Living Out Faith in the War Zone of the Borderlands
What would true security at our borders look like?
by Maryada Vallet (Download/PDF)
And Jesus said, “Let there be double and triple fencing…”
It is more than absurd to put those words in Jesus’ mouth. While Jesus was never recorded as saying anything about border walls directly, his ministry exemplified crossing nearly every imaginable border—social, political, and religious—of his time.
It is also ludicrous for me, as someone who grew up in Arizona and has worked as a humanitarian on the Mexico-Southern US border for eight years, to hear those words. It is hard to imagine even more fortifications added to this heavily militarized region. The walls are both a tremendous waste of money and a primary cause of increasing death of migrants as they seek to go over, under, and around them. The death rate of migrants rose 27 percent between 2011 and 2012 as people were funneled to ever more remote and dangerous crossing points. The walls clearly function as a symbol, employed for political persuasion, however impractical and disgraceful they are for border communities.
Locally it is understood that neither the walls nor the number of boots on the ground actually deter most immigrants. Even Department of Homeland Security Secretary (and former Arizona Governor) Janet Napolitano has expressed doubt. “You show me a 50-foot wall,” she said, “and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder at the border. That’s the way the border works.” The persistence in crossing has mostly been associated with economic push and pull factors, but is currently related to the strong ties that immigrants have to the US. A recent study conducted by the University of Arizona in migrant shelters on the Mexican side of the border found that half of deported migrants have a family member who is a US citizen. Further, migrants who consider the United States their home are more likely to return after deportation, with 70 percent planning to cross again in the future.
This idea of double and triple fencing belongs to the same US congressmen who drafted the long-awaited comprehensive immigration reform legislation.(1) Apart from more walls, the legislation features increased enforcement measures at the southern border. These measures include more agents, National Guard troops, checkpoints, drones, permission to overrun protected federal lands, and increased prosecutions and incarceration for unauthorized entry.Hyperactive border security has been deemed politically necessary—even prioritized—in debates over this long overdue overhaul of the immigration system. Essentially it is more of the same. It is unimaginative and destructive. As border communities, we know that more of the same border policy that has enveloped the region for nearly two decades actually means more insecurity.
The war zone at home
To live in the US-Mexico border region under the current border policy can be likened to living in a low-grade war zone. Humanitarian volunteers who have come from around the country to work in southern Arizona have been shocked to experience this atmosphere of war on US soil. This “Constitution-free zone” is characterized by the daily and insidious presence of military-style equipment, weapons, agents, and, worst of all, the war mindset. For to have a war, there must be an enemy.
But who is the enemy that justifies this heavy militarization of communities and public lands? We are told that border security protects us from terrorists and cartels. Fueled by public fear and unfamiliarity with border realities, our government has created an enemy to justify the unprecedented growth of military-style enforcement within our country. The original border policy from 1993, called the “policy of deterrence,” has not changed course. It is primarily aimed toward keeping out poor Latin Americans. Even the proposed border-security legislation clearly says that “high-risk” regions of the border simply mean more migrants are crossing and have little to do with actual security threats.(2)
All the drones, the hidden sensors, the thousands of agents armed with hollow-point bullets (prohibited by international law for use in war), and the walls that cost millions per mile—they’re meant to keep out poor people—people who are the refugees of the unfair global economy and increasingly of changing climate patterns. Such is the policy of deterrence, and it is replicated in rich countries around the world. The goal behind fortifying borders is to protect the exorbitant wealth that we’ve accumulated from the Global South, as we use 80 percent of the world’s resources and have to keep the disgruntled and poor masses of the world at bay. But at what cost is this done?
The past two decades of border militarization have caused record rates of human suffering, environmental degradation, and insecurity in the region. These impacts of border enforcement are rarely discussed by policy makers. Some of these devastating effects have included:
- More than 6,000 known deaths of migrants crossing the desert: These deaths have mostly occurred since the walls were erected, and countless more will never be discovered.
- Environmental degradation of national and protected lands: The border region hosts multiple national forests, wilderness refuges, and endangered species that have suffered from the walls and heavy enforcement.
- Intensified human trafficking: With few legal avenues to work or join family in the United States, the profit from smuggling and extorting people has risen. (See “Wanted, Abolitionists to Work for Immigration Reform.”)
- Native peoples and lands are divided and disrespected: The Tohono O’odham reside in the Sonoran Desert that spans the US-Mexico border, and the wall now divides this community.(3)
- Checkpoints established in border communities promote racial profiling: Immigration checkpoints are permitted within 100 miles of the border, and they are infamous for racial profiling and the harassment of people of color.
- Increased criminalization of the act of migration: Border crossing in a location other than an official port of entry used to be a civil violation, but through the expansion of Operation Streamline (2005-2008), increasing numbers of apprehended immigrants now receive criminal charges and mandatory jail-time for entry and reentry.
- Increased criminalization of humanitarian workers: More than a dozen humanitarian volunteers have been cited and even prosecuted for providing life-saving humanitarian assistance to migrants. All cases have been either dropped or won thus far.
Abuse and killing by Border Patrol with no accountability. Academics, human rights advocates, and Jesuits have released reports demonstrating the systematic and alarming levels of abuse under Border Patrol custody.(4)
I will share just one severe and recent example of the impact of border security. On the evening of October 10, 2012, 16-year-old José Antonio Elena Rodriguez was walking down the street in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico—the same street that I myself have walked hundreds of times, which runs parallel to the border wall. On that night, Border Patrol agents opened fire through the paneled border wall and hit the boy 11 times from behind. His crime? Being a young man walking down the street in Mexico, caught in the crossfire of a low-grade war zone. As concerned community members, church leaders, and activists, we held vigil at the site of Jose Antonio’s death alongside his family members. On the six-month anniversary we called upon the US government to investigate and provide information about the incident. The family has been virtually ignored as they continue to ask, “Where is the justice?” Border communities recommend community-based oversight and monitoring mechanisms to hold those in power accountable for what is done in the name of homeland security.
Called to be a desert wanderer
In 2005 I felt called to become a desert wanderer and joined the faith-based humanitarian group No More Deaths (NMD). I joined other humanitarian volunteers in the humanitarian aid camp known as the Ark of the Covenant to stop the deaths of migrants crossing the desert of southern Arizona.
When I first responded to this call, I was struck by the biblical sacredness of the desert as a place that propelled Jesus and many of the prophets into action and advocacy for justice. The desert is a place to encounter the divine in an extreme way, a place of both intense beauty and suffering. At first I sympathized with the migrant on this difficult journey, for sympathy is how I learned (through short-term mission trips) to respond to uncomfortable disparity. But it wasn’t long before I began to understand solidarity more deeply, realizing that our lives are interconnected. Solidarity is the recognition that my liberation (spiritual and physical) is bound to the liberation of my neighbors who are crushed by the wheels of oppression. Indeed, I became the one touched and liberated in this desert place as I washed and bandaged wounded feet and listened to their stories. I found deep connection with the very real life forces of faith and courage, passed on to me by my migrant brothers and sisters.
NMD is an organization of individuals of faith and conscience working to end the increasing death toll and suffering of migrants crossing the Arizona-Mexico border. NMD has no salaried staff or board of directors; we have trained thousands of volunteers from around the world to help by providing direct humanitarian aid. We are a grassroots movement based on the principle that when confronted with the face of suffering as a result of deadly policy, we must act. Particularly as people of faith, we can do no other. It’s simply called civil initiative. What started for me as a summer of desert wandering has become my life journey and passion, to cross borders and to find the heart of God there.
Faith and real security
When it comes to social transformation, I’ve noticed that we Christians often expect no more than the status quo from our church leaders, our communities, and even from ourselves. Social transformation is the hard work of expanding the will of God on earth as it is in heaven. If we fasted and prayed together for a healed border, what would God put in our hearts? Where does true security come from, and how is it modeled through you and me? I am convinced that as long as border security and walls are socially accepted, the policymakers won’t go against it. We have to start by shifting the war zone mentality and culture of fear in our communities, in places far from the border, and in our own hearts.
Scriptures teach us that fear or worry inhibits our ability to welcome God’s presence in our lives. The Psalms provide the reminder that “The LORD is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?” (27:1). When we fear, we erect walls or strongholds in our hearts, which block us from the transformative love of Jesus. We also have walls in our minds, creating divisions in our communities and between neighbors. Grounded in fear—which is the opposite of faith—these walls hinder us from following the greatest commandment: to love God and love neighbor. The longer the walls exist, the more hostility and hopelessness take root. Living our faith can promote the kind of radical and countercultural unity described in Ephesians 2:14-16:
For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.
Real security and divine social transformation come through breaking down those walls—with acknowledgement of the hostility and abuse that have occurred and recognition of the fear and injustice that have existed. Then the borderlands may be transformed into a place where faith, hope, and love can coexist between neighbors and before God. I think most Christians can agree that Jesus’ ministry and vision for the transformative kingdom of God would not include walls, semi-automatic weapons, and detention centers. When we catch ourselves, and others, advocating for more border security based on politics or fear, we must advocate a new vision.
Just as Jesus would not advocate for more walls and punitive enforcement against our neighbors or poor communities, neither should we. Let’s build a movement that transforms the spirit of our communities and transforms borders to be truly and deeply secure. It is time we let our imaginations run wild in the borderlands!
Maryada Vallet stays busy as a humanitarian, health professional, and evangelical agitator on the border. For more on border humanitarian work, go to NoMoreDeaths.org.
1. Charles Schumer, Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act (113th Congress, First Session, April 2013).
2. “The term ‘high risk border sector’ means a border sector in which more than 30,000 individuals were apprehended during the most recent fiscal year,” from Senate Bill 744, 10.
3. See the O’Odham Solidarity Across Borders Collective, which is made up of Akimel O’odham and Tohono O’odham youth who are pressing the attack against the ongoing colonization of their traditional lands (i.e. U.S./Mexico Border policies), environmental racism from transnational corporations and the state, and all colonial polices aimed at destroying the O’odham Him’dag (Traditional Way of Life).
4. Academics include the University of Arizona report by J. Slack mentioned above. Human rights advocates include the Culture of Cruelty campaign, and the Jesuits are the Kino Border Initiative (see Doris Yu’s “Study Sheds Light on Mistreatment of Migrants Crossing the U.S.-Mexico Border”).