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The allure of America

Learning why illegal immigrants don’t just stay in Mexico

The allure of America

A mother and her child receive donated food upon arrival to a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico. (Hans-Maximo Musielik/AP)

When I first started reading about the thousands of migrants traveling from Central America through Mexico to seek asylum in the United States, I (like many fellow Americans) asked this logical question: Why aren’t these migrants staying in Mexico instead, especially since the Mexican government is offering them asylum and work permits? Wouldn’t they adjust better in Mexico, with its language and culture similar to their own? Why would people still insist on applying for U.S. asylum, some even crossing the border illegally to do so? 

From certain news accounts I’d read, it really did appear like these migrants were “storming” the border, demanding their “right” to enter the United States. When I read about the group of 100 migrants who walked into the U.S. Consulate asking the Trump administration to allow them into the country or pay them $50,000, saying it was “a small sum compared to everything the United States has stolen from Honduras,” I got mad. That sounded suspiciously entitled for a group of people claiming to flee death threats and gang violence. (I later found out that these people who demanded money were a tiny minority group, and that other migrants voted to kick out the leader of that group from their shelter.)

So when I began visiting Tijuana to do my own reporting on the migrant crisis there, I went with a level of skepticism. After all, I am an immigrant myself. I came the legal way through my father’s work as a pastor in Virginia, waited five years as a permanent resident, then paid hundreds of dollars to obtain my U.S. citizenship. I waited my turn, went through the proper channels, and earned my legal status. So why can’t these people do the same? And what right do they have to demand entry into the United States, anyway? 

After about two months of research, reporting, and interviews, I now hold a much more nuanced understanding of the situation—a perspective that has only further unsettled and perplexed me, because the truth does not fall so easily into categories of black or white. Our nation’s current immigration system is too broken, outdated, and arbitrary to properly deal with all the new problems sprouting from its sick bowels. And the increasingly anti-immigrant rhetoric, much of it fueled by the Trump administration, is not helping.

Our nation’s current immigration system is too broken, outdated, and arbitrary to properly deal with all the new problems sprouting from its sick bowels.

Truth is, the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States has gone down. More Mexicans are leaving the United States than entering it. Today, the typical face of today’s undocumented immigrant is no longer the stereotypical young single Mexican man, but a mother with a child seeking asylum, or an unaccompanied child who’s trying to reunite with a parent in the United States. I saw many of those young families with my own eyes at the shelters in Tijuana. 

When I read about the conditions of life in Central America—the grinding poverty, the corruption, the violence—I wonder what I would do in those same circumstances. And when I read about how U.S. foreign policy has directly and indirectly contributed to the instability and dysfunction in Central American countries, I can understand better why activists say we hold some responsibility for the civilians who are fleeing the very mess that we helped create (though they would have fared no better under the other option, socialism).

As someone who grew up in the immigrant community, I know people from South Korea and China and Taiwan who left much less desperate situations for better opportunities in the United States. These folks had legal pathways to do so, such as employment-based visas, but for other immigrants who are less educated and less skilled, there is often no legal way for them to come and work in the United States—even though we need and benefit from their low-wage labor. (U.S. temporary worker programs are very limited and cumbersome for employers to use.) That means for years, we’ve been arresting them for coming illegally into our country to work while simultaneously holding up “Help Wanted” signs.

Sure, some of these recent migrants may be trying to twist our immigration laws to their advantage. They know that, by law, our government cannot detain families in holding facilities for more than 72 hours, and they know that they’re less likely to be deported if they come with a child. But many of these families are also genuinely desperate. Somehow in their mind, there’s a persisting belief that life in the United States will fix many of their problems. 

Meanwhile, as much as the United States is reeling with the thousands of asylum-seekers knocking at our doors, Mexico is also overwhelmed with its own massive backlog of asylum applications. For many people fleeing Central America, Mexico is a destination rather than a thoroughfare: Asylum requests in Mexico increased 311 percent between 2014 and 2016, and in 2017, more than 14,600 people applied for asylum in Mexico. Authorities there are wholly unprepared for them. The Mexican refugee agency has just four offices—none near the border—and they won’t be seeing a drop in applications anytime soon.

Tijuana, where the majority of people from the caravans end up, isn’t a very welcoming place. The mayor has been openly hostile toward the migrants, and hundreds of local residents have protested their arrival, calling them “worse than gonorrhea.” Open racism against Central Americans is high: Locals tell me it’s easy to spot Central Americans by their physical features, their vocabulary, and their mannerisms, and these migrants are much more vulnerable to all sorts of crimes and abuse. Jobs are plentiful in Mexico, but the ones available for migrants are usually very low-wage, not enough to feed and house a whole family, or send money back home.

For many migrants, Tijuana reminds them too much of the violence they fled in their hometowns. Tijuana is one of the most violent cities in the world, currently at 140 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Last July, the city broke its own record of violence with 251 homicides that month. City authorities say most of the bloodshed stems from turf wars between low-level drug dealers scuffling over the right to sell meth in a neighborhood block. Other cities in Mexico are also seeing an increase in drug-related murders as splintered drug cartels engage in small civil wars throughout Mexican streets.

Fernando Antonio/AP

People grieve at the scene where four men and a woman were killed in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. (Fernando Antonio/AP)

One pastor in Tijuana who opened up his church as a shelter to Central American migrants told me that one night, a group of men charged into the church with guns. Turns out, the neighborhood drug lord sent his minions to terrorize the group of migrants, including babies and kids. They ransacked the place, claiming to look for a young man who had robbed the drug lord’s wife, and threatened to kill anyone who caused trouble in their neighborhood. No wonder these migrants still want to go to the United States—who wouldn’t?

I still don’t know the right “solution” to the immigration issue, and as I talk to various immigration lawyers, activists, and faith leaders, it’s clear that no one does. Perhaps it’s not our role as citizens to “solve” this issue—though we often enjoy hearing our own opinions on what the government or other individuals should do to solve it. Social media and news articles are filled with comments vilifying the other side, but I’ve seen too few conversations about what “we” or “I” can do as a neighbor, a co-worker, or a fellow church member of the millions of undocumented immigrants in our midst.

The Bible speaks clearly about immigrants—we are to love the foreigner as ourselves (Leviticus 19:33-34), not mistreat or oppress him (Exodus 23:9), not deprive him of justice (Malachi 3:5), and have mercy on him (Luke 10:29-37). That, no matter your stance on immigration, we can do.


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  • Phil W's picture
    Phil W
    Posted: Tue, 03/12/2019 09:47 pm

    That's excellent. Good work, Sophia.

  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Tue, 03/12/2019 10:42 pm

    Re: The Allure of America

    Thank you Sophia, a well researched article with the balance we all need to hear. Having worked as a bilingual elementary public school teacher in a Title 1 district for many years, I like you, concluded that there is no solution to immigration, be it here or anywhere else in the world. It's always been a painful but often victorious route to travel. There are two sides to every human issue, which is why Jesus chose a God-path, rather than a political path. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that Congress needs to do its job and overhaul (or completely redo from scratch) our antiquated immigration system. And like you stated, the rhetoric coming from the oval office doesn't help matters, but hinders.

    Thanks for personally traveling to Mexico, and thanks for a job well done. You stated many of the arguments we often hear.

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Wed, 03/13/2019 04:39 am

    Sophia, this is good and there are a number of points made that I'm tempted to comment on but won't. One thing that comes to mind worth mentioning though is that Congress seems to not really be interested in really working to solve many of the issues we are faced with. Everything seems to be turned into a political conversation full of rhetoric and inunendo and all for political gain, and re-election. And on the personal level many of us take sides against the other rather than look for common ground or solutions. The human dilemma...

  • AM
    Posted: Thu, 03/14/2019 09:10 pm

    Thanks for the well researched and written article. I wish the people serving in the two houses of Congress would have the same perspective and be able to reform immigration without resorting to extremes of an ill-conceived wall or massive amnesty.