Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Border Immersion, Part 2

The Border Immersion was definitely one of the things that drew me towards the Mexico YAGM program when I first heard about it at DIP last April, and the excitement was reignited this past fall when Andrea told us again that this week is always one of the highlights of the year.  As a U.S. citizen, especially during the current political push for immigration reform, it was a little embarrassing how little I knew about U.S. immigration policy and what issues are going on in the borderlands right now.  I am incredibly grateful for the chance to spend a week visiting the border and learning many different perspectives about what is happening.

Day 1: Travel Day!

Excitement about having a short "vacation" from Mexico.  Excitement about travel in general, and the anticipation that comes from being in an airport.  Having someone else be in charge of travel plans.  The ease of getting through U.S. immigration and customs because I hold that precious, expensive, powerful, liberating little blue passport.  We were so giddy at dinner that night.  All the American food choices at the Phoenix airport!  U.S. money!  Ordering in English!  Putting my backpack on the floor (This doesn't happen in Mexico because the floor is "too dirty" or spirits will get into my bag and steal my money.  It's just another of those funny little cultural norms that I've had to get used to, but that I violate in the safety of my own bedroom every day).

We didn't arrive at Borderlinks in Tucson until 10:30 that night, only to discover that we were locked out and needed to wait for a staff member to arrive and let us in.  In those 15 minutes of waiting, I realized that we were going to have a cold week ahead of us!  It's about 90 degrees in Cuernavaca now, so the 35 degree winter night in Tucson was a bit of a shock!

Day 2: Douglas, AZ and Agua Prieta, Sonora

Our day started ridiculously early, with a 6 am departure from Tucson for our 2 1/2 hour drive to Douglas.  First stop: Frontera de Cristo.  Frontera de Cristo is a bi-national Presbyterian ministry that works to address physical and spiritual needs of people on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.  They're affiliated with a lot of non-profit groups in Douglas and Agua Prieta and helped connect us these groups.  Mark took us out to the wall and gave our group a basic orientation to the features of the wall and some of the challenges migrants face when attempting to cross the border.  Among them: sections of the wall made taller, security cameras that have a 3 mile radius, floodlights that keep the wall lit up in Douglas all night, sections of the fence that are only designed to stop cars.  The taller wall has done little, if anything, to deter migrants from attempting to cross.  Rather, it has made the crossing more dangerous and they are seeing more broken bones as a result of falls.  I was also struck by the design of the fence: it's made up of poles that are easy to see between, so people living close to the border can easily see their neighbors through the fence.

This section of the wall was recently made taller.

This was left behind by a migrant

An example of the vehicle obstruction fences - designed to stop cars rather than individual migrants from crossing
Our next stop was the Douglas Border Patrol Station.  The Douglas station is responsible for 40.5 linear miles of border and 1450 square miles of mountainous terrain.  Our visit to the Border Patrol was...interesting.  We were all a little disappointed with how rushed the tour felt; our tour guide (a public relations agent) didn't always go into a lot of detail.  But seeing the realities of the Border Patrol trucks, which sometimes carry up to 10 migrants in a small holding area in the back and hearing about the level of discretion each agent has in choosing what weapons to carry and how to supply their own truck made it easy to see how reports of abuse by Border Patrol agents happens.  Not that this always happens, but we were told that it's up to each agents as to if the holding area is air conditioned or heated, what amount of food is carried, what types of first aid supplies are on board, and what methods each agent will use to control a large migrant group.  This can lead to a large variety in the level of treatment migrants might receive.  The Border Patrol agent also explained that the official U.S. policy is to use the mountains and desert as a "lethal deterrent" to dissuade migrants from attempting to cross.  The theory is that this threat of death in the desert will slow the number of migrants, but this hasn't been the case.  Instead, there has been a spike in the death counts because migrants are being pushed further and further away from the cities into the most dangerous areas of the desert.

After meeting with the Border Patrol we crossed the border into Mexico for lunch and a visit to a community garden with DouglaPrieta Works.  Delicious chiles rellenos and a cold and windy visit to a community garden with crops, chickens, and rabbits. DouglaPrieta Works, along with Café Justo, a visit later in the afternoon, work to provide a more sustainable livelihood for Mexicans in the area.  Café Justo is a coffee roasting company that provides wages far above the level of fair trade.  By doing so, they hope to create more economic opportunities in Mexico so people don't have to migrate to the U.S.  A recurring theme of our visits to organizations was the fact that many Mexicans don't want to be in the U.S.  Many people would rather be home, with their families, in their home communities, but they can't because of the economic opportunity in the U.S.  By providing better economic opportunities in Mexico, Café Justo tries to allow more families to stay together in Mexico.

One of my favorite visits of the day was the Centro de Recursos Para Migrantes, aka the Migrant Resource Center.
It's literally the first thing you see after you get through customs and enter Mexico and is located just feet across the border.  The resource center is often the first stop for migrants who have been repatriated back to Mexico after being caught by the Border Patrol; they are escorted to the border by Border Patrol agents and then left to fend for themselves with no resources of their own.  That's where the resource center comes in.  Migrants can stop by for a warm place to sit, a burrito, water and coffee, a clean pair of socks, new shoelaces, free or reduced bus tickets back to their place of origin in Mexico.  Some migrants come in looking for a way home, others just stop by for a quick snack before looking to reconnect with their coyote for another attempt at crossing the border.  When we were visiting, there were 20 or so people waiting for their bus ticket from the Mexican government so they could return home to their families.

I still can't get the image of the pair of men who arrived near the end of our visit.  They appeared to be father and son, and it was clear they had just been returned by the Border Patrol.  As they sat down to eat a sandwich, I couldn't help but notice their shoes.  The younger man had on a pair of orange and white Nikes that were missing their shoelaces.  It's common for Border Patrol agents, when apprehending a group of migrants, to gather the shoelaces of the migrants as a deterrent to running away.  The image of the shoes without their laces stuck with me, and just made it that much more real.  U.S. border policies aren't an abstract thing.  They directly impact thousands of people every day, thousands of individuals who might be sitting down eating a burrito right about now.

Our last visit of the day was to CAME, the Centro de Atención al Migrante "Exodus," a migrant shelter in Agua Prieta.  We ate dinner with migrants, some of whom had been deported and were heading home, and others who were on their way to the United States.  We were so privileged to hear the stories of these people!  The man Casey and I sat with at dinner shared his story with us (we unfortunately didn't catch his name).  He's lived in Boca Raton, FL for over 20 years, and has a Cuban wife and an American-born son who both have U.S. citizenship.  A little while ago he returned to Mexico to help care for a sick family member, and was then returning to Florida to be with his family when his car blew a tire outside of Tucson.  A police officer stopped to help him with his car, discovered his immigration status, and he was returned to Mexico.  When we met him, he was in CAME working on crossing again so he could return to his family. 

This was such a heartbreaking story to hear.  It put an individual face on some of the injustice of U.S. immigration policy.  This man has lived in the U.S. for his entire adult life, but he must live in fear everyday that some freak event will occur that will allow him to be deported.  His wife is a Cuban immigrant, who received asylum simply by setting foot on U.S. soil.  His college aged son is a citizen by virtue of being born in the U.S.  This man was so calm and so quiet, but it was clear he was working as hard as he could to get back to his family and his home.  As we were leaving I had to wish him safe travels, and that I hoped he would make it home.  For me, in this case, U.S. border policy that intends to close our borders doesn't matter.  What matters is reuniting a man with his family.

More reflections from the border to come!

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