Border Trip: Monday, Nov. 9th

Part 4 of a series of posts devoted to a trip to the U.S./Mexico border. This was written on the 9th, but, due to lack of internet access while in Mexico, is being published now. Photos can be found here.

Monday, November 9th. Rising early, we visit Southside Presbyterian Church at 7am. Southside played a pivotal role in the Sanctuary movement of the 1980s and is still deeply involved in border immigration issues. It is early for us but the volunteers there have already been hard at work, cooking and laying out food, coffee, milk and pastries for whoever shows up. It’s quite a spread. In addition to normal breakfast items such as cold cereal and pastries (donated from Starbucks), there is a buffet of hot foods. This morning’s fare included salad, rice and beans, pasta and pork chops. Southside Presbyterian does this twice a week, Mondays and Fridays, while other area congregations provide similar meals on other days. The church also provides clothing for those who need it.

We visit their sanctuary, which has been built in the shape of a kiva. The most obvious difference from a normal church is that there is no “front,” – only the center of a circle. The niches of the walls contain kachinas and other native sacred objects, and the light covers are decorated with petroglyphs. This is (Borderlink instructor) Elsbeth’s home church and her face lights up as she describes the congregation’s call to ministry surrounding the border. Outside the kiva is a memorial to those who have died in the desert. The trees are decorated with bandanas found in the desert and small stones are inscribed with the names of the dead.

For a little while, I help serve milk and cereal alongside Jesse, a regular volunteer at the church. We are told it is a light day – only 75 or so show up, as opposed to the usual 200. As the crowd thins, I wander back over to the memorial. One of the guys who has come here for a meal asks me what our little group is about. I explain that we’re here to learn more about border issues. From the looks of him, I suspect he is a veteran. Many of those seeking aid from Southside are. As the conversation unfolds it becomes clear that we do not share the same views about immigration. In his view, Arizona should be even tougher on illegal aliens than it has been – as they take our jobs and present a threat to homeland security. My pointing out that no suspected terrorists have been caught crossing the U.S./Mexico border (unlike the U.S./Canadian border, yet we’re not building a wall up north) does not move him. Nor does my pointing out that people are dying. I point to the pile of stones in front of us, 209 so far in the Sonoran this year. “We think Bush did a good job. What is your opinion on him?” he asks as he made his way to go. “Not so much,” I replied to his turning back. It was a reminder that just because someone comes to Southside for assistance doesn’t mean that the person agrees with Southside’s views, nor should he have to. And a reminder of how complex these issues are.

Afterwards, we speak with Rev. John Fife. Rev. Fife served Southside Presbyterian for 35 years before retiring 4 years ago to work for the Samaritans and No More Deaths. Much of that time was during the 1980s, when Southside became heavily involved in the Sanctuary movement, in response to the extreme need that they saw from people coming to their doors. U.S. policy was supporting repressive dictators in Central America – mainly El Salvador and Guatemala. People fleeing to the U.S. were clearly political refugees but the U.S. would not recognize them as such (despite evidence of torture) because that would require recognizing that we were supporting oppressive governments. The worldview of President Regan did not allow for anything more nuanced than “us” versus “them.” So Rev. Fife, along with Quaker Jim Corbett, recognized that they were required by conscience to take more active measures – helping refugees cross the border safely and providing sanctuary. He explains to us the difference between “civil disobedience” and “civil initiative.” When the government is violating human rights, then it is both the legal right and moral responsibility for citizens to take civil initiative to protect the victims. True then; true today. Rev. Fife thanked the Presbyterian Church of Canada for their part in moving refugees through the U.S. and into Canada at that time, and acknowledged the UU Church of Tucson’s sponsorship of No More Deaths today.

After, we watch documentary on border issues/immigration called, Crossing Arizona. It gave different perspectives, including those of ranchers who are losing thousands of dollars a year due to broken fences, trash clean-up, water left running, cattle being killed for food or accidentally killed when they ingest trash left by migrants. One woman talked of her fear of working her own land in case she ran into trespassing men. My heart went out to the ranchers even as I recognized that migrants are just trying to survive. A particularly interesting point made was that when the U.S. signed trade agreements with European countries, it caused the collapse of local economies that resulted in the mass migration of Irish, Polish, Italians, etc to the U.S. to work as cheap labor. The parallel between that and NAFTA not lost. I had known that it was U.S. economic policy that was causing the current massive immigration of Mexican-Americans. But I did not know that this was just the most recent chapter in our long history of economic refugees. Under NAFTA, U.S. subsidized corn and other crops are sold to Mexico for cheap, forcing Mexican farmers out of business. They could not make enough to support their families, resulting in pressure to migrate to the U.S. for work. NAFTA created a situation where goods move freely across the border but the workforce that creates those goods cannot.

During a brief introduction to the history of the wall, the presenter tells us that the first U.S. law specifically excluding immigrants of a particular origin was the Chinese Exclusion Act. It reminds me of why I’ve felt this issue so personally.

Finally, in the afternoon, we make the three hour drive – first along highway 10 and then 90 – to Agua Prieta, Mexico, a small border town who’s population exploded after NAFTA. The desert is as beautiful as I remember it. Through the van window, the passing landscape of saguaro and opuntia cacti, ocotillo, and yucca reminds me very much of the Mojave desert in California. By the time we get to Agua Prieta, it is after sunset and we cross the border in darkness. Our host for dinner and lodging is a Catholic organization called CAME (pronounced “kah-may”). CAME provides food and shelter, a shower and change of clothes, and even a phone call for migrants, most of whom have recently been caught in the desert and sent back to Aqua Prieta. But the most important service that CAME provides is that its volunteers listen to the stories of the migrants, all of whom have been traumatized by their experiences in the desert, whether running out of water, being violently assaulted, or stumbling across the dead bodies of fellow migrants. After being deported, CAME is usually the first kind experience the migrants get. Its staff of 56 volunteers is run by a sweet-faced, soft-spoken 20-something named Ricky. He explains that many of the volunteers are young adults, called to service by the suffering they have witnessed. Suffering that is increasing. In 2007, CAME served 1,040 people. So far in 2009, it has served 2,500, and the year is not over yet.

Dinner is rice and refried beans, a delicious spicy potato mixture, and of course, steaming hot corn tortillas. Brian (from Canada) and I sit next to Diego and Jose Luis. Diego speaks some English while (Borderlinks trip-leader) Tracy needs to facilitate the conversation between us and Jose Luis. Both of them are from Sinaloa, the same state that (Borderlinks trip-leader) MaryCruz is from. Jose Luis had been caught and “processed” in front of a judge. If he comes back and is caught again within the next 20 years, he will go to jail for 6 months. But he will try again, because there is no other way to put his two children through school. Diego had been picked up by border patrol trying to cross and dumped via bus in Agua Prieta. He has a girlfriend in Dallas and three teen-aged children in Mexico. He’s already made the crossing several times and knows the way by now. No need for “coyotes” (who take you over the border for a price). He tells us that tomorrow he will try again, walking four days in the desert (assuming that he isn’t picked up by Border Patrol), which means that he will be walking on his birthday on Friday. No one should have to walk through the desert on their birthday just for the opportunity to earn a living. Diego has worked as kitchen staff in a Chinese restaurant in Dallas. We joke that he probably cooks better Chinese food than I do. Then I ask him, “You’ll be turning 44. How many more years do you think you will be doing this?” He shrugs off the question with a sad, resigned smile. At that point, Jose Luis asks us a question, “Why does the United States want to keep us out?” The question breaks my heart. Through Tracy, I tell him it’s because the U.S. still sees itself as a white European nation with a few “minorities.” It is afraid of losing that status. Brian and Tracy also talk of economics and other factors. But really, no answer seemed adequate to explain the pain we were causing him and thousands of others.

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