The Borderlands: Part 2

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We’d been in Sahuarita, Arizona for three days, and yet our hearts, minds, and questions were already churning with content once foreign to our Louisiana lives. Our intentional Christian community, traveling for an immersion experience, had seen so much already. Interestingly enough, we noted, we had never heard the sides of immigration we were witnessing on any of the hot-topic news stations back home. “What are we covering if not the truth?” I wrestled.

It was Sunday morning, and Pastor Randy gave the sermon at our host church (Good Shepherd United Church of Christ). And as he moved toward the pink Advent candle for Joy, he called upon the youngest person in the congregation (one of our group), the oldest person, and the person who had moved the farthest to be there. With an explanation that in God’s kingdom and economy, family is redefined past border and biology, this “new family” read the Advent liturgy together. The wick was lit as Randy shared that the journey towards true joy means that it is only joy when it includes us all. I couldn’t help but think about that shivering Mary and her song through the fence from the day before.

We left Good Shepherd and headed toward the house of another Green Valley Samaritan named Laurie. She would be taking us on a hike through migrant memorials of those who’d lost their lives just yards away from water and a phone.

Closed toe shoes were a necessity for this cactus-ridden expedition. “You each get a comb, and you’ll brush the cacti away from your body. Do not try to pick them off with your hands,” she emphasized. The desert was dry as soot despite the steady rainfall from the day before, and every few hundred feet called for a comb-stop. With the rock-ridden terrain as far as the eye could see, I simply could not imagine making a bed there for the night.

We came upon a set of crosses decorated with an old worn shoe, water bottle, and written prayers. Here, with houses in view, human bones were found scattered beside personal possessions most notably that of migrants.

“We know that this life had family and a story, that this grave represents far more questions than will ever be answered. The Samaritans feel it is our duty to honor this life and visit this grave since no one who knows it will ever be able to,” Laurie shares.

We first noticed the one cross reading, “Desconocido,” while the other proclaimed, “Presente.” “Desconocido means ‘unknown,’ and Presente is a hispanic term meaning ‘We know your spirit was here and in some way is still here,’” she explained as she bent down to adjust the plastic flowers. We took time to reflect and to pray before moving on to the second and third memorials of unknown travelers.

The last one we came upon represented bones that had gone through the same investigation process as the first two prior to being memorialized. However, the wrists on this particular one indicated that this migrant was no older than a teen. Laurie informed us that many things can account for a migrant getting separated from their group: an escape from Cartels, a Coyote leaving them behind due to sickness, an inability to keep up, a poor set of directions. We sat in silence and listened to the birds (that happen to migrate themselves to this area this time of year); and the teens in my after-school program came to mind. I thought about the luck of the draw that this being born in America is, and how terrifying and lonely it would be if any of my young neighbors were left to die alone in an area such as this.

We woke up to a crisp Arizona morning the following Monday and made our way 30 minutes north to Tucson’s Federal Courthouse where we would be witnessing something called Operation Streamline, a procedure we had never heard about before our travels.

Operation Streamline (OS) is a process of trying as many as 70 illegal immigrants a day who are chosen at random from lists of soon-to-be deportees and incarcerated within our Criminal Justice System. Sentenced to time in privately run prisons, they are ultimately deported anyway at the end of their punishment. The OS cash-cow has been twice declared unconstitutional by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals(1), yet the local courts have made minor adjustments in an effort to allow for its continuation.

We stood outside the courtroom of Tucson’s large, sleek, and fairly modern building. We waited with two other intentional communities and immigration humanitarian efforts who had come to witness the confusing legal system. With only 6 small rows of seating, we decided on a plan for how we would change out people halfway through the trials so that everyone would have a chance to participate.

The judge’s voice was calm and kind, and I thanked God for that as I looked out over the 60+ men and women wearing translation headphones and the clothes in which they were found while crossing. The 15 attorneys (being paid $125/hour of tax money(2) and only able to meet with their clients for but 30 minutes before the trial) would wait behind each row of the convicted as they were called before the stand. The chains connecting the wrist, ankle, and waste shackles made me feel like I was in another era of history, reverted to a time less humanized in our culture.

One by one they were read their rights and confirmed their understanding via translator. Then one by one the pleading began. “Culpable,” guilty.

“Culpable.”

“Culpable.”

“Culpable.”

I heard it 60+ times out of the mouths of women, men, young, old, weeping, angry, confused, tired. I heard it as they were given 30days in jail for first time offenses. I heard it as they were given 180 days in jail for multiple offenses, labeled as felonies. I realized in this moment that news stations have been quick to infuse the nation with fear of the ever-crossing felons. Never once had I heard that so many of these felonies were prior crossings rather than accounts of drugs, theft, murder, or rape.

A boy no older than my younger brother pled guilty in English before his lawyer whispered to him and his answer changed to Spanish. On his behalf, the lawyer requested that his client serve his time near another lawyer who he hopes can help him stay out of Guatemala due to his incredible fear of returning. “I’ll see what I can do,” calms the judge.

“Culpable.”

“Culpable.”

A man in a hospital gown, injured while crossing, was made to give up his glasses before exiting the court room. A woman’s attorney requested that she serve time in Greenville, CA where she is trying to prevent her parental rights from being terminated for her two US citizen children. Another woman ran out unconsolable as her children’s father was skirted out in his chains as she cried, “I don’t know if we’ll ever see him again.” And a boy barely 18 years old poured his wrist chains back and forth from hand to hand while being escorted out of the large steel door.

We made eye contact with as many folks as we could, attempting to smile smiles that said, “We are sorry” and “You deserve to hold your head up.” We made eye contact knowing now, that while some of the convicted in the room are likely to be Coyotes or Cartels or drug pushers, it is also probable that most have come through hell and back again into hiding for a life for their families that is somewhat better than the hunger and crime of their homelands.

We processed that night as a group, repenting of our own lack of understanding and education, and asking God and each other what in the world does all of this mean. We’d watched and listened as our many hosts and guides talked about the journey of learning Spanish in order to say, “Do not be afraid!” We had heard the stories of the threats to their own lives and freedom by minutemen, Cartel, Coyotes, Mexican Federales, and Border Patrol. We heard them say that they listen to an authority that is higher than that of Southern Arizona and that if someone is dying of thirst, they will give them water. We commented on the parallels of the current migration and the historical underground railroad, of those willing to give aid in Nazi Germany and in slavery-escaping North Carolina no matter the cost. And I asked myself would I be among them? 

We talked about how a lot of good people don’t really know what is going on but have been fed news that makes them angry. And we asked what we could take back in our journey.

“There are illegal migrants in your area, scared and hiding, I guarantee it. Some of them have maybe even come through the deserts that you walked this week. I encourage you to get to know them,” Randy commissioned.

“Read books and show films that are telling the truth about what is happening and how it is happening,” Shura encouraged.

Know that we are for legal immigration, but also know that we are for some huge changes in our systems. Remind people that America had a hand in this, and that we ourselves are not invincible—Lord help us if our country ever finds itself so vulnerable that we too would need to migrate. Get to know your politicians that are worried about the root problems which are truly causing this crisis. Encourage them in the renewal rather than the militarization of the border. Push for policies that would creatively help all of our countries, like giving out more 2-year work visas which could include a 25% withdrawal of migrants’ income into a bond which they would collect after their time. This would return them to their homelands with $20,000 to invest in the revitalization of their own countries.  Press for the corruption of private prisons and Operation Streamline along with the loose authority of Border Patrol to be called into accountability. There are options, and we don’t have to be so afraid. And we can apologize and move forward together.

These are some of the bits of advice we were given to take home, praying that we would be good stewards of an experience so enlightening and burdensome.

“Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt,” Exodus 22:21 reminds. God’s people were once foreigners in Egypt. Jesus himself was once a foreigner in Egypt. And our ancestors were once foreigners on the soil of America.

We have a duty as the church to welcome the stranger, especially when she/he is in need, as we were once welcomed as souls unable to save ourselves. We have a duty as the church to question systems that are convoluted, confusing, oppressive, and not transparent. We have a duty to not stand divided by walls of nationality or the reds and blues of politics. We are one church in Louisiana and Arizona and Nogales, Mexico. We are one church charged with the power and expectation to make this world better, with Good News for all.

My prayer is that we will give ourselves to the conversations and visits that will inform us in the truths of the matter, and that compassion and liberation would be the driving force of our view on immigration. Here are just a few resources collected from our travels to assist in the start of that process:

Trails of Hope and Terror: Testimonies on Immigration, a book and movie by Miguel A. De La Torre

Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farm Workers in the United States, a book by Seth Holmes

800 Mile Wall, a film by John Carlos Frey

www.endstreamline.org, information about facts and action concerning Operation Streamline

http//vimeo.com/67640573  is where a 50minutes report on Operation Streamline by Dan Rather can be found

http://stories.weather.com/realdeathvalley is a 29 minute film about the untold stories of mass migrant graves in South Texas

www.tucsonsamaritans.org & www.gvsamaritans.org for updates and contact information of those working in the borderlands

As the sun over Interstate 10 begins to turn all blue things orange, and the east-bound train is no longer in site, I think over the three things I new about immigration 6 days ago. I think about how my understanding was very different, apathetic at best. But my mind has been changed.

May our minds all continue to be curbed ever more towards the Good News being good and life being full for all of God’s people. And may we know that we have a large role in this coming to pass.

(1)  “‘Streamline’ teakes hard line on crossers,” Perla Trevizo, Arizona Star, 3/24/13

(2)  “Detention Must Be Paid,” Editorial Board, New York Times, 1/22/14

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