Watching Donald Trump’s crude untruths in his State of the Union speech a few days ago, and his pathetic pleas for American support for his border wall over the weekend, important figments of his imagination, caused me to reflect on my days on the border with Mexico a few weeks ago.
Over seven days, I drove from Utah to Tijuana and San Diego to visit with people on both sides of the border and to see for myself what was occurring, up close and personal.
I’ve seen the wretched existence of Central Americans personally, laboring to combat poverty for some two decades with many U.S. friends and donors. I’ve seen families face to face as people have tried to eke a life out of their poverty, military juntas, kidnappings, domestic abuse, extortion, civil conflicts, forced disappearances, child abuse, drug wars, gangs such as M-13 that were launched in California, not in Central America, and so forth.
The rationale of decent Latinos to find a better future is understandable and should be convincing to any American wanting a good life themselves. They aren’t asking for the moon. They don’t demand Trump’s own billions of dollars, nor my own modest salary or savings. They simply seek peace, a chance for a better life than their suffering existence south of the border.
Is fleeing oppression so bad? Is it wrong to hope for a bit of law and order on the streets of a village? Is wanting three meals a day greedy? Is access to a doctor when a child breaks an arm bad? Unreasonable? Is seeking educational opportunities so one’s children don’t grow up illiterate and without decent jobs evil? Or selfish?
Yet Trump and his cronies want to stop all such dreams. They are willing to break our laws and ignore refugee rights, having to be pulled back by judges and the constitution, while seeking to inflict as much pain as possible on victims of others. In fact, they seem to gloat over separating families, splitting husbands from wives. They have separated kids from mothers and shipped them across country, later admitting to judges they can’t be found. Even worse, hundreds of children were put in cages as aggressive actions were launched by the feds until justice intervened. But still, these little ones suffer today, traumatized by U.S. border actions to make them suffer.
With a PhD in psychology from the University of Michigan, I can affirm such heinous acts amount to psychological torture, for children and parents. The absurd idea from the White House is that if the U.S. makes things so terrible along the border, families will stop attempting to take their babies into a new land of milk & honey. Such logic. Such folly.
While I was there recently interviewing folks on both sides of the border, the evidence was clear. On the U.S. side, there are no fearful Americans. We know the data show more crime from white citizens than migrant Latinos. Nobody is uprooting to move from California to Keokuk, Iowa. On the Mexico side, the local Mexicans as well as the caravan folks I met, whether men, women or children, are not “rapists and murderers,” as Trump falsely claims. It’s obvious, we’re being lied to by the White House, Trump, Pence, Huckabee Sanders, and the cabinet.
Reflecting on my experiences laboring among the poor of Central America for some twenty years, it’s clear we’re being lied to, manipulated for political expediency. The only walls are within the brains of Donald Trump’s administration, those keeping myth from reality.
I've dedicated a significant part of my life to those who struggle. I've established some forty projects and NGOs, raised hundreds of millions of dollars with my associates, and mobilized thousands of volunteers to empower the poor, especially recruiting my MBA and other students to combine classroom learning with real world applications of business strategies that foster economic self reliance.
However, this growing crisis in Central America has really touched my heart because it's a solvable situation. So I'm trying to be an advocate for moral solutions & hope friends may throw a bit of their energy at reducing the suffering.
In December 2018, after joining 400-plus faith leaders from across the United States to prepare and be trained in case of arrest, I marched in protest along the beach in San Diego up to the ugly wall of oppression and fear. Leaders of various religions marched with faith in God, and hope in our constitution. Trump was condemned in many sermons and chants.
The next day I took several friends across the border to spend the next few days meeting caravan migrants on the Mexico side, distributing goods we’d brought from Utah (wheelchairs, clothing, kids’ books in Spanish, food, medicines, etc.). We listened and learned more of their plight. We found the location at an arena on the outskirts of Tijuana and were shocked at the military nature of the setting.
I've labored in refugee camps around the globe, and I'm always struck by the experience. But in Tijuana there were fences and lots of security that controlled all the premises. Armed military guards oversaw the entire situation, standing menacingly with their bullet proof vests, AK-47 assault rifles, and armored vehicles.
At first, we interviewed some guards and caravan participants, and took a few photos and videos of people’s stories from Honduras and Guatemala. After some negotiation, we were finally able to donate the goods we brought and hear of the wretched trials people suffered fleeing oppression back home and traveling nearly 2,000 miles in many cases. They took this march with just a couple plastic bags or small suitcases containing their lives’ possessions. I learned of the people's challenges, and was able to assess what things we might do to assist in this crisis in the future.
Trump’s lies to the contrary, along with his years of making horrific claims that are not supported by any facts, the people of the caravan stand in magnificence and dignity, sharp contrasts to the cowards in Washington, DC. The big challenge now is to generate greater awareness, mobilize more donations, pressure our government, both locally and nationally, to take concrete action. The conscience of our time in history requires that we do more than wring our hands and stand helplessly by. We must mobilize to fight for justice.
Warner Woodworth, PhD, is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Management, Marriott School of Business, Brigham Young University, and Founder of Multiple NGOs in the Third World