I went to the wall and it broke my heart.
My old friend Magdaleno Rose-Avila took me to the border wall at Tijuana last month. There, he and his band of volunteers visit families who live in a tent city contained within a huge warehouse. Tiny tents with a mama and daddy and their children crammed within. These families are seeking asylum, often fleeing from unimaginable hardship. It is their right to seek asylum under international law, but for asserting that right they are treated with a special type of cruelty. We also spent time at The Bunker, a support house for veterans of the US military who have been deported.
Set aside the immigration debate, on which you and I might differ, and look at how we treat people who are trying to get a decent life for their families. At that wall we have erected, families wait on either side, some here in the USA, others in Mexico. Separated families used to come to the wall and hold each other's hands through the gaps between the steel bars. A small solace. Until, that is, the border patrol put in a wire mesh to stop this human contact. So now the USA side of the park is only open Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 2pm. Family members must walk two miles to get to the USA side of this so-called International Friendship Park. And when they get there they can only press their fingertips into the wire mesh and touch the fingertips of their loved ones on the Tijuana side. Some call this the Pinkie Kiss.
That wall and what it does to poor people feels so familiar to me, because it is what we do to prisoners and their families. Increasingly, the small solaces of family contact are being taken away from those we incarcerate. In many institutions, contact visits are no more. Instead, the private companies who provide prison services at a profit have replaced real visits with video visitation often plagued by poor connections. This is happening in my state of Louisiana and it's happening across the country. In some prisons, people discover that they have just had their last contact visit - ever! - as they are handed a pamphlet on the way out of the prison. (Read Can You Hear Me Now? from The Marshall Project.)
For a society that regards the family as a bedrock institution, as a source of stability and strength, we sure seem to do a lot to undermine that bedrock. Of course, once you define someone as "the other", as prisoner, as enemy combatant, as refugee, you can do anything to them. Break up their family. Strip them of human contact. Deny them basic human dignity. Deny them human rights. Lock them up in solitary. Put them to death.
This does not seem to be a recipe for social stability and strength.
It will take good people working together to counteract this dehumanization. How? Here are a few of the things you can do:
I'm right in there with you,
PS. In the photo below, I'm with Yolanda Varona, Director of Dreamers Moms, and Hector Barajas, Director of Deported Veterans, both doing wonderful work for their communities..