Border towns like Douglas and Agua Prieta reflect complicated immigration struggle
“Journeying in Hope”
Follow this weeklong series designed to spotlight the immigration issue from the vantage point of the United States-Mexico border, and to amplify the ongoing response of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and its faith partners. Also check out the “Journeying in Hope” video documentary.
The complexity of the American immigration debate couldn’t be more apparent than it is from Pan American Avenue in the border town of Douglas and from Internacional, the street directly across in Agua Prieta, Mexico.
A steady stream of cars, trucks, vans, and other vehicles line up to enter the United States Customs and Border Protection port of entry headed south into Mexico and north into the U.S. The people are diverse and they wait patiently to cross, generally for business or pleasure; commerce or recreation.
Travelers also can walk across the border on foot, first stopping inside the customs facility to have paperwork checked. They are much the same as the people in the vehicles, many of whom go back and forth on a regular basis.
Then there is the journey at the port that is not easily seen. It is of those going southward only, and with an official escort. These travelers look tired, sickly, and in despair, and in most instances have just left a detention center where they were kept after being caught illegally crossing the border.
They are marched back across the imaginary line into Mexico and left, often hundreds of miles from home and separated from family with whom they traveled. Generally the only way they can return to the U.S. is in secret and with much danger.
Douglas (with a population of little more than 17,000) and Agua Prieta (with a population of about 79,000) are on the front lines of the immigration and migration debate. And here, the issues are intricate.
“There’s an economic development piece that we interact with Mexico. We need the commerce going north and south. They need the American dollar as much as we need the Mexican peso,” said Douglas Mayor Danny Ortega Jr.
“Then there’s the immigration piece. … People get the interpretation that people are hiding places or that they are not productive members of our society, which is a big misconception,” he said.
“Third I think is the security piece, which is the people who are coming and damaging property” as a result of drug trafficking, Ortega said. “I think sometimes we get the water muddied in putting those three issues together.”
Mayor since 2012, Ortega has been pushing to improve the economic development piece so people can more easily cross the border to shop and buy goods, and the immigration piece so people can come into the states to make a living and support their families.
“I understand the need for border security … but I think we need to separate the issues.”
“People don’t want to come here and just live off our system. People want to come here and work,” Ortega said. “The people part is what I think we need to focus on.”
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Mission Co-worker Mark Adams, with Presbyterian Border Ministry in Agua Prieta since 1998, has been working closely with Ortega and the Douglas city council to help make Douglas a welcoming city.
“One of the things the mayor is trying to really work on is to say, how can we be more welcoming to the border patrol, how can we be more welcoming to folks from Mexico, how can we be more welcoming to folks who are coming in for business,” he said.
“The community needs that, [but] it’s a struggle.”
Adams said unfortunately U.S. border policy has been driven by a handful of people and not the community at-large, but that spaces are now being created to help representatives hear directly from diverse constituents ranging from the business community to the faith community.
“The voices of border residents aren’t heard in Washington,” he said. “Border towns that are the ones who feel the brunt of the policy aren’t heard.”