Washington Witness: Wall or refuge?

May 27, 2019 by

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The number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border has risen sharply in recent months. Previously the majority apprehended at our southern border were single adults seeking work. Now, more than 60 percent are families and children seeking safety.

Tammy Alexander

Alexander

These families and children are not trying to sneak across the border. They are turning themselves in and requesting asylum — a legal process provided for by both U.S. and international law.

More than 85 percent are from Guatemala and Honduras, where drought, a lack of jobs and gang violence are pushing people to migrate. Family connections also pull people to the U.S. Though the number of single adults crossing the border is near 50-year lows, the number of asylum seekers continues to rise. Policymakers and border officials, however, have not adjusted to the new reality.

Stepped-up border security, increased detention and other enforcement policies aimed at deterring asylum seekers, have, in fact, had the opposite effect.

A similar phenomenon happened in the 1990s when the Clinton administration began another such policy of deterrence. The idea was to make it so difficult to cross the border that people would choose not to come. Instead of staying home, however, migrant workers brought their families to the U.S. to avoid multiple border crossings, and the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. rose sharply.

Today, some would-be migrants see the increasing restrictions and enforcement and decide they should go to the U.S. now, while they still can, knowing this might be their last chance to seek safety, find work or reunite with family. Others make the choice to come because they believe the risks of staying home still outweigh the risks of making the arduous journey north.

We cannot build walls tall enough or long enough to stop such migration. When people face poverty and violence in their home countries, they will go over, under, around and break through walls in order to find safety and sustenance.

How easily we forget that many of our ancestors came to the U.S. under similar circumstances, suffering violence, persecution and hunger, desperate to keep their children safe and longing for a better life. The words of Lev. 19:33-34 implored the residents of Israel to remember that they were once strangers in a foreign land and to consider this every time they encountered a stranger in their midst. Migration has been a common thread throughout human history. It is no different today.

How we respond to the current crisis will say much about the conscience of our nation. Will we find every excuse to turn away refugees at our border, or will we respond with compassionate and thoughtful solutions?

Effective policy responses include alternatives to detention, reducing the immigration court backlog (without sacrificing due process), providing more legal avenues for those who want to work and reunite with family in the U.S. and increasing support for programs in Central America that provide job training, sustainable development and reduce corruption.

Walls, razor wire and military troops will not slow the migration at our border. That can only be accomplished by helping our neighbors to have safe and prosperous lives in their home countries. Until then, we can offer a place of refuge, hospitality and hope for weary souls.

Tammy Alexander is senior legislative associate in the Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office.


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