Rethinking the border ‘crisis’

Though often called a “crisis,” what’s happening at the U.S-Mexico border can be more accurately described as an ongoing tragedy, a national shame and a violation of human rights. That’s how history will remember it, at least.

The numbers — and images — are stark. Right now, we’re seeing record apprehensions of undocumented migrants and refugees, the majority of whom are immediately expelled or deported to uncertain fates. In October, a report by Human Rights First found more than 7,600 cases of people subject to kidnapping, extortion and other crimes after being expelled to Mexico or deported to their home countries.

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In September, we all saw the pictures of mounted patrolmen maneuvering their horses and long reins in an attempt to corral Haitian migrants along the Texas border. These photos evoked the ugliness of 19th-century “slave patrols” in the United States, as well as the enslavement of Haitians under French colonial rule in the 18th century.

Less well known is that, so far this year, at least 190 sets of human remains have been found in Arizona’s deserts. Forty-three were found in June, the highest one-month total since July 2010. More than half of the remains were discovered within one week of death — 16 were located in one day. Migrants have also died while trying to cross the Rio Grande, including a 9-year-old girl in March.

Republicans say President Joe Biden is to blame for this and that Trump had the situation under control. But Trump faced a similar surge in 2018 and 2019 that was only (temporarily) ended by the pandemic. There were near-record numbers of migrants then, too — like when thousands camped out for months at the ports waiting to apply for asylum, or when a 2019 episode in Tijuana on New Year’s Day sent adults and children running, screaming and crying after U.S. border agents fired tear gas at them.

Despite the recent influx, the tragedy of the border has been going on for decades, overseen by both Democratic and Republican administrations. Of the nearly 70,000 migrants who died worldwide between 2000 and 2018, about 10,000 perished on the U.S.-Mexico border. Hundreds of thousands more have perished from cartel violence in Mexico since the U.S.-sponsored war on drugs began there in 2006.

While these deaths are typically either ignored or sensationalized, they represent a massive failure of U.S. policy. The border may be remote and far away, but it’s on the front lines of many of the most difficult issues of our time.

Yet, just as our nation’s greatest challenges are presented to us on the border, the solutions are there, too.

They include long-term legal and legislative efforts to decriminalize drugs and migration, as well as limit the sale and transfer of guns and other weapons to Mexico and Central America until the human rights abuses are stopped.

Solving the border’s problems will require some radical rethinking and deep, consistent attention.

But it can be done.

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The model for a secure and peaceful border — one where people and the environment are treated with fairness, dignity and respect — already exists. Border residents, along with groups like the Southern Border Communities Coalition, are working hard to bring that vision into being.

By healing the wounds of the border, we will heal our own.