EL COMEDOR/ KINO BORDER INITIATIVE COMMUNITY CENTER: Nogales, Sonora
It's a cold, rainy morning the first Wednesday of February. I along with two other Samaritans are walking through the customs station at Mariposa, Nogales, Arizona on our way to the Comedor right across the border in Mexico.
The Comedor is totally full of people - families with children, a row of tables of men, women and children being served cups of steaming hot chocolate while they wait for breakfast. The Comedor holds about 80 people and it's full this morning. The coordinator explains how food will be served and asks if there are any special diet needs.
Then, all the volunteers go to work - passing plates of scrambled eggs, creamy beans, macaroni and rice and of course, lots of tortillas. There are seconds as well. Once the first group is fed, other families enter and fill two more rows of tables - I estimate about 120 people today.
Once the tables are cleared, the guests organize into a line of dishwashers, scraping food into the garbage and then drying the dishes and cups. The place is humming with activity. The coordinator explains that those seeking to cross and ask for asylum should gather at the back with the lawyers from the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Project - a large group moves to those tables.
The medical center - another table with medical supplies is immediately busy. A Comedor volunteer, Juan, takes down the names of people who are waiting to have a check cashed, to make an international call home or to see the medical assistant. The USA detention centers pay detainees with a U.S. check before they are deported. No More Deaths, a Tucson based NGO, provides cash for the check and then deposits the check into its account.
I am the cell phone person today. I ask for the number and country to which a call is being made. I try not to listen to the conversations to a father in Honduras or a mother in Guatemala. 10 calls today - Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and one to a friend in Colorado. These are calls to reassure loved ones that the person is ok.
One young man is curious about who we are and why we are here. I explain that we are volunteers supporting people waiting to cross or those just deported. He is young, tall and in good shape. In a lowered voice he says, "I'm a policeman from Honduras. The drug cartels killed my younger brother. I am a danger to my family so I fled."
I suggest that he talk with the lawyer about his situation but silently I think as a single young man, his chances for asylum are slim. He talks with the other volunteer cashing checks. Both of us have grey hair and could be his abuela/grandmother. He asks about his chances of crossing the desert. I walk over to a photo pinned to the wall that shows how much water he would have to carry and how many days to reach Tucson.
At the bottom of the poster, it says in Spanish: No Vale la Pena, It's not worth it. Don't go! There's not enough water. The red dots on the map are dead bodies found in the desert.
"But I'm in good shape, I can make it." I look at him sadly. "Mire/look, as your grandmother, I would rather see you held in a detention center for a month or two than Dead." He shakes his head trying to decide what is best to do. HIs mother and sister live in Texas.
The other person that remain in my mind still is a family of father, mother and three young children. They are from Guerrero, Mexico. The mother explains that they had a small business, but the drug cartels asked for money - extorting them in order to keep their business open. When they didn't pay, they threatened to kill her first and then, all the children. Tears form in her eyes, "Will they let me husband cross with me?" I don't reply but urge her to talk to the lawyer.
The lawyers explain to me that they cannot offer specific legal advice to the asylum seekers as they are not licensed to practice law in Mexico. They give general advice about how to register for asylum. It is bad news for single men, and for families. The Border Patrol and Customs agents let mothers and children in but usually not the father. Another form of family separation. At least they get advice on what asylum seekers should do.
I talk with an Episcopal deacon, Roger, who is with a new organization, Cruzando Fronteras, that supports about five shelters in Nogales, Sonora that house families and women and children who are waiting for their turn to cross. I ask how many days? He shakes his head. "A week? Sometimes, two weeks." A new caravan has arrived at Agua Prieta across from Douglas, Arizona. There are not enough customs agents there so the people are being bused to Nogales. He heard that only two families were processed yesterday.
Despite the challenges that all the Comedor guests face, it is not a sad place. Children play while they wait for their parents. Fathers keep an eye on their sons. Jokes are made - "oh, he's tall for a Guatemalan, he probably will play basketball in the USA!"
I don't know what will happen to any of these families or those just deported. A Kino Border Initiative staff person says that they are working to open a new center where they will provide job training and support for deportees to stay in Nogales so that their USA families can visit them.
This NPR Program is a story from this KBI staff person explaining why people are traveling together and why they are not going to stop traveling north.
REFLECTION: With the recent action by #45 to reallocate funds to build the wall, only time and struggle and resistance from us all will determine the future of the immigrant families and single men and women seeking safety. Join any of the groups that are suing the President over the illegality of his actions. I am proud that my state of Oregon is one of 16 states suing him. RESIST with RESILIENCE.
ONE BIG CHANGE IS THE CONCERTINA WIRE ON TOP OF THE WALL THAT DIVIDES DOWNTOWN NOGALES, ARIZONA FROM NOGALES, SONORA. I TOOK THIS PHOTO WHILE WAITING TO CROSS BACK IN THE UNITED STATES.
Sunday's Arizona Daily Star newspaper had an article about the deployment of more military troups to the border and in particular, their task to install more concertina wire. The Nogales mayor expressed his concern as to the impact of this wire on both communities and in particular, local businesses. A local businessman, Evan Kory, stated:
" The razor wire was way more aggressive than anything we had seen, which scared me. It felt like it was out of our hands as a border community. You feel powerless, like your voices aren't heard."
I was last at this border in the winter of 2017 - there was the wall but not sheets of concertina wire, as many as six rows can be seen in the newspaper photo. An additional 150 miles of concertina wire will be strung. The Mayor of Nogales, Arizona, Arturo Garino, called for the razor wire to be removed, saying it hurts business and sends the wrong message.
Today's Arizona Daily Star announced that the Nogales, Arizona City Council is demanding that the federal government remove the concertina wire or the City will sue them.
San Diego has also expressed its concern over the concertina wire as well. Let's hope that there is an outpouring of border cities who say NO to the Trump Administration creating a war zone at the border along with its already militarization of the border.
Mothers with children or fathers with children are the people turning themselves into the Customs and Border Agents at ports of entry or after they have crossed in the desert. Increasingly it's entire families that are showing up at the border and asking for asylum.
In Tucson a former Benedictine monastery has opened as a temporary shelter organized by Catholic Community Services. The nuns sold the monastery to a developer who in turn offered the enormous church building to be used as a shelter until building plans are approved. Link to news highlighting the monastery.
I walked into the Intake room off this beautiful sanctuary late last Saturday afternoon. The Casa Aletas volunteer coordinator had called asking Spanish speaking volunteers to gather to help with an expected 45 people who were about to arrive - dropped off by ICE.
Another volunteer showed me how to record the interview on a Google docs, I took a deep breath and suddenly a very tired looking mother and her daughter appeared at my table. "Como esta?" I introduced myself and smiled at them. The young woman's name was Dulce or sweet and she was!
Soon there was a cacophony of voices as six of us interviewed the newly arrived immigrants. They looked and were exhausted - most of them coming directly from the hielera, the ice box where the Border and Customs detains immigrants at the border. There is little food and sleeping is difficult.
They patiently answered my questions: Where they were from? Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, El Salvador were the responses. How many days of travel from their home land? Were there any problems crossing Mexico? Any problems at the border with officials? Finally, who was their sponsor in the USA and where did this person live? Georgia, Florida, New York, Texas, were some of the responses.
A volunteer entered the room carrying donated teddy bears and other soft toys. The children selected the one they liked and held onto it tightly. In the days of turmoil in their young lives, it felt good to have something soft and cuddly to clutch. When the interview was over, the women or men always said, "Gracias."
They had been fed before the interview. Another volunteer appeared to take them to their room and to have a bath before sleeping. There is a clinic where volunteer doctors and nurses examine the families and provide medicine for the many who arrive with coughs or colds after their long journeys.
PERSONAL NOTE: This is my last day in Tucson as I am returning to my home in Portland, Oregon. I will share a few more stories of the traveling guests I've met these past five weeks. Tucson and southwest Arizona are beautiful,but it is a desert. We have had freezing temperatures at night these past few days. I will close with how we open and end each Samaritan meeting with silence and a prayer for those crossing the desert. Peace be with them.
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?