The U.S. is a land of immigrants, a common saying. Our treatment of immigrants has not always been one we can be proud of, beginning with mostly northern Europeans entering lands populated by a native or indigenous people. Through disease, wars, and policy that population has been decimated and still suffers oppression.
Following independence from England the U.S. purchased lands taken from the indigenous population by Spain, and annexed 55 percent of Mexico following a war. Indigenous people who had crossed the man-made border between the U.S. and Mexico for centuries were eventually not permitted to cross that border.
Various populations were excluded after providing much-needed labor. After building the transcontinental railroad Chinese immigrants were barred from entering the U.S. (Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882). Between 1943 and 1964 the Bracero Program bought in more than 5 million temporary workers. In 1954 Operation Wetback targeted Mexican American communities with nearly 4 million deported, including some U.S. citizens of Mexican descent.
A common practice has been the utilization of Asians and Latinos as a labor commodity rather than as people. (For a local flavor, see “White Gold Labors” by Jody Lopez and Gabriel Lopez, a documentation of the abuse of laborers brought to Greeley to harvest the sugar beet crop.) When the labor is no longer valued, people, including families, are deported.
The immigration situation has never been no more complicated than it is today. For many years the southern border was alternately open and largely closed. When labor was needed in fields and orchards, workers, mostly men, entered with a wink and nod by border enforcement. These workers tended to work for the same farm or orchard year after year, returning home after the harvest season. As the border became more challenging and more dangerous, workers stayed. Some with green cards failed to renew their status or simply overstayed.
Because we have not matched work visas with labor demand, we have many undocumented people here to fill a need. As we saw in some states, tough anti-immigrant laws resulted in large portions of crops rotting in the fields.
Over the years many immigrants brought their children with them or had children here, sometimes with U.S. citizens as the other parent. As we “got tough” on undocumented immigrants we began to deport a large number of people.
Unlike the stated policies of the White House and Department of Homeland Security, many of the deported have nothing other than a minor traffic violation in addition to illegal entry. A very significant number of those deported are parents and breadwinners. Their departure causes huge hardships on those left behind. As a result of the recession here and improving economy in Mexico, a greater percent of those trying to enter (re-enter) are doing so for family reunification.
At the same time the U.S. beefed up border security, spending billions of dollars, cutting through properties of U.S. citizens and creating the largest policing force in the country. The “fence” has been extended farther and farther away from populous centers. What used to require one or two days walking in the desert is now a brutal four-day walk. In 2012 in the Tucson Sector alone, 300 bodies (estimated to be a small fraction of the total deaths) were found. These bodies are those of brothers, daughters, mothers, aunts, grandparents, etc. Their death is not just their death but the loss of someone very important in the lives of those in the U.S. or in their home country.
Many Border Patrol agents are compassionate and rescue as well as capture immigrants in the desert. However, videos document border patrol agents breaking water bottles left out to save lives (killing is not the answer) and treating immigrants inhumanely such as making them walk barefoot. The most egregious examples on film are the beating of a man in Nogales and the shooting of an unarmed teenager who was in the Mexican town of Nogales.
Those of us who participated in the Migrant Trail, a 75-mile, seven-day walk from Sasabe, Mexico, to Tucson watched a film (“The Undocumented”) that showed the finding of bodies, the autopsies and the efforts to let families know the tragic ends of their relatives. We carried crosses with the names of the deceased and called out their names. If we did not relate to the terrible conditions at the border before we walked, we did afterward.