The Kino Border Initiative affirms dignity of those marginalized by the harsh reality of the “border.”

by Dr. Janie Leatherman, professor of politics & international studies

The southern border of the United States with Mexico — which Mexicans refer to as the “linea” or line — extends for 1,969 miles. It intersects 20 railroad crossings and 30 paired cities along a number of states on both sides of the line. It is one of the most crossed borders in the world — a vibrant, cosmopolitan space — with roughly 250 million people crossing it every year through official ports of entry.

There are other crossing points, too — shadowy and often dangerous pathways used by undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America coming to this country to work, or to visit family.

Perhaps the most treacherous of these crossing areas is the “Tucson” sector. As a result of the deliberate policies of the United States to make undocumented crossings more difficult in densely populated areas, the “Tucson” sector — a mountainous and extremely dry, hot, and perilous expanse of desert — has become a preferred route.

As many as 251 human remains were recovered in one year in the Tucson sector alone, most of the victims suffering a slow and painful death driven by a violent struggle against the effects of dehydration, hyperthermia, heat stroke, and related ailments.

That’s not all the dangers these people face: The Mexican drug cartels are deeply involved in these border crossings — often forcing migrants to carry drugs, extorting money from their families, or subjecting them to rape and other abuses.

As a political scientist, I’ve become interested in how societies marginalize certain people, excluding them by designating them as “illegal” or pursuing them as “criminals” in the war on terror. This work dovetails with a number of initiatives at Fairfield’s Center for Faith and Public Life (CFPL) under the leadership of its director, Rev. Richard Ryscavage, S.J., that are focused on immigration and migrants.

One contemporary theorist, Giorgio Agamben, suggests that the lives of people such as these marginalized migrants have been turned into non-entities with no legal standing. It is as though they exist in a “state of exception,” where public authorities are able to suspend legal protections while bringing the disciplinary power of the state to bear full force on them.

The average U.S. citizen is not even aware of these migrants, or how they are treated. The implications of their treatment is a tally of deaths — both reported and unaccounted — along the U.S.-Mexican border. In a perverse way, such border policies and methods strengthen the drug cartels, as migrants are increasingly forced to depend on the cartel’s smuggling operations.

I’m also interested in how individuals “resist” this kind of dehumanization, and how it is possible in some circumstances to create a kind of “safe space,” where these persons deemed “illegal” or otherwise lacking in standing, are given a place where their dignity can be restored and protected, and resistance becomes a possibility.

This past January, I spent some time at such a place — the Kino Border Initiative (KBI), a binational program with a main office in Nogales, Ariz. On the other side of the “linea” in Nogales, Mexico, KBI offers daily meals to migrants and those recently deported in a comedor — a tin-roofed, half-open soup kitchen framed by colorful murals and lined with picnic tables. KBI also runs Nazareth House for Deported Women, a short-term shelter for at risk migrant women located discretely in an apartment bloc not far from the main shelter.

When undocumented migrants are apprehended at the U.S. border or elsewhere in the United States, they are deported back to their home country. While I was at the KBI, a group of recent deportees to Mexico arrived early in the morning. In spite of the fact that it was bitterly cold, with temperatures hovering around 16 degrees, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents had deported several migrants overnight wearing only t-shirts and jeans. They joined others around a gas heater to warm their hands.

After introductions by Rev. Sean Carroll, S.J., executive director of KBI, some middle-aged migrants approached me to say that they wanted me to tell people in the United States that “we are not criminals: we are not coming to steal from you or take your things away from you. We have come to the United States only to seek work because we have no opportunities for work at home, and we need to care for our children, for our families.”

Another migrant insisted I hear the story of a mother and father from southern Mexico, whose daughter lay comatose with a feeding tube in a California nursing home, kept alive since a car accident 16 months earlier. With tears flowing, the parents told of their failed attempts to secure a visa to visit their stricken daughter and that, if they crossed again undocumented, they risked imprisonment in the U.S.

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