Immigrants face hardships at US-Mexico border wall
Editor’s note: Due to the current political climate and protection of sources in the story, The Journal has given a source an alternative name. Sources spoke in Spanish through a translator.
Isabella crossed the border wall from Mexico into the U.S. at 14-years-old with her older sister. She said crossing a river became the most terrifying part of her journey.
“It was very high in some cases and I didn’t know how to swim,” Isabella said. “[My sister and I] were walking inside the water holding hands.”
The Pew Research Center estimates as of 2016, 10.7 million unauthorized immigrants lived in the United States. Benjamin Johnson, a history professor at Loyola University who specializes in North American borders, said the border wall remains ineffective when stopping illegal immigration.
“I don’t think anyone who studies the border takes it seriously as a device that’s actually going to stop or control people or things from crossing the United States,” Johnson said.
Jana Jeffords attended the Donald Trump Make America Great Again Rally in Murphysboro, Ill., and is a supporter of the border wall. She said she thinks people should cross legally to prevent potentially dangerous people from entering the United States.
“You can’t trust everyone, and just to let people come over in droves and not have any kind of regulation is not good,” Jeffords said. “You don’t know who you have coming, and you’ve got to protect your family.”
Sacrificing for a new life
Isabella said she and her sister paid someone to help them cross the border after seeing her parents struggle. She said she and her sister were hired for housework upon entering the U.S.
“I saw my father’s struggles to feed us, to clothe us, to give us school,” Isabella said. “That was the reason for [my sister and I] to come here.”
Leticia Guzman is the media coordinator and organizer at Border Angels, a nonprofit organization campaigning for issues surrounding the U.S-Mexico border. The organization provides assistance to immigrants crossing the border and helps them adjust to life in the U.S.
Guzman said migrants enter the U.S. for a better quality of life. She said they weigh the cost of staying in their home countries versus the cost of a dangerous trip to the U.S.
“They know that there’s opportunity here, and they know that there’s opportunity for their children,” Guzman said. “So they would make that sacrifice because, I guess you could say, it’s just a different life here compared to where they’re fleeing from.”
Camila entered the United States legally 30 years ago with a visa. She said she met her husband and started a family with two children in the U.S. However, the loss of her visa meant she returned to Mexico, and she said she crossed the border illegally as a result.
Camila said when she crossed the border, she brought her two other children from Mexico with her. She said the journey felt difficult because they often walked for long periods of time at night.
“I thought about my children that were [in the U.S.], and I would ask for the help of God,” Camila said. “I would tell God, ‘Help me cross because I want to see my children.’”
Johnson said migrants cross the border because of violence, oppression or lack of economic options in their country. He said he understands why migrants would move to a country for the promise of a better life.
“If I put myself in their position and fear for my life, or especially my children’s life, and think that we’re going to be safer, that we’re going to be able to eat or to make a decent living or get an education somewhere else, then I understand that motivation,” Johnson said. “I think it’s one of the reasons why migrants have always come to the United States.”
Guzman said migrants crossing the border face issues such as dehydration and sickness. She said women migrants often hire a smuggler for protection when crossing the border because of potential danger.
“A lot of people don’t end up in the right hands, and they get hurt or in dangerous circumstances,” Guzman said. “There was a woman that I have talked to that had to really load up on birth control because of how common it is to be raped out in the crossing routes.”
Isabella crossed over the border again, four years after her initial journey to the U.S., after returning to Mexico to visit her family. She said her sister did not return with her.
Isabella said she felt terrified the second time when she crossed the border via an inner tube.
“There was a lot of people along the river, bad people wanting to do something harmful,” Isabella said. “I was fearful but nothing happened. They did follow us, but nothing happened.”
Starting a new chapter
Camila said when she first came to the U.S. alone, she did not know anything about the country. She said it was difficult to find resources that would help her obtain citizenship.
Guzman said navigating the U.S. is difficult for migrants who do not have family members to help decipher what steps to take once they enter the country. She said not knowing how to become a U.S. citizen remains one of the reasons the undocumented immigrant population remains high.
Isabella said her sister returned to Mexico after four years, leaving her the only member of her family in the U.S. However, she said her reason for staying changed.
“My life changed because I got married,” Isabella said. “I have three children. So now, my motive is different because now my family is here.”
Jeffords said when she thinks of people coming over the border, she becomes fearful. She said while she understands immigrants founded the U.S., she worries about the values of people coming to the U.S.
“I’m sure that a lot of them are generally nice people wanting to come and better their families because that’s where we all come from,” Jeffords said. “But it honestly kind of scares me a little bit because there’s so much terror going on.”
Johnson said looking at the underlying issues of why people choose to immigrate, such as foreign policy issues and drug use, could limit the amount of people seeking a better life in the U.S.
Johnson said in history anti-immigration politics and nativism arise every time there is an influx of an immigrant population. He said the only difference is who the rhetoric is directed at.
“We’ve seen this story before,” Johnson said. “We’re just reading a new chapter in that larger story.”
Camila said she currently has Lawful Permanent Resident status and is working toward her citizenship. Isabella said she is unable to obtain citizenship because she cannot afford to.
Isabella said she fears going out and being caught by Border Patrol because of her status. She said she is at risk anywhere she goes.
“It’s a sense of going out and not knowing that I’m going to come back to see my children because I’m at risk,” Isabella said. “Anywhere that I am, the Border Patrol can be there.”
Reporter Todd Smith’s scars will never heal after Kirkwood shooting
Todd Smith still finds it hard to go anywhere without first looking for an easy escape route. He makes sure the room is safe before he leaves his son Drew at daycare.
“I still make sure doors are closed and stuff like that. I’m always cognizant of all the other parents around,” Smith said. “Because that’s my kid, and I don’t want anything like that to happen to my kid, ever.”
Smith is the only person injured in the Kirkwood City Hall shooting 10 years ago to still be alive today. He was a reporter covering the meeting for the Suburban Journals when the shooting occurred.
Smith said when Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton entered the courtroom, he seemed different than usual. He said he watched Thornton pull out a gun and shoot the police officer to his left. Smith was shot when he tried to stand up and escape the room. The bullet went through his hand and grazed his stomach.
Ten years after the shooting, Smith wrote a book about his survival and recovery. The book, “Murder, Romance, and Two Shootings,” covers three tragedies in his life: an armed robbery, a gay bashing and the Kirkwood shooting. The book is currently undergoing edits and will be released later this year. Smith said the shooting was the hardest part of the book to write.
“The difficult part was doing the talk through of what happened when Cookie Thornton shot people,” Smith said. “That still is the toughest part of the book.”
Smith said if Thornton were still alive, he would still be afraid of him. He said he is not sure how to forgive Thornton for what he did.
Smith said he had nightmares after the shooting about Thornton coming back and killing him. He attended counseling for two years after he was injured. Smith still finds it difficult to be in Kirkwood and will take a longer route just to avoid the road Kirkwood City Hall is on if he has to go into the city.
“We go to all the places in St. Louis, and I’m still not comfortable with going to Kirkwood,” Smith said. “We don’t go out to eat there because I just lose my stomach. I just have a bad mojo about the whole town.”
Physically, Smith’s hand still aches when the weather changes. It is hard for him to type for long periods of time without taking a break. He cannot lift heavy bags and sometimes loses his grip when trying to hold things.
David Kaplan was Smith’s registered domestic partner at the time of the shooting. Kaplan said Smith called him as soon as Smith was outside Kirkwood City Hall. Kaplan said Smith had not made it clear that he had been shot and just repeatedly asked Kaplan to come pick him up.
Kaplan eventually met Smith at St. John’s Hospital after learning what happened. Smith proposed to Kaplan while recovering from his injuries. They married in 2009, just one year after the shooting.
“You know, sometimes weird things happen. You go under surgery and you don’t come out of it,” Smith said. “I just wanted to make sure he knew how much I loved him.”
Kaplan said he was fortunate to have had the flexibility with his job to attend doctor’s appointments with Smith and help him recover. Ten years later, Kaplan still worries when Smith is running late.
“Everyone thinks ‘they could be on the side of the road in a ditch someplace,’ well, you know, I got the call, right,” Kaplan said.
Dr. Gregory Goldman is a psychiatrist who studies the aftermath of mass shootings and their effect on the survivors. He said it is common for mass shooting victims to feel unsafe in situations where they used to feel comfortable. He said sleeping and eating issues were also common effects.
Goldman said the recovery process for mass shooting victims often depends on how close they were to the incident. Mass shootings are harder for those who were injured than those who were not.
“Your proximity to the event on average is going to determine the degree for which it is traumatic to you,” Goldman said. “The more directly affected you were by it, the more it’s going to have an effect on you.”
For Smith, the events at Kirkwood are still hard to talk about. He said the shooting will always be in the back of his head; it created a different reality. He said he did not expect to witness a live shooting during his journalism career. The shooting caused outer scars as well as inner trauma.
“The fact that [Thornton] caused me to see people being killed..I didn’t set out to do that,” Smith said. “I was just doing my regular job as a reporter, and [Thornton] gave me a permanent disability for my entire life.”
Missouri citizens debate gun accessibility
Missouri received an F rating in gun safety from the Gifford’s Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The center ranked Missouri the third worst state in strictness of gun access. As the nation’s leading gun policy organization, the center provides assistance to people who aim to enact gun safety measures for gun violence prevention.
Missouri law dictates any person over the age of 18 can purchase a rifle or shotgun. The minimum age to purchase a handgun in the state is 21.
Jonathan Scott, a gun show vendor, said he enjoys owning guns for both sporting and protection. He said if something were to happen, he would have the ability to use his firearms as self defense.
“I don’t want to be out driving around with my family somewhere and someone carjacks me with my kid in the backseat,” Scott said. “The very last option is that gun.”
Representative Deb Lavender is the state representative for District 90 in Missouri. She said over the last decade, laws have been expanded to make it easier for people to access firearms.
“This just keeps taking us down a path where guns are going to be more available to more people resulting in more violent deaths,” Lavender said.
Buying a gun at a gun show
At least five gun shows were held in Missouri through the month of April. Over the 2018 summer, seven more will take place around the state.
Scott sold flashlights and accessories at the 2018 Independence, Missouri Gun & Knifeshow in April. He said the process of buying a firearm at a gun show depends on whether the dealer is licensed.
Buyers purchasing from licensed dealers in Missouri must first fill out Form 4473 which asks for basic background information. They must pass a background check run through the National Instant Check System (NICS) before purchasing. The purchaser is then allowed to buy the gun. With no waiting period in Missouri, they can immediately take it home.
“The background check will come back with a pass, delay or deny,” Scott said. “If it comes back a pass, they let the gun go.”
For private dealers or dealers who do not regularly sell firearms, the process varies. However, eligible buyers are not subject to a background check. Essentially, if a seller believes the buyer is allowed to possess a firearm, they can legally sell them one.
Lavender said she believes allowing unlicensed sellers to bypass background checks is a problematic loophole.
Scott said he thinks giving private sellers access to NICS could limit the potential harm done by purchasers with ill intent. He said while he does not think it will solve all gun violence issues in Missouri, it could be a start on decreasing them.
“We could have the option to call up and say ‘hey, my name’s ‘John’ and I want to sell this gun to ‘Bob’, can you run a background check?,’” Smith said. “I don’t know if it’s the end all, be all, but I think that’s one step towards something we could do to help out.”
Mike LaFavor sold guns as a licensed dealer at the show. He said criminals are the main driver of gun violence, not the guns themselves. LaFavor said he worries about a citizen’s ability to protect themselves if laws limiting gun accessibility are passed.
“It sounds like a really utopian idea, but what do you think Hitler did when he tried to take over?” LaFavor said. “He got everyone’s guns and no one could defend themselves.”
Buying a gun at a gun shop
Scott said the process of getting a gun at a gun show is similar to getting one at a gun shop. Gun shops are owned by licensed FFL dealers. To buy a gun, you must fill out Form 4473 and pass a background check.
Andrew Biedenstein has worked at Sharpshooter Indoor Range since its opening five years ago. He described purchasing a firearm in Missouri as simple.
“It’s the same as when a cop pulls you over and looks at your ID,” Biedenstein said. “Technology does pretty fantastic things for us.”
Biedenstein said he does not see a problem with Missouri gun laws the way they are. He said he has no issue with a person purchasing a firearm, as long as they have a clean background.
Biedenstein said he does not worry about crime committed with firearms accessed at Sharpshooter.
“It’s no different than, you know, when I worked at Ace Hardware and somebody would come in and buy a kitchen knife,” Biedenstein said. “You can mess somebody up with anything.”
Remy Cross, a criminology professor at Webster University, said access to guns does not raise the amount of crime committed. However, using a gun allows the crime to be more deadly.
“What we like to talk about is the difference between getting in a bar fight when you just have your fist versus getting in a bar fight where there is a firearm present,” Cross said. “The chance you’re going to end up with a more serious crime is much higher.”
The solution to gun violence
Gifford’s Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence ranked Missouri seventh out of fifty states in most gun deaths per capita.
Scott said taking away guns from responsible gun owners will not stop gun violence. He said criminals can have a weapon regardless of the law.
“It’s not guns. It’s the bad people that get their hands on a gun and do bad things,” Scott said. “If a bad person is going to get his hands on a gun, he’s going to get his hands on a gun.”
Lavender said she believes limiting access to guns will limit the presence of gun violence in Missouri. She said having more guns only increases the amount of gun violence in the state.
“We took off the ban on assault weapons not quite 10 years ago. And ever since then, the number of gun violence with assault weapons has gone up,” Lavender said. “So how can you say that more guns make us safer when we are only having more violence as we have more guns?”
Lavender said she has legislation in Missouri sponsored by fellow Democrat Stacy Newman called the ‘Extreme Risk Protection Law.’ Essentially, the law gives the opportunity for concerned family members to appear in front of a judge and ask for a restraining period for a person. If the judge decides a person is a danger to themselves or others, they can take away that person’s guns for up to a year.
Cross, the Webster professor, said focusing on gun laws will not solve gun violence in St. Louis. He said the issue is much bigger than just gun access in the state.
Cross said while changing easy access gun laws is a start, no easy way exists to get rid of all violent crime in the city. He said issues like deficits in spending, poverty and racial tensions all play a part in violent crimes.
“There’s no simple solution, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to try for things that look like they might be moving the needle in a positive direction,” Cross said. “I think what it comes down to is whether people have the patience to work on these things or whether they’re going to throw up their hands.”