Something There is That Doesn’t Love a Wall: Why a US-Mexic0 Wall Is Not the Solution (Part I)

Arturo, my best friend in sixth grade, was from Mexico.  My family moved to a new neighborhood when I was in sixth grade, and Arturo and his family lived next door. After school I would often go over for a while and watch MTV with him. We didn’t have cable, and so I never watched MTV except at Arturo’s. I remember watching Cyndi Lauper videos and eating pop tarts with him. I can still remember Arturo’s deep, brown eyes, his brilliant smile, his beautiful accent, and his love for his little sister Claudia.[1]

little-boy

All the photos in this blog post are taken by and used with the permission of my friend, Steve Pavey. Steve is an photographer and an applied anthropologist who works with the undocumented community. You can find more of his work at Hope in Focus.

I did not know much about how and why Arturo’s family came from Mexico to the United States. I just knew he was a fabulous friend those two years. We moved from that neighborhood a few years later, and I lost touch with Arturo, but my relationship with him left me permanently interested in anything related to Mexico, Spanish, or Spanish culture. Later in college, I met my friend Javier from Guatemala. He was a business major who worked full time while also attending school full time, and he somehow found extra time to volunteer at his church.

I would go running with him occasionally, which is actually quite funny because I cannot run at all, and Javier grew up running up and down volcanoes in Guatemala. He could run for hours without breathing harder or breaking a sweat. He told me about how people assumed he was from Mexico, and they thought he was lazy and possibly a criminal. He told me about how he had dated a girl from the U.S. once, but her dad made her break up with Javier because he didn’t like “Mexicans”, even though she had told her dad he was from Guatemala. I didn’t really understand why it should matter if Javier was from Mexico or Guatemala. He was one of the kindest, hardest working people I had ever met—just like Arturo. He was exactly the kind of person I would want for my neighbor or friend or family member.

mom-and-daughter

Photo courtesy of Steve Pavey and Hope in Focus

Arturo and Javier are probably one of the reasons I eventually decided to do my student teaching in Guatemala. Guatemala is not the same as Mexico of course, but I loved it there, and the people in Guatemala reminded me of both my friends—warm, funny, loving. While I was in Guatemala, my Spanish teacher, Elba Nora told me about how the how the United States had been involved in destabilizing the Guatemalan government during the seventies and eighties, the results of which led to many indigenous Guatemalans fleeing to other countries as refugees.

Many of the ones who stayed were slaughtered by the army of an unfreely-elected Guatemalan government supported and trained by the US. Some of the Guatemalans who fled their country eventually immigrated into the United States—both legally and illegally. Many of the immigrants seeking asylum during this time were denied visas by the U.S. (I have written more about this and my time in Guatemala in this post.)

Later on, after I graduated and got married, my husband and I moved to a new neighborhood, and much to my delight, I discovered that some of my neighbors, Rosa and Jose, were from Mexico. Rosa didn’t speak English at all. My Spanish is somewhat rudimentary, but I had picked up enough during my time in Guatemala that I could speak with her fairly well, and we struck up a friendship. I would tutor her in English, which was difficult because Rosa could not read either Spanish for English.

She really wanted to read, but she had to drop out of school when she was young to help her family earn money. Rosa told me that the drug cartels and the government in Mexico were bad, and it was extremely hard for many people to make enough money to get by. This is why she had to drop out of school to help her family. She and her husband and son came to the United States so that they could earn money to buy a house for themselves back in Mexico so Rosa’s mother could come and live with them, too.

While Rosa and her husband lived next door to me, our neighborhood definitely had some serious crimes occur—but Rosa’s family certainly never committed any of them. Rosa’s husband went to work every day. Her little son, Marco, loved to come and help my husband landscape our front yard. Rosa made fresh tamales regularly, and she brought them over to us a couple of times. They were amazing. One day, I happened to mention that my birthday was the following week. Much to my surprise, Rosa made me a tres leches cake and gave me a little porcelain dolphin for my birthday.

I have the dolphin on my bookshelf still and think about her whenever I see it. One day, I learned that Rosa and her family were returning to Mexico suddenly. I don’t know why, and she really didn’t say. After they left, I missed them terribly. They were some of the best neighbors I had ever had. One day I heard two neighbors talking about Rosa and her husband leaving. One of them said, “I don’t care who moves in there as long as they’re not Mexican.”

father-and-daughter

Photo courtesy of Steve Pavey and Hope in Focus

Arturo, Javier, and Rosa and her family are just a few of the folks from Mexico, Central, and South America that I have had the privilege of meeting and with whom I became friends. Some of my Hispanic friends have been documented immigrants; many of them have been undocumented. Over the years, I have learned a great deal from all of them. I learned that we are not that different at all. I learned that United States policies often inadvertently deprive the people there of the means of survival.

I learned from my Hispanic friends that they love their families and sacrifice a great deal to provide for them. I learned that people regularly misjudge and mistreat them, often from ignorance and fear. I have definitely been witnessing the mistreatment of immigrants on a large scale this political season as I hear our leaders talk about building a wall between Mexico and the United States and as I hear about them ramping up deportation. (It is important to note that deportation escalated during Obama’s presidency. Injustice towards immigrants is a problem of both parties.)

Our biology conditions us, perhaps, to trust people who are like us and to distrust those who are not like us. While this tendency certainly helps to protect us in some situations, it can also blind us to our allies and to our ethical responsibilities, and it can cause us to do things that destroy our own best interest in the long run. I believe that the proposed wall between Mexico and the U.S. and the plans for large-scale deportation are an example of this kind of short-sighted, destructive thinking.

If we are going to be a strong country, we must be an ethical country. We can be a wealthy country, and we can be a powerful country, but if we practice bad ethics, this will eventually erode our country from the inside out. All the power and wealth in the world will not make us feel happy, safe, and stable. The question, then, is what ethical principles should guide our consideration of the U.S.-Mexico wall and immigrants?

One of the most common ethical principles that most of us adhere to is the principle “Do unto others as you would have them to unto you.” One of the surprising things about the vitriol that people express towards Mexican immigrants is that Mexican immigrants are exactly like us. They are people who are hopeful and desperate for a better life, and in fact, many of them risk their lives in order to come here. That is exactly like the way the colonists were when they came to the United States.

Many colonists fled England because of religious and political persecution. They were desperate for a better life. Many of them risked life and limb on perilous voyages to the Americas. We praise the courage and fortitude of the earlier settlers and honor them as brave men and women who cared for their families. It is odd, then, that we view Mexican immigrants so differently, when really they are doing the same exact thing we did.

Someone might argue that the colonists came here legally while many Mexican immigrants today come here legally. This is true, but the fact that the early American colonists were not illegal is really just a matter of historical accident. The early colonists were not illegal because Native Americans did not have laws that prohibited them from coming. In fact, many Native Americans were kind to the early colonists and helped them settle, showing them how to grow food so that they would not starve to death in their new environs.

Our holiday of Thanksgiving actually celebrates the colonists’ new life in a new world and often includes a moment of thanks for the hospitality and generosity of some Native Americans to the early colonists. We could, in fact, rename Thanksgiving “Happy Immigration Day”. It is too bad that we seem to lose the spirit of Thanksgiving the rest of year, and we often treat immigrants the exact opposite of the way we would want to be treated and the way we were treated when we first arrived here.

empathy

Photo courtesy of Steve Pavey and Hope in Focus

If we are to be an ethical nation, not only should we treat others like we want to be treated, we should also take responsibility for the role we have played in creating difficult conditions in their countries. Mexico struggles with poverty, inequality, and violence, and this is what motivates many Mexicans to flee Mexico to seek a better life in the U.S. Mexico has these problems for a variety of reasons, but it is clear that U.S. drug policies as well as NAFTA have exacerbated the situation.

Since Nixon’s presidency, we have been waging an increasingly stronger war on drugs. It appears that this war has done little to stem the tide of drug flow into the United States. Drug usage actually seems to be increasing in the U.S. In addition, the War on Drugs has lead to a dramatic increase in our prison population, and many of those who are imprisoned are there for non-violent drug charges. Not only has the War on Drugs caused problems in the United States, it has also caused significant problems in Mexico. Mexico is a major supplier of America’s illegal drugs, and this caused a great increase in dangerous drug activity and empowered drug cartels in Mexico in a country in which people are already desperate to make a living.

I do not have the space in this article to discuss in depth the connection between drug consumption in the United States and cartel violence in Mexico. Others have done that here and here. It is important to note, however, that if the United States really wants to stem the flow of Mexican immigrants coming to our country, we need to take a long, hard look at the way our drug policies have inadvertently empowered drug cartel activity, and we need to consider how we could change our policies.[2] This would not stop the flow of immigrants altogether, but it is absolutely true that many Mexicans flee Mexico because of cartel violence. Certainly many of those fleeing wish they could stay in their homes and would do so if it was safer.

While we are reconsidering the effect our drug policies have had on Mexico, we need to consider the effect that our trade policies, specifically NAFTA, have had on Mexico, too. While NAFTA may have had some benefits for the United States and even for Mexico, it has had a significantly detrimental effect on Mexico’s corn farmers, as well as other Mexican citizens. With the advent of NAFTA, cheap, subsidized corn from the United Stated flooded Mexico’s market and in doing so, it put a lot of farmers out of business—farmers whose families had been farming for hundreds of years. This destroyed their livelihood. There are no other jobs available for them.

Republican senator Marc Rubio, who has worked on bi-partisan immigration reform, has also suggested that any policy concerning immigration reform must take into account the reasons people are fleeing from Mexico in the first place.

is-this-the-land-of-freedom

Photo courtesy of Steve Pavey and Hope in Focus

Once again, the United States is not responsible for every problem Mexico has, but the U.S. has greatly contributed, even though it may have been inadvertently, to several of the major problems—namely increased joblessness and escalating cartel violence–and we must take responsibility for this. If we fail to take responsibility for the damage we have inflicted on Mexico’s economy and people, we are like people who poison our neighbors’ drinking well and then act surprised and outraged when they try to draw water from our well.

Not only is that irresponsible and unethical, it fails to realize that people have a right to self-defense. If my livelihood and life is threatened in my homeland, I have the right to defend myself and seek livelihood in a different land. This is no less than what the early America settlers did in the colonies.

I often hear people say, “Well, why don’t they just go through the process to become legal immigrants?” It often takes many years and a lot of money for people to be granted legal immigration status in the United States, if they are granted it at all. To vilify people for not seeking legal immigration status when they are starving and their lives are in peril seems to be a response that is ignorant of, or possibly indifferent to, the extreme suffering many immigrants face in their countries.

In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, we read the story of the peasant Jean Valjean who was imprisoned for stealing bread for his starving sister and her family. Upon his release from jail, Valjean tries to find honest work and a place to sleep but is continually rejected by employers and innkeepers because of his record as a convict. Valjean is finally given a room in by a Catholic bishop after spending many sleepless and homeless nights on the street. In his desperation, Valjean steals the bishop’s silverware so that he can provide for himself. Valjean is caught by the police with the silverware, and when the police bring him to the bishop, the bishop in his kindness tells the police that he gave the silverware to Valjean. Realizing Valjean’s desperation, the bishop later also gives him two silver candlesticks so that he can make a new life for himself.

Les Miserable definitely tells a story of great wickedness, but the wickedness is not that of ValJean. It is the wickedness of a society the removes all means of a man supporting himself and his family and then criminalizes him when he steals out of desperation to feed his loved ones and himself. The bishop in the story reminds us that we cannot escape our ethical obligation to organize society so that people can support themselves in a dignified manner. We must first do this in our own country, but we must also be aware of ways we prevent people from supporting themselves in a dignified manner in other countries, too.

no-separen-famlias

Photo courtesy of Steve Pavey and Hope in Focus

We cannot escape our ethical obligations to Mexico, but neither can we escape our ethical obligations to ourselves and our own country. Two primary ethical obligations are the obligation to protect and care for the people in our own country and to be fiscally responsible. We certainly need to care about the way immigrants affect our safety and fiscal responsibility, but it turns out that undocumented immigrants are not a threat to our safety and that they are actually “makers and not takers” of economic wealth. In my  next post, I will address these concerns about safety and fiscal responsibility.

[1] All of the events in this post are actual events, but I have changed some of the names and details to protect the privacy of the people involved.

[2] One thing we need to seriously consider is the legalization of some drugs like marijuana and the decriminalization of all drugs and an increase in treatment services so that drug addicts can get help. Researchers at the CATO Institute have written about the success Portugal has had in decreasing drug use through decriminalization.

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