Immigration: Moving Beyond Technical Fix to Adaptive Challenge

In 2013 I spent a couple of days at the southern border with a group of fellow bishops.  We stayed in Douglas Arizona, but several times made our way through the checkpoint into Agua Prieta, Mexico.  A small group of us helped deliver water to the several water tanks that were set up in the Mexican desert.  As I poured water into the 50 gallon plastic tanks, I had to keep lifting my legs up and down because the soles of my feet were burning through my sneakers. (It was mid-September)  Another group filled similar tanks up on the US side, but were told that many of the urns were riddled with bullet holes, spilling the water onto the desert sand.  We participated in a weekly vigil near the checkpoint, holding small wooden crosses, each having a name written on it of someone who had died of exposure. We prayed their names into the arid air. There were hundreds of crosses, which commemorated the lives of those who attempted the crossing just in that geographical area.

On our last day, we went to local border control facility, operated by the US Department of Homeland Security.  It was a state-of-the-art complex, with offices, holding cells and screening areas.  And there were cameras everywhere— in each holding cell — and dozens of infrared cameras on the outside that were pointed down the short hill at the 30-foot-high fence that seemed to stretch for miles in each direction.  You could see through the heavy-duty metal mesh, which helped to identify people throwing stones over the fence from the Mexican side, or anyone who tried to scale it with a 35 foot ladder.

In spite of all the effort to manage the border — both pastorally and logistically, I left feeling that the immigration system is broken.  In the ten years since that visit, by all accounts the system is even more broken, if not shattered, given that more people are approaching the border from more places.   And the places people are migrating from are often described as failed states, each with its own gruesome story of rampant corruption, violence, economic instability and/or fear.  And they come to the United States carrying a vision of hope; that their aspirations for a better and safer life might be realized.

And the US can’t adequately cope with the flood of people wading rivers, crossing deserts, finding holes in the fence or digging holes underneath it (we saw some very crude makeshift tunnels); many seeking refuge, more seeking asylum.  And on and on, to an unmanageable scale.

The system is beyond broken.  Which means the immigration issue has become political fodder: naming and blaming people and groups thought to be responsible for the deepening crisis; which ends up treating the migrants themselves as captured pieces in a brutal chess game.  If not forgotten, their humanity is impugned, which to some doesn’t matter because they are deemed “illegal”.

And then there are the proposals to fix the problem, ranging from impeaching the Secretary of Homeland Security to finishing the wall; from separating families to sending in the national guard; or closing down immigration altogether.    Or – on the other end, letting most of the migrants in, and managing it all with an outpouring of compassion. And money.

Fix it.  Solve it.  And do it quickly.  There are moments when I yearn for a quick fix.  Most of us do.  If only we could achieve it.  There are indeed some dimensions of the broken system that can be fixed.  But the overwhelming complexity of immigration, along with its massive scale, requires us to look at it all in a more expansive way.  As immigration pressures grow, which is happening all over the world, we are confronted with an adaptive challenge:  what issues are we currently facing, for which we don’t have the answer, in order to live into the future.  Responding to an adaptive challenge requires a longer view and a broader vision, neither of which plays very well, if at all, in our current political climate.  Most politicians and many policy wonks insist that they can fix immigration. Their careers depend on their ability to propose quick and easy answers.

A bipartisan proposal on immigration, along with funding for Ukraine, Gaza and Israel is now being submitted to Congress.  It has generated intense reaction from all sides.  Much of what is proposed is a technical fix, but inherent in the bill is an acknowledgement that we are facing an adaptive challenge.  That the intensity and complexity of Gaza, Israel and immigration require more than sound bites and vengeful responses.

Congress may not pass the bill.  Scorched earth politics may scuttle it.  But the adaptive challenge of immigration still remains, which is where the rest of us can come in.  To look beyond politics and policy, and see that we are talking about people – brothers and sisters in the human family, who are striving for something better.  Instead of framing it all with the technical fixes of politics and policy, start with the adaptive challenge of humanity in crisis.  The answers, which are yet to come, will emerge from there.


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