The Torah tells us: “The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19: 33-34).
In the Christian New Testament, Jesus tells us to welcome the stranger for “What you do to the least of my brothers and sisters you do unto me” (Mathew 25:40).
The Qur’an tells us that we should “serve God…and do good to…orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer that you meet, and those who have nothing.” (4:36)
The Hindu scripture Taitiriya Upanishad tells us: “The guest is a representative of God.”
And in the Unitarian Universalist tradition that teaches that sacred text can be written and spoken by people of all times and places; Martin Luther King Jr tells us: “Love is the only cement that can hold this broken community together. When I am commanded to love, I am commanded to restore community, to resist injustice, and to meet the needs of my siblings.”
What does borderline mean? Merriam-Webster Dictionary online offers several definitions of the word. There are two definitions that I want to lift up today.
- 1. c : characterized by psychological instability in several areas (as interpersonal relations, behavior, and identity) but only with brief or no psychotic episodes <a borderline personality disorder>
- 2. : situated at or near a border <a borderline town>
There are other forms of borders or boundaries that help to establish the identity of an object. Our skin is a border of sorts. It functions to keep that which is us, our internal organs safe from dirt and invading organisms. It also aids in providing distinguishing markers that help identify us from someone else. A mole below the eye or a tattoo on the shoulder or calf can aid in identifying who we are. We sometimes come to conclusions, sometimes accurate, sometimes not accurate by looking at the person. For example, we can tell if they are healthy or ill. Or sometimes we gather something of their personality by the way they adorn their skin. Multiple body piercings or tattoos may suggest something about their character; again it may be an accurate or inaccurate read of the person. The kind of clothes a person wears may also establish a boundary.
So what identifies us as a nation through the tangible and non-tangible aspects of our national borders? What message are we sending to our global neighbors? When I went to the Mexican border I was struck by the ease in crossing the US border into Mexico. I went twice into Mexico, once by van and once on foot. Both times we simply entered into Mexican space. There was no guard to check our papers. No surveillance cameras videoing our passage across. We simply drove or walked as freely as we drive or walk along the streets and sidewalks outside of our homes to work or church. There was no question to our right to be there.
Upon return we had to prove our right to enter into the United States. Driving back across, the guard merely collected our passports, verified them and handed them back. He did not look to see if we were hiding someone in the van. He simply waived us on after returning the passports. On walking back into the States we were asked more questions. Not all of us, only some of us were asked questions. Most of the questions were about purchases. However, one member of our party, a citizen of the USA for over 20 years was detained. He was questioned about our activities. Why were we only in Mexico for a few hours. We were volunteering at the Comedore, the soup kitchen and at the Women’s shelter both run by Kino Border Initiative. He was then taken inside the building to a room where the same questions were asked repeatedly, first by the same person, then by another person. He sat there. And sat there. Waiting to be released. They told him this was just a random check but his nationality suggests otherwise. He was born in Iran. His passport shows that he has traveled extensively to other countries. We waited for him to be released. We were not allowed to find out what was happening to him. We were not allowed to wait at the border we were told we must leave the area. Eventually, he was told he could go but was not told how to exit the building. So he asked, the agent dismissively asked another to take him. This agent speaks to him in Spanish and he responds that he does not speak Spanish. The agent says, “Oh, you speak English!” and then says nothing more to him, not even translating what was originally said to him. In telling this most recent episode, our friend shares he is frequently stopped when re-entering the country. Random checks that become the expected experience are no longer random.
One of our guides for the week was Tito, a Presbyterian minister who lives in Mexico and works for No More Death’ s sister organization, HEPAC abbreviated for the translation House of Peace and Hope in Nogales, Sonora. His work takes him across the border almost daily. So he has a frequent crosser card that has biometric data on him. It is to speed up the process for crossing. However, that card does not always help him cross. Recently he tried to cross so he could attend a church meeting in Nogales, AZ. The guard looks at him, checks out his card and asks him multiple questions. He is told by the guard that he looks like a bad man. Tito, tells him he is clergy and shows him his clergy identification card—a card by the way that I have never been required to show or need to have, even when I am not wearing clerical collar people believe me when I say I am clergy—the guard however does not believe him. His belongings are searched. The guard tells him he is not allowed to cross today. Reason? The guard says he has a hunch he is a bad man and says to him come back tomorrow, today you cannot cross. Tito had to cancel his meeting because of an arbitrary whim of the guard at the border. Tito reports this sort of harassment at the border happens regularly to him. The point of a specialized border crossing card is to prevent the need for such scrutinizing behavior by USA agents.
What does this say about the character of the USA that freely can walk into another country without so much as a bat of an eye but then scrutinizes its own citizens and guests?
This experience contrasted with my entering into Canada a year before where I was questioned as to my business in the Province of Quebec and receiving the same questioning when I was re-entering the USA. There is a level of respect for Canada that does not seem to exist for Mexico. There exists a putrid air of USA privilege in our ease of walking into Mexico.
The border wall is about 30 feet high. At the base of the USA side is slanted concrete with jagged rocks so if the people should jump the fence they will break their ankles or legs upon landing. It is deliberately built to cause harm to those who cross. The wall comes in from the east and from the west and both ends stop at the beginnings of the Sonora Desert. The desert was thought to be a deterrent all onto itself and the federal government did not expect people to actually attempt to cross there. Since the walls have been built more than 6,000 human remains have been recovered from the desert. There are believed to be thousands more that will probably never be recovered because the bodies disintegrate within weeks after death and because of the untold number who cross into the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation northwest of Sasabe, Sonora, Mexico.
Some history of the wall is needed. Militarization of the US/Mexican border began shortly after the passage of the NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. The wall was first built in 1994 dividing the city of Nogales, a city divided circa 1850 when the USA annexed a part of Mexico so that a railroad would not have to cross into Mexico. Prior to 1994, the city enjoyed the free movement of people back and forth the border. They visited family and friends; they enjoyed their common cultural heritage together as any city on a border should.
For example here in Alabama, Phenix City is on the border of Columbus, GA. Because so many people living in Phenix City work in Columbus and at Fort Benning, Phenix City chooses to be in the Eastern Time Zone, even though officially all of Alabama is within the Central Time Zone. This is what border cities do. They share common interests. They engage in healthy dialog. They have a shared identity.
Now imagine the message sent if Georgia suddenly decided to place a wall between Phenix City and Columbus, Georgia. Imagine if, the people of Phenix City were told they had to apply for guest worker visas to now work in Columbus, GA because they were not citizens of GA. That now they would have to seek permission from Georgia before they could enter Columbus, GA. If they had family in Georgia and they were caught being with their family without proper papers in hand, they would be deported and denied further access. But Georgians could freely enter Phenix City without question.
That is what happened in the city of Nogales. People from the USA have the privilege of entering Nogales, Sonora, Mexico with not a care in the world. Why? Because they are Americans… true blue. But entering the USA, even being a true blue American is not enough, we have to question you and detain you.
This is paranoid behavior. This is fearful behavior. This may even qualify for the borderline personality definition given earlier—“characterized by psychological instability in several areas.”
But before we jump to this conclusion let’s look deeper into the border. Since 1994, the USA has increased the militarization of the border with sophisticated military tactical and highly skilled marksmen, marksmen that are only bested by the Secret Service and Navy Seal. They recruit soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, two wars that have resulted in the highest number of military suicides[ii] and post-traumatic stress disorder of any military campaign ever undertaken by the USA, including the Civil War.
During my visit to the Women’s shelter run by the Kino Border Initiative, I heard stories of women who were carried out of the desert because they could no longer walk only to have the Border patrol agents dump them off their stretchers onto the ground and handcuff and shackle them. Women who were shoved and corralled into cages on trucks[iii] like they were cattle sent to the slaughter. Derogatory language used by the border patrol to address the women. These stories of abuse towards immigrants at the border not to mention the increasing number of Mexican civilians on the Mexican side of the wall being killed by border patrol agents lead me to wonder if there are links to undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)[iv] from service in Iraq and Afghanistan, where many border patrol personnel are recruited. A study of the mental health screening for PTSD at twelve law enforcement agencies including border patrol revealed only two do a minimal screening specific to PTSD. The border patrol application process does not indicate any psychological testing or specific screening[v] for PTSD but with 10-20% of returning veterans having some level of PTSD and up to 65% returning veterans stating it would be considered a sign of weakness to seek treatment for PTSD, it is likely that a small percentage of Border Patrol Agents are indeed suffering from this disorder before they are hired.
The border is lined with surveillance cameras that are not currently in use. They were built at a cost of millions but were deemed unnecessary by the border patrol. Their mere presence however gives an intimidating feel of a George Orwell novel of Big Brother watching. The use of surveillance drones flying overhead has increased, adding to the Orwellian milieu. The fact that our government is using drones in the 100 mile zone of the border should cause us much alarm.
The recent leaks revealing that the NSA has been collecting data on American Citizens phone and internet contacts makes the use of drones on the border suspect of other activities. President Obama’s admission that civil liberties must be compromised for the sake of 100% security is not a reassuring statement into defining the character of who we are as a nation. This behavior of spying on our own strengthens the borderline paranoia diagnosis.
My visit to the border of Nogales, AZ and Mexico has reaffirmed one thing for me. What we do in the United States of America is not done in a vacuum. Yes, we need Immigration law reform but it would be extremely naïve to think that this legislation, regardless of the content of this bill, will fix our immigration system. We cannot fix our immigration laws in a vacuum and assume everything else is working fine. The reasons why 11 million immigrants chose to enter the USA without inspection, the civil offense they committed are multi-faceted and based in the policies we created—NAFTA destroyed the Mexican farmer and coerced the sale of their lands to US corporations. School of the Americas trained the military that staged wars and coups, most recently the Honduras coup cascading thousands of refugees from that country seeking safety for their lives. The Mexican cartel that now controls the Mexican side of the border was trained at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning. We, the taxpayer are accomplices to the violence that is occurring along the border as desperate people seek to reunite with their families in the USA. According to a legal dictionary, “In Criminal Law[vi], [an accomplice is] contributing to or aiding in the commission of a crime. One who, without being present at the commission of an offense, becomes guilty of such offense, not as a chief actor, but as a participant, as by command, advice, instigation, or concealment; either before or after the fact or commission.”
While we the taxpayer could claim no knowledge of this, much like the citizens of Germany claimed no knowledge of the atrocities their government committed against the Jews, yet just as the Germans before us, by our electing and authorizing leaders who do have full knowledge and assent to these actions makes us participants in the continual slaughter and inhumane treatment of innocent people.
The ultimate question becomes who are we as a nation—are we a nation that arrogantly does whatever it wants to people in other nations? Or are we a nation that with humility is in relationship with its neighbors? Will we recognize that what we portend as being in our best interests may have a profound debilitating negative impact on other nations and therefore is ultimately not in our best interest. The School of the Americas, NAFTA, and CAFTA are not ultimately in the best interests of our nation because they have caused and continue to cause untold suffering in the nations implemented. As one refugee from the recent coup by SOA trained militia in Honduras stated, “If I am going to die in Honduras of hunger then I would rather die struggling to live.”
West Cosgrove of Kino Border Initiative put it more eloquently when he said, “[vii]I believe profoundly that the conversation, the debate about immigrants and immigration law is NOT ultimately about the immigrants, IT IS ABOUT US. It is about what kind of people we will be, will we be a welcoming, kind, accepting culture, people, country or will we continue to leave out the poor, the needy, the ones that walk with God. Will we continue to harden our hearts and exclude anyone that we believe is not one of us, or will we live up to the best of our faith and national traditions and ‘welcome the stranger’?”
The policies we have enacted over the last 100 years as a nation have led to our national desire to place a wall between us and all we have created. We do not want to be reminded of what we have done to our neighbors to the south. These policies have created a severe personality of paranoia and fear. The immigration reform bill in the Senate will reinforce this paranoia by increasing the militarization of the border threefold against an enemy that is only in our collective mind.
Is this an accurate portrayal of who we are as a nation? And if it is, is this who we want to continue to be? I believe in our potential to be better than what fear and paranoia tells us. It is time to tell our elected government and our unelected government (the corporations): ¡Basta! Enough!
We do not want to be accomplices to the human rights violations of separating families, any longer. We do not want to be accomplices to the violence and deaths by the SOA trained Mexican Cartel, any longer. We do not want to be accomplices to the human rights violations occurring in the for-profit Prison industry, any longer. Nor held accountable to their maintaining a 90% capacity rate by rounding up in the name of national security, soccer moms whose only crime is that they refused to wait 20 years for permission to enter this country and begin a better and safer life for them and their family. We do not want to be accomplices the devastating impacts of US farm subsidies on Mexican farmers, any longer. We do not want to be accomplices to military coups, any longer.
How about being accomplices to creating a nation that lives up to its highest creed: Where equality, liberty and justice for all people is the borderline that defines who we are. Justo Gonzales[viii] once said, “A true border, a true place of encounter, is by nature, permeable. It is not like medieval armor, but rather like skin. While our skin does set a limit to where our bodies begin and where it ends, if we ever close up our skin, we die.”
Borderlines sermon delivered by Rev. Fred L Hammond 9 June 2013 © to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa
[iii] I thought I heard this during my visit but thought I surely misunderstood. I heard recently (June 7 2013) testimony at a meeting with Congress representatives Sewell and Gutierrez; a former veteran who was deployed to the border who stated that people were rounded up like cattle and placed in cages on a truck confirming what I heard was indeed true.
[vii] West Cosgrove email to the SOA Watch Delegation Monday June 3 2013
[viii] From a power point presentation by West Cosgrove, Education Director at Kino Border Initiative, Nogales, Arizona. Contact: email@example.com