Commentary: Mormon Women for Ethical Government reps visit the border, urge all to find humanity — in migrants, border agents, ourselves

If we cannot always provide migrants with a home, we can still act as humane participants in their journeys.

Azucena motioned toward the shallow water a few feet away, saying wistfully: “It seems so easy to cross. But it’s not easy. I want to do it the right way, so I will wait.” She had been waiting nearly seven months.

Back in Honduras, Azucena’s family had been targeted by gangs, so she left her government job and made the arduous trek to Mexico. She now lives in a makeshift refugee camp along the Rio Grande, surrounded by flies and garbage. Every day she goes on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s One mobile app on her phone in hopes of scheduling an appointment to enter the U.S. and start the process of claiming asylum.

Azucena is just one of many people we met at the McAllen-Reynosa border in April with our group of six leaders from Mormon Women for Ethical Government. We came with curiosity, concern and a desire to hear from people with multiple perspectives, including those of Border Patrol agents and Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention workers.

As the Biden administration enacts restrictions on asylum-seekers, we bear witness to the realities we found at the border. We hope that sharing them might help move us toward more secure and compassionate solutions to immigration.

The people we met crossing the border were not “invaders.” Most migrants arrive — from Central and South America, China, Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere — with their arms up in surrender, many seeking their legal right to asylum. At the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, families who had already been processed by CBP were moving on to their next destination to await court dates. As we helped parents with babies on their hips find formula and played with children in pajamas, our common humanity became clear.

Widespread perceptions of immigrants often do not match reality. To pick just one stereotype, immigrants are actually less likely to be incarcerated or convicted of a crime than natural-born U.S. citizens. All of society is harmed if we use dehumanizing language to describe immigrants, such as “animals” or people who are “poisoning the blood of our country.” They are our brothers and sisters made in the image of God. We should speak about immigrants with respect and treat them as fellow human beings and children of God.

Many of the adults we met at the Catholic Charities shelter had already been through an ICE detention facility. At the Port Isabel Center, asylum-seekers are vetted and given a chance to make their case in a courtroom on-site. If denied asylum or deemed a security threat, they are deported to their country of origin. The facility was just over half full, not flooded with people. Its staff — many first- or second-generation immigrants themselves — provide medical care, mental health services and an enrichment library.

Members of the Border Patrol, the agents who look for and detain border crossers between ports of entry and at interior checkpoints, also met with us. Aided by sophisticated surveillance equipment and roads along border walls, these agents encounter migrants daily who are dehydrated, starving and desperate. Again, our common humanity became clear as the agents expressed a desire to be seen not as robots but as real people who spend much of their time aiding migrants, most of whom they believe are good people seeking a better life.

The journeys migrant individuals and families are undertaking are not new. As Liliana Reza of World Relief declared, “God is not overwhelmed by migration. … He actually calls people to migrate.”

Though God is not overwhelmed, our country is. This is largely because our immigration policies, which have not significantly changed since 1986, are inadequate to address the current situation. The unprecedented number of families and children coming from many countries and continents are pushed here by a combination of factors — threats of violence, corruption, gang activity, poverty and persecution. They are also pulled by our low unemployment and high standard of living.

Even if we cannot always provide them with a home, we can still do better to act as humane participants in their journeys.

Immigration law is complex, and policies are ever-changing. As citizens, we should all be suspicious of anyone who boils down immigration issues into a few sound bites. Many political leaders, both in and outside the U.S., are trying to gain power by using false information and oversimplification to stoke fear and anger.

That fear and anger lead to greater polarization and stall our ability to find bipartisan solutions, which the majority of Americans want. We must work together toward a sensible immigration policy while respecting the humanity of those, like Azucena, who want to enter our country to find safety, fill essential jobs ,and contribute richly to our society.

We invite you to join us as we let go of fear and embrace the truth that it is possible to both secure the border and treat all people with compassion and dignity.

Merinda Cutler is the immigration advocacy director at Mormon Women for Ethical Government. Meredith Gardner is the media literacy empower director at MWEG. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.