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Justice for Our Neighbors: Seeing The Border


“The further you get from the border, the more fear and misunderstanding there is.”

That’s how things seem to Vanessa Johnson, interim executive director of Justice For Our Neighbors, a United Methodist Immigration Ministry that has a chapter in El Paso, Texas. JFON was one of the stops a small delegation from the Missouri Conference made during the first two days of March. The trip was made to clarify some of the misunderstandings that may exist for Missourians who live far from the border. This was the second trip to the area led by Rev. Dr. Lucas Endicott, Missouri Conference Associate Director of Mission, Service and Justice, the first being in October 2021.

JFON has 19 sites across the U.S. dealing with child labor and immigration law. The niche of the El Paso site is detention work. Johnson has worked as an advocate, writing to men in detention and documenting human rights abuses. 

She has found very large gaps between the detention center in El Paso, which is run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the private, for-profit detention facility in Torrance, New Mexico, where she has had reports of extreme sleep deprivation, isolation and torturous conditions. 

Johnson has a master’s degree in border studies from the University of Texas–El Paso. She finds the incarceration of people attempting to come to the U.S. to be out of sync with the peoples’ will. 

“Our current policies are immoral and don’t make sense from a cost/benefit perspective,” she said. “Our laws need to reflect our values as a society.” 
Johnson understands there are different perspectives on border issues. She sees them in her family home, as her mother is liberal and her father is conservative. But she feels the current political attitudes go beyond the partisan divide. 

“I told my dad that under [President] Reagan, we were accepting 200,000 refugees a year, and now we’re accepting 20,000,” she said. “That is shameful for a country of our size. It’s gone down under every president. It went down under Obama.” 

She was critical of President Joe Biden’s recent visit to the border, saying it focused too much on security and drugs and too little on the immigrant. 

“That’s not who we are as a country,” she said. 

The Big Picture

Around El Paso, you can see the border between the United States and Mexico is, in places, a wall, a fence, a river, an invisible line in the sand. Still, when Dr. Victor Manjarrez thinks about the border, which he often does, it is more than a physical barrier. It is an ecosystem. The Missouri Conference delegation visited with him to get another perspective on the border. Manjarrez spent a career in border security and is currently the director of the Center for Law & Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso. 

He saw a sea-change in the U.S. approach to the border change abruptly in one day more than 20 years ago, on September 11, 2001 when he was on border patrol.

“That was when we stopped talking about border patrol and started talking about border security,” Manjarrez said. He finds this somewhat ironic because none of the 19 terrorists involved in the September 11 attacks had entered the country illegally. 

“They were all overstays, and at that time, no one was following up on overstays,” Manjarrez said. 

He saw policing of the U.S./Mexico border go from being something most people in government considered a public nuisance issue, prosecuted as a misdemeanor and managed by spread-thin personnel with limited, worn-out equipment to being a top priority. With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, he was soon working with director Tom Ridge and others in Washington, D.C. 

In 1987 there were 4,000 border patrol agents in the U.S. In 2011 there were 4,200 just in the El Paso region, with 22,000 in the U.S. 

Manjarrez retired from Border Security in 2011 and went to work as a consultant, working all over the world on border security issues. He went to work for the University of Texas because he wanted a better connection between researchers and practitioners on matters related to border security. There are several thousand law enforcement officers in the El Paso area, working on the local, state and federal level, whose jobs intersect with issues at the heart of border security. 

Coming north across the border from Mexico into El Paso is 800,000 semi-trucks, 10.5 million vehicles, 18.7 million vehicle passengers and 7.6 million people walking. 

“We’re looking for danger in the mix of that chaos and clutter,” Manjarrez said. “Transnational criminal organizations are looking to use that chaos and clutter to help conceal the movement of their trade.” 
Every port of entry has seen growth in its three areas of protection: personnel, infrastructure and technology. In addition, they have three operational environments: Urban, rural and remote. 

Manjarrez shares Johnson’s dismay at the partisan divide regarding political rhetoric around the border. He said he used to host bipartisan congressional delegations, but now visits to the border are primarily single-party “fact-finding” groups, just looking for anecdotes to support the positions they already have. But, unfortunately, how things play out in the news often impacts who is showing up at the border hoping to get in.  

“How do you manage expectations?” he asked. “It’s a losing cycle if you’re not looking at the big picture.” 
Manjarrez was last encouraged by the Gang of Eight immigration bill passed in 2013 because a real bi-partisan effort was being made to learn about issues and address them more comprehensively than sound bytes on the news. He hopes we can get back there. 

Crossing the Line

Following a visit to the Lydia Patterson Institute, the Missouri Conference delegation went on a walk across the border. The border is just a few blocks from the school. A walking bridge takes payments from pedestrians to cross – 35 cents. No documents are required to enter Mexico from the U.S., but passports must be shown to get back in; as Johnson had warned the group, an entry agent asked them to see passports midway on the bridge, well before they got to the entrance gatehouse. 

“At one point, lines got so long that people were sleeping on the bridge, and to speed processing, they were writing numbers on people’s arms,” she said. “The optics on that were terrible.”