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A major part of the Young Adult Volunteer program is the placement of a volunteer with a community partner. That is, in each city, the YAV program has community partners, usually nonprofit organizations or churches, that are doing important work in the community that aligns with the YAV values. Although volunteers cycle in and out each year, the aim is to maintain strong partnerships between the local organizations and the YAV program for ages. This practice demonstrates the concept of volunteering or practicing mission where invited, alongside locals.
The Tucson Borderlands YAV site has a number of local partners doing exiting, challenging work in the Southern Arizona community. (Check them out on our local website!) This year, I am partnered with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. We call it the Florence Project, or FIRRP, for short. The Florence Project is the only nonprofit organization that provides free legal and social services to the 5,000 immigrants who are detained on any given day in Arizona. The Florence Project began in a small town called Florence, Arizona, but now has offices in Florence, Phoenix, and Tucson, with over 80 employees.
My specific placement with FIRRP is with the Children’s Program based out of the Tucson office. We service a 300 children facility that is located within the city of Tucson, a 50 children facility that is located about 1.5 hours away from Tucson, hidden away on the side of a mountain, and a 30 children long term foster care program in Tucson. Our team consists of three attorneys, four legal assistants, a social worker, and an administrative assistant. I essentially work in the capacity of a legal assistant. To best demonstrate the work that I do, I will describe a typical week in my life at the Florence Project.
Mondays are my least favorite days. No, not just because they are Mondays, but because they are office days. A typical Monday for me is spent solely in the office, not at shelters interacting with kids, which I have come to learn is my favorite part of this job. However, I recognize that the office work is also important as it is when I work on casework for clients, such as writing declarations, drafting dependency petitions, and completing asylum applications. On Monday afternoons, we have our weekly team meetings, at which all of the above-named people (attorneys, admin, and legal assistants) gather to discuss surfacing issues, protocol changes, and upcoming events. Immediately after team meeting, we launch into what is called Joint Case Review (JCR). JCR is an opportunity to bring up any challenging cases so that all attorneys and legal assistants can strategize together and offer each other suggestions and support. JCR is also when legal assistants bring up new, pressing cases that they have identified at the shelters and try to convince an attorney to represent the child.** Because we have only three attorneys and we service 380 children, of course, not all of the children who need an attorney can have one. Sometimes I leave team meeting and JCR feeling encouraged, sensing strong teamwork. Sometimes I leave these meetings feeling defeated by the system and all of the barriers that it presents.
**An important parenthesis: immigrants in removal (read: deportation) proceedings are not guaranteed an attorney, like defendants are in criminal proceedings. This means that most migrants, including children, must defend themselves in a court of law in front of immigration judges, against government prosecutors. A study published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, found that “only 37% of all immigrants, and a mere 14% of detained immigrants, secured representation” in asylum hearing.
On a typical Tuesday, one legal assistant heads to the detention facility within Tucson to deliver a Know Your Rights presentation at 8:30am. We alternate giving these presentations, and I am a regular in the rotation. By law, children must receive a Know Your Rights presentation within 10 days of arriving at the facility. This presentation is conducted in Spanish, and delivered in a kid-friendly way with colorful graphics, interaction, and role-play. Following the approximately 1.5 hour-long presentation, the other legal assistants arrive at the shelter to assist with intakes. Intakes are a basic legal screening that all children who arrive at the facility receive. They are conducted in a private room, where we (ideally) cannot be overheard, but can be observed by shelter staff through a window or camera. As legal assistants, we explain confidentiality, and assure the kids that anything they tell us will not be shared with facility staff, ICE, or even their parents, without their consent. We then ask a series of questions designed to determine what type of legal relief the child may be eligible for, and to screen for abuse by Border Patrol. Intakes usually last from 10 am to about noon.
If all goes well for a child, we will not meet with them again. The best case, and most common, scenario is that within weeks (but it is usually several months) of their arrival to the shelter, they will be reunified with a sponsor already living in the U.S., usually a relative or close friend. When they arrive to their destination, we contact them to assist in finding an attorney to represent them in their legal case, which generally endures for years and years after being released from detention. If a child does not have a sponsor, or if their sponsor is rejected by the government, then we meet with child again to discuss other options. They can opt for a voluntary departure, in which they ask the immigration judge permission to return to their home country. Or, if they have a strong enough legal case (read: traumatic enough life), and are under age 17.5, we can assist them in applying for placement in a Long Term Foster Care program.
After a lunch break, we return to the facility at 1 pm to conduct follow-ups. Follow-ups are a second, third, fourth, or umpteenth meeting with a child because they are our client or they need specific assistance with their case, like applying for Long Term Foster Care or have an upcoming court hearing. After follow ups, I return to the office and complete office work for the remainder of the afternoon.
Wednesdays are my favorite day of the week! Although it is an early morning for me, arriving at the office at 7:30 am, compared to the usual 8:30, it is the day with the most direct interaction, which I have come to find very life-giving. At 7:30 am, I meet one other legal assistant at the office and we begin the 1.5 hour trek to the shelter located on the other side of Mt. Lemmon. The four legal assistants each rotate who goes to this facility each week because it is a big time-commitment. My “pet-project”, that was envisioned prior to my arrival at the Florence Project and assigned to me by my supervisor on my first day, is overseeing this facility by being a “regular” there. The goal was to have a more consistent presence for the kids there and to improve the rapport between FIRRP and the facility staff. So, while the full-time legal assistants only go to this shelter once a month, I go every week.
Beginning around 9 am when we arrive, the colleague accompanying me that day gives a KYR presentation while I conduct follow-ups. My consistent presence at the shelter has been very beneficial for follow-ups. The kids know me; I know them. I know exactly where I am in their case and what needs to be discussed each week. Some highlights of these relationships have included a child who loves to practice a bit of English with me each week and sings me Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” a child making me a thread bracelet that has my full name in the design, and children genuinely thanking me for just saying hi and asking how they’re doing.
After KYR and follow-ups, the other legal assistant and I conduct intakes with each new kid. We usually do not leave the shelter until 1 or 2 pm, so by the time we return to the office, I am almost at an 8 hour day, so a little bit of office work, and then I bike home. Though Wednesdays can be long and draining, I love the opportunity to work with the kids who are at such an isolated facility, showing them as best that I can, that they are not forgotten.
My Thursdays have a structure identical to Tuesdays. As the end of my work week, though, I tend to get a surge of energy to tie up loose ends, followed by excitement for the weekend. (The Tucson YAV model is a four-day work week at our site placements, committing to 32 – 36 hours per week. Friday is a designated community day featuring community discussions, work related to vocational discernment, local educational and activism events, and fellowship with housemates.)
You can see that my weeks are very busy, filled with work that requires much background information (which is why this post was so long!) I am very grateful for all of the opportunities that the Florence Project has afforded me over the last five months, and I am grateful to the YAV program for providing me the opportunity to work with FIRRP. I have learned about the system and its flaws through my work. I have learned about my strengths and my flaws through my work. This experience has, so far, solidified my passion for working with children, migrants, and survivors of trauma. It has also caused me to realize that channeling those passions through the legal field may not be the best fit. But, more to come on that later! For now, I hope that this post has increased your awareness of what I do with 32 – 36 hours of my life each week! There is so much more to be said, so I welcome any questions.
It’s about 9 pm on a Tuesday night. I’m in the back seat of our YAV car, the 1998 small Saturn that my housemates and I share. Alison is driving. Ryan and Tanner are fast asleep. We are on our way home from Agua Prieta/Douglas where we attended a binational Posada along the border wall, led by Frontera de Cristo. During and after the Posada, I chatted with new and old friends. As I sit in the backseat, look at the other people in this car, remember my evening, and reflect on my last four months, I feel a deep happiness bubbling inside of me. I love my life. It has been years since I have experienced this level of joy and contentment.
On Friday, three days from now, I will fly home to see family for Christmas. While I am excited to be with my loved ones, going home also means confronting family conflict and being in my small home town. I greatly appreciate the community I grew up in, but in some ways, I am very different than I was in high school. So although I am going home for the holidays, I am leaving the home and life that I have established in Tucson.
I did not instantly call Tucson home upon arrival. It took a while (a couple of months) to appreciate the city. In fact, during my first week here, I detested it. I told myself that it was only a year-long commitment, and I could return to Texas- or go anywhere- upon completion of my YAV year. Now, I am considering staying in Tucson, or in another part of Arizona, after the program concludes. I love the people here. I love the culture here. I don’t love the cacti yet, but they are growing on me.
My perception of the physical space in which I live has also transformed over the last four months. It was difficult to leave the cute one-bedroom apartment in San Antonio that was mine and Tanner’s first place together. Over the year and a half that we lived there, I meticulously decorated and organized every inch of that apartment. Moving into a new house with others meant relinquishing some of that control and perfectionism. I was overwhelmed when we first moved into our house. I did not expect the physical space adjustment to be as difficult as it was. The house that I moved into four months ago with two strangers, 50 dinner plates, and four mismatching couches, has become a cozy home.
My life in Tucson has come to feel like home. It has come to mean comfort, adjustment, learning, growing, challenging myself, developing relationships, and speaking up. I am nervous to leave all of that. As I prepare to “leave home” for the holidays, I hope to take with me my newfound confidence and joy. And the best part is, I get to come back in January!
As always, thank you for reading my blog. Part of gaining confidence and using my voice this year has come via my blog, so your readership means a lot to me! Merry Christmas and happy holidays, everyone!
During the week of November 25 to December 1, the Tucson, Albuquerque, and Austin Young Adult Volunteers participated in a Border Delegation that took place in Agua Prieta/Douglas and Tucson. (Agua Prieta is in Sonora, Mexico, across the border from Douglas, Arizona, United States. Our programming took place on both sides of the border). While in DouglaPrieta, as it is colloquially called, our programming was led by Frontera de Cristo, a binational Presbyterian ministry. While in Tucson, our site coordinator, Alison Wood, and the Albuquerque site coordinator, Luke Rembold, co-led our activities. The experience was challenging and transformative, to say the least.
When I first contemplated how I would format my blog post about the Border Delegation, I thought that I would title it, “Hurt and Hope,” and describe the ways in which I observed and experienced both throughout the week. I quickly realized, though, that sorting my experiences that way was too binary. Most of what I saw and learned encompassed hints of both hope and hurt. At church the Sunday after our Border Delegation concluded, Pastor Bart Smith spoke in his sermon about Emmanuel: God with us. He said that emmanuel is forever and ongoing. With it being the beginning of advent, he posed the question, “When is a good time for love to be born?” In my mind, I considered, “When is a good time to migrate?” Inspired by the sermon, I arrived at this title and framework: Emmanuel in the Borderlands.
Emmanuel at Café Justo
Café Justo (translated: fair or just coffee) is a coffee cooperative owned and operated by farmers in Chiapas, Mexico. The coffee is grown in Chiapas and roasted in Agua Prieta. It is sold in Mexico, the U.S., Canada, and France, mostly at churches. During our time in Agua Prieta, we were given a tour of the roasting facility and learned about their operations from Café Justo employees, Daniel and Adrián. Café Justo began in 2002 with a microloan from Frontera de Cristo. Many farmers from Chiapas were migrating to Northern Mexico or to the United States because the price of coffee fell so dramatically in the 1990s that they could no longer support themselves or their families. Community and family unity suffered greatly. In response to the economic and social crisis, Café Justo was formed as a way to cut out the middle man in the coffee growing and selling process so that the farmers in Chiapas could receive a fair price for their beans. In addition to being paid a fair price for the fruit of their labor, farmers who are part of the cooperative receive benefits, such as health insurance and retirement plans. Now, some of the original farmers are retiring, and their children are working as part of the co-op. The same families that would have been separated by migration as a result of environmental and economic factors out of their control, are now living and working intergenerationally and have the resources to invest in their community.
When is a good time to migrate?
Emmanuel in a Family’s Home
One evening during our time in DouglaPrieta, we were welcomed into the home of a young family: Flor, Miguel, and their daughter, Aleyda. We were a group of 13 people, but our hosts were very hospitable and generous. Flor prepared a lentil soup that we garnished with cilantro, onions, and lime. She served us pitchers full of agua fresca- piña, my favorite! Most of the time we were there, Aleyda, who is five, was in a side room watching cartoons and coloring with her dad. She wore shiny bows in her hair, and produced a shy smile when we asked her questions.
After enjoying la cena, Flor and Miguel spoke to us candidly about life on the border. Flor grew up in Agua Prieta; Miguel in Chiapas. Due to a lack of job opportunities over a decade ago, Miguel migrated to the U.S. He explained that during his time in the United States, he only left his home to go to work. He lived in constant fear of any interaction with law enforcement. One day, while on his way to work, the vehicle he was in was pulled over, I think for mechanical issues. Miguel was the only individual in the vehicle who did not have authorization to work, so he was taken to the immigrant detention facility in Florence, Arizona. (Some of my colleagues at the Florence Project provide legal services to individuals detained there). Miguel described his six months imprisoned there as difficult and ugly. I could see in his facial expressions and hear in his words that he had many painful memories of Florence. After six months of trying to obtain a work permit, but with no avail, Miguel decided to sign an order of deportation and return to Mexico. He ended up in Agua Prieta and applied for a job at a maquiladora, or factory. Flor was a new hire at the same maquiladora at that time. Also limited by economic opportunity, many Agua Prieta folks work at factories run by multinational cooperations that are located near the border due to lax labor and tax laws. Although Miguel annoyed Flor at first because he asked many questions during work orientation, they eventually became friends and are now married with a child.
As a United Statesian, I often have had the perception that people in Mexico are miserable. Especially people who live near the border, I thought, must have terrible lives filled with violence and despair. That is the opposite of what I experienced in the home of Flor, Miguel, and Aleyda. They were hopeful. They were hospitable. They were healthy. They were happy. Miguel said, “We have problems, like all families do, but we are very content to live in this community.”
When is a good time to migrate?
When is a good time for a child to be born?
Emmanuel at Operation Streamline
The part of our week in which it was the most difficult to believe Emmanuel: God with us was when we observed Operation Streamline in Tucson. Operation Streamline is a two hour-long, mass federal prosecutorial hearing that occurs every afternoon. Each day 70 to 80 individuals are prosecuted for a misdemeanor or a felony, solely related to entering the country not at a port of entry. If an individual has only entered once, and has not been deported, they generally plead guilty to a misdemeanor and are then turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) where they will be detained for months before being deported or, if they are statistically lucky, released to live in the U.S. If an individual has a prior deportation on their record, they are prosecuted for a felony and a misdemeanor, but will usually plead guilty to the misdemeanor so the felony is dropped. They are sentenced to 30 to 180 days in federal prison, after which they will be turned over to ICE and spend several months in detention until being deported, or if EXTRA statistically lucky, released.
Our group of 13 and another group of folks on a church/border education trip entered a massive federal court room and were seated in the back. Many attorneys sat in the jury box. All of the usual court personnel was there: a judge, a secretary, an interpreter, and many federal marshals. When the judge was ready to begin, a group of seven people wearing street clothes, handcuffs, ankle shackles, and chains around their waists came out from a side door, had headphones were placed on their ears (they could not do it themselves because of the handcuffs), and stood in front of the judge. Seven of the attorneys stepped down from the jury box and stood behind each defendant. The judge went down the line of people asking them to verify their names, read them their rights, asked if they wanted to waive their right to a trial, read them their charges, and asked for their plea. She would usually read the full text (for an example, the rights) to the first or second person in line. She would say, “Do you understand your rights as I just explained?” By the third, fourth, fifth, person in the order, she would just say, “Same question.” It was apparent that efficiency, not comprehension or justice, was the name of the game. After each defendant pleaded guilty to their charges, whether they really understood them or not, the group of seven would be escorted out, and another group of seven would be escorted in. This process was repeated about ten times. It was uncomfortable, sad, and shameful to watch people being treated like this, especially in a U.S. court room. It was very difficult to feel the presence of God in that room.
Among the approximately 70 humans who we saw in chains standing in front of a judge who spoke to them in complex legal terminology in a foreign language, were a pregnant woman, indigenous language speakers whom the judge coerced into using the Spanish interpreter even if comprehension was limited, and boys who appeared and sounded to be 14 or 15 years old, but told the judge they were 18.
One defendant broke out of the mechanical saying “Sí” to all of the judge’s questions, and decided to speak up when given the opportunity. I have contemplated his story several times over the last few weeks. Jorge was one of the individuals who had a prior deportation on his record, so he was being charged with a felony and sentenced to time in a federal prison. When the judge asked, “Do any of the defendants want to say anything?” Jorge bravely said yes. He approached the microphone and asked the judge if his sentence could be reduced. He explained that he is a single father, and his United States citizen daughter is in Mexico. The longer his prison sentence, the longer he would be separated from his daughter. It seemed like what he wanted was to quickly be deported so that he could return to caring and providing for her. The judge said, “I’m sorry to hear that, but I have no control over sentencing. It’s between your attorney and the government.” Jorge was sentenced to 180 days, six months, in a U.S. federal prison.
When is a good time to migrate?
Emmanuel at the Port of Entry
During our time in Agua Prieta, we had the pleasure of sharing a meal with migrants who were temporarily living at a shelter on the Mexican side of the border. There was a variety of identities present at the shelter, called C.A.M.E. There were a couple of Honduran and Guatemalan families. There were three Mexican men who had spent the majority of their lives in the U.S. There was a group of Honduran transgender women. The C.A.M.E. volunteers and the migrants collaborated to prepare a delicious dinner, do dishes, and clean. We tried to wash our own dishes and sweep, but as their guests, they generously cleaned up after us. While we ate, we had the honor of hearing their stories, sharing in their pain, joking and laughing.
Migrants are at this shelter, usually, waiting to cross into the United States. There is a small port of entry between Agua Prieta and Douglas. If a migrant sets foot on U.S. soil and expresses a desire to apply for asylum to a government official, U.S. and international law dictates that the person has the right to stay in the United States (often in detention) while fighting for asylum in immigration court. Entering the U.S. at a port of entry is the best way to do this because it is safer than crossing the desert or the Río Grande. It also carries less potential legal backlash than does entering not at a port of entry (see Operation Streamline, above). However, the number of people who can approach a port of entry and request asylum is limited. And, the number has been decreasing in recent months. (I discussed this phenomena in my post about El Paso.) The Agua Prieta/Douglas port of entry is small, but it has the capacity to process eight asylum seekers per day. In recent weeks, it has been processing maybe one or two people per day. So, some of the folks we met at C.A.M.E. were waiting to go to the port of entry and request asylum, but they had been turned away day after day.
During our dinner at C.A.M.E., we met María. She wore her hair in a pony tail, and had a beautiful smile. María was traveling with her 13 year-old daughter, Julisa, who was wearing a blue shirt with white buttons when I met her. The morning following our shared dinner, María and Julisa were planning to go to the port of entry, bright and early, accompanied by C.A.M.E. volunteers. Before leaving that night, we wished them luck and safe travels. The next day we were busy with our scheduled programming. We spent most of the day in Agua Prieta, but around 4 pm, we were crossing the border to participate in a prayer vigil in Douglas. As we approached the port of entry, we saw María and Julisa. Sitting on the concrete. Waiting. They told us that they had been there since 7 a.m., but had not yet been allowed to set foot on U.S. soil to request asylum. We were in a hurry to get to the prayer vigil, so we did not talk for long. We pulled our U.S. passports out of our pockets and were in the U.S. within minutes. After the prayer vigil, some members of our group returned to the port of entry with food, coats, and sleeping bags for María and Julisa. Although they could have returned to C.A.M.E. for the night, they decided to sleep on the concrete in the cold because they didn’t want to “lose their place in line.”
María was eight months pregnant, with bronchitis.
When is a good time for a baby to be born?
When is a good time to migrate?
Where is Emmanuel?
As we are now in advent, a time of preparation for the coming of Jesus, I am trying to identify Emmanuel in my life. I am trying to consider where God is with me. I experienced God in the faces and in the lives of Daniel, Adrián, Flor, Miguel, Aleyda, Jorge, María and Julisa. I experienced God in the many life-changing ministries of Frontera de Cristo. I experienced God in the DouglaPrieta community. I experienced God in the hope and in the hurt. As Pastor Bart said, Emmanuel is forever and ongoing.
When is a good time to migrate?
When is a good time for a baby to be born?
When is a good time for love to be born?
As a Young Adult Volunteer, intentional community is part of my life every day, whether I want it to be or not. Sometimes I love it! Living in intentional community provides me the opportunity to really get to know my housemates and develop deep trust and friendship. Sometimes I don’t like it so much. Living in intentional community means that I have to speak up when things bother me. It means recognizing and struggling with the fact that my housemates have different opinions, beliefs, and tendencies than I do. Through the joy and challenges, though, I am grateful to be experiencing intentional community. If you have not already, please read my post, Intentional Community: Part I.
Our community is now changing. About three weeks ago, Miranda informed us of her decision to leave the program, and this past weekend, she departed. It was a very difficult decision for her. It was also difficult for our community, as we tried our best to support her through the discernment process. I felt sad when I received the news of her leaving, but I care deeply for her, and so I want to support what she decides is best.
Our site coordinator put it well, when she said something like, “Your community will look and operate differently now, but it will forever be shaped by Miranda’s presence.” I am grateful for Miranda’s presence, her ideas, her enthusiasm for Christmas celebrations, her desire to dismantle the patriarchy, and her tendency to ask, “Why?” We shared tears and laughter and nail polish.
Change is difficult, but I am confident in the strong foundation of trust and respect that we have developed. Intentional community is hard, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.
During our community discussion time on Friday, November 16, we were given 10 minutes to write on the prompt: What is something you are grateful for that you used to not be grateful for?
Due to luck of birth, being born in the United States to a middle class family, I have almost always had hot showers and baths, with the exception of a sibling using up all of the hot water before I showered. I remember as a child I would stay in the bath tub playing, singing, enjoying the water, for hours! My mom would say, “Why are you still in there? The water is cold now!”
As a teenager, a hot shower was one of the places I could go to escape from the stress of high school academia, scholarship applications, and social anxieties. I was in the habit of taking showers first thing before bed, which was often in the wee hours of the morning. Especially during the winter months in Wyoming, I would take a hot shower, then run into my room where I turned my furnace on full-blast and laid in front of it until I was lulled to sleep.
All of this to say, I have regularly enjoyed hot showers in my life, but I usually took them for granted. I didn’t stop to think, “Wow, I am thankful for that steamy shower!” There have been two periods in my life in which I distinctly remember not having access to hot showers. First, was when I was studying abroad in Ecuador. According to the study abroad program I went through, our host families were supposed to provide us with hot water. My host family said that my shower should have been hot, but it was only about 5% of the time. (I thuuuuuuroughly enjoyed those 5% days). I became used to the cold or, if lucky, lukewarm temperatures, and adapted. I executed my shower routine in record time, and then quickly went into my bedroom and crawled under the covers to warm up.
The second period of time in which I did not have hot showers, was when I moved into our YAV house in August. During the summer months, the cool showers didn’t feel too bad. As October approached, though, the cold showers were uncomfortable. I talked about it with my housemates, and it seemed that we were all experiencing the same shivery showers. At first, we accepted the cold water as part of our house, and jokingly chalked it up to be part of simple living. After a while (as outside temperatures dropped) we decided to ask our landlord/maintenance guy about it. He came over the same day we called, and with one twist of a knob, solved our problem! Apparently our water heater was set to “cool,” likely because of the summer months, and because the house was vacant for about six weeks before we arrived. We now have the luxury of hot showers!
This small example of shower temperatures reminds me of a few of the larger ideas that underlie the YAV program. First, it caused me to recognize my privilege. I have had the privilege to access hot water throughout my life. I had the privilege to call a maintenance person who came and fixed our problem for free. Second, I was reminded that I, nor my housemates, knew everything. It was a simple fix, but we were clueless. I was reminded that as a YAV, I should try not to come into a community or to a setting assuming that I know everything. I should try to rely on the expertise of the locals and those who were here before me, and may be here long after I leave.
Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend an event hosted by the Presbyterian Border Region Outreach (PBRO) in El Paso, Texas. It was a small group of about 20 people, including members of the PBRO board, folks from Frontera de Cristo in the Douglas/ Agua Prieta area, Jose Luis Casal who is the director of PC(USA) World Mission, representatives from the PC(USA) Office of Immigration Issues, my housemate, Ryan, and I, our site coordinator, Alison, and Tucson activist, AmyBeth Willis. The weekend consisted of touring an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility, hearing from an immigration legal services provider, meeting local Mexican partners from Pasos de Fe for lunch in Ciudad Juarez, learning from a panel of professors and activists, brainstorming next steps for the group and the larger church, and meeting friends at the border wall for a binational worship service.
As you can see, the weekend was full of experiences and memorable moments, but one that sticks out to me wasn’t on the agenda. When we were walking back to El Paso from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, we had to cross through a U.S. Port of Entry. There was a line for U.S. citizens, and a line for non-U.S. citizens. The line for U.S. citizens was much shorter and moving more quickly than the other. Because we were traveling with non-U.S. citizen friends, a few of us decided to wait in line with them. While waiting in the long line, I befriended a child, as I often do. The small child was with his mom and grandmother. Although he claimed to be eight, his mother told me he was four. As a typical four year old, he was in his “why” phase. As we talked, he kept asking me, “¿Por qué?, ¿por qué?, ¿por qué?” “¿Por qué esperamos en la fila?” Why are we waiting in the line? “Por qué no puedo hablar con el perro?” Why can’t I talk to the [police] dog? “¿Por qué están pitando los carros?” Why are the cars honking? Some of his questions I could easily answer, but others I could not, either due to the complexity of the answers or because I honestly did not know the answer. As I reflect on the PBRO event as a whole, I find myself often asking, “¿Por qué?”
¿Por qué hay gente acampada en el puente?
Why are there people camped on the bridge?
When we were on the narrow footbridge that connects Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, we walked by about 100 people (men, women, children, families) who were sitting or lying on the bridge. Some had blankets. Some had a backpack or small bag of belongings with them. People wearing Mexican Red Cross shirts were distributing food. A well-dressed woman was filling plastic cups with soda and handing them out. Someone from our group asked one of the people where they were from and how long they had been there. He was told that they were Honduran, and they had been camped on that narrow, concrete bridge for three days. They were waiting to enter the U.S. through the Port of Entry and to express their desire to fight for asylum. They looked tired, hungry, and nervous. But they also appeared hopeful. As I walked by, and tried to steal glances without staring, I couldn’t help but think their next step: detention. Hopefully for most of them, their family unit can remain intact, and after a few days at an ICE processing facility, they can live with family or friends in the U.S. For some, the father will be sent to an adult detention facility where he will spend months until he can pay bond (if an immigration judge even grants him bond) that can be upwards of $50,000, or until his case is finished, either by receiving asylum or being deported. If any of the faces I passed are teenagers without their parents, they will be sent to a detention facility for minors where they may be for months.
Entering through a Port of Entry and asking asylum, which these folks intended to do, is often termed “the right way” to enter the U.S. The El Paso Port of Entry recently processed as many as 300 individuals per day. Now, as the attorney at the Dioceses Refugee and Migrant Services explained to us, they are processing about three families per day. Why? It is not due to a lack of capacity. It is a choice. As those 100+ people sat waiting, without much food, water, or access to restrooms, on a concrete bridge, our U.S. officials deliberately created a bottle neck in the system. It is no wonder why many migrants end up crossing the border in the desert in dangerous conditions or through the Rio Grande and then seeking out a Border Patrol agent to ask for asylum, when “the right way” is so inaccessible.
¿Por qué el hombre con el sombrero de vaquero nos mintió tanto?
Why did the man in the cowboy hat lie to us so much?
At the end of the tour of the ICE detention facility, I was in the bathroom in tears. My tears were not of sorrow for the migrants I saw detained (although I did feel for them). My tears were of rage after being blatantly lied to for hours by our tour guide. Our guide was the Public Relations Coordinator- or something like that- for the federally operated ICE holding facility in El Paso. He was an old, white man who wore a cowboy hat, jeans, and a blazer. During the tour he emphasized that they are compassionate; that this is a holding facility, not a detention center. However, we saw men and women dressed in prison jumpsuits, locked in small rooms, and armed guards all over the premises, and we learned that individuals can be there for up to two years. He also said that Border Patrol agents go into the desert, rescue people, and bring them into this facility. And, if people just enter through a Port of Entry, they won’t have any problems. I don’t know what type of groups usually tour the facility. Maybe his lines would have been believed by naive, well-meaning church folk, but as a group of immigration activists and foreign nationals, we knew from first or second hand experience that what he was telling us was absolutely not true. What I still do not understand is whether he knew he was lying to us or if he truly believes that, as he said, he is doing God’s work by detaining and controlling asylum seekers and refugees.
¿Por qué hay un muro que divide un grupo de creyentes que quieren adorar juntos?
Why is there a wall that divides a group of believers who want to worship together?
On Saturday afternoon, we had a worship service at the border wall between Sunland Park, New Mexico and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. We were joined by employees and volunteers of Pasos de Fe and their families. The prayers, hymns, and calls were in both Spanish and English. We passed the peace by reaching our arms through the wall and shaking hands. It was a beautiful service, but it was impossible not to wonder why an enormous, steel wall separated a group of followers of Jesus Christ as they sang, prayed, and shared communion.
¿Por qué, como discípulos de Cristo, vacilamos?
Why, as disciples of Christ, do we hesitate?
We profess belief in a divine human who taught love, who ate with prostitutes and sinners, who fled with his parents into a foreign land for safety. Yet we hesitate to speak out in love for vulnerable migrants. We hesitate to accept the difficult truth of how our government treats humans. We hesitate to act in whatever ways we can, (sometimes limited by location, abilities, and resources) to demonstrate the love of our savior, the love of our creator. As Jose Luis Casal challenged us at the end of the weekend, “We are not called to make things easy. We are called to make things just.”