|McALLEN, March 22 - “They’re arresting babies.” The thought struck hard, and it kept echoing.
I had come to the border wall with a correspondent from National Public Radio to see its impact on the environment.
We had also seen evidence of the apprehensions that occur there daily: piles of shoelaces and belts that immigrants were forced to abandon before being taken into custody, and even a pair of plastic toy helicopters, littered the ground.
The Border Patrol agent said that they had captured 18 people. Most sat in a line in the dirt beside the rusting wall as agents took their names and bagged their possessions. Only three or four were adults.
Inside a Border Patrol van, escaping the heat, were two mothers, each with an infant in her arms. On the seats beside them were a pair of toddlers.
The Border Patrol would probably prefer not to use the term “arrest,” but the children were taken into custody along with the rest of their family. All 18 will be included in the sector’s apprehension statistics.
In 2013 the Border Patrol apprehended 26,027 juveniles in its Rio Grande Valley sector, 21,553 of whom were unaccompanied. Border-wide 38,833 out of the 47,238 minors who were captured were traveling without an adult. At least these children were not on their own.
Call it an apprehension, call it an arrest, for a child too young to walk or talk the terminology does not matter.
The United States of America, through elected Representatives who are meant to express the will of its citizens, spent $18 billion last year to keep these families out. A few years back taxpayers spent $12 million per mile to build the border wall that stood nearby, and more than $3 billion was spent to wall off 652 miles of the southern border. From 1995 to 2003 we doubled the size of the Border Patrol, then over the last decade we doubled their ranks again. They carry out the mission that we have given them.
We are arresting babies.
And toddlers. And teenagers. And adolescents. And their parents.
We have decided that the people I saw lined up beside the wall, parents who traveled hundreds of miles from Guatemala looking for work with children in tow, threaten us.
Like most who walk or swim across the border they are not terrorists, they are not smugglers, they simply want a better life. They are parents struggling to feed their families. They are children hoping to escape violence, go to school, live the American Dream. So long as that desperation and desire remains people will keep coming.
This is not a challenge to our nation’s defenses, it is a test of our conscience.
When the Senate took up immigration reform they failed to grasp this. They made a “border surge,” with hundreds of miles of new border wall, a further ballooning of the Border Patrol, and tens of billions of dollars of new military hardware, a “trigger” that must be completed before anyone currently in the country could start on a thirteen-year-long pathway to citizenship. The irrational fears of middle American voters who only see the border when they watch FOX News or Border Wars on TV had to be appeased.
Even with the “surge” Republicans in the U.S. House refuse to even debate immigration reform. They are far less concerned with the children sitting in a line on the dirt beside the wall than they are about a Tea Party challenge in the next primary election.
The Border Patrol agents called headquarters to have child car seats sent out. Older kids shuffled back into the green and white van, now lacking belts and laces for their sneakers.
After they drove off we began to walk back along the top of the levee. Through the border wall’s rusting bollards we could see another mother being marched out of the brush, clutching an infant to her chest.
As the sun settled into the treetops the wind carried the baby’s cries.
Scott Nicol lives in McAllen and Co-chairs the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Team. For more information about the Sierra Club’s efforts along the border go to www.SierraClub.org/borderlands
Click here to listen to the NPR special series: "Borderland – Dispatches from the U.S.-Mexico boundary."
Click here to listen to the NPR story “For Illegal Immigrants, Journey To U.S. Soil Cut Short” referred to by Scott Nicol in his column above.