“Human lives are hard, even those of health and privilege, and don’t make much sense. This is the message of the Book of Job: Any snappy explanation of suffering you come up with will be horseshit.” ~Anne Lamott, “Help Thanks Wow: Three Essential Prayers”
I went on this trip to “get woke,” as the kids say, to become aware of the social injustices happening on the border. I came together with people of conscience and concern to learn about immigration and deportation in our country. And well, “woke” I got. Perhaps the biggest revelation of all, however, is how much more “woke” I’ve yet to be. There’s so much I don’t know, so much I must learn. And, oh, so much suffering.
To understand what’s happening at our border, one must understand how the laws and borders have changed over time and how immigration law has changed; it wasn’t always a criminal thing to be a migrant. Families have moved, back and forth across the borders, flowing like rivers, as time and place allowed. As work beckoned. As need arose. They answered the call, they worked the land, they returned home. Now, however, in a post-9/11 world, the Department of Homeland Security has adopted a militarization of our borders under the guise of keeping terrorists out. In the funneling of migrants toward the middle – the most inhospitable part of the desert landscape – the numbers of deaths, and human remains, continue to rise. We visited with a number of humanitarian aid groups and I still cannot process it into a coherent narrative. So, here are some tiny (hopefully) digestible parts:
- We heard from grassroots group No Mas Muertes (No More Deaths), which provides humanitarian aid to migrants attempting to cross. Despite some claims that they are aiding and abetting terrorists, No Mas Muertes is not there to tell people what to do; they’re there to help them not die. How basic does it get when you hand someone a jug of water?
- We learned about the Correction Corporation of America, a for-profit prison, to which Congress has mandated that 34,000 beds remain filled, and where the migrants accepting the plea bargain serve their sentence before being deported.
- We witnessed Operation Streamline – the physical drama of deporting 40 people in ninety minutes – that is meant to deter migrants from crossing the border illegally by giving them all a criminal record; if they plead guilty and accept the plea bargain, their felony charge will be dismissed and they will serve a sentence of anywhere from 30 – 180 days before they are deported. The hardest part to witness was the fear in their eyes, already wet and swollen from tears and nights hiding in the desert; their bodies are shackled, shamed, and chained – simply for dreaming of a better life and/or for escaping the poverty and violence of the place where they were born.
- We crossed the border (so easily!) and helped to serve breakfast at El Comedor, a cafeteria just inside Nogales, Mexico. We met migrants recently deported, shared supplies (like baseball caps and socks and Neosporin) with displaced and disoriented people. I held a two-month old baby while his mother ate; he cried and fussed, not liking my smell or my touch. His mother and I could not communicate directly, but through an interpreter, I told her I was a mother too, and we nodded in solidarity.
- We listened to the stories of three women at the shelter up the hill from El Comedor, and I cried so hard I had to hide my eyes, bow my head, shield my face from embarrassment – not because I’m too proud to let others see me cry, but because I was ashamed, in front of the women who actually lived these nightmares, to be weeping with pain. I could not help but put myself in their shoes, to imagine the anguish of having cartels threaten to take my children if I didn’t comply with their demands, of being separated from my husband and children indefinitely while they lived on one side of a wall I was unable to ever legally cross, because I had already been deported. And I couldn’t wrap my brain around my own privilege. How stupid, it seems, that I get to benefit, simply for being born on this side of a wall. If God should be anywhere, it’s with the poor. And the poor are women like Eva and Isabella. But while the walls of the women’s shelter may be temporarily protecting them from bullets and starvation, they cannot protect against such heavy grief.
I get it, pain is pain and grief is grief and there are people in this country who are hurting so why don’t we focus on Americans first, especially when there are laws and rules…why don’t people just come here the right way in the first place and do what our government tells them to do? Well, the problem is that it’s not that simple. The truth is that there already is a wall, and it’s big, and people are dying trying to cross it, and coming here legally isn’t really an option when you’re fleeing death and violence and corruption. And, even if you’re not facing an imminent threat to life, the legal hoops through which one must jump can seem insurmountable:
The physical deterrent of a wall is not solving any problems. Instead, the criminalization of migration at our border is dehumanizing, and immigration, though certainly a hot-button issue, cannot be solved with a sound byte.
I keep coming back to the suffering. It’s hard to process human suffering, in any amount. Again, pain is pain, and while I want to honor your experience, not diminish it, sometimes it’s hard to measure the severity of one’s pain. Students claim X, Y, and Z to go to the bathroom in the middle of a test; my own children cry and whine when I know they’re not actually in pain, so I try to brush it off. Dylan has taken to saying “I ok” whenever he falls, now, because he knows his inherited clumsiness will garner little sympathy from me.
But still, I spend so much time trying to protect my kids, and myself, from suffering. We barricade ourselves against it with seat belts and bike helmets and baby monitors and outlet covers. When I hold my boys in my arms, I pull them close, kiss cheeks and cheeks and cheeks until they squirm under my oppression and break free. No Mommy! Dylan shouts as he wriggles away. But I just want to keep holding them and I know I cannot stop time but Oh. My. God. the dangers that await them paralyze me with fear. And yet, escaping pain and/or death is a futile effort. I can only breathe deeply and shift my perspective, because actions motivated by fear are the darkest, most hopeless actions of all. Fear makes people lash out against what scares them in order to restore their comfort zone, even if they have to destroy innocent lives along the way (shout out to Harper Lee for that lesson…).
And that is exactly what’s happening on the border. People are scared of migrants taking what is theirs, or what they think should be theirs, so they lash out with senseless violence and/or support demagogues like Donald Trump.
America may be known as the land of opportunity, but America is not really living up to its promise, as stated on the Statue of Liberty:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Where is the humanity? Where is our compassion to our neighbors, the mothers and their children with their dirty cheeks and hungry tummies and tired eyes yearning to be free, safe, and to find a place to call home? What is our responsibility? How can we complicate, not simplify, the answer to this problem? Because the situation is dire, and the solution is not as simple as building a wall. Besides, one already exists: