More Prisons is Not the Answer

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In Matthew 25.31-46, Jesus tells a story he likens to the kingdom of heaven wherein a king separates people like a shepherd separates sheep from goats. To the goats the king says, among other things, “I was hungry and you did not feed me. …I was in prison and you did not visit me.” They respond with, “When did we see you hungry or in prison?” The king’s response is simple and straight forward: “What you do to the least of these, you do to me.”

Christian and Jewish scriptures have lots of stories of people being in prison, often for their faith or under false accusations. Visiting prisoners was a big deal for Christians.

In one of my recent vlog posts on immigration, I share the old story of babies floating down a river in baskets. A villager down river sees one of the baskets and rescues the child inside. Then they see more baskets. She goes and tells others in her village, and in no time rescue teams are set up and a 24-hour watch schedule is established. Sadly, everyone is so concerned about saving the babies in the baskets that no one goes up river to find out why the babies are there in the first place.

I had an elder who served on session (Presby-talk for “board of elders,” or the governing council of a Presbyterian congregation) a couple of years ago who was fond of saying,

“I prefer to be an architect up stream than a plumber downstream.”

In other words, lets figure out how to engineer a situation successfully rather than just responding to whatever happens.

I read in last week’s paper that President Trump is planning to build more immigration prisons—”for profit” prisons. For several administrations these prisons have been conveniently called “detention centers,” but really they’re prisons where people are put often for months and even years before their immigration case is heard. More often than not, they never receive legal representation. They are treated as less than human and not entitled to the same legal protections that our country prides itself on. THIS IS A PLUMBER’S RESPONSE (all deference to plumbers who often have to clean up the mess many architects and builders create) that continues to put at risk not only the undocumented, but also documented immigrants and citizens. We are creating criminals out of a humanitarian crisis! MORE PRISONS, ESPECIALLY PRIVATE PRISONS, IS THE WRONG RESPONSE! No one should ever be making money off the incarceration of others.

We have failed as a nation to look at why people are risking their lives, and often losing them, to come here. Our current President continues to feed the xenophobic and racially prejudiced ideologies that have been infused throughout our messed up, inconsistent, untenable, unethical, and immoral immigration system.

We conveniently fail to see the damage our trade and foreign relations policies with central North America (Mexico, primarily) have done, playing a major role in creating the economic vortex that is sucking the resources out of these countries, making it almost impossible for their governments to function properly and provide safety and security for their people. We conveniently forget our part in feeding the violence of the civil wars that ravaged much of central America, arming the very militias and gangs that now control Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico. We conveniently avert our eyes away from looking “up stream” to see why people are willing to risk their lives traveling over 1,000 miles on dangerous roads and deadly trains and then crossing dangerous deserts, where more and more people are being found dead, just to come to the U.S.

On a trip to the border a couple of years ago with some students from UKIRK Presbyterian Campus Ministry at ASU, one of the students was surprised to hear the pride of those who live in Mexico who do not want to come to the U.S. For many, crossing the border is an act of desperation and survival, not choice.

Rather than increasing our criminalization of immigrants, we need to fix the architecture of our immigration system so that people seeking to come to the U.S. are no longer criminalized and are, instead, viewed as human beings rather than “problems” or “legal” or “illegal.” It’s been said by a number of congressional leaders, I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it again: if we really want to stop illegal immigration from central America, the fix is simple—MAKE IT LEGAL! Give people a viable avenue to come to the U.S. where they can be counted, and in the words of President Ronald Reagan, they can pay taxes and be the vital members of our community they are hoping to be. Then we can focus our energies on those who want to cross and do nefarious things. Then we can focus our energies on the drug cartels who seem to “own” the border on the Mexico side. Then we can truly become Mexico’s partner rather than landlord or master. Then we can start dealing with the problems and dangers people are fleeing. Then we can all start feeling a lot safer.

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