Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Border Immersion Part 4

Day 4: Ash Wednesday in the desert

As Andrea put it, Wednesday's activites were about hope, while Thursday's activites were kind of a downer for the end of the week.  We met in the morning with Ken Kennon at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson.  Ken was an instrumental leader in the Sanctuary Movement of the 1970s and 1980s.  During the U.S. supported dictatorship and wars in Central America, the U.S. didn't welcome refugees from Central America, so churches and other organizations declared their spaces to be "sanctuary" for these refugees and opened their doors, at great personal risk to themselves.  Thousands of asylum-seekers were housed in churches across the country: given a place to stay, meals, medical attention, etc.  Well, the problem came in the fact that individuals participating in this movement were committing felonies, guilty of 20+ years in federal prison.  It was pretty inspiring to be sitting in the church that started this movement in Tucson, and just really eye-opening to be learning about something I had never heard of before.
memorial for migrants who have died in the desert

each rock contains the name of a migrant who died in the desert, while those whose bodies were never claimed simply read "desconocido" (unknown)
In the afternoon we met with Gene from No More Deaths, a Tucson based organization that works to decrease the number of migrant deaths in the desert by putting water on migrant trails and providing emergency medical aid.  Gene spoke to us at BorderLinks for a little while, but then he took us into the desert to actually walk some of the migrant trails.  At one stop we pulled over by a freeway rest stop to duck through some barbed wire and gather items left behind by migrants: backpacks, empty water jugs, discarded items of clothing, all of it destroyed by the brutal sun.  We then drove way into the desert to climb a mountain on a different migrant trail.  An altar awaited us at the top, full of flowers, water (we also contributed two jugs of water for migrants), a migrant's ashes, a cross, candles.  We proceeded to have a short Ash Wednesday service.  
Receiving ashes in late afternoon on the top of a mountain in the middle of the desert was a powerful experience.  This key reminder of the frailty of the human experience, especially in the desert, helped to usher in the season of Lent.

Jesus also spent time in the desert.  He fasted and went through physical and spiritual trials, just like many migrants do.  Jesus walked the paths that these migrants walk every day.  I couldn’t help but think that Jesus must be on the side of the migrant – the wanderer searching for freedom from poverty or violence.  How is Jesus’ heart breaking at the injustice found in the borderlands?
altar on the mountaintop

our group with Gene after our Ash Wednesday service

some desert scenery along the migrant trails
 Day 5

Our last full day in Arizona was spent learning about some U.S. policies in regards to migration and immigration issues.  In the morning we met with an ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officer at BorderLinks.  It was an interesting meeting, both because of the the nature of the discussion, and also because another group staying at BorderLinks was there for that session, and they were very emotionally invested in the conversation.  After living in Mexico for 6 months, our group has had experiences related to the migration side of the issue: knowing people whose family members are living in the U.S., knowing people who have traveled to the U.S. legally and illegally in search of work, etc.  The other group consisted of high schoolers from southern California who are involved in leadership activities at their schools, and who have been around communities of migrants who have been personally affected by ICE agents and immigration laws.  According to the agent giving our presentation, there is a lot of personal discretion that comes with being an ICE agent in terms of who to process for deportation or not, which can create lots of grey areas that can cause questionable situations.  There is obviously more to discuss with this, but it's more of a sensitive subject, so if you want more stories let me know!

In the afternoon we met with Heather Williams, one of Tucson's public defenders for Operation Streamline.  Operation Streamline is a federal program that aims to criminalize undocumented immigration in the U.S. by putting captured migrants through the court system and charging them with either a misdemeanor or a felony in a zero-tolerance policy as part of a larger plan to deter immigration.  In Tucson 70 migrants a day are processed through the court system, each one meeting with a lawyer for 30 minutes in the morning to discuss the case before pleading guilty before a judge in the afternoon.  Reactions to Operation Streamline are mixed, with many Republicans advocating for an increase in the size of the operation.  However, it sounds like the public defenders and many of the judges feel like it is a waste of their time and that Arizona's resources could be better spent elsewhere.  After breaking down the costs of the lawyers, courtrooms, and incarcerations, Heather Williams informed our group that Operation Streamline is costing Tucson alone well over a billion dollars every year.  What else could be done with this money?

Closing worship and reflection were held at this sculpture on the U of A campus

I'm clearly still reflecting on this intense week on the border, even a month later.  Some things that are still sticking with me:
-Operation Gatekeeper, which pushes migrants into the desert
-NAFTA, which has screwed up the Mexican economy and threatened a lot of livelihoods that could help to give Mexicans a livable wage in Mexico so they wouldn't migrate
-Operation Streamline, which criminalizes migrants for entering the U.S. and ultimately costs us billions of dollars in legal and prison costs
-the continued deportations of migrants who have lived in the U.S. for close to their entire lives, splitting up family after family
-drug use in the U.S., which encourages drug cartels by giving them a business, which in turn adds to the violence on the border
-American vigilantes who feel it's their duty to protect U.S. borders by shooting migrants crossing through the desert
-the legal system that has prosecuted Americans working to stop migrant deaths in the desert (both those giving medical care, and those who leave water in the desert so fewer migrants die of dehydration)

-the power of hearing migrant stories in their contexts, seeing the landscapes they are crossing, and attempting to understand the life they will have if they ever make it to the U.S. 

Well, that's the end of the border saga for now.  I have so many more stories and experiences to share, so let me know if you want to chat sometime!

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