I haven’t posted since May.

I’ve been busy.

I’ve been living and working in rural communities in El Salvador. The organization I lead – CoCoDA – has spent the last twenty-five years working collaboratively with rural communities in El Salvador and Nicaragua on projects in water and sanitation, public health and education. In June, I visited these communities, meeting with their leaders and talking with their residents. It was both energizing and discouraging.

I am energized by seeing common people do extraordinary things. In one community, I worked for a day on an organic farm cooperative run by young people. Their leader, who was no more than 25 years old, has a vision of supplying all the vegetables for his community and the communities around them. In another community, I spoke with people who’ve worked for ten years to build a water system to bring clean water from a local spring to their homes. In a few months, they hope to finally have clean, accessible water. Again and again, I encountered people working together to improve the quality of life of their communities. I heard their dreams and hopes.

Not once did anyone say, “My greatest hope is to someday live in the United States.”

I am also discouraged. In many instances, these people asked me about what was happening in the United States.  Why did our President consider their country a “shithole?” Why were we separating children from their parents at our border? They worried about their depiction as lazy, or greedy, or criminal. I assured them that the opinions and actions of the Trump administration did not represent those of many US citizens.

I worry that I lied to them.

I’ve returned to a nation where many are more scandalized by Sarah Huckabee Sanders being asked to leave a restaurant than by children being separated from their parents. To a nation where poor Central Americans fleeing from violence are depicted as an infestation, accused of being rapists and killers. To a nation willing to pay Central American immigrants and temporary workers substandard wages for dangerous or tedious work while at the same time deriding them as a drain on the economy. To a nation that has consistently destabilized Central American governments and exploited Central American economies, creating the very conditions that provoke migration across our borders. To a nation where most people understand very little about the causes of migration.

Where I have been, everyone understands why people leave their homes and risk life and liberty to come to the United States.  It isn’t what we’ve been told.

They Are Desperate

When I talk with North Americans, I often ask, “How bad would it have to be in the United States for you to consider taking your family and illegally migrating to another country, knowing you could face death or imprisonment?” This is the situation with many of those who migrate to the United States from Mexico and Central America. Climate change has destroyed their farms. Drug cartels have targeted their children. Violence has terrorized their neighborhoods.

They do not leave happily. No one easily chooses to leave their birthplace, to abandon their home, family and friends unless the situation is dire. Though parents are derided as irresponsible for bringing their children on that perilous journey north, for many it may be the most responsible action.  What parent wouldn’t move the earth (or their location on it) to protect their children? For this reason alone, walls will always fail.  Until we help address the situations in their home countries, they will keep coming.

They Are Invited

While many Mexicans and Central Americans illegally immigrate, most do not do so haphazardly. They are invited by family and friends who have been told by US employers that, once they arrive, they will be employed. They don’t come to “take away our jobs.” They come to take jobs we won’t do.  Just as the demand of US citizens for drugs has destabilized their countries, it is the demand for employees that takes advantage of this destabilization. These people would much rather work in their home countries, but the temptation of making in one year what they can make in ten at home is alluring.

If the United States was really serious about ending illegal immigration, we could end it tomorrow.  All Congress would need to do is pass a law separating the children from the employers who hire illegal immigrants. Unfortunately, we have created a system that rewards the employers and punishes their victims.  It is this huge hypocrisy that drives immigration policy in the United States. Think about the last time you heard of an employer being arrested and convicted of exploiting illegal immigrants.

They Are Homesick

The final misconception about illegal immigration is that they come here hoping to become US citizens. Nearly all of them know that illegal immigration actually makes that goal less attainable. They come here to work and not to live. Most are sending money home to support family.  Many are using that money to build homes or start businesses at home. The goal is not to stay permanently in a country that exploits and abuses you. It is to earn enough money to make living in your home country possible.

This is the final hypocrisy of our present system. We need these workers. They are willing to work for the wages we offer.  However, instead of making it possible for them to temporarily work here, we’ve created a system that makes their presence and work illegal.  Why?  Because the easiest people to exploit are those without any legal standing or power.

They Are Victims of Political and Economic Exploitation

I am appalled by the rhetoric of the Trump Administration on illegal immigration. It is based on intentional lies. They know all the facts listed above. The reason they are targeting illegal immigrants is not to solve a problem. They do so to inflame racist and xenophobic tendencies in their voting base, to distract them from the unjust economic and tax policy that actually threaten their livelihood.

Unfortunately, many US citizens would rather believe the “fake news” spewed by this administration about migration and immigration than seriously think about the causes of this problem. Where is the outrage from Trump’s base when the Mar-A-Lago resort requests work visas for 61 foreign cooks and servers?  These are supposedly visas for “workers unavailable in the United States.”  Are none of his base willing to work these jobs?  The problem in Mar-A-Lago and across our country is not that there aren’t workers available.  It is that there aren’t enough US workers willing to fill those jobs.  Trump the businessman knows this.  Trump the president lies about it.

Oddly, while I disagree with denigration of Mexicans and Central Americans by the Trump administration, I do agree with their assertion that the system is broken and must be repaired.  Unfortunately, complicated systems are always designed to benefit someone.  In this case, our system is not designed to benefit poor Mexicans and Central Americans.  It is designed to benefit US employers and companies. Until we acknowledge and address the true source of illegal immigration, walls will accomplish nothing.  They will keep coming.

P.S. Once a year, I take a group of North Americans on an eight day visit to Central America to meet its people and understand its culture and challenges.  If you’d be interested in traveling with me in 2019, please contact me at jim@cocoda.org.

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