Over 500 people are estimated to die along the U.S.-Mexico border every year as they flee from poverty and extreme violence, searching for safe refuge. Many of those who perish on the treacherous journey are never found, their remains lost to the extreme conditions of the desert wilderness. A loss which never allows their family to truly let go, lacking the closure that comes with a burial.
A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to hear the stories of families who have lost their loved ones. I met Robin Reineke, the founder of the Colibri Center, whose mission is to assist families in search of their missing mothers, fathers and children. I listened to Robin as I also prepared to speak at the Border Issues Fair in southern Arizona, reflecting on the ways in which a proposed border security bill H.R. 399, the Secure Our Borders First Act introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-10-TX), would increase the number of such deaths.
The Border Issues Fair is held every year in Sahuarita, Arizona, at the Good Shepherd United Church of Christ; the congregation that helped train and ordain me as a pastor. Rev. Randy Mayer, the senior pastor, also leads a Samaritansministry that provides humanitarian aid in the desert for migrants – including simple things like water and first aid. Also an open and affirming congregation showing welcome to LGBT couples, every Sunday at worship we announce, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” The Good Shepherd tries to live out that message on many fronts including the Samaritans ministry as well as running a community food bank.
As faith communities and humanitarians, we have to ask ourselves, how are we showing a prophetic welcome to newcomers in our midst? Last year CWS led a massive civil disobedience outside the White House in which 83 faith leaders, including our CEO Rev. John L. McCullough, alongside 29 impacted community members were arrested asking the President for relief from deportations. In order to show the continued urgency of the community after multiple delays of the President’s promise to act, CWS helped lead the Sanctuary 2014 movement with 120 congregations committed to supporting or offering physical Sanctuary to our undocumented community members.
The victory that immigrants and their families achieved through the President’s executive action on immigration were hard fought, yet the new House of Representatives wants to take away this hope of family unity and a better life. The House recently passed H.R. 240 a funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security that includes provisions to revoke these executive actions. Fortunately, it is not expected to pass the Senate and if it did, the President has promised to veto this bill. However, the House is soon expected to vote on Rep. McCaul’s border bill, designed “to transfer assets from theatre of war and redeploy them to the Southwest border,” in the words of Rep. McCaul himself.
Under this legislation, individuals living along the border would face increased inspection and racial profiling from police, Border Patrol, and even the National Guard, which could violate constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment. The “operational control” goals to seal the border in five years are unrealistic and ignore the fact that many individuals have legitimate claims to asylum. H.R. 399 also lacks much needed accountability measures for the Border Patrol, which has seen increased problems with corruption, escalation of force and systemic abuse of migrants. Any border bill should address the need for Border Patrol accountability, with short-term custody standards and a viable complaint process for victims of abuse. Instead of this legislation, we should work together to help revitalize border communities, not militarize them. CWS is partnering with the Southern Border Communities Coalition to support their important work and witness to this end.
The CWS network has been a critical ally in the immigrants’ rights movement. We have seen so many of those impacted by family separation and the fear of deportation move from fear to hope. As our network prepares to assist immigrants with the legal services needed to apply for the Administration’s new deportation relief programs, we must continue to accompany our immigrant sisters and brothers by advocating and mobilizing to protect these executive orders.
As we remember those souls who have fallen and perished under the hot desert sun, we lift up their memories by working together to stop legislation that would bring further militarization and racial profiling on the border. Together we can build on our victories and find hope in continued movement building.
Rev. Noel Andersen is the Grassroots Coordinator at CWS.