Once upon a time, political conservatives in America were stereotyped as hard-headed realists, and liberals were described as ungrounded dreamers.
How times have changed!
Conservatives base their policies on an ideal world in which capitalism works perfectly without government intervention. They assume that the hard-working succeed and the lazy fail. They assume that if people are hungry or unemployed, they should turn to private charity for help if they can’t pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. They assume that what’s good for America is good for the rest of the world. They assume that if there are bad guys in the world, America’s job is to go get ’em, and the natives will be grateful. None of these assumptions has a factual basis. Capitalism is wonderful, but it depends on careful government regulation. When there’s a downturn, the government must step in and run a big deficit budget in order to stimulate the economy. Private charity is utterly incapable of providing for the needs of people that capitalism leaves behind, often due to circumstances beyond their control. And when the Marines arrive, most of the time they aren’t welcome. Conservatives are dreamers. But only a Man of Steel or a magical Jesus could make their dreams come true.
Conservatives in Congress just passed a bill limiting abortion. It won’t even be considered in the Senate, much less be signed by the President. Regardless of one’s scruples, for the sake of public health and common sense, abortions must be legal and safe. Banning abortion won’t end it: it would result in many more dangerous back-room abortions. It’s impractical to define fetuses legally as people. It’s inconceivable to condemn a woman to death for the crime of having an abortion. And there is no way to issue Social Security cards to the unborn. Legal abortion is a harm-reduction strategy. It’s a hard-headed, reality-based policy.
Republican Senator John McCain is speaking out for America to intervene with direct military force in Syria. Even Syrians who have been persecuted by the local bad guy, Bashar al-Assad, would rather deal with the devil they know than the fanatical rebel groups that are trying to oust him. Has Sen. McCain learned nothing from the mayhem in Iraq, which resulted from the same idealism?
And in an other current example, members of the Tea Party of No are putting a roadblock in the way of immigration reform. These opponents of the Dream Act are the dreamers if they want to make immigration reform contingent on 90% control of the border. They need to get down to earth in southern Arizona, and take a hard look at what’s real.
The border of Mexico and the United States is one of the least hospitable environments for humans on planet Earth. It stretches for nearly 2,000 miles. The scale of it is almost incomprehensible. Even harder to imagine is the possibility of catching all, or even almost all, of the people who cross the border illegally.
I’ve spent a lot of time on the border near Tucson over the last fifteen years. In my last visit, I was there with a group of USC students in March for a week of learning about border issues. We visited one stretch of the border that is blocked by huge steel poles. Even a 60-year-old like myself could shinny up between the poles and down the other side in a matter of seconds. We went four-wheeling on rough dirt roads ten miles north of the border. Huge spires of rock loomed above us. Steep, dry gullies carved up the desert landscape. Buzzards floated above the dense mesquites and cacti that rip migrants’ clothes to shreds. We walked the narrow, zig-zagging trails and found items the migrants left behind. Exhaustion forces them to travel lighter as they go north. The desert offers many ways to die, but also many places to hide.
On the dirt roads, we went for hours without seeing la migra – the Border Patrol. But once we got back on paved roads, it was abundantly evident. Military-style vehicles zipped past constantly. We felt like we were in a war zone. Americans are barely aware that a huge swath of their nation is under military occupation. We visited a husband and wife who own an organic farm near the border. They are asked regularly for their ID’s at Border Patrol checkpoints. “We live in a Constitution-free zone,” they lamented.
A massive buildup of agents in the field, coupled with a drop in employment opportunities in the US for migrants, has brought illegal crossings down to the lowest level in decades. But people still get across, because they are desperate to provide for their families or to reunite with loved ones. Some are driven into the hands of drug-traffickers, and to cross in the most rugged areas along the border. Many fewer people are crossing, but the death rate is going up as migrants take longer and more dangerous routes. The Border Patrol is getting better at identifying migrants who make their crossing. But it’s a lot easier to see them from a drone than to catch them on the ground.
With Samaritan Patrol volunteers, I and my students stood on a promontory below a rocky cliff with a view of the vertical plug of Baboquivari Peak about 30 miles north. No “migra” for as far as the eye could see. If there had been triple the number of Border Patrol officers in the Tucson sector that day, I suppose we might have been able to spot one or two of them from that lookout. But in all that vast, serrated territory, would ten agents been able to stop every determined migrant from getting past them, even in broad daylight? Illegal immigration can be managed, but it can’t be stopped completely.
Of course America ought to enforce its immigration laws and protect its borders. We’re doing a more thorough job of it today than ever before. We ought to work harder to prevent death on the border. Why must humanitarian volunteers be the ones to put water on the migrant trails, when it ought to be the job of the Border Patrol? Let us have humane rules of engagement. Let’s deport living, breathing undocumented migrants instead of bags of bones plucked clean by wild animals in the desert. That would be a policy based on the reality that people are going to cross the border no matter how dangerous it gets.
How can we reduce the negative impacts of undocumented immigration, treating people with dignity and respect in the process, while using our resources wisely? This ought to be the question driving the debate. It’s a question that won’t lead to dreamy 100% solutions, or even to 90% solutions. It’s a question that will lead to a kind but firm harm reduction strategy. Eleven million undocumented people living in America deserve today to have a pathway to citizenship tomorrow.
There is wishful thinking, and, I daresay, bad theology behind the current resistance to immigration reform. It follows from a fantasy of unlimited power. To get 90% apprehension of migrants, we’d need Superman to fly south, his cape waving behind him, holding up his powerful hand to seal off the border. To deport 11 million men, women, and children across the border, we’d need a magical Jesus to come in the clouds and rapture them.
But Jesus wasn’t a Man of Steel. He wore a crown of thorns, just as painful as the mesquite spines that tear migrants’ flesh as they sweat and strain along desert trails. We don’t pray to Jesus for magical, supernatural powers to solve our problems. We don’t pray for a fantasy. We pray for a vision of a better future reality toward which we can work in practical ways. We pray to follow his example of compassion, doing our best to deal with thorny social problems.
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California