So this past weekend Piper, Eric, (the other two YAVs in Austin with me) and I were able to go on a YAV retreat to Tucson, AZ for a Borderlinks Delegation. Borderlinks is an organization that works for peace along the border between Arizona and Mexico, particularly by spreading awareness through group visits. I went on one of those visits, and wow was it intense. It was a wonderful trip and I learned SO much, but I still am feeling overwhelmed with everything that I learned and experienced.
Our flight got delayed, so we got there late, but what we missed on Thursday was the history of migration and a presentation from Derechos Humanos (Human Rights), an organization that helps immigrant families find lost loved ones as well as promotes human rights for migrants. In the afternoon there was an Operation Streamline hearing–what an experience! The basic idea of OS is that they gather up immigrants, usually around 70 a day, and try them to send them back to their country. On paper, coming into our country should be treated as a lesser crime than reusing a postage stamp, but this law criminalizes something that should not be criminalized. I found this brief description of OS on the American Civil Liberties Union website and they can describe it much better than I:
Operation Streamline is a Bush Administration program implemented in 2005 ordering federal criminal charges for every
person who crosses the border illegally. In other words, it is a “zero tolerance” border enforcement program that targets
even first time undocumented border-crossers. Instead of routing non-violent individuals caught crossing the border into
civil deportation proceedings, Operation Streamline forces undocumented migrants through the federal criminal justice
system and into U.S. prisons. Those who are caught making a first entry are prosecuted for misdemeanors punishable by up
to 6 months in prison, and those who reenter after deportation may be prosecuted for felonies punishable by up to 20 years
in prison. Under this fast-track program, a federal criminal case with prison and deportation consequences is resolved in 2
days or less.
The immigrants are chained around their ankles, waists, and wrists, and treated as though they are aliens invading our world, when in reality they are simply following the natural human tendency to migrate. One man couldn’t even hold his pants up because ICE also took their belts and other belongings.
As soon as we arrived, we were taken directly to Southside Presbyterian Church for a chat with Ken about the Sanctuary Movement. He was arrested during his work, and shared his story with us. We then headed to lunch at Casa Mariposa (butterfly house), which is a house that helps to free immigrants and then houses them once they are released from detention. We were able to dine with Marco, who had been detained from 7 years. He told us he was moved around 25 times in those 7 years, but he was lucky enough to not have been moved out of Arizona, as many immigrants are. His solution to our immigration issues is “no detention”.
We then watched “9500 Liberty”, which is a documentary about Prince William Country in Virginia. There was a massive movement in the county to create this law that would allow police to ask for immigration papers under “probable cause.” This law, essentially, not only allowed but encouraged racial profiling because no one could determine what “probably cause” should mean. There was a major uprising, and eventually the law was repealed. It had been used as an election tool, and got extremely out of hand. There was a lot of ignorance in that video–one woman actually blamed 9/11 on the immigrants in her very own community, but it was encouraging to see how people can ban together to create the change necessary in our country, and world, today. People who may have never voted democrat before this issue, actually did vote against the republicans because they were treating people so unfairly–documented and undocumented immigrants alike.
After the video, we went to visit Dan with the Sierra Club. He talked about something I had never really considered–the environmental impact of building the wall along the US and Mexican border. The impact is enormous–migration patterns of wildlife are blocked, which could easily cause extinction of some animals, water drainage is blocked so flash flooding occurs even more frequently, and even simply the construction of the wall destroys the land. He showed us an image of an area of a national park before the construction–it was beautiful and lush–and after the construction–it was completely desolate. Border Patrol is able to disregard any laws that have been in place to keep the environment natural, which is causing a lot of problems that could be easily avoided. There is even a proposal in Congress to allow border patrol the ability to do whatever they please (build search towers, walls, etc.) within 100 miles of both the southern and northern borders. This would even affect Michigan! This Congressmen is, of course, from Utah–no where near the borders–but it appears that this could be a plot against environmental law.
Now we get to Saturday, the most intense days of all days…. We woke up bright and early to head down towards the border where we met up with a wonderful lady–I am leaving her and her organization anonymous for their safety. She welcomed us into her home where she shared with us what she does through her organization, and had a little show-and-tell. Her group actually goes into the desert, where migrants are constantly crossing, to bring them water, food, clothes, whatever it is they may need. She told us about the dangers that migrants face while basically walking to their deaths. The US Government, through building this wall, is essentially condemning people to their deaths because the are forced to cross the border in the most dangerous of places. Now many of you may be thinking, “yeah but they shouldn’t be crossing anyway they are ‘illegal’”. First of all, no person can be “illegal”–actions are illegal, but people are not. Secondly, many people also call them “illegal aliens”–think about the implications of that statement. Not only are you claiming a false statement about legality, but now you are also calling them aliens–as if they are from another world? Isn’t that a little harsh?? Now anyway, back to my prior point, many people are crossing the border illegally, there is no question about it. And yes, I whole-heartedly believe we need to look to our history and to our future and create a most positive present where people may not always have to cross a border illegally. But migration is a natural human tendency–it has been since the beginning of time. And these migrants aren’t just coming to America because they think life will be peachy. They are coming to America because they are so desperate for work, they are fleeing an even more dangerous country, or they are trying to find a loved one. Doesn’t that count for something?
This lovely woman that was sharing her story with us told us this: “There are two types of law in this world, human law and moral law. Moral law always beats out human law…at least for me.” This statement is so boldly profound that I knew I had to share it with you. She is saying that even if our human law states that people are coming here illegally, moral law should still always win because there are people dying everyday in the desert. Is that really necessary?? It is our duty as humans, and even more so, as Christians to love all people no matter where they came from. People still deserve to have dignity and people still deserve to live.
She showed us images from the desert–there was one of a little girl’s dress that will forever be engrained on my brain, as well as one of the Diary of Anne Frank (now isn’t that appropriate? Aren’t we doing to immigrants precisely what Germany did to the Jews?). We also were able to actually hold and see items she had picked up from her many trips to the desert. After all of this she took us into the actual desert where many migrants cross. It is such a dangerous area–thorns everywhere, hot sun, snakes… All these things can cause death in the desert especially because people aren’t allowed to stop–if they stop for even a moment, they will be left behind. On our walk, we discovered backpacks, jackets, and water bottles that were left behind on their journey. Once the migrants are picked up, they aren’t allowed to take any belongings with them because they are laid flat on the floor of a van. They then have a board put over them, and more people are laid on top–there can be up to 15 people squished into one van laying on top of one another. People also leave belongings because they are forced to run from border patrol. While on our walk, we actually came across a migrant–this doesn’t normally happen when she gives group tours–and holy cow was it overwhelming. I never even got to see him personally, but knowing he was there and he had been walking for 6 days while leaving 5 children at home, my heart simply broke for him. The excitement didn’t stop there however–we also had a run in with border patrol. Either a helicopter had spotted us or we had tripped a sensor, but three different border patrol vehicles showed up. It was crazy intense, but as far as we know “it was a good day”, which we assume means the migrant wasn’t spotted by the patrol and was able to get to safety.
Once all this excitement had passed, it was only 1pm! We then headed across the border into Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. On our way across I actually saw a line-up of people who were being repatriated into Mexico. I couldn’t believe it! All they had were the clothes on their back and a tiny plastic bag of belongings. In Mexico we had lunch at MaryCruz’s house (she had been one of our leaders throughout the trip) where her daughter had cooked for us. It was delicious authentic Mexican food! During lunch we met with Joanna who is a local union organizer at a maquiladora (a US owned manufacturing plant started under NAFTA that uses Mexican labor to produce goods for export. Usually they operate under a free trade treaty meaning their taxes and tariffs are minimal) in Nogales. She told us about her struggles as a working woman along the border, along with how difficult it is to organize in a maquiladora. Her union is one out of 94 maquiladoras in Nogales. Wow… It sounds like there is a lot of work to be done!
After that we headed to HEPAC (Hogar de Esperanza y Paz A.C.–Home of Hope and Peace A.C.) where we met with Jeannette, the director. HEPAC is a community organization that works with kids, many of whom have been sexually abused, to keep them healthy and headed on to further education. Many are expected to start working in the factories at 15, but she tries to keep them motivated to stay in school. They also host women groups, where they are able to work for themselves, learn about dignity and how they don’t have to stay with an abusive husband, and have a safe place to be. The organization also does interfaith work in an area where there is a lot of hostility between different sects of Christianity! I was very excited to hear that. After that, we ate dinner with them, and we were able to meet up with some of the local youth–my friend I was talking to had lived in California for nine years, but decided to come back when he graduated high school. He says, “Nogales is ugly, ya know, but its my home.”
Finally on Sunday, we woke up and headed to church at Sol de Justicia Presbyterian Church. They had fantastic music! It was so cool to be able to worship in another language, and not have the language barrier matter at all =). The sermon wasn’t my favorite, but the worship was beautiful. After that we headed back across the border into the US, where we got ready for the All Souls Procession festival. It was so fun to get our faces painted and head to downtown Tucson!
So this is a long one, I know, but thanks for taking the time to read it! It was such a wonderful, but super intense, weekend for me. I learned so much and now have an even stronger passion for the immigrant population in the US. These deaths need to stop, and together we can make it happen!