Sarah DeVries
A makeshift migrant camp in Matamoros by the US border. A makeshift migrant camp in Matamoros by the US border.

As Biden and AMLO reexamine immigration policy, balance is key

Both countries need to find a healthy combination of compassion and setting limits

“What do you mean you can’t move to the United States with your family? You’re from there!” exclaimed my South African friend in bewilderment.

“That just makes no sense, that you can’t just decide to live in your country with your spouse and children,” he continued. “What is wrong with the U.S., Sarah?”

Now that’s a loaded question if I ever heard one.

We had the conversation a few years ago, before the pandemic, when the thing that was most keeping me up at night was the separation of asylum-seeking families upon entering the U.S. and the infamous “kids in cages” privatized camps. (For the record, I also find “adults in cages” to be horrifying.)

But I didn’t need those stories to know that immigration was a mess. Back when I was married, I’d had the dream of returning to Texas to be close to my family, and especially to help care for my now-deceased mother. In the end, the will to make the move wasn’t there as I learned that you can’t drag your partner to another country if they don’t actually want to go. But I did learn quite a bit about the United States’ astronomy-level complicated immigration system, as well as the difficulty of “just doing things the ‘right’ way,” as my conservative compatriots often offer up with exasperation as a solution (I’d add here that entering the U.S. seeking asylum is perfectly legal; it is “doing things the right way”).

The implication is, of course, that “the right way” is as simple and straightforward as coming to live in, say, Mexico as a U.S. or Canadian citizen, which it most certainly is not.

The months-long (if you’re extremely lucky) to years-long (if you are of average luck) immigration process is surely a test of any relationship. And that’s if you’re married and simply want to live in your own country with your spouse. Imagine if you have little to no connection to the country.

For those of you who are thinking to yourselves right now, “Well, no one should get to live in a country just because they want to,” I invite you to think of the number of places around the world, including Mexico, that are available for most North Americans and expats to simply decide to settle with relatively straightforward immigration processes and without being treated like invaders in the meantime.

But I know. I know simply allowing our borders to be mostly porous is neither practical nor good policy when most of the human movement is primarily going in one direction. I think most people, including me, can understand the overwhelmed feeling as more and more desperate people show up, especially when the system we have for much lower numbers is already completely insufficient. Even for those among us who would sincerely like to help everyone, we recognize that this is simply not possible.

We want to be welcoming, but we also need to set limits. And this goes for both Mexico and the United States. How shall we accommodate the catch-22 of wanting to be fair and humane while not making that fairness and humanity seem like an open invitation for even more people to come?

I do disagree with the assumption that we simply can’t accommodate them. The truth is that immigrants to the U.S. — even ones who haven’t done everything “the right way,” tend to give much more than they take.

For now, it’s U.S. President Biden (and to a lesser extent, President López Obrador) in the hot seat, especially after Mexico passed a law to prohibit the detention of immigrant families and children in some major crossing areas along the Mexico-Texas border. This was the right thing to do on Mexico’s part, and I applaud them for it.

Of course, it puts the U.S. in a bit of a tight spot. Say what you will about Trump (and as my more faithful readers know, I do indeed have a lot to say about him), but he certainly made the U.S. seem like an apocalyptically unwelcoming place. Now that a tentative welcome mat has been set out again, it’s anyone’s guess how they’re going to handle things.

Immigration has always been a very tough issue, and the coronavirus has now made it feel even more impossible to deal with. Meanwhile, the United States Department of Homeland Security seems to be finding it very convenient. After all, it’s much easier to say “don’t come in because we need to protect everyone from the coronavirus” than “don’t come in because we don’t want you and are just too exasperated by people continuously knocking on the door.”

In the meantime, northern cities in Mexico have been the ones directly dealing with the consequences of U.S. policy; they’ve essentially become the United States’ “waiting room.” Individuals and families in Matamoros, for example, are sleeping under bridges and filling shelters in large numbers as they wait. And a report this past week revealed that many migrants are not having a fantastic time in Mexico either.

There are a lot of desperate people. And much like with the pandemic, it’s not anyone’s fault, even though it makes absolutely everybody grouchy. But there are certainly good ways and bad ways to handle this.

Mexico and the United States have a shared interest in the stability and happiness of those who live south of them. Surely, we can think of ways to support these countries in a way that ensures that help arrives to its people and not simply into the hands of those in power. Without being imperialistic about it, how can we help people in those countries feel that they have a chance of freedom and happiness if they stay put? No one is showing up with their families just because they saw a few episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and wanted to meet Will Smith.

No matter what we do to help people in those countries, both Mexico and the U.S. are going to have to deal with great numbers of migrants and refugees for the foreseeable future. I hope we can figure out a way to keep our shared humanity at the forefront of our minds as we move forward.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sdevrieswritingandtranslating.com.

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