“Build the Wall!  Even Heaven has a gate.”

So reads a bumper sticker proclaiming support for President Trump’s proposed wall along the entire US-Mexican border.  Recently, I saw this sticker while visiting the desert border town of Tornillo, east of El Paso, Texas.  Tornillo is home to the infamous “Tent City,” a federal facility that can detain as many as 3,800 unaccompanied minors who have been forcibly separated from their parents at the border.  Unsupportive of this policy, El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles prohibited his deputies from working off-duty at this facility.  People in the town were reluctant to talk to me about the situation.  Road barriers and security kept unwanted visitors at a distance, so I was unable to see the site up close.  I left this desolate area with feelings of sadness and anger.  If I were a parent escaping extreme poverty and violence, how would I feel if my child were taken from me, perhaps never to be seen again?

The author in Tornillo, Texas
A view of the surrounding landscape
The author looking out at the barriers that protect the detention facility

Immigration is one of the most contentious issues in the world right now.  The massive movement of peoples is a global phenomenon, with over 65 million people on the move currently due to violence and climate change.  The situation is so serious that the United Nations—with the US in opposition—has issued the Global Compact on Migration, defining the rights to liberty and protection of migrants from arbitrary detention and other abuses.

In the United States, immigration is a particularly hot topic, especially since September 11, 2001, when national security concerns were linked (unjustly?) with border crossings and migration.  The issue has become politicized and partisan.  Emotions and opinions often override the gathering of facts and the asking of questions about why there is immigration in the first place.

How might we apply Bernard Lonergan’s thought to the issue of immigration?  In his major work Insight, Lonergan describes the “flight from understanding” as a failure to be intelligent, reasonable, and responsible, which can lead to a decline in the social order and violence.  He writes:

it blocks the insights that concrete situations demand. There follow unintelligent policies and courses of action.  The situation deteriorates…policies become more unintelligent and action more inept. What is worse, the deteriorating situation seems to provide the uncritical, biased mind with factual evidence in which the bias is claimed to be verified.  So…intelligence comes to be regarded as irrelevant to practical living. Human activity settles down to a decadent routine, and initiative becomes the privilege of violence (Preface, 8).

In such times, we are blocked from insight, because we fail to ask and seek answers to the relevant questions, which results in a series of bad decisions.

Our country’s broken immigration system and policies portray an avalanche of misunderstandings, and questions abound.  Why do so many people want to leave their countries in the first place?  Answers give us insights into extreme poverty and the collapse of agriculture due to trade agreements like NAFTA.  These policies encourage drug cartel activity and violence.  What are the effects of trade agreements on livelihoods?  Is the US complicit somehow?  Do we ask these questions?  Do we care to know the answers?

Lonergan’s notion of group bias—the most dangerous and destructive of the biases he identifies—is also instructive for understanding the current immigration crisis.  He explains that group bias is the refusal to consider the pertinent facts and the insights of another viewpoint.  Rooted in a “group think” that defends an opinion or emotion at all cost, group bias is evident in the labeling of immigrants as “terrorists” and “rapists.”  Fear is aroused, and spreads like an infection.  The immigration debate flares up around election time, when anti-immigration forces use dark money (donations given to non-profit organizations unbound by campaign finance laws) to stir up fears and sway voters to support harsh policies and anti-immigration candidates.  Migrants become scapegoats for our deeper insecurities and pawns in political strategy.  Consider that stories about the “migrant caravan” dominated cable news coverage in the days preceding the 2018 midterm elections, then dropped precipitously as soon as the day afterward.

Group bias against immigrants is unfounded, and harsh policies such as family separation are cruel and unacceptable in a nation founded on the principle of welcoming immigrants.  We are slipping into a longer cycle of decline with consequences we cannot predict.  What can we do?  To start, we need to check our own biases and act intelligently, reasonably, and responsibly.  Perhaps we, like Sheriff Wiles, can resist the pull of group think, and show compassion and understanding to migrants fleeing untenable situations.  We can stand with another “moving viewpoint”—one that has claimed to be the Good Shepherd, the bread of life, living water, and the Gate.

The views expressed in this essay belong entirely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Lonergan Institute staff or the values of Boston College.