We have been staying at BorderLinks these past two weeks. In the first week, we learned about issues related to immigration and the U.S./Mexico border, including the history, root causes, policies, and inhuman treatment deployed by detention centers. I started my internship with SOA watch in the second week. But since a lot of what I learned and experienced is very emotionally heavy, I will focus on my reflection for Week 1 and talk about my internship from Week 2 in a later post.
One documentary that we watched, called “Immigrants for Sale,” portrayed the inhumane treatments employed in the privately-owned detention centers. More detainees filling the beds translates to more profits. The fundamental problem lies in the setup of the system: when prisons or detention centers are run by private corporations, the incentive is money and not justice. Politicians, lobbyists, and shareholders are incentivized by self-interest, but they shouldn’t be in the same context when human lives are involved. Because when human lives are placed on the same balance with money by those people, they are worth less than pieces of trash. According to the documentary, detainees might be physically abused, fed with nearly perished food or food that does not cater to individual’s dietary needs, or not given medical attention when one is in need. At the end, I could not hold my emotions but let myself cry.
We attended a court hearing for mass prosecutions of unauthorized border crossings in Evo A. DeConcini U.S. Courthouse, a district court in Arizona. Operation Streamline, a policy begun in 2005, mandates that nearly all undocumented immigrants crossing the Southern border in certain areas be prosecuted through the federal criminal justice system, a departure from previous practices when most immigration cases were handled exclusively within the civil immigration system. Instead of being tried individually, people are processed in groups of up to 8 people, in which they are subject to conformity when making decisions that matter to their lives. On the day we visited, a total of 45 people were processed within an hour, with most individuals being tried in less than a minute. By the way, the attorneys usually only have 20 to 30 minutes to learn about their clients beforehand. First-time offenders are convicted with a charge for misdemeanor, while people caught for re-entry are charged with felony, making them ineligible to gain a legal status in the U.S. for the rest of their lives. Operation Streamline has exposed undocumented border-crossing people to unprecedented rates of incarceration; overburdened the federal criminal justice system; and added enormous costs to the American taxpayer while providing a boon to the for-profit private prison industry. When too much focus is put on the numbers, it can be easy to fall in the trap of prosecuting for the sake of prosecuting immigration cases. Resources will also be diverted from processing more serious criminal cases. Aren’t these just different manifestations of injustice?
[Personal side note: The demeaning attitude the Judge had towards the migrants is disgusting, suffocating and infuriating.]
We also accompanied a grass-roots organization called No More Death on a desert walk to supply water for migrants and learned more about border issues by visiting the border wall. Just a 3-hour desert walk was enough to pain and sore my muscles the next day (it’s partially due to the poor trail condition but more to my personal unfitness). The “softened” texture of the road, e.g. made up of sand or little pebbles, made walking a lot harder and energy-consuming. We even had to do some rock-climbing along the way! Walking in the hot summer sun, through thorny plants, without sufficient food or water, and sometimes without any clear direction must be extremely exhausting and dangerous. No wonder a lot of people don’t make it to the other side, died in the desert in search for a better life…..
Why do migrants need to put their lives at stake to cross the border? The U.S. adopted an anti-immigration strategy called “prevention through deterrence”: the relatively safe-to-cross sections of the border became militarized in the past few decades, forcing migrants to go through the perilous desert in order to come to the U.S. In other words, the U.S. government knows that people die or get lost easily in the desert, and that’s exactly what it wants. It hopes to deter migrants from crossing illegally by strategically making people die. How is this deed different from that of a murderer?
“Why do they have to come?”
“Why can’t they come via a legal routine?”
“They are breaking the law, so they deserve those punishments.”
I have to admit that I, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was bothered by those questions before coming to Tucson. But when I immerse myself in a community so close to the border, learn about the issues from a holistic perspective, I have answers to those questions.
If my basic human rights are jeopardized by political and economic forces in my country; if I am confronted by incessant violence and turmoil that threatens my life; if the closest country that could be my harbor barely gives me any chance to gain a legal status (e.g. due to insufficient skill set, lack of money and resources, etc.), what would I do? What could I do?
Yes, they might have broken the law, but what does it mean when the law itself is unjust and unforgiving? The system criminalizes people for crossing the border without authorization. Yet, it barely give them the opportunities to apply for asylum. By criminalizing those migrants, the system not only deprive them of their qualification to enter the country with a legal status for the rest of their lives, but also implants the notion that those border-crossers deserve punishments into the American people. Along with how the media portrays the related issues, Americans can easily become apathetic towards the injustice migrants face in the U.S. legal system or the inhuman treatment they face in the detention centers.
How does it make sense that lives on one side of a socially constructed border are priceless, while those on the other side are worthless?
Equal as human beings, how could some live a prosperous life at the expense of other’s basic right to life?
How demanding could it be to fulfill human being’s basic physiological and safety needs in this day and age?
It’s easy to be priggish when one is given a safe and comfortable life by being born on “right side” of the border, or in the “right place” of the world. Life isn’t fair. But if everyone on this planet can live up to his/her humanity, then we at least won’t be as far off as we are now from a fair world.