Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Life at the border: A bishop’s very real take on violence and immigration

It seems Lady Liberty is under serious stress these days. This American icon celebrated its 125th anniversary October 28, but as Robert Morgenthau’s same-day column in the New York Times pointed out, the inscription at its base no longer seems to ring true for a growing number of “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” In his article, Morgenthau decried current U.S. detention and removal policies as inhumane and ineffective.

The very same day, Washington Post editorialist Michael Gerson published a no-nonsense column unmasking Republican Party’s presidential candidates’ heated rhetoric on immigration as a dishonest strategy that doesn’t propose real solutions to an issue that requires serious attention. Further, he proposes this inflammatory approach might end up biting them back.

“What is it about the immigration issue that brings out the worst in politicians?” Gerson wonders. “It is the responsibility of political leaders to address this issue without inflaming it. The cynical accommodation of anger encourages serious division in a permanently diverse country. It is primarily the fault of politicians when the immigration debate turns ugly.” Amen to that.

Speaking of reality, historic levels of drug-related violence at the southern border don’t make the debate any easier— nor less urgent. Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownville, Texas, recently provided a poignant account of what life is like at the border these days.

In his moving keynote address (audio ) at the Immigration Symposium at the Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio, Texas on Oct. 19, Bishop Flores pointed to new immigration patterns due to the growing violence and how that’s affecting life and relationships in those communities. The situation is far more complex than anyone not living there could imagine. Fear is the new driving factor for crossing the border—legally or illegally.

“The dominant fact is that the women and children are here. The men are often still in Mexico working to support them. They visit when they can. This is a new phenomenon, and not one that fits into the usual descriptions of immigration that we hear about on the news.”

Bishop Flores makes a first-person account of his encounters with immigrant families in several different categories, from the traditional poor seeking jobs, to Central Americans crossing Mexico on their way north, to middle class and wealthy business people seeking to shield their families from the violence.

“The new reality is rooted in what each of these families have in common: fear. They do not live in the Valley, or in Laredo, or in San Antonio primarily for economic reasons; rather, fear of kidnapping, random shootings, being caught at the wrong time in the wrong place, these are the pressures moving them. They are driven also by the fear that their children will grow up in, and know only, a lawless and cynical community if they remain at home.”

The economic and social impact of this new reality didn’t escape Bishop Flores’ analysis.

“If the middle class and the employer class are leaving because of violence, then we can expect the effects will be felt in an increase in poverty in Mexico. And this will surely put more pressure on immigration into the United States, only it will be doubly propelled by fear of violence and by poverty.”

He also spoke to the role of the Church in this discussion.

“We in the Church must do more to live up to our indispensable obligation to contribute to the discussion in a way that keeps it realistic and keeps it human,” Bishop Flores said. “There is a moral distinction we as a civilized people should maintain: someone who overstays a tourist visa out of fear for their life is not in the same category as someone who is running a prostitution ring in the Valley to support the drug trade.”

Bishop Flores expressed urgency in the need for immigration reform and for a coordinated response social, legal and pastoral to the difficult reality at the border.

“When it comes to the urgent need to craft a more just and reasonable immigration law in the United States, our attention should be focused on Congress and the President. But when it comes to how we work in our communities, it is in everyone’s interest that all the resources of the community, including the civil community, law enforcement and the Church marshal their resources together in an effort to push back the looming darkness that gathers south of us, and projects its shadows over us.”

A good summary of Bishop Flores’ recent presentation can be found in two different articles in The Valley Catholic.

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