The Other Side of the Wall: An Interview with Border Activist Peg Bowden
Since the start of his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has threatened to build what he calls a “great wall” between the U.S. and Mexico. As president, he has succeeded only in building discord and controversy, and in the wake of his election, we have seen a significant escalation of racial threats, ethnic divisions, and increased incidents of roundups and deportation. Trumps’ rescinding of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, has only created a flashpoint fueled both by anger and misinformation. As OMNIA Leadership continues to work towards a more just world, we value the volunteers who battle for social justice on the frontlines.
The truth is that the immigration crisis is actually a human crisis. Once we begin to view our neighbors as humans and not illegal immigrants, community transformation can take place on a global scale in ways that rival any international philanthropy. Nobody knows that better than border activist Peg Bowden, who is the author of "A Land of Hard Edges: Serving the Front Lines of the Border." More than a humanitarian, Peg is a powerful leader who understands that compassion and courage must inform our activism, whether in political or religious leadership. We spoke with Peg from her Arizona home near the border where she has lived since 2002. In those fifteen years, she has witnessed significant changes in the quality of people’s lives, almost all of it directly related to U.S. immigration policy. Bowden shared her first-hand account of the situation on the ground in Nogales, Mexico.
VI: How did you become involved in the immigration crisis?
PB: Quite by accident, I found out about a group called the Samaritans, who do desert searches and respond to the crisis in the desert. I began going on desert searches as well, specifically, to an aid station because I'm a nurse. I fell in love with the people that I was serving. I would serve breakfast, hand out clothes, tend their wounds and listen to their stories. I was so moved by the stories, I decided to write a book about it all.
VI: How have things changed since Donald Trump became president?
PB: Since Trump was elected, things have changed at the comedor, which means “dining room.” What's different is that most of the people, at least half or more, have lived in the United States most of their lives. In other words, they were not migrants coming up from Guatemala, El Salvador, or Southern Mexico. I met a man from Yonkers, New York, who is a sous chef in a fancy restaurant and they did a sweep of his restaurant and the next thing he knew, he was in Mexico. He has been in the U.S. since he was a baby, had an excellent job, and was in junior college learning culinary arts. His parents and family are in New York. This guy was in shock, I would guess he was in his late twenties. He was taken from Yonkers to a detention center in Arizona, for a month. Homeland Security confiscated his cell phone, his ID, his money, his clothes. He didn't get any of that back and they just dumped him in Nogales (Mexico) with no ID, no money, nothing. And that is a common story. I asked if he was a DACA student and he said “No. I had a good job, making good money. I have skills. I have never broken the law, never got a speeding ticket, no DUIs, none of that.
VI: What has happened to us as a nation?
PB: I think the racism is more overt right now, I mean, I live in Arizona, a red state, a lot of people just don't like people of color, particularly Latinos in Arizona. It’s just a fact and so, there are more “militiamen” in the deserts. Many of my Samaritan colleagues have had encounters with both young men and older men in camouflage marching around the desert, claiming ISIS is about to climb the wall and invade our desert. They just pull out these fantastic stories that have no basis in reality. The Samaritans go out on desert searches almost every day of the week, and they have never felt threatened except by the border patrol agents or the militia. They have never felt threatened by a lost migrant or even a group of migrants. I'm a grandmother, I walk down to Mexico every week with a group... I know the peddlers that I meet along the way, I know the newspaper guys, I know that people who are trying to sell me popsicles. Then, I get to the comedor, and there are fifty or sixty young men there, I probably hear more “gracias”, thank you’s and “God bless you’s” in Mexico than in the United States from anyone.
They're a gracious people, and many of the migrants are ashamed that they're asking for help. Particularly the ones from the U.S who have been picked up and really never had asked for anything in their lives and who are now stripped of everything.
There is a larger number now from Central America, meaning Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. They are fleeing poverty and violence in their communities. They are fleeing corruption. Many of them have had good jobs but they were being extorted for large amounts of money by mafias. Their families feel threatened, they feel they have no other option.
VI: What is broken about the system?
PB:, I don't know a lot about our system except that it costs a lot of money. You've got to have connections and ten to fifteen years before you are issued a visa to enter a country. It's just about impossible unless you're a rocket scientist or a highly skilled position. For some reason, those folks haven’t been able to fast track their entrance into our country.
VI: There are those who say that the wall is a simple answer to a complex problem. What are your thoughts?
PB: It's a simple answer but it's not an answer that is going to work. I mean, first of all, we already have seven hundred miles of wall and migrants are still coming to our country. They're going around the wall, under the wall, over the wall. The wall is the biggest waste of taxpayers' money in my lifetime.
VI: Not to mention the increase in fatalities. Why are border deaths on the rise?
PB: To reason, the death toll is higher than it has been in the past is, the wall has forced people to cross the desert in more remote places. So, there's a higher likelihood they're going to get lost or they're going to die. So, we've built a wall that kills poor people. We've built a wall to keep out poor people. We're a country that is afraid, I don't know what the fear is about - we have a fear of people of color. We've got these brown lovely people for our neighbors in the south. In some ways, I think it's like a skewed version of genocide. While it's not like we're doing genocide as in the Holocaust, but we have built a wall that forces people to go in remote parts of the desert, where there's a high likelihood they will die. Or we pick up people in this country who are undocumented and we ship them back into the hell hole they came from, which is Central America in Southern Mexico, where they can’t survive and there's a good chance you're going to die. That sounds like genocide.
VI: What is the wall telling the world about the United States?
PB: This is what the wall says, it says; “We're better than you, we don't want you, stay out of our gated community, we're white supremacists, we’re a white community, we’re a white country, you threaten us, so stay out.”
VI: What are some solutions?
PB: First of all, we need fast-track all those DACA students, so they don't have to fear getting kicked out of the country. By that, I mean they need a green card and they need a fast-track toward citizenship if that is indeed what they want. With the eleven million undocumented persons, I think we need to issue work-free zones and create an easier track towards citizenship if that's indeed what they want. But I've met a lot of undocumented people who don't want to give up their Mexican citizenship. They love their village. They cannot survive there now but they would like to travel safely back and forth where they don't risk their lives in the desert or they would like to work here in our orchards and a work visa would accomplish that.
I also think we need to decriminalize illicit drugs.I am a proponent of pouring the money into rehabilitation detox centers - whatever it takes for the addiction problems of our country because we’re the customer here. It's a business arrangement that's illegal. Perhaps if it were legal, I think a lot of the crime element would disappear.
Peg Bowden's book “A Land of the Hard Edges” is available on Amazon.