When I was a small child in San Diego County, my family frequently crossed the border into Tijuana. We went for lunch, to shop in department stores, to buy housewares. The crossing was only marginally more difficult than a commute from New Jersey to New York City. Minimal or no ID was required. When I was old enough to have my own money, I made precious purchases in that lovely city: a colorful paper flower I bought on the street for a dollar, a thin silver bracelet from a department store.
Decades later, crossing the border feels much harder. The scenery is no longer delightful and that department store no longer exists. Instead, the landscape is a mix of slum and skyscraper. Tijuana has been remade in the image of cities all over the world experiencing profound income inequality. Instead of the easy passage of consumers going south for the day and workers going north, long lines and barbed wire make the crossing arduous.
Accompanied by more than 20 other rabbis and cantors, and led by representatives from HIAS and Jewish Family Services of San Diego, I made this crossing on July 3. We wanted to see what more than a decade of harsh immigration enforcement has wrought, to go to the places where migrants shelter and hope for legal, medical, and psychological assistance.
On the ground, it’s easy to see the ramifications of the increasingly strict enforcement of our borders. The nuances are complex, even if the picture is stark. I have learned that strict enforcement discourages undocumented workers in the United States from crossing back to Mexico. We saw it has also created a class of deportees now scrounging for a living on the Mexican side of the border, many far from the homes they originally fled due to poverty, violence, or political chaos. It creates an interminable line of asylum seekers, waiting in limbo for their credible-fear hearings with U.S. immigration officials; we learned that the current waitlist for an asylum hearing is 1,000 people long.
Some might say this isn’t our business, that it isn’t our fault other countries are experiencing emigration or internal migrations. But it is our business. And it is often our fault.
The United States has destabilized a continent by supporting military coups and recognizing undemocratic governments. We’ve done so by “free” trade agreements and internal U.S. policies that flood impoverished markets with U.S. goods, decimating the local agricultural economy. When we talk about “economic migrants,” we are often referring to people in an untenable economic position as a direct or indirect result of American policy. We have funded civil wars in Central America and then, so as to avoid our responsibility to grant asylum, ignored the resulting human rights violations. And we have become increasingly stingy with refugee and asylum status.
Even people suffering in Tijuana do not want to leave their homes, their neighbors, their language, and culture. If simple poverty were enough to uproot masses from their homelands, the United States would be overrun. My ancestors would have been very happy to stay in Poland and Ukraine — they only left when poverty and violence became intertwined. Likewise, the bulk of migrants attempting to enter or stay in the United States are doing so because there is no longer any reasonable alternative.
There will likely always be a need to enforce our borders against potential criminals and terrorists. Contrary to President Donald Trump’s claims that Democrats want open borders, I haven’t yet heard a serious thinker suggest this.
But the mass movement calling to “Abolish ICE” or otherwise dismantle our immigration enforcement system is asking for a disruption in the way we think about migration. If we continue to serve as the world’s police force and support military regimes, if we continue to economically oppress the developing world, our emphasis on immigration enforcement is throwing good money after bad.
I heard a wise minister in San Diego call on clergy to let their “faith be a disruption.” That is my desire in traveling to the border, and in writing this piece. Let’s be a disruption. Let’s strive for enforcing the dignity of every human being created in the image of God, and focus on enforcing borders second. It is in our power to fix the brokenness of our world, if only we would use it.