Immigration

The Dominant Narrative About Our Southern Border Continues to Negatively Impact Communities

The way we talk about issues like the border can tell us a lot about our own unconscious hopes and fears.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Richard Thornton

When I asked my mother (who immigrated to the United States in the 1970’s) her thoughts on the U.S./Mexico border she stated, “¡Es un caos! No sé como la gente puede vivir allá.” (“It’s a fiasco! I don’t know how folks can live there.”) The reaction was guttural. She sympathizes while disconnecting herself from it, mostly because of the distance between her suburban home in Illinois and the border. This disconnection is key and represents how the negative narrative of the southern border has been established in our public consciousness. Narratives are broad stories that transcend any individual argument, statistic, or legislative battle to tap into our most deeply held values and assumptions.

The way we talk about issues like the border can tell us a lot about our own unconscious hopes and fears. The border is an important economic hub, accounting for billions of dollars in trade and thousands of jobs. It is home to millions of people who love the cultural diversity, deep history of cooperation, and the physical beauty of the regions. The story that is more familiar to those who are further removed is similar to my mother’s reaction of chaos and despair. This dominant way of thinking surely reflects our fears, but what about our hopes? As a communicator tasked with talking about these issues, I struggle with this divide.

Communicators working for fair and just representation of all people and regions across the country can contribute to a new and more complete story by complementing the work that has already taken place by the advocacy groups on the southern border. Promoting the vision of hospitality, empathy, and solidarity with newcomers, particularly those fleeing destitution and persecution is crucial to this pendulum change. Pulitzer Prize-winning Journalist, founder of Define American, and undocumented immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas campaigned against the term “illegal immigrant” and in April of this year the Associated Press announced that it was dropping the term from the AP stylebook succesfully changing how mainstream media refers to a part of our community. His example is one to follow as we bring our heads together across the country and work towards shifting the discourse of our southern border.

Organizations such as the Border Network for Human Rights (BNHR) based in El Paso, Texas are moving the dialogue forward by reestablishing the truth about border life. They share the story of a peaceful, diverse, and economically vibrant border that provides a positive roadmap for our future as citizens of a great nation that respects the humanity of all, including those that risk their lives to find better opportunities. According to a report from BNHR titled The New Ellis Island, “The crime rate in border counties is lower than in non-border counties and crime levels have been decreasing for years.” Many of us, including my mother, will be tempted to deny this fact because it goes against that gut feeling we get when thinking of the story we’ve been told consistently. How can we tell a story that helps guide our thinking toward a sane border policy that balances the economic, cultural, historical, and safety concerns in a way that works for us all?

The United States is in a fierce political struggle to define what immigration means to us as a nation. The act that has defined humanity (moving from one place to another) since recorded history is currently a misunderstood process that resembles a never-ending maze. The pressure is on for House leadership to get immigration policy reform done without delay. Whether this will happen remains an open question. What is certain is that the dominant narrative being told about our southern border will continue to negatively impact these communities and our relationship to them.
 
The U.S. American ideal of opportunity is deeply embedded in our national consciousness. It’s about fairness and participation, human rights and human dignity. It binds us together as a diverse nation and it offers profound hope for the future. It is our duty to uphold these shared values.
 
Chuy Sánchez leads field training and media communications for allies in the social justice field around the country with The Opportunity Agenda, is an award-winning creative writer, and a GLAAD Media Award-nominated TV producer.
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