From A Distance: The Mexican Border

Several weeks ago Alice and I visited friends in the highlands of Southeastern Arizona.  In late summer the area receives heavy rains, and to south across a broad valley the landscape was green in creosote, mesquite and ocotillo plants. The water here drains from both sides of the valley into Greenbrush Draw a creek running down the center of the valley.  This is a landscape of jagged mountain peaks rising from the plain, distant horizons, and dramatic skyscapes. It is also the border of two worlds.

Our friends are retired etymologists and were attracted to this region by the diversity of insect life, but they learned not to take walks in early morning hours. It was common to encounter illegal immigrants crouching in the bushes along the roadways at this time of the day. Their home is located near one of great human corridors of the world, a reality starkly exemplified by the gash of

A high wall was erected across the valley to stop the flow of immigrants.
A high wall was erected across the valley to stop the flow of immigrants.

the wall, which abruptly ends within a mile or two and is replaced by a five-foot high barbed wire fence hardly matters. They come anyway.

In 2004, US Border Patrol agents apprehended and returned to Mexico 490,000 men and women along this 261-mile stretch of the Arizona border. Many others walk through the desert to pick-up spots beyond the highway check points set up by the US Border Patrol ten to twenty miles north of the border. Along the way, possessions are often discarded. Not far from our friends home, they one day found a suitcase with clothing and three cans of tuna. Another contained a teddy bear, a poignant trace of a human drama.

In the evening, the skies of Southern Arizona are crystal clear, and the hillsides in the distance the lights from Mexican villages twinkle gently from distant hillsides. But in the intervening darkness the nightly story of furtive movements, arrests and escapes goes on unabated. In orchards along the highway, mobile guard towers, cantilevered off the back of trucks rise above the trees to spot interlopers. Unmanned surveillance drones glide silently through the night sky. Men and women are spending their life’s savings to enter the United States with assurances that only a few hours of walking will be involved. For many it take days, and some – lost and without water – will die in the process. It is not uncommon for illegal entrants to try to enter the US five or six times, before either succeeding or giving up the effort.

This past April, a group known as the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps provided pilots and a fleet of 16 aircraft to patrol the border. Volunteers from across the country were asked to come to “defend America from what the group described as “mobs of illegal aliens.”  But nothing here is this simple. The border along Greenbrush Draw is a contact point of two the tectonic plates of a first and third world societies, the latter characterized by poverty, high birthrates, and economic dependence on more advanced countries. Forces in play here are the accumulation of history, social philosophy and economic circumstance, and on this border the differences are rubbed raw.

The issues engaged here are neither new, nor limited to the southwestern desert, and it is only the proximity of such problems that is unusual. In 1967 Pope Paul VI wrote an impassioned plea, entitled “On the Development of Peoples,” about the need to address the growing imbalances between wealthy and poor countries. “We must make haste,” the pontiff warned. “Too many are suffering, and a growing distance separates the progress of some and the stagnation, even the regression of others.”  More recently Pope John Paul II described the “reality of an innumerable multitude of people — children, adults and the elderly – in other words, real and unique human persons, who are suffering under the intolerable burden of poverty.”  The voice of the Church is one of compassion for those whose hope lies somewhere beyond barbed wire and desert heat.

Here and elsewhere such issues are highly politicized. In Mexico, those who successfully enter the United States are considered heroes for the dollars they return to impoverished families. The U.S. government, by contrast, has largely treated undocumented migration as a crime problem requiring law-enforcement solutions. Conditions leading to this phenomenon are difficult, but not insoluble. In a 2003 joint pastoral document, U.S. and Mexican Catholic bishops affirm that sovereign nations have the right to control their borders. But they also urged immigration reform, a temporary worker program with appropriate worker protections, and restoration of due process protections for immigrants.

From the veranda of our friends home, such issues seemed so far away, when in the early morning all stood in hushed silence as the sun broke over the eastern mountains heralding a new day. But harmony in this beautiful land is illusion, not only here but also in similar barren landscapes around the globe where human beings are in motion. Deep down, their story is our story. From a distance.” we are reminded by the words of a popular song, “we are instruments marching in a common band,” whose members include our own ancestors looking for a new world, our fathers and mothers in faith seeking a promised land of Israel, and Joseph and Mary bearing a child to the safety of alien Egypt. That child in his adult years taught us by his life and miracles that we are all God’s children and that the walls we erect against one another whether in our hearts or across our landscapes are not meant to be.

Dec. 16, 2006