People at greatest risk need ‘politics of friendship’

Away back in May of 2007, David and I were driving toward the Mexican border on Highway 77 near Victoria, Texas, when we noticed flowers and signs by the side of the road. We stopped and soon realized we were at a place where people were remembering a tragedy.

On May 14, 2003, 19 migrants died here after a driver abandoned a trailer truck that carried as many as 100 people.

We remembered them last week as news came that 53 migrants had died after the trailer in which they were being carried had been abandoned off Interstate 35 near San Antonio, Texas. 

That incident came only three days after 23 African men lost their lives in a desperate attempt to reach Europe by trying to enter the Spanish enclave of Melilla from neighbouring Morocco.

Politicians have tried to excuse their culpability in all of these deaths by blaming them on “human smugglers,” but the true problem is migration policies that are inhumane – “criminal,” said an editorial in Mexico’s La Jornada newspaper.

Back in 2003, the chair of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Committee on Migration, Bishop Thomas G. Wenski (now the archbishop of Miami) said the deaths in Victoria were the result of a “flawed and inhumane” border policy. 

“It is time for our elected officials to acknowledge that the border blockade strategy our nation has pursued since 1993 is a flawed and inhumane policy,” he said in a written statement issued a day after the tragedy. (His comments were published by National Catholic Reporter on May 30, 2003, but the article is no longer available on line.)

Politics of friendship

As I thought about the migrants who died last week, it seemed to me that many people in the wealthier countries of the global North lack empathy with people faced by extreme levels of violence and poverty in the global South. 

And then a line from José Cueti (psychologist, author and columnist at Mexico City’s La Jornada daily newspaper) caught my eye: 

“Lo real es que no existen las políticas de amistad hacia los más necesitados.”  Or, fairly literally: “What’s real is that politics of friendship towards those in greatest need do not exist.”

So then I found myself in a fairly deep dive into the thinking of Jacques Derrida on politiques de l’amitié. That led to Pope Francis’s encyclical Fratelli tutti, where he proposes “a better kind of politics.” The politics we need, he argues in chapter 5, “is a politics centred on human dignity and not subjected to finance because ‘the marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem.’” And finally I read a comment by the Argentinean-Mexican philosopher and historian Enrique Dussel where he proposes the concept of solidarity as a way to overcome contradictions and limitations that occur in some uses of friendship and fraternity (including not only the limited gender sense of the latter).

Empathy. Friendship. Fraternity. Solidarity. We don’t have enough of any of those, and we fail to allow those values to inform our politics, much less our refugee determination policies. Instead, greed limits our human response to the tragedies that lead people into the back of a trailer, or on to a rubber lifeboat in the Mediterranean, or over a wall between Melilla and Morocco.

Immigration policies that do not allow migrants to present a refugee claim are part of the problem, and I have frequently decried economic development practices that augment poverty, violence and desperation in countless countries around the world.

Consider the choices (or lack of them) that might have driven your ancestors to migrate.

A few words about a book that might help you understand better the limited choices facing huge numbers of people.

John Vaillant, The Jaguar’s Children. (Knopf Canada, 2015).

Most North American writers get Mexico wrong. Vaillant gets it mostly right. He even grasps México profundo—the people, places and stories that are distant from official Mexico. He gets inside the faith of the people—that practice of Christianity that is woven together with the spiritual traditions of Nahua, Zapotec, Maya and many other Indigenous peoples.

Here is a novel that speaks specifically of Indigenous Mexican’s profound relationship with corn and the threat they feel from industrial agriculture and its genetic modifications, terminator seeds and exclusion of all that is valuable in the shameless search for profit.

If you can’t afford to buy the book, or you’re too impatient to wait for a library copy, or you think that you don’t read novels: go and stand in a bookstore or a library and read chapter 24. Here, concisely, is all the horror of what is going on in Mexico and Central America these days: the free trade schemes that destroy traditional agriculture, decimate rural communities and drive hundreds of thousands of migrants into the cities and across the northern border.