By Marco Balducci, Clarion Herald Guest Column
Recent developments in our immigration policy have highlighted the dubious justice of our immigration laws. As the debate has raged (unfortunately) on how best to manage immigration, many have called for strict enforcement “of the laws already on the books.” Over the past two months, we’ve seen what that looks like. I believe that most Americans did not like what they saw.
We saw images of children crying in the face of armed border patrol officers and heard the sounds of incarcerated 6-year-olds screaming and weeping after their forcible separation from their parents. Compounding the horror, we learned that our government had no plan for the reunification of children with their parents, and that some parents were deported while their kids remain in the U.S. under the care of the state.
What happened to the children, however, is all too characteristic of the spirit of our immigration laws. The children have aroused sympathy from most Americans – irrespective of their stance on immigration – because of the children’s obvious innocence. The parents, however, often get less sympathy. They are criticized for bringing their children on the dangerous journey north. Another argument is that they knew the risks and the consequences of the decision to enter the U.S. illegally, so the trauma the children suffered is ultimately the parents’ fault.
I had an awakening
I confess that I shared some of these same criticisms of migrant parents when I began my career in immigration law over 10 years ago. Since then, however, I have worked with thousands of Central American immigrants, and they have removed the “wooden beam” from my eye to help me see more clearly their predicament. Through their stories and through extensive research into the conditions of Central American countries, I have come to appreciate the desperation that leads people to migrate and how difficult this decision is.
The following thought experiment may be helpful. First, remember that immigrants are our sisters and brothers and that they share the same love and concern for their children. This may seem obvious, but the immigration debate includes issues of race, class and national origin that feed the all-too-human inclination to make invidious stereotypes and snap judgments. Remembering the fact that immigrants share our values and love for family, we must ask ourselves what it would take for us to say an indefinite “goodbye” to our children; assume thousands of dollars in debt to embark on a journey where there is a real risk that we could be robbed, raped, and/or killed; where we could not turn to the authorities for help because of our immigration status; and where we could lose everything and be unable to repay our debt if we are deported. What circumstances would your child have to be facing for you to conclude that it’s in her best interest to come with you? Remember that the immigrant’s judgment is just as sound as yours.
The situation is that bad in Central America. Honduras and El Salvador regularly trade the dubious distinction of having the highest murder rate in the world, and Guatemala is not too far behind. At its peak in 2013, Honduras’ murder rate was roughly double that of New Orleans. That’s the nationwide murder rate. Its most violent city, San Pedro Sula, had a murder rate of 180 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. That is roughly four to five times New Orleans’ murder rate. Gender-based violence is condoned by these countries. In Honduras, 95 percent of violence against women goes unpunished. The pervasiveness and level of savagery of the violence against women in the Central American “Northern Triangle” (Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala) has resulted in the creation of the term “femicide” (i.e., the targeted killing of women, or the killing of women on account of their gender). Although femicide is criminalized, the law is unenforced. This is to say nothing of the poverty of the region, the lack of infrastructure and opportunity.
Riding ‘The Beast’
The journey north carries enormous risks. It is dangerous and exhausting. The desert between Mexico and the U.S. is strewn with the bodies of migrants who did not make it. Many spend days riding on the top of a train known as “la bestia” (“the beast”). Many migrants are assaulted on the train or die falling from the top. Our office has a client that spent 12 hours riding in a crate under a tractor-trailer in order to get to the U.S. Many migrants are packed into vans and suffocate. The risks many migrants take for the love of family command respect. They are heroic.
Instead of recognizing these sacrifices and selfless courage, our laws criminalize migrants – even those who would succor them. Entering into the U.S. without authorization may be a misdemeanor depending on the circumstances of entry. Most violations of immigration laws, however, are civil, not criminal, violations. Nonetheless these violations carry penalties that are essentially criminal in nature, such as prolonged detention and, of course, deportation. Immigrants are often “detained” (i.e., jailed) for months, and sometimes years, waiting for their cases to be processed. The minimum bond by law is $1,500, while in practice it’s closer to $10,000. These criminal punishments apply without the full constitutional protections given to criminal defendants, such as access to court-appointed defense lawyers and robust protections against search and seizure.
Broad assertions unfounded
Many may be surprised that these laws do little, if anything, to further national security or the national interest. We impose severe penalties on many individuals who have put their lives on the line to fulfill their family responsibilities and who are actually an asset to our community. Data abound demonstrating the beneficial impacts of immigrants to the U.S. Immigrants pay taxes, create jobs and even appear to lower the crime rates in communities that receive them. Unfortunately, many want to confuse the discussion with assertions that immigrants are a danger to the community. Such broad assertions are factually unfounded.
In addition to punishing immigrants, most of whom want nothing more than to work and help their families, the laws also shape our perception of them. Our understanding of their story and sacrifices is obfuscated by their status as law-breakers. Again, many of these laws do little to nothing to further public safety and the national interest. There is a prominent history of racism within immigration laws that has permeated down to the present day.
The existence of laws does not allow us to abdicate our responsibility to make our own determinations of what is right and wrong and what is just. Our God and our church have provided clear guidance on how we should treat migrants. Are we as a church and as individuals listening to them? Jesus was himself was a law-breaker, and he was executed accordingly. In our day, the issue of immigration challenges us to figure out whether we stand with the Romans or with Jesus.
Marco Balducci is an immigration attorney with Pelton + Balducci, LLC.