Texas Tries Something New at the Border
A report came out this week that officers working for the Texas border initiative were told to push children and babies back into the Rio Grande River and not give water to asylum seekers. This is in addition to the new razor wire and wall of buoys that have been placed in and around the water. The report details a young woman suffering a miscarriage, a teenage boy with a broken leg, and a four-year-old girl passing out from exhaustion as border patrol agents pushed her back.
The article came to my attention because Congressman Joaquin Castro tweeted it, and I made the unwise choice of reading the comments. “How about they don’t cross in the first place?” was one of the first comments. Another said, “Ok, and? Their (sic) not American legally”. One enthusiastically replied, “Looks great!”. Others argued that Congressman Castro was simply lying. The article was accompanied by a photo of the razor wire near a family with a young pregnant woman. Other photos included the large orange buoys draped across the river. Governor Greg Abbott reinforced that this was all to “deter and repel” border crossings.
When looking at the photo of the young pregnant woman, one cannot help but think of the latest push by state legislatures and courts to further erode abortion access. In Texas, abortion is functionally banned. We hear the term “sanctity of life” a lot when these laws are introduced. Sanctity of which lives?
We often talk about bias in sociology; bias is sometimes explicit. We know what we believe, and we act accordingly. The comments under Congressman Castro’s feed are a good example of explicit bias. There is no doubt what these individuals believe because they are saying it. However, sometimes bias is implicit; we don’t even realize we have these beliefs because they are so deep-seated. Someone might not explicitly say it’s good that a woman suffered a miscarriage trying to get through razor wire; instead, they might imply that it was simply a consequence of coming here illegally.
When we look at the immigration situation in the U.S., we see a complicated and fraught situation that is further exacerbated by systemic racism and bias. If the young woman in the picture was white and European, would people feel differently? Statistically, Hispanic migrants face much harsher consequences than white Europeans for the exact same behavior. We know this because, in the past, white Europeans often came over for jobs, a better life, or to escape persecution, and they were allowed entry. Even if they snuck in illegally and were caught, very few faced deportation. Hispanic undocumented immigrants are not afforded those same concessions.
Another subset of bias that is playing a role in this debate is the Fundamental Attribution Error. This is a very common human experience. We attribute other people’s actions to their character or personality while explaining our own actions by highlighting our circumstances. For example, I might be speeding because I am late picking up my child while others are speeding because they are jerks that are bad drivers. We judge others harshly while letting ourselves off the hook.
This could be applied when we examine immigration. I have often thought about the circumstances that would make me leave all of my belongings, put backpacks on my children, and start out toward an uncertain future. It would have to be bad. It would have to be so bad that I felt their lives were in imminent danger. But if I knew they would be killed if we didn’t leave? I would pack those backpacks and head out into the great unknown. There is nothing I wouldn’t do to keep them out of harm’s way. I am relatively certain that most parents would agree. In fact, sociological studies have shown this to be true; parents are remarkably consistent in wanting to keep their children safe.
Why, then, do people believe that asylum seekers “deserve” the treatment they are receiving? Immigration is one of the most contentious political topics in our discourse today; across the political spectrum, people fundamentally disagree on what should be done. When immigrants are seen as an “other” or someone to keep out, we can justify behavior that we would normally find repellant. If we think someone is “cutting the line” or hasn’t paid their dues, we find them undeserving of sympathy, empathy, or assistance. They simply deserve what’s coming to them. Even if that fate is razor wire or drowning.
What most people don’t realize is that our immigration system is extremely difficult to navigate; people don’t “cut” in line on purpose. They often don’t know where the line is. It would be almost impossible to try to fill out forms or download instructions in a place where you are fleeing for your life. But we expect exactly that, even if we know it’s ridiculous.
It is very difficult to put ourselves in another person’s shoes; that is what the Fundamental Attribution Error is all about. However, the more we try to see that other perspective, the more empathy we have. It’s important to remember that we have a socially constructed world; we invented these borders and lines. Some of us were fortunate enough to be born on a side with less strife. Others of us were not. The more we can recognize that, the better off we will be. After all, we might find ourselves on the wrong side at some point wondering why the people on the “right” side want us to suffer.