The Elephant in the Room

Fr. Pat Murphy, c.s.
Centro Scalabrini – Casa del Migrante
Tijuana, Mexico

Credit: Center for Migration Studies

Reflections from the Border: The Elephant in the Room

In reflecting on all that has been happening at the US-Mexico border over the last 10 months, it occurs to me that there is an elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge. While unpopular to say, it’s too important not to say: The vast majority seeking asylum at the border have little or no chance of attaining it. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but studies show that even in the best of times low percentages of asylum applicants from Mexico and Central America prevail in their claims. This is the cruel reality.

We keep hoping and praying, organizing and working for asylum but in the end, very few will be able to attain the joy of the American Dream. What can we do about it? Let’s start by admitting that some of the efforts to deal with this unprecedented flow of humanity have not been successful. Let me cite a few examples:

  • an effort to build more and bigger walls along the border;
  • sending more troops to squelch the onslaught of people;
  • implementing the “Remain in Mexico” policy for asylum seekers;
  • using the issue as a political football to gain votes for the 2020 elections;
  • repeating the same sound bites, such as: “There is a crisis at the border”;
  • threatening tariffs on Mexican imports until Mexico stops the flow of migrants;
  • sending Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents to Guatemala to provide “professional advice”;
  • asking Mexico to send 6,000 National Guard members to control its southern border; and
  • convincing Mexico of its obligation to be a safe country for Guatemalan asylum seekers and convincing Guatemala to be a safe country for Hondurans and Salvadorans.

Yet none of these big ideas seem to be a viable response to the flow of humanity arriving at the border. In fact, let me borrow a phrase: these are all Fake News solutions.

To be honest, there is no crisis at the US-Mexican border, nor is there an immigration invasion. From where I stand in Tijuana, the only thing I can see on a daily basis is an invasion of poverty. The people coming to our Casa are not coming with the goal of being undocumented migrants but 100 percent of them are coming to ask for asylum. They are not arriving because they believe the United States is the best place in the world to live, but rather because they are desperate to escape the poverty and violence of their homelands. The big headline in this immigration novela (soap opera) should read: People will continue to come no matter how high the wall, no matter how many troops and no matter how strong the anti-immigrant rhetoric. Desperate people do desperate things in order to survive and that is why they will continue to arrive at the border.

We are experiencing a worldwide movement of peoples that goes far beyond the US – Mexican border. At the Casa, we see this situation played out in a dramatic fashion every day by the people who arrive at our doors seeking room at the inn. The movement of people stretches along the southern border of Mexico, particularly in places like Tapachula where people keep coming and coming. It can be found in the city streets of San Salvador and Tegucigalpa where the local government has lost all control to organized crime. It is found throughout Guatemala where poverty is rampant, and the government is inept and corrupt. It is experienced throughout most of Mexico where violence and homicides seem to set new records each year. This worldwide phenomenon exists in Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba, Cameroon, Haiti, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Mali – countries whose nationals arrive at our doors every week, trying to escape a homeland that fails to offer them an opportunity for a peaceful life.

So, the million-dollar question remains – What can we do about it? In the 1880s when confronted by the mass migration of Italians to the Americas, our founder Blessed John Baptist Scalabrini uttered a phrase that still makes sense today: “People have the right not to migrate.”

So simple but so profound: people have the basic human right to stay at home, enjoy gainful employment, and live with dignity. However, as we can see, millions of people throughout the world are being denied this right daily and so they leave home in search of a better life. Where do we begin? Perhaps we begin by simply acknowledging that many of the so-called solutions are not working and that it is time to look at other options. Let me offer a few suggestions.

The first is the need to tone down the unproductive rhetoric. The name calling, the blame game, the excessive bending of the facts and outright lies are not helpful in resolving this problem. The United States has a long history of welcoming people who have fled persecution and poverty. It has mostly not been a country that lives by the philosophy of “America first.” We have done better, and we can do better again as a nation. Now is not the time to throw in the towel and turn our backs on the poor of the world. To do so would be un-American.

Second, the United States needs to take the lead in seeking out regional solutions to what has become a worldwide problem. It seems apparent that if we want to stem the flow of migrants to the north, we need to take a look at what is happening in their homelands. It makes no sense to cut off aid to Central American countries when people are in desperate need of help. Now is the time to gather the best minds of the region (from Canada, the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and elsewhere) in order to analyze the situation and seek out creative ways to save people lives. We cannot trust the governments to solve this problem. Civil associations, nongovernmental organizations, and faith communities must be involved in this dialogue. In addition, the dialogue cannot simply be about border enforcement, but must lead to a strategic plan to make people’s lives better, so that migration is no longer the only option.

Third, it is time to move from seeing immigration through the lens of politics and to see it for what it really is – a human problem in need of a human response. It is easy to fall into the trap of labeling people in such dehumanizing ways that we forget we are talking about real human beings. They are not gang bangers, criminals, rapists, and murders. This is not our experience at the Casa del Migrante.

The people we see every day are simple poor people trying to live life with dignity. There is no migration invasion. People are on the move because they can no longer imagine any other solution but to leave their homelands. Consequently, it is up to those in leadership positions to offer new possibilities and to give these victims of injustice new hope.

Finally, now is the time to think outside the box. We have spent too much time with solutions that do not have any potential to solve the problem. At this juncture, I do not think that politicians can be trusted to seek viable solutions. They are not capable of setting aside politics and searching for creative ways to better the lives of immigrants. Thus, I am afraid that at this moment the politicians do not have enough goodwill to search for solutions that will help people on the move to pursue a different way. People really do have right not to migrate and now is the time to imagine possibilities that allow them to live in peace and dignity. To make this happen we need to be creative and to restore hope and dignity in their lives and those of their children.

When it comes to immigration, I think of the old saying: The definition on insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome. In this case, the same thing does not work, so it is time to ask: Who will step forward and stop the insanity?

June 19, 2019