On November 17, 1993 the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed into law by President Clinton in agreement with Canada and Mexico to create the world’s largest free trade area. Following the signing, NAFTA paved the way for US manufacturers to relocate to Mexico and Central America (through CAFTA) in search of cheaper labor, displacing 682,900 US jobs. As a consequence of the importation of cheaper crops (such as corn) from the US into these countries, rural Mexican farmers (who were not provided environmental or labor protection under NAFTA) were unable to compete with the changing and imposed market. As a result, 1.3 million farm jobs were lost. On January 1, 1994, three minutes after NAFTA came into effect, the Mexican State of Chiapas exploded into its first of many political uprisings in fear of what the new trade agreement would do to their economy. Since then, the eruption of armed conflict and displaced people has not ceased. This situation has created and enhanced desperation to survive by migrating north for millions of people over the past twenty years.
Interstate 10 is slowly illuminated by the glow of a dawn creeping over the blue terrain of Arizona. We’re winning an unintended race with an East-bound train as we head homeward toward Shreveport. With a week in the borderlands behind us, I am processing, and I am grieving.
Six days ago, the grey New Mexico mesas, peppered with shrubs much more stunted than our Louisiana pines, were a sight for sore eyes after the 7th hour of low-lying-everything that West Texas offers. Six days ago I knew three things about immigration and the border.
- There is an issue.
- There are sides.
- I probably lean more heavily towards those yelling “no more entries” because, at face value, it makes the most sense.
We arrived at Good Shepherd after two days of road time. With air-mattresses and unbathed bodies, our intentional Christian community joined our host church for their annual Mariachi Christmas in the multi-purposed sanctuary.
Monica, one of four bandmates, belted through pipes that sounded sculpted by the best of opera schools, while a room full of warm, retired white folks sang along in Spanish. Embarrassment followed conviction in this moment as I realized my own prejudices toward Hispanic people. And to think, racism was an illness I thought I’d grown above in our southern, half black/half white city. And yet, here she was, destroying my walls that boxed her and “her kind” into farm hands, restaurant workers, and criminals with every heart-collapsing note she carried. “Here are demons I didn’t know I had,” I cringed.
Pastor Randy joined us in the Sunday School room we would call home during our stay and began fielding our first round of questions about the area and its ambiguously daunting issue called immigration. “This valley is and has always been a funnel for periodic migration—of birds, of wind and seeds, of people. This wall is stopping something that creation made natural,” he explained. “And people don’t realize that we are getting Mexico and Central America’s best and brightest because of the millions of hard and educated workers who lost their jobs when the US approved free trade.”
He explained a bit of NAFTA/CAFTA and how they’ve benefited the wealthy greatly while causing so much detriment and divide for the lower middle class and the poor. “NAFTA is designed for those who have everything and militates against those who have nothing,” Randy shared. I had never heard of this before, but it sounded oddly familiar to the US policies enforced in Haiti in the ‘90s that wiped out most of the country’s farm economy through cheaper rice imports—a tragedy for which President Clinton has publicly apologized saying, “”I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else.” I had heard rumors of this history during my time in Les Cayes and Port au Prince, and I began to question where else in the world was my country making these deals with the devil.
The next morning, we followed Randy in our 15-passenger vehicle to pick up Shura, a fellow Green Valley Samaritan who would be assisting in our border crossing for the afternoon. With the rain setting in for a day’s worth of steady trickle, we came upon a water station set out by the 200+ Samaritans on the private property of an acquaintance. It is not abnormal for a migrant—dehydrated and on death’s door—to be seen walking through someone’s backyard in this part of desert-country. We noticed the border patrol vehicle as we unloaded our own and moved toward the watering site. Shura waved. “I try to get them to be silly,” she says, “Because the minute you start butting heads, we’ve lost and the migrants have lost.”
They showed us the blue flag posted high above the scraggly tree indicating that maybe help and hydration can be found there. Information typed out in Spanish was stuck to the side giving instructions on how to call for help and where one might go. Shura explained how white supremacist groups periodically make their rounds to these sites, defacing water stations in their child’s play quest to “kill a migrant.” I shuttered at the hatred.
We then set out for our 30-minute drive to the border of Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico where we would be crossing for the day. Along the way, Shura explained how over 2.9 million acres in the area are run by the Cartels. She shared that as desperation increased in the southern countries, organized crime increased alongside vulnerable migrants whom they could now prey upon to an ungodly extent. “Coyotes used to be a mom and pop business where you’d pay a guide to help you find a better life. Now it is assumed that most Coyotes are working for the Cartels. Largely these Coyotes are solicited by Assassins who monitor the border’s every move during their own crossing desperation—a fate they can now only escape through death.” Ninety percent of women crossing are raped at least once by Cartels, Coyotes, fellow travelers, etc. It is not uncommon for a Mexican woman to begin taking birth control months before she begins her migration, we learned.
We were told that when people are picked up in the desert, they have often traveled for months with nothing but the shoes on their feet and a backpack, all in the drive to provide for their families that cannot survive in Mexico and Central America’s current situations. “When they are found by Border Patrol, all their possessions are taken (money, glasses and cell phones with every number they know included),” they explained, “Thirty-eight thousand dollars have been taken by the US from deported migrants as a means of ‘deterrence;’ and yet, they almost always return.”
Our group crossed the border into Mexico unchecked and with ease. I ran my hand alongside the gate through which they herd the deported back across the line. “Cattle,” I mumbled toward the tall wires.
The first stop for our time in Nogales, Mexico was at El Comedor, a Jesuit-run food program for deported migrants at which the Samaritans serve each week. A mural of the last supper (complete with hispanic women, children, and men with backpacks sitting beside a Jesus with a backwards cap) stretched the wall. A 29 year-old dad from Phoenix sat at one of the tables where they cut bread. He shared how he’d lived in the states since he was 5, had a wife and kids (all US citizens), and is a lawyer. However, through means of a traffic violation, his illegal residency was discovered; without signing papers, he was deported in the night with zero family in Mexico to which he could return.
We walked several miles through the city, meeting men like Angel at his tamale stand and seeing shelters where US families have moved to take care of the homeless. Along one stretch of our 12-mile day, we came upon a part of the 21’ wall which was spray painted with pictures of candles. It was a memorial for a boy shot nine times by border patrol. A few men had attempted to jump the fence that day, but our hosts said he was simply walking alongside the wall when he was gunned down. Not far from this site hung signs declaring “Justice for Jose Antonio,” a 17 year-old who was shot by US border patrol for throwing rocks over the fence. I thought of Ferguson and New York and had trouble breathing as we continued our trek toward the Posada.
A Posada is a traditional reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging prior to the birth of Jesus. We followed a young Mary, Joseph, and their angel throughout the city of Nogales while the crowd read immigration reform liturgy through the fence asking, “Is there any room in the inn?” Mary’s donkey caused her purple umbrella to bob up and down as they sang through the rusty steel for reform, while men on the other side sang back “We are scared.” I realized in this moment that there were people in our group who could not, no matter what avenues they took, be granted permission to be on the other side of that wall. And here I, and the man singing in response, were able to come and go as we chose.
With achey feet and soaked shoes, we crossed back through the border check with nothing but a flash of our driver’s licenses as Cartel assassins called from the bridge’s overpass towards our group.
I thought about how Jesus’s first few years were met with threat in his homeland, causing his and his family’s necessary migration. I thought about what it would have been like if Egypt had erected a wall and an impossible system of entry to where our Lord would have not been allowed passage, forcing him to be in direct threat of Herod’s infanticide.
I thought about the season of Advent and its reminder that we are waiting on a world not yet made right with the promise of a God who came and will come again. I thought about all the ways that the world must be made new that we’d seen that day.
I thought about the radical mark of the Christian to be hospitable to the stranger. I thought about the pregnant virgin and her travels, the pregnant migrant and her travels, and my own child within me that came along for the journey that day. I thought about the obedience in all of those who have said yes to the suffering on both sides of the line—of all those who have opened doors when it wasn’t safe or esteemed.
I thought about the complexities of this issue and how, indeed, borders are important to a country’s functioning. I thought about how the song that is being sung is that no one wants anyone to be here illegally—not the right-winged citizen, nor the hiding migrant. I thought about how our greed has caused a desperation so deep, and more money has been pumped into the militarization of the border rather than the revitalization of the countries of origin.
I thought about all the references in scripture to how we should treat the alien among us.
And I thought about how I didn’t know any of this, truly didn’t care about any of this, 48 hours before, and how powerful Jesus’s “come and see” model is.
I asked for wisdom and words as my mind began to change.
Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.