On Friday, March 27, 2015 I said goodby to some of the friends that I made during my three months working as a volunteer with local groups. There are more than 15 organizations dedicated to helping immigrants and preventing deaths in the desert. /uploads/4/3/8/5/43853987/border_actions.docx.
Now I am back in Portland, Oregon in the cool spring of the Northwest. I miss my colleagues, friends and especially the women and children whom I met working in two transition shelters for families. I went to Arizona to touch the lives of immigrants and to be touched by their stories, their courage and their lives. What did I learn? One of my earlier blogs talked about "breaking our hearts wide open." My heart and mind were broken wide open as I learned so much about the brokenness of the U.S. immigration system but strengthened by all the good people who are trying to change it while helping those caught in the brutality of the system.
A friend asked me recently, "What did you learn in Arizona, Pat. that surprised you?" I thought for a moment and answered, "the power of family ties." Yes, I knew from my years of working and living in Central America, many of the reasons why people were fleeing from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the Northern Triangle. There is a litany of reasons or the "push" factors:
When I was in Guatemala last winter working on my book, I heard chilling stories of drug gang recruitment in the schools. If a student refused, he or she could be tortured, raped or killed. One friend's daughter told me "$50 USD will pay a young adult to kill another."
Last summer I was not surprised by the "surge" of immigrants from the Northern Triangle of Central America - unaccompanied minors/children, mothers with small children and some families. I recall thinking "if I were a twelve or thirteen year old girl from one of these countries and my choice was to submit to gang pressure and violence or head north - despite the dangers of riding the Bestia/Beast train, I know what I would do, leave."
Intellectually I knew the reasons why people were fleeing - extreme poverty and violence. They hoped that by heading north to the United States, they would find to a safer place to live and to raise their families. What the women in the shelters and Detention Centers taught me is the power of the family, the "pull" factor. These women want to be reunited with their families.
At the two shelters where I worked, we received women and small children who had been released by ICE on humanitarian parole to join a family member. They normally spent one to three nights in the small house with three bedrooms - two bunkbeds per room and a crib. Their husbands or uncles or fathers or mothers or a cousin would purchase a bus ticket for their travel. The volunteers would ensure that the travellers had a bag of food and blankets and warm clothing before escorting them to the Greyhound bus station. The other shelter houses longer-term guests - women facing illness or pregnancy or asylum hearings.
You will find no photos of these women and their children as protection for their identities. Here are some photos of the house, its garden and drawings of welcome to the guests and their children.
I met women travelling to Kentucky, Georgia, Florida, Boston, MA, Rhode Island, North Carolina and other southern and eastern states.
What will happen to these women in small towns in the Southeast and Northeast of the USA? Will their children be able to enter school? Will they be allowed to stay? All of them have an ICE court date in their new home which will determine their future.
Many of the women speak little Spanish but a Mayan language-from Guatemala.
I asked the women - what do you think that you will find? Are you scared? "No, I am going to find my family. They will help me."
Courage and faith and trust that they would be welcomed is what helped them on their journey.
I have more stories to share in my next blog. I return home with a renewed energy for the struggle to make our immigration policies more just and more humane. I am active with the Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice in Portland, OR. I promised my Tucson friends that I would take two actions back home: to find a way to visit detainees in the Tacoma, WA Detention Center and to help DACA and hopefully, DAPA applicants find a way to stay in the USA.
Family is a powerful motivator. A recent study by the University of Arizona of the effectiveness of the border enforcement concluded: The article concludes that these programs do not have a strong deterrent effect. Instead, immigration enforcement has led to a “caging effect” over thepast two decades which has disrupted seasonal migration flows, increased familial and social ties to the United States, and decreased the probability of returning to Mexico once in the United States. The development of strong family and other ties to the United States contributes to a greater resolve to return post-deportation. _
This blog will continue with more stories and now actions and activities of those in the Northwest. Stay tuned for more. Thanks - muchas gracias - to all those who shared their lives with me in Tucson, Arizona. The humanitarian organizations helping migrants and working to change immigration policy are the "good news" story.
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?