What do you think the border wall looks like? How tall does it have to be to keep people from crossing over? Friday I joined another Samaritan volunteer to drive southwest of Tucson to Sasabe, to see one of the border crossing. The countryside is stark, short cacti, blowing winds and isolated.
The border wall stretches for miles - I am not sure how tall it is - I stand about 5'3" and the tower dwarfs me - the border patrol cars drive along the wall looking for migrants crossing assisted by motion sensors and tall towers with video cameras so I waved at the tower - yes, it is me.
Before we reached the border, we had stopped along a road where another Samaritan volunteer had seen a cross marking the spot where a migrant's body was found. We got out of the 4 X 4 and walked along a wash. Suddenly we spotted a pair of camouflage pants - they looked almost new. We walked further along and found discarded black pants and a pair of the "slippers" that migrants wear to hide their tracks. Lots of water bottles - we were close to a road and my companion, Gayle said, "This must be a van pick up point as the migrants are told to get rid of all evidence that they have crossed the desert."
We stopped another road west of Arivaca to drop off 5 gallon water jugs and food packets. We walked up the wash about 30 minutes and came across water bottles and a big bag of blanket but no bucket of food packets. It was hard to know where the food went. We did not leave any water jugs as there were enough for migrants to refill their containers. It was a beautiful day - sunny and warm in the arroyo but rocky. It was hard to imagine walking this wash in the dark without any illumination. I shivered despite the sun as I thought of the Guatemalan women I met earlier in the week.
I am volunteering at two shelters for women and children who have been released from ICE to travel to their families or friend's homes in the United States. The house had a large number of women and children as the east coast roads were closed with freezing conditions. All of the women were from Guatemala and were very young with children ranging from one to three years of age. One small-bone, slight young woman told us about crossing the desert at night. "I was afraid as there were animals screeching all night long." She carried her baby on her back the entire distance. Her baby was a year old - sweet smile, big brown eyes, and a smile to melt your heart. As she and her mother sat down on the couch, she unwrapped the serape/big scarf and I saw that her baby had no socks or shoes. "Oh my God," I thought - she was out in the desert with this child with only a jacket, jeans and shirt for herself and a big serape around her baby with a shirt on top. I rushed over the children's shelves looking for a sleeper with feet to put on the child. I found a pink one for her. Her mother put it on and the child just smiled. After some lunch, she got up and started walking or staggering around the room. She looks like a pink bunny, I told another volunteer.
All of the women are heading to an unknown life. I wondered - What will happen to these women? Will their children be able to attend preschool or kindergarten? What kind of work will women with three to six years of education and no English find? In a conversation with a Guatemalan who fled in the 1980's to the United States I shared my concern for these women. "Pat," he said,"From my own experience, they will face depression and a tremendous sense of loss and uncertainty." As an indigenous man, he described his experience of crossing three cultural boundaries - his indigenous life and language, then, the plunge into speaking Spanish in order to communicate with other immigrants in Southern California and then, learning English and American ways. "They will need help, Pat. In our indigenous culture, we have our own ways of helping people with depression,"
I think of Adelante Mujeres in Forest Grove, Oregon that uses the ESPERE program from Colombia to help immigrant women deal with depression and cultural change. My new Guatemalan friend suggests that it would be wonderful if churches or Non-profits could find a way to support newly arrived immigrant women and children, and men as well to offer a mental health education program that incorporates these three cultures.
At the other house there was a new young woman from Guatemala who had lived in a shelter for unaccompanied minors until she turned 18 this past weekend. She and the other woman from Honduras wanted to go shopping. Not my favorite thing to do, I admit but off we went to the nearest St. Vincent de Paul that offers a voucher where each of the women can go to the voucher section and pick out five items weekly. The 18 year old is looking for pants. Clothing for these women is challenging - they are shorter and slimmer than the average American woman. I would guess size two to six and petite size pants. I found a few pairs of pants that I thought were the right length. "Mire, Sara" What do you think of these?" She looked at them and said - "No, they are too big in the waist." She picked out a short skirt and some shorts - I laughed to myself, she is only 18 years old and she wants to look good and stylish.
Destinations: Georgia, Kentucky, Florida, California, Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina and yes, even Oregon are just some of the places where these women are heading. I hope and pray that they will find a welcoming community and a place in this new society IF they are allowed to stay. Humanitarian release to these women and their chlldren is not a guarantee that they will be allowed to stay. A lot of it depends on access to a lawyer and the conditions under which they fled as to whether they can qualify for asylum. Keep them in your thoughts and prayers. Think about what it took to cross the border and walk for miles in the night with your child wondering if you would survive the journey.
I am driving to Florence, Arizona about one hour plus northeast of Tucson with Marjorie King, a friend of Nancy John's in Portland, OR. Marjorie called me the day before to ask if I would like to visit a detention center on Thursday (2/12/15). "Sure," I said, "as I cannot gain entrance to the Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington."
Marjorie hands me a letter from a Mexican man Raul who had responded to a Christmas card sent to him by Casa Mariposa, a local immigrant support community in Tucson. He asked for a visit as well as help with his court date in mid-January. I was to talk with him while Marjorie who lived and worked in China is visiting a detainee male from China.
Florence is absolutely surreal - according to the web, Florence has more than nice prison facilities ranging from county, state, federal and private corporations. I saw five: Arizona State Prison that houses death row prisoners; the Pinal County Youth Justice Center, Central Arizona Detention Center which I think is the same as the ICE operated federal center and then, a huge private prison complex run by CCA.
We drive up to the ICE Detention facility (FDC) and show the two letters with the detainees name and number. "Oh, lady, Raul is not here. He has been moved to the CCA immigration/prison center. You need to go here and ask them if you can see him." As ICE visiting hours do not begin until 12:30PM, we drive over the CCA facility. We enter and the administrative office person asks for identification and the names of the detainee or prisoner we wish to see. She checks the computer and yes, Raul is there but I cannot see him, because I am not on his pre-approved list of visitors. "How do I get on the list?" I ask. "Well, you will have to write and request that he add you." Marjorie, more experienced than I am, explains that we are part of an interfaith group that visits detainees and has an arrangement with the warden at the CCA facility in Eloy to visit without prearrangement. "Sorry, ladies, our warden is away until March so there is noone here who can help you." She mentions that there is a chaplain. We ask if she can call him to move our request along. No luck, the chaplain basically repeats the sho ame message over the phone to the receptionist.
It dawns on me as we leave the facility that this is primarily a prison and ICE just rents out beds for their detainees. Years ago I had tried to visit a federal prisoner and was told "NO" unless he had requested me as a visitor. HMMM.
We return to the ICE facility where we surrender our driver's license; pack up purses and phones in the car and then are admitted through a gate. A guard guides us to the admission area where we go through a body scan - oh, yes, we have identification badges as visitors. The ICE staff are friendly and joke with two women who are visiting the husband and father - evidently, they have been here before.
The visiting room is well-lit, wooden tables and chairs. We surrender the key to the lock box with the car key and approach a very young Chinese man who is waiting with a big smile on his face. It was an unusual conversation among the three of us as I do not speak a word of Chinese. Mr. T. had been picked up in Houston, TX - he and his fiancee had flown to Mexico City from Beijing, China in mid-May. He as apprehended and locked up on June 4, 2014 - almost nine months in detention. His girlfriend was pregnant and she was released to his two U.S. citizen sisters and he is now the father of a three month baby girl - a fact of which he is extremely proud.
Periodically Marjorie would translate the conversation; I was the notetaker; and Mr. T. would smile at me and say Buenos dias, como esta? I laughed and responded but he just shook his head. He told us that he is learning a little Spanish and English in detention as there are only three other Chinese speakers in the facility. Marjorie had brought a business card of a Chinese-speaking immigration lawyer in Tucson and urged him to contact her. It was unclear why he was still held in the center. Evidently, ICE feels that he could go underground and just disappear in the country. However, three of his family are U.S. citizens who could conceivably sponsor him.
He had tears in his eyes when we stood up to leave. Visits mean a great deal to people held in detention, Marjorie explained. I am not quite sure what all the ICE staff do - there were six people at the desk in the visitation area - joking and talking and going in and out of the room. When we left through the metal detector again, I saw ten ICE staff gathered around this area - perhaps, it was shift change time. Our ICE escort told us that there are four hundred beds in their facility but it is not enough so they rent beds in the nearby CCA prison. She assured us that the ICE detainees are in a separate unit and not in with the criminals.
The next day I went to the monthly meeting Casa Mariposa has with a lawyer from the Florence Project. http://www.firrp.org A Salvadoran man who recently was freed on a bond through Casa Mariposa shared his story with us. He expressed his appreciation for the visits - nos da luz de esparanza y luz al fin de tunel The visits give us hope and we see light at the end of the tunnel.
He described his own experience in detention in Florence - the ICE facility was a five star hotel with good food and pretty decent treatment but then he was transferred to the CCA facility where the food was bad, and the guards treated us like criminals.
How can we help? People in detention need legal advice or good advice within 72 hours of detention - "is that possible?," he asks. The lawyers at Florence Project are overwhelmed and the answer was uncertain. He continued, " the majority of detainees do not know their rights; they are frightened and do not know whom to trust." He added, "the Guatemalans usually ask to be deported after eight days.? "Why", I asked. They are isolated in holding tanks or cells where no one speaks their language - usually one of the twenty-two indigenous languages in Guatemala. pr
I am saddened by his and other's reality. There are so many groups in Tucson doing good work - in the desert, visiting detainees, caring for mothers and children who are released by ICE to travel to reunite with a family member BUT with a court date and finding people lost in the system for their frantic families in Central America or elsewhere . All this energy going in to stop bad policies that force people into expensive detention centers paid for by us, U.S. citizens. AFSC has done some great work on documenting private prisons. http://www.afsc.org
Also, read the NY Times article on Family Detention Centers (Feb. 8,2015) it will make your hair stand on end as it is such a clear violation of human rights. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/08/magazine/the-shame-of-americas-family-detention-camps.html?emc=eta1&_r=0
Yes, the sun is shining today in Tucson, Arizona after a rain storm last night. I am buoyed by the good people I am meeting - immigrants and U.S citizens who care and who are acting. I hope that our voices can be heard in Washington, DC!!!
Yesterday I got lost in southwest Tucson. It's Sunday afternoon and I am searching for a Roman Catholic Church on W. Ajo Way between two freeways. I consult my map and finally lost in an industrial park stop to ask for help. A young couple smile and say that Tucson has a strange way of organizing its streets and direct me on my way.
I arrive at the church late by my North American standards, but the meeting is just starting. The room is full of Latino families - father, mother, children and babies. The Forum is sponsored by the PIma County Interfaith Council and Scholarship AZ (the Dreamers). The local priest prays us into the session with a petition to God to provide human rights for all in the oom.
Everything is in Spanish - the powerpoint presentation, question and answer session and the fact sheets. It is frustrating, I understand the Spanish, but there is no microphone, the two women presenters have soft voices and hard to hear above crying babies. But this forum is not for me and the three other Anglo faces but the people who want and need accurate information about the application process.
Questions fly from the audience to the two women and the Anglo lawyer who only speaks English (double translation for the two women). "How do I know if I have a criminal record? What if I was deported twenty years ago but returned ten years ago? What if I have a I-130 petition in process? Will the government return my documents? What documents do I need to submit? When would I hear after I apply?"
A road trip to El Paso, Texas from Tucson, Arizona is six long hours of straight roads and lots of sagebrush but also some spectacular views of mountains of rock and a little bit of snow in New Mexico. The purpose of the trip was to visit with groups in El Paso, TX and Las Cruces, NM who provide border immersion experiences. The other reason was to attend a meeting of local El Pasan organizations that are preparing for the wave of applicants for the DAPA program, the President's executive order creating a non-deportation status for parents of U.S. citizens.
El Paso is right on the border - you can see Mexico from the freeway - so near and yet so far. One of the most interesting groups in El Paso providing shelter to migrants is Annunciation House. http://www.annuciationhouse.org. It is an old building, a bit run-down, that housed up to 100 persons this past summer. A normal week sees 60-90 people in transit. ICE now releases immigrants to Annunciation House on humanitarian parole. These immigrants have permission to travel to family after their release from ICE. A volunteer, Raul, told me that the ICE director in El Paso, called them this summer to ask for help as ICE was overwhelmed with the surge of migrants. At the height of the surge there were five shelters in El Paso with one remaining, Nazareth House, besides Anunciation House.
Annunciation House also offers border immersion trips to university and religious delegations. The nearby Columban Mission Center does the same and collaborates with Annunciation House. While at the house migrants - men,women and children wander in and out of the kitchen, preparing food. In the upstairs women's dorm a mother is washing clothes by hand to hang out on the roof top clothes line. In the basement it is like a thrift store - clothes by all sizes, shoes, baby clothes, etc. are stacked in rows - migrants come in and select what they need for their travels.
In the afternoon I head to Nazareth House to meet with a local volunteer, Pauline. ICE calls to advise them how many guests they will have for the night. The House provides showers, clothing, a private room for sleeping and a transportation coordinator who arranges transport to their families. Suddenly, the door bell rings and in walks a mother and daughter. Pauline asks for help in translating the information to the family. I start chatting in Spanish with the five year old daughter who turns to her mother and says, Ella esta hablando en espanol. Yeah, my Spanish is understood.
In touring the facility I am moved by the paintings the children have made while in residence. The average stay if 1 to 2 days. The shelter walls are covered with children's art - much of which expresses appreciation for the kindness shown to them. A number are from Guatemala - Raul said that 60% of the migrants since this summer are from Central America.
What an incredible act of hospitality to receive these travellers from Mexico and Central America en route, I hope, to a safer and more secure existence. Gracias a Dios!
My life has been about crossing borders and cultures and building bridges across the boundaries that normally divide. Have you crossed any borders in your life?