Thursday, July 22, 2010

Letters from the Other Side (2006)

In all the highly-charged posturing and debate in the United States recently with respect to illegal immigration, it saddens me that the rhetoric often overlooks the human side of these issues. Like many issues in our public life these days, the issues often get oversimplified. Often the discussions I have heard seem to degenerate to pro-immigrant v. anti-immigrant stances. Oversimplification is a problem we have with respect to a number of issues; illegal immigration is one example.

I serendipitously came across a documentary on PBS recently, Letters from the Other Side. The link below provides some information about the film:

I thought the documentary did a good job at providing Americans with some insight into the experience of Mexican families with relatives who come to the United States. The documentary chronicled the experiences of several Mexican women in small towns in Mexico, who have had male family members leave to cross the border illegally and work in the United States. The women explain in some detail the economic challenges of simply providing food for their families. There are no jobs and their entrepreneurial efforts yield discouraging results. Some of the women in the film cite NAFTA as the prime culprit; they indicate that local Mexican markets are now flooded with cheap goods from the United States and the local Mexican producers cannot compete. They explain that in desperation over the dire economic situation, the husbands and sons of these families have left for the United States to help support their families.

The women describe the resulting heartache of the separation of their families. Because of the life-threatening dangers (and high economic costs) associated with crossing the border illegally, the men rarely come home once they have arrived in the United States. To do so would be to risk their lives. Consequently, fathers are seldom home for holidays or major family milestones. The documentary shows the impact on children who grow up yearning for--but never knowing--their fathers.

Moreover, men who go north sometimes start families there. One woman in the documentary looks longingly at a video of her American-born granddaughter whom she may never meet. The woman cannot travel to the U.S., and it is too risky for the little girl’s father to cross the border to bring her to visit her family in Mexico. The documentary shows the separation causes irreparable harm and leads to the disintegration of the family unit.

The documentary emphasizes the acute physical dangers of crossing the border illegally. One man, who has done it successfully, describes in the film the dangers of crossing the barren desert, and how he has seen men traveling with him die. He describes how those experiences have impacted him deeply. Two of the women in the documentary are the widows of men who died horrific deaths at the hands of human traffickers as they tried to make their way through Texas without interception by the authorities.

Through out the interviews, the documentary also provides insightful statistics. They note a stark increase in the number of people who have crossed the border illegally in the last decade, and the rise in remittances as a percentage of GDP. Remittances from relatives in the United States are now the second largest revenue source in Mexico, just after petroleum. Remittances now account for more revenue than derived from tourism. The statistics also describe a build up of manpower along the United States side of the border during this same time—particularly since 9/11. There are also grim statistics about the frequency that people crossing the border illegally die in the process.

I am the first to admit I don’t know the root causes of Mexico’s current troubles. Poverty has been a problem in Mexico for decades, but it seems like the economy is worse than it has been in the past. I don’t know if NAFTA is the cause or not.

Beyond the economic issues, security is also a serious problem. Warring drug lords have killed thousands of Mexicans in recent years and parts of Mexico are under military control. Many of us Americans, who have in the past loved visiting Mexico, no longer feel it is safe to go there. In the 1990s, my husband and I enjoyed visiting vibrant, cosmopolitan cities like Monterrey and Mexico City. We would love to take our children to see the sites in those cities, but it doesn’t seem safe enough any more.

I also know a lot of people in El Paso, Texas. In the past, folks in that border city enjoyed going to Juarez frequently to shop or to eat in one of the many excellent restaurants. Those activities have largely dried up. Americans aren’t crossing like they used to. The small businesses in Juarez that relied upon those visitors used to support a middle class on the Mexican side of the border metropolis, but many such businesses have failed in recent years. I have read that in El Paso there is now a growing business in renting middle class homes to Juarez professionals who find it is no longer safe to live in their home town. I am not sure why the drug wars have become so much more violent than they used to be. But it seems clear that Americans are at least in part to blame; it is our country’s demand for those drugs that fuels the illegal drug trade in Mexico.

It seems to me that the current bitter American debate about illegal immigration is misplaced to some degree. Surely we can all agree that it is no long-term solution to Mexico’s problems for a large number of the country’s citizenry to emigrate (legally or illegally). The separation of families and the dependence on remittances deeply harms Mexico and its people in social, cultural and economic ways. In my opinion, building an eyesore of a fence and enacting state laws to scapegoat illegal immigrants are not productive ways to deal with the situation. Those are mean-spirited actions that at best put a band-aid on a gaping wound. To find a long-term, effective solution, it seems to me we in the United States must look to Mexico as an equal partner to work together to find ways to build up the economy on both sides of the border.

1 Samuel 26:24(Amplified Bible)

And behold, as your life was precious today in my sight, so let my life be precious in the sight of the Lord, and let Him deliver me out of all tribulation.

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