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The U.S. Immigration System: Why We Need Reform

This year I attended the Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, D.C., where faith leaders from multiple denominations gathered together to advocate for peace. During the conference, I attended a session about violence against Central American migrants in transit through Mexico.

Immediately, the speakers had my attention. The session was led by Jenny Johnson, (Mexico and Border Policy, Latin America Working Group) and Mary Small (Jesuit Refugee Services/USA). Jenny and Mary shared some of the push factors causing Central American migration, including a high homicide rate (40 per 100,000: double Mexico’s rate) (1), and extreme violence, including large criminal organizations in connection with local gangs. In addition, many Central American countries do not have the capacity to improve these problems, along with government corruption contributing to these problems. Furthermore, many heads of households leave their families to find work in Mexico or the U.S., leaving their children at risk of being targeted by gangs.

There are many reasons Central Americans choose to migrate North. However, the violence and risk many Central Americans face while migrating is often just as terrible. Many Central Americans begin their migration without a visa or travel papers. This puts migrants at risk in Mexico, where buses are often pulled over so police officers can check for undocumented migrants. As a result, many Central Americans must find other ways to travel through Mexico. Some Central Americans still risk taking a bus. Many other Central Americans travel on top of cargo trains, where they not only risk injury, but also risk abuse from anyone who chooses to find them on top of the trains. Many gangs will target migrants on top of trains and exploit them for money, sex, or their families’ phone numbers. If a migrant gives a gang member his/her family’s phone number, the gang member will use that number to extort their family, telling them to send money or their loved one will die.

Some extortion in Mexico is also carried out by the police officers, expecting money or sex in order for the officer to allow the migrant to return home safely. In addition, many migrants are kidnapped and trafficked, either for work or for sex. The trafficking industry in Mexico is a very profitable industry, and over 50% of the people trafficked are between the age of 11 and 20 (2). An estimated 60,000 unaccompanied children will come to the U.S. in 2014 (3). That number does not include the many children who disappeared in migration. It is extraordinarily difficult to know the exact number of abused migrants, because many cases go unreported.

Many Central Americans attempt migration even though they know the incredible risk. Despite the horrible things which may occur while migrating, many Central Americans live in worse conditions at home, causing migration to be worth the risk.

I spend 20+ hours a week thinking, writing, and talking about the U.S. immigration system. I spend time thinking and learning about the current policies in the U.S., and why the system must be reformed. I am a member of many coalitions with ideas about what just immigration reform would look like. I think about families who are being separated when their family members are deported, and the children who live undocumented in the U.S., but who cannot remember their home country.

However, I spend very little time thinking about the migration process, and what many people risk when they come to the U.S. Learning about the migration process for many Central Americans opened my eyes to the terrors many immigrants have faced. In the U.S. we do not welcome these immigrants, but instead we demonize them and deport them without a second thought. I was struck by the overwhelming need to love and care for the many people crossing the U.S. border every day, people who have experienced unspeakable pain and hardship to come to the U.S., who have finally made it, and are greeted with hatred and more hardship. I, along with many others, have gotten caught up in the politics of the issue and forgotten that the “issue” involves real people who deserve to be welcomed and loved.

As U.S. citizens and Christians, we must not forget the reasons people come to the U.S. We must not discount the experiences and hardships many immigrants have faced during migration. This issue is not only a political issue, it is a church issue. We must remember to be welcoming, and loving. We must remember that instead of “illegal immigrants” we are surrounded by people who have experienced true suffering. If we are able to consistently remember the personhood and God-given dignity of every person, including undocumented immigrants, I truly believe the U.S. would be able to agree on an immigration system that helps, instead of hurts, the strangers in our midst.

1 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Global Study on Homicide, 2011, page 23.

2 Coalition for International Criminal Court Joint Report presented by Mexico civil society organization on the occassion of the Second Universal Periodic Review of Mexico, March 4, 2013,

3 Department of Health and Human Services, USA, Fiscal Year 2015, Budget in Brief Report, pgs 5-6.

[Image: Flickr user Brett Davies]

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