Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Report from the Border

Rarely a day goes by that Lou Dobbs of CNN Broadcasting doesn't feature a piece of advocacy journalism on immigration from a very biased perspective. Build a wall is usually his recommendation. Deport illegal immigrants is another argument. The issue is much more complex and politically and economically charged. What role does faith play in this national conversation?

This week the Mission Committee of Missouri River Valley Presbytery made a conference call to BorderLinks in Tucson, AZ to speak with Michael Plank who is spending a year along the border with Mexico as part of a Presbyterian Church (USA) mission internship that sends recent college graduates all over the world. It's an exciting program and we wanted to talk with Michael about his experience. Michael is from Omaha, Nebraska where we made our call. First a word about BorderLinks.

BorderLinks is headquartered in Tucson, AZ across the border from Nogales, Mexico. Founded in 1987, BorderLinks is a bi-national non-profit organization that offers experiential education seminars along the border with Mexico focusing on the issues of global economics, militarization along the border, immigration, environmentalism and health issues, and concerns of oppression and violence. The web site is

Mexican immigrants crossing the border into the United States put their lives in jeopardy to find some kind of economic opportunity for themselves and their families Michael told us. We grasped that. As one member of our committee said, if the restaurants in West Omaha had to let go all their immigrant workers most of these eating establishments would close. It's a controversial issue. Some argue that immigrants are taking jobs from Americans. Others maintain that the jobs most often taken by immigrants are jobs no one else wants.

Michael described the dangerous journey across the desert into the United States that immigrants usually take over the course of 3-4 days with little water or food or medical supplies. Since 1994 an estimataed 2,500 deaths have occurred during the crossing. I can hear Lou Dobbs voice now, saying, no one forced them to take such a risk.

What would you say to Dobbs, I asked Michael. First, Michael observed, migrants are people who are desparate to work to feed their families. They are not criminals. They are sons and daughters, and mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts and family members just trying to survive in a global economy. Secondly, Michael commented, militarization along the border isn't working. We need to adddress the root causes of migration and work with the Mexican government to urge them to find ways to improve economic opportunity. And we need to partner with them to help that process.

Michael spoke about humanitarian efforts to offer assistance to immigrants, such as the Samaritan patrols into the desert to offer first aid, food and water and medical attention. These teams consist of one Spanish speaker and a doctor. Water tanks marked by a blue flag are also placed at strategic passage points in the desert.

How is border security and enforcement currently working, we asked Michael. He told us that som 2,000 people per day are being arrested for illegal entry. But he estimates that this is only 25% of the total who are successfully entering. Those who cross are often preyed upon by coyotes transporters who charge signifant fees to smuggle immigrants. Other criminal activity is occurring with human trafficking for sex and trafficking for what amounts to indentured servitude. There are many justice issues at stake along the border.

BorderLinks offers experiential learning seminars to groups who want to learn more about the complexity of the immigration issue and related concerns of life along the border with Mexico. Michael shared with us that a typical size group would be 10-15 participants who might come for 1-6 days for a customized seminar. Many groups are college age students or high school students.

BorderLinks is an ecumenical group with the goal "to give participants the opportunity to personally experience" all the complex of issues that are part of the border debate and "to develop their own opinions" about these concerns. If you go to the site you will see a calendar of groups from all over the United States coming to experience first-hand the crisis of the border. It's a pressing issue of public policy and a serious matter for people of faith to consider. The controversy isn't going away. In fact, it's building.

We were delighted to speak with Michael and learn more about his mission experience with the Presbyterian Church USA. For more information, go to the web site and go to the site search engine alphabetical list and lick on "m" for mission and you can read Michael's letters from the mission field.


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