Visiting border shows human face of migrants

By Rabbi Steve Gutow Special to the Arizona Daily Star and JSPAN The immigration debate has been raging for quite some time and Congress still lacks consensus on meaningful, comprehensive immigration reform. The system is broken, and there are no quick fixes. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs has worked extensively on the immigration issue, but I realized that working from New York, there is much I don't understand. So last month I took a trip to the Arizona border with the Jewish Community Relations chair from Tucson and two members of a group called the Samaritans. The mission of the Samaritans is to bring food, water and medical assistance to the hundreds of immigrants who cross the border illegally and are often left to die in the hot desert. I learned that there is literally a civilization of people responsible for preventing Mexicans from crossing the border. The increase in personnel and infrastructure has been significant, and the truth is it will be hard to diminish the program of "prevention and capture" because it employs so many people and has become so large. We saw some less-than-friendly Border Patrol agents rounding up some immigrants. We asked if we could provide them food and water and we were gruffly told no. As we were driving toward Nogales, we saw five young Mexican men on the road ahead of us. Their coyote, the person who agrees for a fee to sneak them across the border, and five of their undocumented colleagues had been picked up by the Border Patrol and they had been left to wander in America. I could now understand how many of these immigrants had died. These men were 18 miles of rough desert terrain from the border and 40 miles from Tucson. We could feed them and speak to them, but if we put them in our car, we could face up to 15 years in prison. The young men realized they were out of options and had us call the Border Patrol. The border agents assured us that they would simply bring them back to Mexico and release them. Though the Mexicans' crossing attempt was unsuccessful and fraught with danger, I left them feeling that they would try again and again until they secured safe passage and their American dream. How we treat the 12 million like them who are already here in many ways colors who we are as Americans. How we react to those who want to enter our borders and become part of our country says a lot about how well we remember our own stories when we were immigrants looking for a safe haven from religious and ethnic persecution, a place to rest and live and prosper. Citizenship must be attained lawfully — by no means should this country open its borders. However, we cannot go to the other extreme and close them. We must make the legal path to citizenship more accessible by clearing backlogs and speeding up the application process. As Americans, we stand to lose everything our country was founded on if we do not fix our badly broken immigration system. The 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States are not going away, and countless others will die trying to join them. Illegal immigration affects us all, so we all benefit from a real solution.