It was cold and windy on the last morning of our trip to the Rio Grande Valley. We sat at a wooden table toward the back of the restaurant, warming ourselves with coffee and eating breakfast tacos. Cindy took notes as our companions, the pastor of an Eagle Pass church and two of his parishioners, spoke about their community and some of its most pressing challenges. For two hours, they spoke of crushing poverty, immigration issues, violence across the border, disparities in local schools, and the lack of effective community leadership.
For those two hours, I understood nothing, nada.
Well, maybe I understood un poquito—a little bit. I took Spanish in college, but that was… ahem… a while ago now.
Most of the other conversations on our trip to the Valley had been in English. Two days before, we’d driven around Brownsville with Michael Seifert of the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voices Network, who showed us how the border fence in Brownsville weaves through neighborhoods, stands open at road crossings, and in some cases cuts through farmland.
Its path seemed nonsensical, and it was clear that gaps in the fence made it ineffective—as did its climbability. According to one local community leader, the fence in South Texas cost $12.5 million per mile to build. In a region with soaring poverty rates, spending that much money on this fence seemed a waste of taxpayer dollars. What good could we have done in the community had we invested that money instead in education, access to health care, or improvements to infrastructure in areas that don’t yet have electricity or running water?
As we drove, he told stories about life in the Colonias, about people held in immigration detention centers, about the poverty and violence in some other countries that leads people to seek asylum here in the U.S., and about brutal drug-related violence just south of the border.
It was not always clear whether his stories were about people living here in the U.S. or people living in Mexico. After a while, I realized he was talking about both—and moving freely in his conversation back and forth across the border. I got the impression that that is what life is like there, so close to the border.
Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. -Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands-La Frontera
Many people have family on both sides, so it makes sense that an abduction or drug-related murder would reverberate through the life of the entire community. Beyond that, general conditions of life, the economy, and policies of each side affect the other. In this context, the border fence began to feel not just like a nonsensical, misdirected use of taxpayer dollars, but a divisive affront to people on both sides of the border—people who are tied together by family, culture, history, religion, and language, regardless of nationality.
I don’t know enough about the specifics of immigration issues to have set ideas about what U.S. immigration reform should look like. While I won’t claim to be a prophet, I do appreciate Rev. William Sloane Coffin’s response to a congressman who once asked him for concrete ideas on how to fix a complicated problem: “I am a prophet,” he said. “My job is to say, ‘Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’ Your job is to figure out the irrigation system.”
I don’t know the intricacies of immigration policy. I do know, though, that my tradition teaches that all people are created b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God. My tradition teaches that we are to welcome the stranger, for we were strangers in Egypt. My tradition teaches that we are to organize ourselves into societies whose civic principles are rooted in a concern for justice for all people, rich and poor alike.
If we start with those teachings as our guiding principles, then I’d say we are called to respond to our country’s immigration “problems” differently, and with more compassion. Building more walls is not a solution. Bringing more high-tech monitoring equipment, helicopters, and guns to the border is not a solution, either. In order to solve human problems, we need to seek human approaches.
Maybe the best way to secure our borders is to work toward a world in which people are free from want and free from fear. My guess is that the people who are desperate enough to try and cross the Rio Grande without papers do so from a place of severe want or fear. Or both.
After breakfast on that final morning of our trip, our hosts took us to see the border fence as it crosses through Eagle Pass. There, too, portions stood open during the day for foot and car traffic. After that, they took us to Our Lady of Refuge Catholic Church. There was something there they wanted us to see.
The Border Patrol agents who found him floating in the Rio Grande thought he was yet another person who drowned trying to cross the border. Turns out, he was a six-foot statue of Jesus, his origins unknown. Did the “Undocumented Christ,” as he is now known, come from somewhere in the U.S., or from Mexico?
Does it matter? He’s here now.
This post originally appeared at the Texas Interfaith Center for Public Policy. The above photo was taken by the author.