Brad Nelson

Two weeks ago I traveled to Arizona for what my graduate program called a “cultural immersion prerequisite.” It sounded awful. If you’ve spent any substantial amount of time overseas the thought of enduring a cross-cultural 101 experience triggers the Jim Carey dry heaves. Instead, the trip turned out to be a two week crash course in immigration along the Arizona border.

We spoke with Border Patrol agents, migrants, border ranchers, aid workers, social workers, and a public defender. Each conversation functioned as another step into the complexity of what is happening there, and very little of that complexity is captured in the sound bytes one hears on immigration. Which is understandable. I can’t hope to capture the fullness of what is happening in the span of a blog post. Still, when it comes to immigration—and I suspect to life in general—if you are not willing to engage complexity, you will diminish human life in some way, shape or form.

And it was the toll on human life that took me by surprise. I shared a meal one evening with a migrant who had traveled to the border in hopes of hiring a coyote (a guide) and crossing through the desert. He’d recently been robbed and beaten in Juarez. The bloody gash across the back of his head was still oozing. For more than ten years he lived and worked in the US as a dry-waller and was proud of his work. “No lines. No cracks.” he said with a grin. An undercover officer arrested him while grocery shopping one day, and he was deported leaving behind his wife, child, and grandchildren. As we ate, he continued cracking jokes, but he was still noticeably nervous about the journey ahead. And with good reason.

Most guides work for Mexican drug cartels, and they have a reputation for lacking compassion. They mislead. They abandon. They rape. In fact, I met a Palestinian researcher who was writing a study on transitional justice and women. She’d interviewed many women who fled Baghdad during the invasion, and was on the border interviewing migrant women trying to cross the border. When crossing the border, migrants are especially vulnerable. One aid worker estimated that nine out of ten women are sexually assaulted when crossing and that many of them begin taking birth control as they near the border. Because they expect it. Everyone we talked to had a story to tell of finding a body in the desert. Immigration is a controversial issue, but as long as it remains an issue separated from human faces, it will miss the point. We are not talking about “illegals.” We’re talking about a man or a woman or a child who has a name and a story. Yes, there’s a drug problem on the border. Yes, there are criminals entering the U.S. illegally, but the vast majority are people looking for sanctuary from economic displacement. And if you go to the border, you will hear that even from border patrol agents or farmers along the wall.

Shura Wallin, a retiree turned activist, put it well as she showed us articles she’d found left behind by migrants in the desert. “Is this basura (trash), or are these items the composite sketch of a human life?” This isn’t a question about immigration. It’s a question about how we see the world, and our answer matters because how we see the world will determine how we are in the world. It’s amazing the kinds of things you’ll see when you’re willing to cross a border, and I think that part of what it means to have eyes that see is to become the kind of person who practices what Mark Adams calls, “the spiritual discipline of border crossing.”

It looks like some kind of immigration reform is on the horizon, but even when it does come the fact remains that we live in a world in need of restoration, and if we think for a moment that restoration is going to come about because some government somewhere came up with a new policy we’re fooling ourselves. Restoration begins with each of us.


Brad is currently the pastor of formation at Church of Hope in Ocala, Florida and served on the pastoral staff at Mars Hill Bible Church, Grandville, Michigan for 8 years. A speaker, writer, and student at Western Theological Seminary (MDiv), he and his wife Trisha are the proud parents of two beautiful daughters, Braylen and Clara.

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