Growing up, my family made frequent trips to Canada to visit my grandparents, who lived in three separate provinces at different times until I was in high school. When we lived in Detroit, a trip across the border was no big deal and Canada was just another place that was a little different because everything was in English and French. When I was in high school, I spent one summer on a youth ministry travel team throughout Texas. One of our stops was El Paso and while we were there we made a couple-hour trip to Juarez. Of course, this was pre-9/11 so we didn’t need our passports, but that memory of our simple trip across the border has stuck with me over the years. Juarez wasn’t as scary as I hear people talk about today and people weren’t out to get us and the biggest danger that we faced in Mexico was the Montezuma’s Revenge that hit half of our group who took the risk and drank the ice water during our lunch stop at a real Mexican restaurant.
When my husband and I started really making plans for our trip to Big Bend National Park, one of our goals was to prepare for the border crossing at Boquillas. All of us were excited about the prospect of spending a couple hours shopping and exploring in the border town right across the Rio Grande. We spent a Saturday afternoon after soccer games traveling to the public library in downtown Houston so we could submit four passport applications for the entire family. I think our seven-year-old son was the most excited out of all of us. He couldn’t wait to return from Christmas break and tell all of his friends that he had been to Mexico.
While I really wanted to visit Mexico for the sake of visiting Mexico, I also wanted our kids’ first time out of the country to be as mundane as my many trips to Canada during my youth. I didn’t want them to see Mexico as one of two extremes: an expensive destination vacation or a mission trip to help the impoverished. I wanted them to see Mexican citizens as normal people just living their lives, only they were speaking a language our kids are just beginning to understand. When we talked about visiting Boquillas, I reminded our kids to respectfully use their limited Spanish speaking skills because we would be visitors in a foreign country.
Instead, thanks to the government shutdown that closed the border crossing in the national park, we had to look across the pristine Rio Grande to get a glimpse of another country. Another country that on the surface looked just like the soil we were standing on.
I am Northern-raised, born to two Northerner parents who made sure I saw plenty of the country growing up but always considered the Midwest “home.” I say this, because I know that this is one of many factors that affects my perspective on border issues. While I am now a Texan by choice, I am constantly reminded that I am not a true Texan, born and raised. Yet since early adolescence, I’ve been fascinated by the contradictory, sometimes troubling, and always colorful history that belongs to the Lone Star State. When I was 12, my family traveled from our home in Wyoming down to San Antonio so that we could visit my aunt and uncle. Part of our family vacation included a trip to the famous Alamo, and from that time on, while I never believed that I would call Texas home, I always considered it one of the more interesting states in the Union.
And part of what makes that history so complex and fascinating is the sweeping river that divides Texas from our southern neighbors and the barren desert land that Mexicans and Texans spent much of their shared history working together to conquer and attempt to inhabit. On our recent trip to the Big Bend region of Texas, one of our stops was Terlingua Ghost Town, which dried up after the end of mercury mining in the local mountains. One of the many things that made Terlingua’s history so fascinating was the relationship that the American citizens of Terlingua, Texas had with their Mexican neighbors. During the late 19th century and early 20th century, Mexican miners freely commuted back and forth between the mines and their Mexican homes, a practice that benefitted both the Mexican workers and the American mine company. The longer I’ve lived in Texas and the more that I’ve read, I’ve come to understand that this is something that has been a natural part of border life, a historical fact that complicates much of our current immigration narrative.
I believe that one of the many factors complicating our immigration issues with our southern neighbor is that our culture has lost sight of what it means to be neighbors. Growing up, my parents knew most of the people who lived close to our house. And they didn’t just know them by name, they knew them. Our Detroit neighbors were our friends and my parents entrusted those parents with my care. I could go over to a friend’s house in the general vicinity of our home and as long as they knew where I was going, they let me go. We had a three-foot high chain link fence that served as a barrier between yards. While the short, see-through fence that I frequently climbed over to visit my friend next door may have made us more vulnerable to those outside of our neighborhood, our neighbors could look in immediately and see whether something was wrong with our house.
In the United States, much as been made of the changes in neighborhoods which have been imposed by HOAs and poor urban planning. Where people used to have front porches and shared yards, now we are closed off from our neighbors on either side, using privacy fences to keep those closest to us even closer and keeping everyone else out. Many have noted the difference in the way we relate to each other now that we’ve imposed barriers to knowing the people who live closest to us. I drive past gated communities and feel like an outsider unworthy of their company. I don’t see that gate as an extra form of protection. Instead, I see it as a sign that I should just keep out.
Yes, we have serious immigration problems in need of comprehensive reforms ranging from how we vet applicants to what should be done with those who were brought here when they were too young to make the decision themselves. Yes, we need secure borders to the north and to the south to make sure that people who want to harm United States citizens are not coming into the country. No, we should not just let anyone and everyone freely walk into the country with the expectation that they will be given a job and a free education.
But I don’t believe that a 2000-mile long, 30-foot high wall is a long-term solution. I believe that reliance on a wall of this magnitude is an incredibly expensive short-term solution that will wreck the ecosystems along our southern border, increase our national debt, and send the wrong message to neighboring governments. And that doesn’t take into consideration the reality that it will take years to build while people are still illegally crossing the border. I am not saying that “people are going to cross anyway” is a legitimate argument for not building a barrier of any kind. But I am saying that making a huge wall the focus of our national discussion is doing more harm than good.
In the days following our Christmas break vacation, I posted a blog post by a pastor who argues that “Jesus doesn’t believe in walls.” While I really find it dangerous to use biblical support for secular arguments, I do find that it is sometimes useful in certain political discussions with fellow Christians. I don’t believe that the Bible should dictate public policy, but when I see fellow Christians openly supporting and promoting policy that I feel contradicts the very faith they profess, I find it troubling. On the discussion thread that resulted, a former student posted a Praeger U video concerning a solution to illegal immigration, still arguing with me about the need for a wall. The problem with his argument is that the final conclusion Charles Krauthammer presents isn’t that there needs to be an expensive, 30-foot wall like the one that President Trump has proposed; instead, he essentially argues for the need for a barrier with additional comprehensive security.
I would never argue against a comprehensive security system that includes environmentally friendly (notice I did not say attractive, just environmentally friendly), cost-efficient, effectively monitored barriers. And if you asked the majority of people opposed to a 2000-mile solidly constructed wall, they would probably agree with an environmentally friendly, cost-efficient, and effectively monitored barrier of some kind to prevent the vast majority of those illegally crossing the border. (In fact, it appears that fences have been doing some good in many places along the border.) This is something that has been proposed by both parties over the years, but extremists on both sides of the issue have continually pushed aside all discussion of a security compromise that would work. With 2000 miles of border to cover, we need a plan to works with the unique geographical landscape and economic needs of a given area. As with most things, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all barrier solution.
And the focus can’t just be an environmentally friendly, cost-efficient, effectively monitored barrier. In addition, we need to be working with our neighbors to find solutions to the problems driving people north from South and Central America. I’m floored by the number of people who complain about Mexico “stealing our jobs” when companies move their operations south of the border, and then in the next sentence complaining about those “illegals who are coming to our country and stealing our (mostly undesirable) jobs.” The truth is, our industrial model needs a serious overhaul and we need to bring back skilled trades. We shouldn’t fault companies for wanting to save money by doing business in Mexico, therefore creating good paying jobs that keep people in Mexico and prevent them from wanting to come to the United States to find work instead. If we were to work with our neighbors instead of doing everything in our power to anger them, we might actually improve both our immigration problems and our economic worries at the same time.
But none of that is possible if we are determined to simply shut out our neighbors.
“The Wall” is a complicated issue and it is one on which Americans don’t agree. (In fact, a recent poll shows that 54% of Americans oppose building a wall in the fashion that our president is demanding, even though 81% believe that border security is an important issue.) One of the more telling signs that we saw close to the border was a sign right outside of Terlingua with these words: “Resist! No Wall. Rednecks for Beto.” Since moving here, I’ve learned that even down here in Texas, a border state, the feelings are very mixed, and those feelings don’t have a political affiliation. That became abundantly clear when I spent the couple of days before our Christmas break vacation reading the comment threads on the Big Bend National Park Facebook page. There were plenty of Texans who were upset with the idea of the wall and the impact this was going to have on their own vacations and, even more importantly, on the state.
It’s time to reopen our government and have an adult conversation, one that is compassionate towards those looking for a better life while fiercely protecting both our fragile ecosystems and our national security. It can be done, but it requires that our nation’s leaders act like the grown-ups we need them to be.