Life at the Border Six Months into 2017

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

Credit: Center for Migration Studies

Life at the Border Six Months into 2017

The year is half over and it is a good time to reflect on what has been happening at the border. We started off with a whimper in terms of the threat of massive deportations. In the first four months of 2017, the numbers of deportees arriving at Casa del Migrante were down 30 percent in comparison to 2016. Since then, deportations have picked up quite a bit and we are beginning to see how a mass deportation program might look. This is what the numbers look like here at the Casa:

  • In April 2017, we received 444 migrants and 23 of them from Central America (a low number in terms of life at the Casa).
  • In May 2017, we received 701 migrants, with 23 from Central America.
  • In June 2017, we received 711 migrants, with 50 from Central America.
  • In 2017, the number of Central Americans arriving at the Casa has increased over 25 percent in comparison to 2016.

We can also emphatically state that, contrary to what the Trump administration has promised, not all deportees are hombres malos. It seems clear that immigration agents are very content to go for the lowest hanging fruit on the deportation tree.

There has been a definite increase in abusive treatment of migrants at the border in 2017 and what we are seeing and hearing can be summed up by a few men who shared their stories with us:

I was told by an immigration agent at the border that I could not ask for asylum because I am a Mexican so I should just go back home.

It was about 110 in the desert when they picked us up and the border patrol agents would not turn on the air conditioning in the van that held 20 people. When we complained, they just laughed at us.

I was put in a detention center called “El Congelador” (“the freezer”) where we slept on metal beds and they gave us foil-like bedding. It was always freezing cold and, when we asked why, we were told it was to control the bacteria. My wife and daughter were released to pursue their asylum cases, but after two months I could not take it anymore and so I asked them to deport me as soon possible.

In addition to the abuse of many migrants, the rate of violence and homicides in Mexico is spiraling out of control. A brief comparison suggests the scope of this problem.

The final numbers are not yet in for the presidency of Peña Nieto because he still has 19 months to serve. While the first three years of his administration saw a decrease in homicides, the last few years are painting a very different picture. In 2016, there were 39,851 homicides/disappeared people which translates to 109 per day, and 2017 is not looking any better. Violence and homicide continue to be key barriers to economic development in Mexico. This reality does not make the transition any easier for those being deported to Mexico.

There is little doubt that this recent streak of violence is being fueled by a drug business that cannot be controlled by the governments of Mexico or the United States, and the United States remains the number one consumer of drugs from Mexico. Yet we continue to think that migrants are the problem and, if we just deport them, the problems will go away. This kind of thinking defies logic and it makes me want to scream from the rooftops: WAKE UP AMERICA – MIGRANTS ARE NOT THE BAD HOMBRES. The bad hombres continue to thrive and the drug business continues to boom and produce a lot of money for all the bad hombres on both sides of the border.

From where I stand in Tijuana, it seems clear that the deportation of millions is not the solution, and that the cruel reality is that Mexico is not getting any better in terms of their economy (unless you happen to be a big-time drug dealer or a government official doing the opposite of Robin Hood – stealing from the poor to give to the rich).

On the other hand, life is Central America is certainly not any better, and we see more and more people from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador coming to Tijuana because it provides them some hope for a better future. I am sure that the Mexican dream of so many Central Americans will soon come to an end as the United States continues to pour money into Mexico to secure the southern border.

In light of all this, the million-dollar question is: What do we do? Let me share a few ideas of this topic:

  1. We need to be honest and admit that hunger and fleeing for your life will always trump walls, the threat of deportation and the not so subtle racism and xenophobic attitudes that seem to run rampant in the United States.
  2. We need to make it easier for workers to immigrate to the United States. It is so obvious that the US economy needs more workers to keep it afloat. Canada has been using temporary work visa programs that work well. Why can’t the United States have a system that functions well?
  3. There are a lot of good people living in the United States who lack the right credentials and papers, but it will be impossible to deport them all. So why not do the right thing and allow them to come out of the shadows and make things right for them and for their families? Most are decent human beings, and it is cruel to separate families. In addition, it is a pure fantasy to think people will self-deport (in the first six months of this year, we have seen exactly one person at the Casa who self-deported).
  4. No doubt there are bad hombres who need to be deported, and Mexico needs to be prepared to accept and welcome them back home.
  5. We need to stop deporting veterans. They have served the United States and should be automatically given citizenship before they finish their term of duty. This would be a very American thing to do, rather than dumping them at the border after the sacrifices they made for their adopted country.
  6. We need to revisit how we are treating asylum cases at the border because many Mexicans and Central Americans are fleeing for their lives and should be given a real and fair chance to present their cases. Too many people are being abused when they try to present their cases for asylum. Once again, this is not making America “great again.”

In conclusion, from the perspective of the border, there are a lot of issues to be dealt with and, until we become more creative in looking for real solutions, many people will continue to suffer. If we want to strive to make America great again, we need to do some soul searching in terms of the rhetoric surrounding immigration and seek real solutions. What we have been doing is unworthy of the land of the free and the home of the brave. Simply put, we can and must do better, so we can make America great for one and for all.

July 11, 2017