Where to draw the line for our children

The first time I visited Mexico, I crossed the border from El Paso. As I walked through El Paso, the city felt like many U.S. cities, with a number of concrete high-rise buildings and small green trees lining the sidewalks.  A few of the buildings were prominently labeled with the names of popular banks and investment companies. As I walked closer to the border, the tenor of the street began to change. People were bustling about with shopping bags. The window fronts were lined with pawnshop jewelry, polyester clothing, bins of hats, sunglasses, toys, cheap shoes, and other dollar-store merchandise. I headed to the border, where I walked a gated pathway to cross the bridge into Juarez.

As I began to walk towards the main plaza of Juarez, I was surprised. I had been to Latin America a number of times, even as recently as within the last couple of years. But for some reason, the scene still caught me off guard. The building facades were chipped and fading and a number of them were dilapidated or abandoned. None of them were more than a few stories. There were a lot of shops with the same cheap merchandise as El Paso, but I knew these sellers were getting a lot less money for them.

I was shocked not by the scene itself, but by the contrast between the two cities and the proximity of wealth and poverty. When I was traveling by plane, it didn’t seem as if these two worlds actually co-existed because they felt so distant from each other. Walking across the border, I felt the reality of the disparity more acutely, as if I was just changing neighborhoods.

There have been times when I’ve felt a similar disparity in New Orleans. For a few months, I stayed in an apartment a few blocks into Central City, where there were many dilapidated and vacant houses. I’d walk only five or ten minutes and I’d be in the Garden district, with manicured lawns and million-dollar houses. Observing this gap in wealth, it is clear that it is not just about wealth, but quality of life. Between the Lakeview neighborhood, which is predominately white and wealthy, and Tremé, which is predominately Black and low-income, there is a twenty-five year difference in life expectancy. This disparity is not about wealth, but life itself.

Recently, I spent a month in Mexico in a couple of small beach towns called Puerto Morelos and Tulum, as well as a larger city a bit more inland, Valladolid.  During the time I was there, I was seeing the news about the children in detention in the United States and the separation from their families. As someone who has worked or been involved in immigration advocacy for over ten years now, the situation was nothing new to me. However, the rapid escalation of these inhumane tactics was definitely disturbing. It was also new to be on the other side of the border while it was happening. This gave me an opportunity to reflect more deeply about the poverty I saw around me, as well as the interconnection between the U.S. and Mexico. I thought about the stark contrast between the white people I saw at the resorts, and the towns where the workers actually lived. I also thought about Juarez. Juarez, and Mexico in general is just another version of the “bad neighborhood” across the tracks.  Wealthy white people fear these places after they were the ones to create the conditions and inequity that caused the poverty and crime in the first place.

I was relieved to see that the injustice and harm of our detention policies stirred the conscious of the American public and brought them out in protest.  When children are the ones in danger, it seems that the conscious can be stirred a bit easier. Certainly, these were extreme circumstances, but I also wonder where people draw the line between acceptance and action. Until what point is the separation of families okay, until it becomes not okay? We know that in our own New Orleans neighborhoods, we face many forms of family separation. Recently, Jose Torres was forced to leave his wife and two daughters for seven months in order to take sanctuary after ICE threatened to deport him. Other children are left with only one parent, or sometimes an aunt or cousin, when ICE ramps us its deportation enforcement. Even beyond immigration, the war on drugs is breaking apart Black and Latinx families.  2.7 million children are growing up in U.S. households in which one or more parents are incarcerated. Two-thirds of these parents are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, primarily drug offenses.

There seems to be a spectrum or scale of acceptable institutional violence and racism.  Even thinking about the civil rights movement, the scale was tipped when police dogs were attacking children. But does it have to get this far before we act, before we protest or write our legislator? Those of us who can must act with as much ferocity and energy to prevent the harm as we might to protect the children once they are already detained or put into jail for wearing their pants too low. None of this is acceptable. No amount of harm to our children is acceptable. We have to work hard to shift the inequity and though at times it feels like an impossible task, those of us with any amount of privilege have to bear the weight for those who can’t. Otherwise, the borders between Juarez and Mexico, and Central City and the Garden District, along with the institutional racism that created them, will continue to stay intact.  And the children will continue to bear the consequences.


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