In my eight months in Tucson I have learned much about the humanitarian crisis at our southern border.
Stories about it are told in Utah, but distance is a balm. Utahns hear of deaths in the desert, detentions without trials, families fearful and torn apart, and intimidation and harm from so-called "coyotes" and other human predators.
Many of the loosely supervised border agents and detention guards are among those predators. Yet, the isolated examples and words heard in Utah do not scratch the surface of the reality.
The policies and practices of our harsh immigration system violate human rights: basic respect, dignity, safety and the needs of individuals.
Abuse and humiliation are woven into the fabric of U.S. border practices and policies. Militarization, our knee-jerk response to border immigration problems, has greatly contributed to U.S. human rights violations of national and international laws.
Yes, the United States needs secure borders and humans need security. But the process of securing our borders has brought insecurity and death to many.
We in this country are challenged to create an immigration system and naturalization policy that are in our best interests and at the same time consistent with humanitarian values and laws.
The $4.5 billion proposed in Congress for further securing the border by increasing militarization will increase human insecurity.
The systemic nature of our human rights violations has been studied and criticized by many organizations, including No More Deaths, the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Organization of American States Commission on Human Rights. The reports are available on their web sites.
The repeated violations they cite include failure to enforce humane custody standards, with bedding, food, water and emergency medical treatment inadequate or withheld altogether; lack of due process; intimidation and assault by border staff; destruction or theft of detainee possessions, including identification papers; separation of families; unsafe repatriation practices; the funneling of immigrants into desert death zones.
There is a fear in this country, spread by ignorant or intentionally inflammatory persons, that all unauthorized immigrants are dangerous.
Even some U.S. senators, who surely know better, refer to them as "terrorists."
In fact, the vast majority breaks no laws beyond visa violations, and crime along the border regions in three of the four Border States is lower than overall averages in those states. Nevertheless, fear of crime and terrorism have been used to justify turning the border into a war zone.
The proposed bill's greatest risk to human security is the plan to further militarize the border. It confuses unauthorized immigrants who otherwise are law-abiding with the few who bring violence and harm.
Enemies are perceived as those who are outside our moral boundaries and thus are entitled to suffer or to die.
The United States can do better. We can make our immigration practices humane, and we can train our border staff to enforce laws while treating lawbreakers humanely.
According to the Friends Committee on National Legislation, militarization does not focus on the crimes that endanger human security (drug crimes, human trafficking, abuse along the border), but on violations of unauthorized crossing.
Militarization benefits few apart from defense-related industries. It ignores the root causes of border crossings and preempts long-term solutions that are more effective and less costly.
Securing borders and ensuring the human rights of those who try to cross those borders need not be mutually exclusive. Our laws and policies and methods of enforcement (or lack of enforcement), bring harm and death. That is why immigration reform must address human security as well as border security.
Kathy French recently retired from Utah Valley University, where she taught for 17 years and conducted the Utah Peace Activist Oral History Project. She received the 2012 Gandhi Peace Award from the Utah Gandhi Alliance for Peace and now lives in Tucson, Ariz.