and humane border policy in line with the values of America AND provide a pathway to citizenship.

As I shared this policy with Presbyterians in Arizona, I kept hearing from border people about the necessity of not throwing the border under the bus in an effort to secure legalization. They shared their concerns about the proposed legislation, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (SB744) and the additional funds that are to be used for fencing, drones, agents, and other equipment that, they believe, will not increase their safety but further militarize their lives. People living in the border area understand that the rest of the country is willing to have them bear the burden of reform for all of us. Until my visit with them I did not fully understand what was being asked of them.

The immigration reform legislation, SB744, made it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee relatively unscathed, for better and for worse. The legislation is clearly a product of negotiation, but we should not blindly accept it. People of faith should remember that this legislation was written by politicians with political aspirations and re-election treasure chests that are never quite full enough. Our faith calls us to justice, not to compromise.

Soon the legislation will be debated on the full Senate floor. In response, a group of Republicans have circulated a dear colleague letter that makes clear their intention to continue the effort to militarize the border, even at the expense of a workable legalization plan. It is going to be a long summer and Presbyterians must remain vigilant and engaged in the process where our values will be traded for votes.

We are to become advocates, witnesses to the biblical mandate to do justice. While government is created by God and therefore good for us, we also recognize that it too is fallen and in need of redemption. Christians do not submit to the powers and the government blindly, but have responsibility to ensure that the laws that govern our lives together reflect our values.

As people of faith, we have the privilege and responsibility to stand in solidarity with the parts of the body that suffer and to suffer with them. This space, and the people who populate it, are suffering and we cannot ask them to suffer more on our behalf. The long lines at check points that keep birthday girls waiting, the racial profiling that privileges some, the normalizing of surveillance and loss of due process, and most importantly, the loss of life has created untold sorrow. We can bring commonsense to this debate and move beyond sound bites. Presbyterians working locally help communities understand the effects of our broken immigration system and the opportunities to become involved in this movement.

The effects of a border policy that ignores due process and human dignity may feel a world away but these hurts and the suffering are born by all of us. The increase of equipment and military presence to this volatile region of the world is dangerous, putting federal agents and citizens at risk. In addition it threatens the culture of our southern borderlands.

This is not a zero sum game, we can have a just commonsense plan that provides for those present in the U.S. without authorization a pathway out of the shadows to a place of full recognition of their contributions and we can have a workable border maintenance plan that respects human dignity and American notions of due process, while protecting our nation from those who wish to do our country harm.

Learn about this space we call our southern border and its culture and join in the effort by contacting your Senators and urging them to not further build up the border region with equipment and agents. Ask them to not hang the hopes and dreams of millions on the politically created triggers and political aspirations of members of congress. Heed the call of those asking the American public to respect the culture of this space and not throw it and its people under the bus during this debate.

For more information on Presbyterians working at our southern border, contact Frontera de Cristo at

Learn to be an effective advocate by utilizing this resource from the office of Public Witness for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) at justice/pdf/holy_discontentment_advocacy_resource_final.pdf.

The Southern Border Communities Coalition is working to amend SB744 in ways that increase efficiencies as opposed to simply further militarizing the border: