A Tale of Two Borders: The Roots of the Problem (Part I)

January 8, 2019

By Jean Stokan

This is the 2nd of 4 blog posts for National Migration Week. These stories written by Sisters of Mercy, Companions in Mercy, and Mercy staff will address the spiritual, political and moral dimensions of migration. Read along with us as we seek to build Communities of Welcome.

The “tale of the border” that we know is not the story told by the U.S. president, who warns of an invasion of criminals, sends heavily armed soldiers to prevent migrants from crossing, and launches tear gas on women and children. Of course, border security is important to prevent dangerous persons from entering, but to distort the reality of the majority crossing the border, and to treat them as criminals, is unconscionable.

A view through the border fence between Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. The memorial that can be viewed through the fence is for José Antonio Elena Rodríguez—a young man who was killed by a U.S. Border Patrol Agent in 2012

Blaming the victims—those fleeing danger—without acknowledging how decades of failed U.S. policies in the Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) have contributed to the conditions of violence and impoverishment from which they are fleeing represents an even greater abdication of moral responsibility on the part of the U.S. government. It is an affront to decency.

Free trade policies such as NAFTA and CAFTA have pushed hundreds of thousands of Mexican and Central American small farmers off their land, destroyed local economies to the benefit of U.S. agribusiness and left these now-desperate migrants unable to feed their children. U.S. military support of repressive regimes in Central America since the 1980s has propped up elites and crushed democratic social movements for change. In Honduras, currently the country with the highest numbers of migrants fleeing spiraling violence, U.S. support of the 2009 coup and subsequent corrupt governments has served to dismantle the rule of law and enabled massive human rights abuses to be committed with near total impunity.

I have led many dozens of human rights delegations to these countries for more than 30 years, and have witnessed and touched the wounds of the most vulnerable victims. Last January, Mercy delegates in Honduras kneeled at the feet of a young father, left paralyzed and brain damaged in a wheelchair after participating in a nonviolent protest; the Honduran military police viciously attacked him and killed dozens others demonstrating electoral fraud—while U.S. financial support for the Honduran security forces continued to flow. We heard testimony of gangs in league with corrupt police coming into neighborhoods, claiming whole rows of houses for gang members, and warning residents they will return to rape or kill their young daughters if they are not out by midnight. I have a 20-year-old daughter. What parent would not flee to protect their children from such brutality?

Jean Stokan (white shirt) helps carry a cross at a protest during an Emergency Delegation to Honduras in January 2018. (Photo by Mark Coplan)

Now, when these families arrive at the U.S.–Mexico border, fleeing for their lives, the United States meets them with walls, razor-spiked concertina wire and soldiers in riot gear, exclaiming: “How dare you try to come to this country?” Nowhere is there a national examination of conscience on how U.S. government policies historically have contributed to the very conditions that have driven people to leave their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

The reinforced border fence between Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora in Mexico

Resolving the humanitarian crisis at the border will not be easy, and ameliorating the conditions propelling migration north will not be quick. The answer is not to make Mexico keep the asylum-seekers until their claims are processed, nor is it to send more U.S. money for humanitarian projects in Central America while the overall policy context remains so seriously flawed. So fundamental are the changes required that they call for deep reflection on the values guiding how economies are structured, the way developing countries are plundered for their resources, how “U.S. national interest” and human security are defined, and what it means for ALL of God’s people to be treated with dignity.

Sign up here to receive action alerts about Sisters of Mercy advocacy efforts, including calls to Congress to deny funding for the border wall. Visit our website to learn more about advocacy efforts in Honduras.

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  1. M Jean Keeley, OP

    Thanks for your witness accounts.
    Mercy Sisters showing Mercy, as usual!
    Blessings from your OP/Adrian Sisters.

  2. Catherine Walsh

    Thank you for this powerful article by Jean Stokan, director of the Justice Team of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. May this piece be read by many and may its readers be moved to change U.S. policies toward Central America.

  3. Katie Mindling

    Thank you, Jean, for being a source of information as well as a compass for us who strive to be informed and to bring Mercy to these situations by speaking the truth and keeping the door ajar to receive those whose plight is so heart wrenching. Your leadership and personal dedication are both an inspiration and a support.

  4. Deborah Watson

    Thank you, Jean, for such a clear and powerful statement. Sorry I missed you in Buenos Aires.

  5. Carolyn McDonnell

    Thank you, Jean. You help us understand that to make a true change against the injustices in Central American countries, we need to get U.S. policies toward Central America to change. More support of U.S. citizens in activism & advocacy for this change is needed.

    God bless you in your role of being a prophet today.

    Carolyn McDonnell, Mercy Associate

  6. Jackie Moreau

    You give key pieces of history and state the situation concisely. Thanks

  7. S. Patricia Pora

    Thank you, Jean, for getting the word out there. Your experience in the Triangle provides an invaluable insight!

  8. Don Mulcare

    American consumers of cartel and narco-terrorist drugs have funded a fair share of the violence and chaos in Central America and Mexico. If America has created this problem, America should solve it by welcoming those who flee the effects of American vice.

  9. Mark M. Fitzpatrick

    Of course, Thank you Jean for your sharing of the information here in this article. Usually, after I read such an informative and I trust – well researched piece of writing, I have to wonder, “Why do Sisters of Mercy know about this plight, and let us become aware of the TRUTHS behind the scenes, yet our government does not come out and admit its (our) faults in these matters?” My Prayers are with Everyone suffering. God Bless

  10. Fr. Bob Cushing

    Having just returned from the Maryknoll Pilgrimage of the Martyrs and witnessing on the ground what things have been going through the eyes of Maryknoll Fathers, Brothers and Associates, I welcome jean Stokan’s witness as a necessary commentary for what has been going on there for over 50 years. The neo-colonialism of US financial giants have continued to make the poor poorer and let the rich get richer on their backs. Those who try to name what is happening are eliminated, e.g. Archbishop Oscar Romero, Bishop Juan Gerardi or Ignacio Ellacuria SJ. The Church must keep silent so often simply to survive and to remain able to help the helpless.