THE U.S. IMMIGRATION CRISIS: Toward an Ethics of Place (Cascade Companions). By Miguel A. De La Torre. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016. Xx + 176 pages.
The United States has an immigration problem, and it's a problem largely of our own making. Decisions made decades in the past created the climate that has only been exacerbated by more recent decisions regarding the border. When we think about this crisis, we’re focused on the southern border with Mexico, a border that came into existence due to a vision of Manifest Destiny accompanied by conquest. Many solutions to the crisis have been offered, but many are racist, inhumane, and from a Christian perspective counter to the message of Jesus. If there is any hope of finding a true solution that is just, it will take soul-searching, repentance, and a willingness to go in a new more humane and compassionate direction. Hospitality is important—that is the biblical principle of welcoming the stranger but it is not enough. Why? Because hospitality implies possession of the land. Perhaps something else, something more radical, is required of us. That will start with recognizing that we do not own this space.
One who has thought deeply on such matters is Miguel De La Torre, who has authored a compelling introduction to the current crisis, one that is riling the political realm. As I write this review, the nominee of one of the two major parties has put at the center of his campaign a call to build a wall, even as he paints immigrants from Mexico and Central America, especially those who are undocumented, in the darkest of tones. This book is part of series of books that attempt to connect rigorous scholarship with accessibility. Such is the nature of this book. The author is a distinguished scholar, but the book is accessible and compelling. That doesn’t make it an easy read, but then the topic at hand is anything but easy to engage, especially if you are, like me, the beneficiary of white privilege.
As for the author, Miguel De La Torre is Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies (Latinx is a replacement for Latino/a) at Illif School of Theology (Denver). Having read other books by him, as well as following him on social media, I know him to be a scholar who is engaged with life. As a professor of ethics, he’s not simply a theoretician. He’s also an activist. He speaks from his heart and from his experience. That makes this book all the more compelling. One important point in this regard is that he reveals that he himself, as a young child, came to the United States as an undocumented immigrant. His parents had emigrated from Cuba to the United States shortly after the Revolution there. He remembers how his family feared discovery and deportation, and thus understands the fear that is present in those who find themselves in a similar situation today. Unfortunately, current policy in many ways, is even more restrictive today than in 1960, especially if you’re from Mexico.
This is a powerful book. It is a must read book. It is a challenging book. My sense is that for many readers, this will be a read you will not enjoy. But that's okay. We shouldn't enjoy this book, because it reveals a side of American life many of us have never experienced and likely can't believe is true. I know that the revelations in this book about the behavior of border patrol agents toward those seeking to cross the border are unbelievable, for they reveal a certain brutality that Americans find difficult to fathom in our own people. It’s also difficult to acknowledge that American policies under a Democratic president who professes support for immigration reform could be as callous as is revealed here.
What makes this book powerful are the stories, stories of people whose lives have been destroyed by policies on both sides of the border. We read about a teenager who is shot killed on the Mexican-side of the border by Border Patrol personnel because he is suspected of throwing rocks over a border wall. We read about young women being dropped off across the border in the middle of the night with no documentation (the documentation had been taken away), after shelters and resource agencies had closed for the night, putting them in danger. This is done in the name of deterrence. We read about vigilantes and border patrol agents destroying water stations in the desert. Hundreds of people are dying in the desert simply in the hope that they might find relief from violence at home (this is especially true of those coming from Central America) or because NAFTA has undermined their ability to earn a living raising corn. We’ve heard a lot about the challenges of NAFTA to American jobs, but few know (and I didn’t know) how NAFTA has affected Mexico’s agricultural sector. Thus, many who would be farming in Mexico find themselves needing to go north to work in the fields in the United States so that their families can survive.
At the heart of this book is a call to acknowledge that Brown Lives Matter also. What is most problematic about the current political scene is the capitalization on the feeling that whites are victims. De La Torre, writes that by portraying whites as victims, "the victimizer is free from having to deal with how societal structure has been normalized and legitimized to privilege them" (p. 83). That dystopian vision is rooted in the belief that "Euroamericans, seeing themselves as the norm, are in effect race-less, that everyone else is 'colored,' while they have no color" (p. 84). Even as we read stories of people being affected these realities, we also learn about people who are advocates for change, who put water out in the desert, and at the risk of being arrested themselves set up camps to provide medical care and support for those making this dangerous journey. We also learn about one congregation in Tucson where the Sanctuary Movement was born, a church that continues to minister to the immigrant, especially those who are undocumented.
De La Torre speaks of this book as an expression of an "ethics of place." What he does here is "reflect on the praxis of those who are actually crossing deserts as a response to the injustices forced upon them and upon those who are documented who place their bodies on the life so as to be in solidarity with the dispossessed" (p. xix). We who have not experienced this "place," and who have not been "present" in this place, will feel uncomfortable, but it is discomfort that is needed if change is to take place. As I noted earlier, De La Torre doesn't feel that the usual progressive answer of hospitality is sufficient. I will leave his solution to you to discover as you read the book. As I said, this is a must read book. To put it in Liberationist terms, this is a conscience-raising book. For that we must give thanks for De La Torre’s willingness to raise our consciences, even if we would rather turn aside and ignore the plight of our neighbor.