By Jeanette Arnquist
“For I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” – Jesus of Nazareth
When my great-grandmother and great-grandfather came to the United States, all they had to do was find the money to board a ship. It was the same with my grandfather, who landed in New York in 1907 when he was 16, an unaccompanied minor. All of these people, my maternal ancestors, moved on to Eureka, Nevada, where they had relatives and friends from “the old country.” As long as you weren’t Chinese, it was easy to enter the U.S. up until about 1924 when a quota system was put in place. No permission was needed. There was no such thing as “illegal.”
My paternal ancestors came to what is now the United States before there was a United States. They didn’t need permission from anybody either.
Because I live in Southern Arizona, where it is easy for me to see the border, I’m going to focus on crossing the nearly 2,000 miles of border between the U.S. and Mexico. It is much harder for an immigrant to enter the U.S. now, but people are still doing it.
The wall: The new Iron Curtain
Building the new Iron Curtain – aka the wall between the U.S. and Mexico – started under George H. W. Bush and was greatly expanded under Bill Clinton. And each president since then has authorized the construction of more and more border wall. I can only begin to describe the damage this has done to the land, the plants and the animals. What the wall hasn’t done is stop unauthorized human border crossers.
Under Donald Trump, 458 miles of border wall were constructed at a cost of $15 billion, or about $30 million per mile. Nearly half of this was in Arizona. Much of this construction replaced some kind of barrier already in place, for example, replacing a 12-foot-high wall with a 30-foot-high one.
To build this wall, 84 different environmental protections were waived, because this was declared a national emergency. Unless it has rained recently, you can drive along the newly built wall on a dirt “road” that is perhaps 25 to 30 feet wide. Every plant, every rock, every bit of dirt has been moved. Hills have been leveled. Mountains have been blasted away. It is no wonder that environmentalists have decried the wall.
But the wall is not complete. Even the United States Government could not overcome geography. There are places where it was just too remote and too hard to build the wall. And in some places where the wall was built, there are gaps, lots of gaps. Mostly the gaps occur where the wall crosses a wash, a place where water flows after a rainstorm.
Last December I joined a trip to the border, following the wall east from Sasabe, Arizona. At one of the gaps, we encountered a group of two men and two women, asylum seekers from Cuba. They had crossed into the United States the night before and they had spent the night huddled around a small campfire, hoping to get picked up. No border patrol or anyone else had driven past. It took us about 30 minutes to find a place where there was a cell phone signal so we could call Border Patrol. Note that a BP agent arrived quickly. The agent was fluent in Spanish and very gentle with the asylum seekers.
A bit later, at another gap in the wall, we encountered a group of Guatemalan young men, boys really, who were not seeking asylum, but hoping to enter the United States to work. If these boys succeed in crossing without getting caught, they face hiking and bushwhacking through 50 miles of desert before they reach anything that might be a pickup point. It is hard to carry enough water to survive that, even in winter.
Making it harder to cross the border doesn’t deter crossing. It only makes it more dangerous.
The problem and the solution
The “problem” of unauthorized entry into the United States is really complex. Over the last 100 years, our immigration policies have become more complicated and more dysfunctional. We build layer after layer of “solutions” without looking at the systemic causes. It seems that politicians have stoked fear of “the stranger” to get reelected. And so we get one simplistic, one-dimensional proposal after another. Detain asylum seekers. Separate children from parents. Build a wall. Send border crossers to prison.
None of this addresses the root causes or does anything for the desperate people who risk everything to cross.
What is the solution? I can’t tell you that. I do know this. As long as people and politicians argue and think in terms of winning and losing, no solutions will emerge. That will not happen until people from differing perspectives come together with the goal of working for the common good.
Jeanette Arnquist is a former Director of the Department of Life, Dignity & Justice for the Diocese of San Bernardino. She is retired and living in Tucson, Arizona where she remains active in social concerns ministries.