Immigrant Families Face Fear, Hopelessness
by David Gibson
Fear, uncertainty and hopelessness are staples of life for many immigrant couples and families in the Rio Grande Valley along the border dividing the United States from Mexico. Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, recently discussed the reasons so many families of the region are divided and living apart, while fearing for each other’s well-being and safety.
He spoke Jan. 30 in Austin, Texas, to Christian Churches Together in the USA, an ecumenical association. Its meeting focused on U.S. immigration reform.
Participants said in a concluding statement that they witness daily “the effects of a system that continues [a] legacy of separation of families and the exploitation, abuse and deaths of migrants.”
Bishop Flores described immigration challenges witnessed on the border, challenges complicated recently “by the criminal violence afflicting northern Mexico.”
He drew a complex portrait of the kinds of immigrant families encountered there. Fear and anxiety characterize the lives of struggling and well-to-do families alike, he indicated.
Given the fears prompting many migrants to leave their homelands, Bishop Flores thinks the time may have arrived in U.S. immigration policy to “consider a kind of refugee status for those who are fleeing” violence. He said:
“We must insist in season and out of season that a just people distinguishes between the innocent and the guilty, and that a great and generous people respond to the plight of the widows and the orphans, those who mourn the loss of a mother, or a nephew, or a grandson.”
Four Immigrant Family Groups
People in the United States are accustomed, Bishop Flores explained, to the social dynamic leading mothers and children to “remain in Mexico,” while “the men, the teenage boys and young women come to the United States looking for work so as to send money home to support them.”
He said, “There are, in fact, whole towns in Mexico and Central America that are bereft of adult males.” The family members remaining behind “await word from their loved ones. Are they safe? Do they have work?”
But Bishop Flores suggested there are complexities in the current situation that must be noted: human trafficking, leading to the entrapment of migrants by drug cartels or for purposes of prostitution; kidnappings in which migrants are held, while family members in the United States receive fearsome phone calls demanding ransoms.
In outlining four present-day family scenarios among migrants, Bishop Flores added three to the one with which Americans are most familiar.
1. One group of families includes “the wealthy who out of fear are leaving parts of northern Mexico” and establishing homes and even businesses in the United States. Often these families “nourish hopes” of returning home. However, their children “are particularly vulnerable to kidnapping.”
2. A second group includes “professionals and businessmen who send their families to the United States while they themselves remain the bulk of the time working in Mexico.” For them “the fear is kidnapping or getting caught in a line of fire.”
3. A third group is constituted of “the poorer working class, themselves gainfully employed in Mexico but finding it an intolerable situation for their families.”
4. Finally, the fourth group is the most familiar one, encompassing “those primarily motivated by the desire to work in the United States for a time and send whatever money they can make back to their families.”
News reports on immigration seldom describe the reality of women and children living in the United States, while their husbands or sons may still be “in Mexico working to support them” and visiting “when they can.”
Breakdown of Trust
A sad dimension of life among migrants in the Rio Grande Valley, influenced as it is by fear and violence, is that trust and the human instinct to practice hospitality break down, Bishop Flores suggested.
“Now people tense up at the sight of a traveling stranger,” he said. He added, “On the Mexican side, we are told, it is not safe to talk about the events of the day with someone you do not know or trust personally.” Thus, people today “look suspiciously at their neighbors and at strangers.”
Bishop Flores called attention to factors that can lead to despair for families and others. He mentioned the drug trade; an “insatiable appetite for drug consumption”; human trafficking “that makes money off of children and defenseless adults”; and “wanton trafficking in guns,” a “lucrative trade” flowing from the border’s “American side to the Mexican side.”
Despair saps “human and spiritual resources,” which is what is happening in northern Mexico and south Texas, Bishop Flores said. That is why he calls “keeping families together” the “most urgent aspect” of immigration reform.
At present, “parents who work here or seek refuge here without documentation are often quickly deported, leaving their children in the United States under the care of neighbors or relatives,” Bishop Flores observed. But “children need their parents, and parents need to spend time with their children.”
The family “is where hope, compassion, justice and mercy are most efficaciously taught,” but when parents are not around “the vacuum is filled by other, often sinister voices and examples” that tear family life apart, he said.
Drug cartels and gangs linked to them will offer “an 11- or 12-year-old $50 to take the drugs across to the other side or to bring something back,” the bishop told the ecumenical gathering. He concluded that “battles are being fought on the borders of the soul that mark the difference between life and death, grace and sin.”
In fact, said Bishop Flores, “the conscience of an 11-year-old is the principal battleground in the current border wars.”
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.