Dispatches from the Arizona-Mexico border

Justice Matters

jeanette_arnquistBy Jeanette Arnquist

 Tucson is in the North, that is the northern part of the Sonoran Desert, about 60 miles north of the border with Mexico. Tucson has been continuously inhabited for over 4,000 years. Jesuit Father Eusebio Kino established Mission San Xavier del Bac in about 1700, just South of Tucson among the Tohono O’Odhom people.

 In 1821, when Mexico became independent of Spain, Tucson became part of the Mexican state of Sonora. It became part of the United States in 1854 with the Gadsden Purchase. Many families with roots going back 200 to 4,000 years can truly say “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”

 As I said, Tucson is in the North. For thousands of years, the people of the Sonoran desert roamed from the Sea of Cortez, through what are now the cities of Tucson and Phoenix, toward the mountains of Arizona. Even today, the Tohono O’Odhom nation lies on both sides of the border. The Tohono O’Odhom people will remind you that none of the people who came from Spain, then from Mexico and then from the United States had permission to enter their nation.

 Even after Arizona became part of the United States, crossing the border with or without papers was no big deal. This all began to change in the late part of the last century.

 In 1994 President Bill Clinton authorized the construction of border wall or fence through the biggest border population centers, where most unauthorized border crossings took place. The thought was that the hazardous nature of deserts of California, Arizona and Texas would provide a natural barrier to would be border crossers.

 What was not understood was the urgency that motivated border crossers.

 Family separation: I have met a couple who were deported to Chiapas who left behind a six-year- old U.S. citizen child in Florida. I have met a mother who returned to Mexico to accompany her dying mother, leaving two teenage daughters in Chicago. She was highly motivated to return to her daughters and had attempted re-crossing the border seven times.

 Violence: I have met a man whose arms were chopped off below the elbow by gangs in El Salvador. I have met a young man who left Central America at the age of 10 with his mother because they knew that he would either be forced to join a gang or be killed.

 The reasons for crossing go on and on. Climate change resulting in inability to farm. Poverty. Economic opportunity. The promise of a better life.

 What was not understood was that people would cross anyhow. They would cross into the most rugged, brutal terrain where summer daytime temperatures can reach 110 degrees and where there is no potable water, and where night temperatures in the winter can reach as low as 10 degrees and where it sometimes snows.

 Not only do we have border wall, which, by the way, almost anyone can scale, we have sensors, drones, and cameras. Border Patrol agents have four-wheel drive vehicles, ATVs, horses, and helicopters. A person who manages to make it through all of these must walk for three to six days to reach a pick-up point. How can one person carry enough water to survive?

 The truth is that no one can. In the summer it takes as much as two gallons each day to stay alive. And there are other hazards. Blisters can be a life threatening disability, because if your feet are so damaged that you can’t walk fast enough, you will be left behind and quickly lost.

 More wall equals more death. Making it harder to cross does not deter people. It only makes it more likely that they will die.

 What does this have to do with our faith? Jesus and his parents fled to Egypt as refugees to escape the violence of Herod. In the final exam at the last judgement, we will be evaluated by the standard of how we see the face of Christ in all of our brothers and sisters. “For I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matt 25:35) 

 The broken immigration system of the United States does not only hurt those who wish to come here. It hurts all of us. Dollar wise, the U.S. has spent $263 Billion on border security between 1986 and 2016. $5 billion more will not make any difference. It hurts us on the human level as well. Our communities are enriched by the presence of people from other cultures. It is easy enough to see that when we have a choice of Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, Guatemalan, Ethiopian and on and on every day for lunch. It might be a little harder but also more important to see that the diversity of our communities brings new ideas, new perspectives and new life. 

 Failure to be generous to desperate people diminishes us as a nation. We do have the resources to welcome refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants. Failure to do so robs them of the opportunity for life and robs the rest of us from following the Gospel.

Jeanette Arnquist is a former Director of the Department of Life, Dignity and Justice for the Diocese of San Bernardino. She is retired and living in Tuscon, Arizona where she remains active in social concerns ministries.