“The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respected stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges.” - President George Washington
When I heard about the mother and her two children dying while trying to cross the Rio Grande down in Eagle Pass, I was brought back to a similar scene I had encountered as a young TV news reporter on the border in Laredo, Texas. There were three bloated bodies, dark as tar with putrefaction, inflated with gas, and floating among the roots on the north bank of the river. They were later identified as a mother and two children of indeterminate sex because of decomposition. The father’s remains were discovered several days later after his body had floated through downtown, past parks and restaurants and schoolyards, underneath the international bridge and toward the big reservoir of Falcon Lake where an unknown number of hopeful immigrants disappeared into meaningless time.
I have never been able to reconcile the hope my country generates for dreamers with the pain it inflicts on so many of their aspirations. The U.S. has an endless history of moral contradictions that confound any attempt to understand the difference between our words and our actions. The governor of Texas, who claims the importance of the law, violates the very constitution on which it is established by interfering with federal officers protecting the border. He quotes scripture in his weekly dispatches on X, talking about the value of helping the less fortunate while sending immigrants on busses into the deadly winter cold without warm clothes or even shoes. He spends billions on police and soldiers militarizing the border while denying teachers a pay raise and preventing children from getting Medicaid. A million kids live in his “prosperous” Texas without health care.
We Americans are a people who spend our time mostly oblivious to our history. Every issue exists as a contemporary snapshot without context for cause. If our own behaviors or policies brought us to some sad place, we have only vague memories, which are subsumed by mass denials. We lionize leaders who we think inspire us to do the right thing and then ignore their hypocrisies when they commit acts diametrically opposed to the course of action they preached. The “golden door” to America, we insist, has always been open to those determined to work hard and build lives of prosperity and participation, but can anyone be more motivated than the mother who walks a few thousand miles across the desert with her children to reach our border and the Texas razor wire? Would she not make a valuable employee or a good neighbor?
Thirty-three-year-old Sancha Cerros, the immigrant mother, and her children were victims, not just of rushing water in the Rio Grande, but a move by the Governor of Texas ordering his state’s military department to take over an Eagle Pass city park being used by people coming up out of the water to step on U.S. soil. Federal officers were blocked by Texan forces from entering the parkland to try to save the woman and her children. Texas officials insisted later the three were already dead and there was nothing to be done but the governor ignored the fact that his tactic of blocking access to Shelby Park by immigrants was what kept the family in the river, fighting the fast-moving water. A witness claimed the mother and her children had joined hands to be part of a human chain reaching across to the Texas side when kids lost their grip and were taken by the current.
Further up the river, West of Del Rio, where U.S. Highway 90 runs 300 miles to Van Horn and the High Lonesome country, the obstacles multiply for the hopeful immigrants. On either side of the paved roadbed, the Border Patrol has bladed the desert floor to dirt, which makes it easy to spot footprints of undocumented immigrants. Every few hours, the green and white patrol SUVs pass down the earthen track, dragging tires trailing on lines tied to their bumpers. The heavy tires smooth out the dust to make it easier to see fresh tracks. A federal agent comes along behind, cutting for sign, and when footprints are spotted in the soft dust, he marks the coordinates, calls in a search vehicle or an aircraft, and it turns north in the direction the feet were pointing. The desperate traveler that crossed from Mexico had already made it through 100 miles of open desert and would, nonetheless, soon be reduced to custody. My suspicion, as I motorcycled down U.S. 90 on recent trips, is that any rancher in that Trans Pecos region of Texas would have jumped at the chance to hire such a focused and determined person, which only happens probably every day in that part of the state.
The hypocrisies and contradictions of Republicans on immigration are many and manifest and far too numerous to list. The president revered by conservatives, Ronald Reagan, understood the importance of immigrants to the vitality of the American dream. In fact, his final act as President of the United States was to give a speech about the value of immigration and how critical foreigners coming to these shores were to sustaining this nation’s economic and cultural excellence. In his final address, Reagan quoted a letter he had received from a naturalized U.S. citizen.
“You can go to live in France but cannot become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany, Turkey or Japan but you cannot become a German, Turk or Japanese. But anyone from any corner of the earth can come to live in America and become an American.”
Almost astonishingly, the “Gipper” was the last president to accomplish the passage of a bipartisan immigration bill. He signed the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli Act to strengthen border security and impose penalties on employers who knowingly hired undocumented workers. Unlike Trump, however, Reagan never threatened mass deportations and gave amnesty to some three million people who’d been living here illegally. George W. Bush also proposed bipartisan legislation that offered a path to legal status for immigrants in the country illegally while also increasing border security, but he never got his party to support the measure.
Despite our national failures on the complex matter of who can come into this country, Reagan’s lofty rhetoric ought to echo up and down the Rio Grande and into the politics and hearts of people dreaming of turning the Mexican frontier into a kind of Berlin Wall. He understood that someone who could cross a desert for a chance at a job in a new country to care for their family was the kind of determined soul whose will tempered the steel with which America was constructed.
“We lead the world because,” Reagan said in that final speech, “Unique among nations, we draw our people, our strength from every country and every corner of the world. Here in America, we breathe life into dreams. We create the future. If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.”
The present humanitarian crisis at our border, however, is a legacy of that man who believed in the power of immigration. His foreign policies were driven by an obsession over Communism and he supported authoritarian regimes in Central America by providing military and financial support to governments in Guatemala and El Salvador along with the Contras, trying to stop a socialist revolution in Nicaragua, which occurred as the result of U.S. support for a strongman dictator. The regimes Reagan believed were protecting democracy in Central America were actually conducting massive human rights abuses, kidnapping political opposition, and performing extrajudicial killings. The militarization of the region, facilitated by America, displaced much of the population, and in the subsequent decades made it a fertile land to grow drug cartels and transshipments from narco-traffickers. Reagan’s unfaltering military support to rebels and anti-socialist groups prolonged the suffering of those countries and constrained economic growth and recovery.
More than three decades have passed and economic health has not happened in Central America. Jobs are mostly picking fruit for giant U.S. companies that have turned countries into plantations. The other option is to get involved in the drug business, which sometimes is forced upon you. Join or die, are the options. Instead of investing billions into the Northern Triangle nations to grow businesses and improve lives, the U.S. spends its money on razor wire and soldiers and police and more militarization. One year’s budget of Operation Lone Star, launched by the governor of Texas, could probably sustain an entire new economy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, creating jobs and feeding people and giving them hope to build lives in their home country rather than stepping into the unknown of a dangerous trip to America. Instead, we build walls and destroy hope.
There will be no new law passed this year to create immigration reform. The Republicans have no interest in helping President Biden deliver a solution to the immigration crisis on the border. The problem is much more valuable as a political tool to claim the president has an open border policy, which is harming the country. In truth, Biden has had a proposal on the table almost since he took office, and his latest budget supplement includes billions for more Border Patrol and U.S. Customs agents, increased technology, more administrative law judges to process cases, and a higher number of deportation flights, along with a path to citizenship for qualified immigrants. None of it has the slightest chance, however, of winning approval. Republicans don’t want a solution, they prefer a crisis to hang around the president’s neck in an election year.
Our country sometimes feels as lost as the ones those desperate immigrants are leaving.