I am in southern Arizona, near the border, to learn about the migrants and the border issues. My hosts are called “Samaritans,” an organization that is dedicated to helping migrants by making a determination that the offering of food and water is not a crime. Most, but not all, are religious people who believe Jesus would not vote for the current border policy. They are terrific people. My main host is Shura who reminds me of Edith Piaf, a little bird of a woman with wispy grey hair, shining eyes, and a great welcoming smile. Her spirit is so light it is a wonder she stays on the ground. She is cheerful, funny, and moves without fear, deciding that direct kindness and honesty is her plan when dealing with all people. No fear. No exceptions. Shura co-founded Samaritans with Randy, a pastor at a local UCC Church—a church with such an open door policy, one wonders if there are any walls on the building! He is soft spoken, smart, and persistent.
This morning I went out to the desert with Shura and four others in the Samaritans' van. When we pulled over to park, there was a border patrol truck. Shura jumped out of the van and went right up to office asking after his well being, would he like a scone or something to drink. No, he was fine. Their dialog: Have you seen anyone or signs of anyone? No pretty quiet. OK. You have a wonderful day. Thank you.
We walked around, looking for people who might be in need i.e., migrants who have crossed the border, which can mean weeks of walking in very challenging elements, through a terrain filled with cactus, harsh temperatures, no paths and a world full of thieves, drug dealers, smugglers, violence, and border patrol. This particular day we saw no one, none that called out for help but that doesn’t mean they weren't there. They know how not to be found. But Shura says there are days when she might find one lone migrant, or a large group. She calls out in Spanish, “Somos amigos, somos los Samaritanos, no tenga miedo. Tenemos aqua, comida y medicina. Estamos aqui para ayudarlos.” "We are friends, the Samaritans, do not be afraid. We have water, food and medicine. We are here to help you.”
Apparently there’s not much traffic now since many people are with family during the holidays. But in a week or so it will pick up as migrants begin the long walk back across the border. Also the economy is bad in the US, with not a lot of work, and the crossing is so dangerous. As we walk around, we see clothes and water bottles and other personal possessions strewn about; they’ve been left behind for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes the smugglers who drive them north (which they do for huge sums of money) make them leave everything behind because they put 25 people in a van meant for 15 and don’t want to waste space with backpacks. Backpacks found in the desert filled with clean clothes speak to the dignity of people – a clean shirt, clean pants for arrival in the USA; photos of children, love letters or well wishes from family: these are all part of their story. Some people call this trash, garbage. This is not. These things are parts of real lives left behind under desperate conditions. And from an archeologist’s point of view, this is history in the making.
It is hard to imagine how people make it through this terrain, especially at night. The shrubs with sharp thorns grabbed a scarf of the photographer who was with us and she could not get herself untangled. Often someone will be so worn out that by the time the Samaritans find them, they just want to be turned back to the border patrol. Their shoes are worn out, blisters make feet unrecognizable, and dehydration makes people delusional.
The wall that has been built in some places along the border at the cost of millions is useless. One American woman apparently scaled the wall in a little over 15 seconds, another in 17 seconds. The understanding is that the wall slows people down by an average of 5 minutes. The drug cartels just build ramps and drive up and over the wall. If people complain that we pay too many taxes, perhaps we should complain that it is ill spent on projects such as this.
The court system is part of this disaster. A recent law makes it so that a border patrol officer can decide if someone is legal or not. The officer might have only a high school education and no law degree, but s/he has this power. It is not unusual for 70 migrants at a time to be run through the court system before they are returned to Mexico. This is called “Operation Streamline.” Every day, 70 migrants are taken to Federal Court for sentencing. With only 7 to 8 lawyers, this amounts to about a half-hour per client. The sentence can be “released on time served,” 30 to 180 days, and beyond. It depends on the circumstances: how many times the person has been deported, criminal problems, etc. All migrants are handcuffed to a chain around their waists as well as shackled at the ankles. They are taken into court in the morning, given food and allowed bathroom breaks. Each person has a headset and everything is translated into Spanish. However, there are many indigenous people who don’t understand Spanish let alone English. I’m told it is a very depressing scene.
One reason for this group court process is that the courts want the migrants to have formal misdemeanors on file so that the next time they are charged, it will be a felony.Tomorrow we will drive over the border to talk with some of the migrant workers who are at a shelter on the other side. Some are preparing strategies to come to US and others are resting before returning to families in Mexico.
Drove south, parked, walked across the border. No checkpoint. It seems there are no controls if you are going out of the US; only when you come back in. Shura waves and says hello to everyone – the vendors, the workers, the migrants, the border police. It’s about a mile walk from our car to El Comedor, the Kino Border initiatives run by Jesuits and sisters of the Eucharist. To our left is the checkpoint for people going into US. Cars and trucks are lined up waiting to cross. On the right is the wall. It is laughable to think it will deter.
We arrive at El Comedor. The volunteers are preparing to feed migrants who come to the center. Those who enter have to show a document proving they have just returned across the border. It allows them two meals a day, six days a week, and one meal on Sunday for two weeks. It is during this time people will figure out whether to try and return or whether to go back to whereever they come from in Mexico. There is a phone at El Comedor. However, migrants need a phone card to use it. Sometimes volunteers will purchase phone cards for people and pay for bus tickets for those who wish to return to their homes in Mexico. Another organization, Grupo Beta, picks people up and takes them to a clinic or hospital if necessary.
At the clinic, the nurse or doctor is never left at the clinic alone; there is always an armed guard who has been hired for the protection of the clinic. When the migrants come in to the center for the meal, they are greeted by whoever is there. We shake hands with each person coming in. Touch is such an important part of what is offered here.
The men sit on one side of the room, the women and children the other. It is never clear if someone in the room has been raped by someone who is sitting across the room. Violence is commonplace in the desert. Women and girls who cross will often start taking birth control three months in advance of the crossing because they know they will be raped. This horror is made even worse by the fact that their religion may forbid the taking of birth control. Out in the desert, humanitarian aid volunteers and border patrol alike have found what are called Rape Trees, or Trophy Trees. Women's garments are hung on the trees to symbolize the conquest. Often the women are left naked in the desert after they are raped, their supplies stolen. Men and boys have been raped and beaten as well. So, as these people walk into El Comedor, it is impossible to know what has just happened to them, what they had to do to survive, and what they have witnessed.
The people sit on the benches quiet, a fork and napkin before them on the table. A Catholic sister speaks to them on a little sound system, explaining the center and what services are available to them. She then says that a video will be played and asks everyone to watch. To my astonishment, it is about violence about women. It speaks about equality and justice and how men and women must unite against it. Then she asks for someone to testify about violence they have seen or been part of. One man speaks. I could not understand all he said but he was saying he had witnessed something. Then a woman talked about being hit by her husband. A priest gives a prayer, saying we are Catholics but all people are welcome from whatever religion or not religion. Then food and drinks are passed down the tables. No one grabs for food or takes more than they are offered. It is humble place.
People eat; there is very little conversation. A young girl sits with the women. I am told she and her brother just came across. They have been separated from their family. There is no way to know what she has just been through, what she has witnessed. Her face is frozen into an expressionless statue. I want to go sit with her and put my arm around her. Somehow I get shy. I look back on this as a huge missed opportunity to be human. How is it that we allow shyness to stop the most important instincts?
I sing Kumbaya and I ask the translator to say that it is a song that calls on God to come shine some light here. We need you. Come By Here which is Kumbaya in Gullah.
We head back across the border. After driving a little north, we come to the checkpoint. Dogs are working, smelling out drugs. Shura opens the window and greets the border officer. He recognizes her. He asks if we are all US citizens. We say yes. He looks at Shura and says, “God bless you.”
Evening, January 13, 2012
I did a concert at Randy’s church, The Good Shepherd United Church of Christ in Sahuarita, Arizona as part of the Javarita Coffeehouse Series. Wonderful night.
I opened and closed a five-hour Border Issues Fair that took place at the UCC Church.
Now I want to put down some other notes I took from things Shura and others said, not in any particular order and then try to remember some of what was said by keynote speakers at a border conference.
Dr. Jason De Leon is the Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan and director of the Undocumented Migration Project, an ethno-archaeological and ethnographic analysis of the economics of undocumented migration in southern Arizona and northern Mexico.
Margo Cowan is the Pima Country Public Defender, Sanctuary Leader, Board Member of Derechos Humanos and co-founder of the group No More Deaths, for more than 25 years Margo has been an outspoken defender of migrants and has a keen awareness and experience in border and immigration policy and law.
Dr. Jason de Leon has taken on the astonishing task of looking at border crossing from the point of an archeologist. He honors the material goods left on the desert and respectfully collects these life stories. He has given disposable cameras to some of the people crossing and it was amazing to see how even in crisis, someone paused to take a photo; they so want their story to be told.
He spoke of the black shirts worn by migrants so they are not so easily seen. Wearing black in the desert is so hot but they have a saying, better to be hot than caught. The people crossing have learned they cannot take a compass because if caught, there will be an assumption by border patrol that the owner of the compass is a smuggler. Even if people cross as a group, there is a collective exhaustion dealing with barbed wire, desert temperatures, exposure, and gruesome blisters. It is not uncommon to die of exposure. Those who survive must recalibrate their understanding and definition of suffering. The extortion fees are very high as “coyotes” come along to offer “help.”
The situation in Arizona is different than in Alabama. There is a pattern of historic Jim Crow racism in the south. But in Arizona, it is complex because of NAFTA and federal policy having changed over the decades. One of the problems in doing research is that one cannot actually observe a border crossing directly.
Sasabe and Nogales are two points of entry on the border. From Sasabe, people might travel through Arivaca. The town of Altar is a gathering point for migrants, a place where they can find a “coyote” and gear that they will need on the journey. Altar and Sasabe are now controlled by the cartels, making it even more dangerous for those attempting to survive the crossing.
Vendors specialize in the special items the migrants need to cross. Backpacks, water, canned food with high salt content, garlic to rub on skin to keep away the snakes, first aid items, religious items, cheap knock-off shoes that are bad for the feet. Some migrants who have no experience with crossing think the camouflage clothes are important but in truth the patrols now use sensors and the clothes can’t hide you. What one wears however can ID a person when one gets returned to the border.
The corporations are in on this. They see it as big business. Some water companies in Mexico now make black water bottles to sell at the border. They are not so easily spotted from the air as the white or clear bottles. However, in the desert, the water in these bottles can get up to 126 degrees.
The Sonora Desert is 100-110 degrees in the summer and freezing in the winter. It is not a flat desert. It is rocky and mountainous. Scorpions and snakes live there. There are flash floods, often at night. It can take 6-10 days to cross if you are experienced. Most students who go with Dr. Leon can’t survive 3 days.
I heard the story of a man who had lived in US for 14 years. He was deported and he tried to make it back to his home in the US. He died of exposure.
And yet at the height of migration, 600,000 people would make the crossing in a year.
Women, children, and GLBTQ people are less documented. The desert is a perfect place for violence. No one wants to go there to stop it; the evidence quickly disappears out on the desert. It is as if one had “…built a moat and brought in alligators.”
Burlap sacks found in the desert are usually drug related. That is how drugs are carried. Often people crossing are forced by the drug cartel to carry drugs. This, of course, complicates everything if they get caught.
In all the collecting of materials found on the desert, Dr Leon has never found a weapon. This could mean that the coyotes find those guns. But more likely it means that the people crossing to be with family and to work are not criminals. They do not pack guns.
Now some notes specifically from the lawyer Margo Cowen’s presentation. Migration has been part of the human experience from the beginning of time. The first laws in the US were based on race. This is not new. Russian Jews, Italians, Irish, Chinese. Except for indigenous people, most of us are uninvited guests.
In 1952, the first comprehensive immigration laws were put in place. They were family based. It was of utmost importance to maintain the integrity of the family. The other issues were economic. Unskilled labor was important. There was a quota system. This hasn’t changed much since 1952.
In 1924 border patrols were assigned to keep out the Chinese who came up through Mexico. This had its origins in the Chinese Exclusion Act. Arizona had only been a state for 12 years, just to put it in historic context. Every once in a while the nation would do a registry and an amnesty, for example, after WW II as a thank you to non-residents who worked for the war effort.
Next, around 1972, another amnesty took place. It was a celebration of non-citizens to become part of the fabric of society in arts, sports, medicine, and labor. It was a wonderful moment for immigration.
Around 1986 there were more pardons to people who were part of picking and transporting fruit, cleaning toilets. But it was the first time that immigration law was punitive. It began the pattern of criminalization of the workers. This was a radical change in immigration law and attitude. Every generation had had an amnesty. Now there was a demonization of anyone who was not a “real American.”
Activists went to sleep a bit, thinking there would be another amnesty. But instead phrases like “illegal alien” began to be heard, as well as the perpetuation of the fear that these people were taking our jobs. This was a very effective campaign. Permission was given to treat undocumented workers differently.
The Clinton Administration with its NAFTA program seemed to be OK with the “collateral damage” of the policy. Militarization of the border patrol, demonization of non-citizens and citizens alike i.e., racial profiling, and the criminalization of a people. Thousands would die and apparently that was acceptable.
Now people who cross the border must either submit to criminal elements that promise to take them across at huge cost or they must go it alone through a very dangerous desert. The federal law enforcement agencies think they are in charge of the desert but they are not. They have lost control of the border to drug cartels and to violence.
The laws no longer reflect the current reality.
Other notes about what is changing. Fewer people are crossing because of the dangers, the bad economy in US, and because Mexican families are having fewer children. Where a family used to have six or seven children, now they have just one or two. The economy is so bad in both Mexico and in US that people can no longer afford a family. Some people are getting jobs in Mexico and choosing not to cross. The “market” controls migration. It used to be that migrant workers could come in and work and then return to see family. Now that is a dangerous choice. That is not to say that for years the border patrol has not conspired with field and factory owners. Often just before payday, there would be a raid. (I remember this practice when I was in high school.)
Because one can’t go back and see family so easily, those who do cross now come as a family, so there are more women and children caught in the dangerous web.
This has consequences in both countries. There is less cheap labor available in the US and the millions of dollars sent back home to Mexico each year has slowed, which has hit Mexico hard. Mexico is number two trade partner with US. The biggest export is oil. The second is remittance sent home from people working in US.
The fact still remains that people who come here under desperate conditions work at 1000%. Their children do well in school, they are hard working students. This is true for all immigrants, not just those coming over from Mexico. Immigrants are dreamers. They see this as a chance for a better life and they work very hard to achieve it, to be good citizens. Current federal policy criminalizes this dream.
Attorney Cowen commented that we have never had a grassroots movement of people without papers lead by people without papers.
An organization called “No More Deaths” has volunteers who come from all over the world to do service. One Christmas day, a group of young people, I think they were college students from the east coast, spent their holiday break in the desert looking for people in need. They found her. Had they not been there, this woman would have died. She had been sexually assaulted and her lung had been punctured. They put her in their car, which is against the law, and got her to a hospital. They got her legal representation and consequently, she lived and she got a “victim of crime” visa.
Now more US citizens are in the removal procedure.
Nation state borders don’t have much purpose anymore. Technology crosses over. Violence is so high in Mexico that many people are now applying for asylum.
Cowen is an unabashed fan of Obama even though his administration has deported more Mexicans than any previous administration. She feels he is a constitutional lawyer and believes laws should reflect the reality of the times. He doesn’t do things that will only last while he is president but is trying to put in place policy that will have to be upheld if a right wing racist becomes president. I didn’t quite understand what she said he was doing. Sorry, missed that part.
300,000 people are in removal proceedings. Obama is looking at people to see if people are in the process for good reason or not. She finds this important.
Cowen is very involved in representing immigrants. She does not want to deport “dreamers”. She describes her clients as people who have spent significant time here, who are not criminals, who care about community and their families. If she is successful, people can get papers than allows them to do everything a citizen can do except leave. This last bit is a hardship to people who have family in another country. But it avoids criminalization.
2013 there will be another registry/amnesty. But if Obama gets reelected, the people under the Dream Act will be here at least 4 more years. If a right wing president is elected after that, they will have a hard time removing people.
So her strategy is this. Get Obama elected. Recapture control of Congress. Support the non-citizens in your community and help them to do everything they can to integrate into community through the church, school, and activities. This will make it harder for them to be removed. Make sure there is standing room only at deportation hearings.
There is a law out there that says a border patrol officer has the right to decide if someone is legal. This can often be someone who doesn’t even have a high school diploma, much less a legal background. People who are run through the court system are criminalized. On the ground, Cowen thinks there is insubordination on the part of border patrol and sheriffs. There are some that just wont take orders from a black president. This is making it even harder on the migrant community.
She is representing a teenage girl who is now in jail in Mexico. She was a middle class teenager in the US and through one terrible mishap after another including her being coerced without representation to sign papers. This is happening all the time.
WOW. Congratulations if you made it the end of this. Want more?
Apparently a good book called Devil’s Highway. By Luis Alberto Urrea
The author of "Across the Wire" offers brilliant investigative reporting of what went wrong when, in May 2001, a group of 26 men attempted to cross the Mexican border into the desert of southern Arizona. Only 12 men came back out. "Superb . . . Nothing less than a saga on the scale of the Exodus and an ordeal as heartbreaking as the Passion . . . The book comes vividly alive with a richness of language and a mastery of narrative detail that only the most gifted of writers are able to achieve.--"Los Angeles Times Book Review."