There was a time when it was quite easy to move back and forth across the border between Mexico and the United States. North Americans and citizens of Central and South America traveled freely from one place to the other. Workers made daily treks to jobs in one country and went home at night in their homes in another country. Many from south of the border with Mexico and the United States sometimes did seasonal work for months at a time throughout different parts of the U.S. When the tasks were finished they returned to their families. Nobody needed a passport or special papers to do such things. The countries lived in a kind of harmonious agreement of mutual support until the nineteen seventies when concern about the flow of drugs resulted in the near closing of the border. In each successive decade the problem of illegal immigration has only grown, leading some who have studied the issue to wonder if tougher policies about travel back and forth was the wrong approach compared to that of the past.
In the ensuing decades the problems with immigration have continued to grow with few attempts to refine immigration policies and most emphasis being placed on policing the border and apprehending those who cross illegally. Since the tragedy of 9/11, 2001, there has been a growing fear of who might be finding their way into the United States illegally. With economic and political downturns in many of the countries to the south, the flow of people seeking refuge has become steady. Families are literally risking their lives to escape the horrors and privations in their homelands. The old relaxed back and forth from one country to another seems like a fairytale compared to the militarized feel of today’s border crossings.
Who are these souls willing to risk everything to get to the United States? What are they thinking when they subject themselves and their children to such a distressful journey? Why would anyone want to endure the privations that lay ahead for them? The truth of their stories may lie in the trend of reverse migration that is a huge factor in keeping the number of illegal immigrants living in the United States virtually steady over the last twenty years.
Many young couples escaped from their home countries and found their way into the United States without legal status decades ago. They managed to find work, live frugally and begin families. Their children were born in the United States and were therefore legal citizens of the country. Those kids went to school, learned English, graduated from high school and often went to college. They are now adults with good jobs and the ability to vote in elections. They are model citizens who only know the United States as home. Stories of the old country are simply memories from their parents who often still long to see the towns that they knew as children and the parents that that they have not seen for decades.
With their children legally settled into the United States the now middle aged couples are often ready to return to the lands of their own youth. They want to spend time with their parents before those loved ones die. With funds that they have saved from years of hard work they are often purchasing one way tickets home, happy in the knowledge that their children who are citizens of the United States will be able to freely visit them in the future. It is a trend about which we rarely hear, one that says a great deal about the sacrifices that they have made for the sake of their children.
I have sat with students over the years who described the heart rending situations of their families. These students ultimately went on to carve out places in the middle class here in the United States, but there is a part of their family history that is incomplete. As adults they began to fully understand the fears that their parents have endured on their behalf. They feel a deep and unrelenting sadness for their parents who have silently grieved over the loss of identity for years.
We have a terrible tendency to view people that we do not know only as members of a group. Their faces blend together into a stereotype that we have imagined for them. We hear of someone being illegal and make automatic assumptions about that person when the truth of his/her life may be far more complex. We would do well to hear their stories and really know them. Then we might learn to admire them rather than revile them. We might better understand the power of love that has guided them. Seeing them as individuals rather than as members of a group that frightens and reviles us may change our thinking about how to approach the tangled knot of immigration with loving concern for everyone involved.
Humans have traveled across the earth since the beginning of time. It’s difficult to say who was in some locale first. Our present day borders are the result of politics and wars over thousands of years. We have different languages and cultures and histories, but in the end our hearts beat in the same way and our blood flows through the same kind of veins. All of us want a home where we feel safe and loved. Perhaps if we begin to approach immigration with such thoughts in mind we may find a more humane way to determine who we will welcome as neighbors rather than focusing on those that we want to turn away. We need to start with kindness and only bring out our big sticks when the individual cases warrant it. It’s time that we first attempt to learn who these souls really are.