A Reflection of Some Sort

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It is Monday, March 13th, and by now we have all arrived to our homes or our next destinations (perhaps Disneyland!) and I assume after a week of living so close together it is nice to have alone time, our own space, and most importantly time to think and process. All of us feel as though we have a deeper understanding of the situation on our Southern border, and for this we feel privileged and thankful. You can learn a lot in a classroom, but taking this learning and putting it in the real time context of what you are learning about is valuable, and not something that happens every day.

This cannot be an isolated and compartmentalized experienced, and thankfully, because of the nature of our class, we don’t foresee that it will be. We had been studying border issues for 2 months prior, and we will continue to study border issues for 2 months after this travel seminar. Our learning continues, and many of us see it as our duty to share what we have learned and seen with other people, both at Kenyon and in other communities we are a part of.  

It is easy to turn a blind eye to these issues when we confine them to the wall that divides U.S. and Mexico, but to do so is dangerous. Not only does it ignore the daily struggles of people on both sides of that wall, but it fails to remember laws like 287g, which in effect makes 100 miles in from any coast or land border a militarized zone that can be patrolled.

constitutionfreezonemap.pngThe land that is covered under 287g accounts for two thirds of of the U.S. population. The ideas of the border zone thus affects us all, and the issues immigrants struggle with near the U.S. Mexico border are happening all around the country, yet on a lesser known scale.

 

We must remember, as Cy reminded us after we witnessed Operation Streamline, that even if we feel opposed to how Border Patrol and policy treats immigrants, we as Americans are complicit in this situation. Our tax dollars go to what we witnessed, as well as many other practices that we find unethical or dehumanizing.

So let us circle back to the question that we posed after our first full day at the border:

Where do we go from here?

After just a week, we are in no way experts on the situation at the border, but we do know a lot more than when we left. The situation is complex, and there are still things we don’t fully understand, numbers we can’t provide you with. Because they don’t exist. Because migrant crossings are unregulated and dangerous, because we as a country put Prevention Through Deterrence into effect which funnels crossers into dangerous desert areas with the intention of having the desert do the dirty work.

So, first of all let us not ignore the situation, and from there let us realize that even if we are far away, and the border is not a part of our everyday lived experiences, we are still able to help and there is still much to be done. As the humanitarian group People Helping People articulated to us, their organization began when they realized they could no longer wait for policy changes that weren’t coming. We can tell people what we have seen, share with our Kenyon community,  and make sure that any Kenyon student who wants this opportunity to take this class and travel to the border has the chance and the means to do so. We can delve further into the intersectionality of immigration issues with environmental issues, like how the physical wall causes flooding in some Mexican border towns and prevents animal migration, or how the privatization of prisons links together immigrant detainees to the mass incarceration of young black men, as we observed in the new documentary 13th. We can look further into what we can do for the immigrants in detention in the prison that is only 40 minutes away from Kenyon’s campus, where apprehended undocumented immigrants are criminalized and thus put into prisons with real criminals. We can do research on whether Mount Vernon or other places in Ohio offer safe spaces or know your rights opportunities for undocumented immigrants in our area. There is much to be done, even from the far away land of the Kenyon bubble.

This experience has been impactful and valuable. Growing up we are taught that America is the land of the free and the home of the brave, that anyone from anywhere can come here and achieve the American Dream. This is not the case, and we as a class, as a community, and as a country must not become passive and complacent to these very real issues having to do with immigration. We will not sit back and let families get torn apart, or let innocent people get criminalized and deported back to countries in which they are endangered and unable to support themselves or their families.

We want to thank Cy, our fearless leader, Borderlinks, for housing us and educating us, all humanitarian aid groups we met with who shared with us willingly and openly, and Professor Jennifer Johnson, who orchestrated this trip and opened our minds to a new kind of applied learning that we have never experienced before.

We are also thankful for each other. It is too often that we sit side by side in a class with someone and learn together on an emotional level yet and never really get to know each other. This week however, we have been safe spaces for each other, we have learned and discussed and come to a greater understanding of the issues of our border with the support of each other. We have been inspired by each other’s ideas and we have pushed each other to see this issue as more than black and white, to hear the dialogue of people we don’t agree with.

Lastly, we want to thank all the migrants we met, who relayed to us their stories with kindness and bravery. We hope for their futures.

 

 

Day 7: Florence Detention Center

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Today was our last day on the border. Thus far, we’ve travelled from Tuscon to Agua Prieta and Nogales. We’ve visited border patrol, spoken to humanitarian aid groups and much more. The last stop, Florence Correctional Center, a detention center for undocumented immigrants from many different parts of the world. A part of ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement), Florence is a government owned and operated immigration detention facility.

WHAT WE HEARD:

The day began with an orientation from Carolina, once a detainee herself, who was a representative of Mariposas Sin Fronteras. Mariposas provides solidarity to LGBTQ people in detention through visits, letters, bond fundraising, case support, advocacy and post-detention hospitality. Today, we were accompanying Mariposas to speak with detainees at the Florence Center. As Carolina explained, many of the detainees had no contact from the outside world. One detainee, José from Guatemala*, had spent nearly nine years in various detention facilities.

The important thing to remember about the detainees — they are not prisoners. None of the detainees have had criminal charges brought upon them other than immigration, or have been convicted of other “crimes.” However, the conditions within the detention center would say otherwise — as one detainee described it: “this is my first time in jail”. The visitations themselves were hard to arrange. We could only visit in small groups, meaning our group of 12 was split up. We waited over an hour to get into the facility, and each group waited 2-3 hours for the other to finish their meetings.

All of the detainees that we met with, like Jose, are seeking asylum. After serving as a congressman in his home country, Jose had to flee from political persecution. He’s been waiting nine years for approval. Jose’s story was not unique, although 9 years is not a normal amount of time to be in detention for. Rather, many detainees are in detention for very short periods of time, sometimes a few days or weeks, and thus the environment we heard of was one of transience, of a lack of trust and friendship between detainees, resulting in a feeling of isolation and loneliness. Additionally, we heard stories of broken promises, as detainees got out and ended contact with the people they had met inside. But Jose’s reasons for seeking asylum lined up well with their detainees we spoke to, who were fleeing from gang-based violence or from persecution because of homesexuality. But Carolina reminded us not to harp on the legal burdens plaguing the detainees. Sometimes the detainees just needed a friendly face and some small-talk to get them through the monotony.  

Many of the detainees spoke Spanish (one spoke French!). So in each of our groups, we had at least one interpreter. For the most part, we tried to avoid sensitive topics, or to only go as far as the detainees seemed comfortable. Some wanted to tell us about how they were apprehended, others looked down into their laps when we asked them to recall their lives before detention. We talked about books, the weather, sports, religion, television, dancing and other mutual interests. After discovering their detainee’s love of music, one group even sang together. Just try to imagine the guards reaction to a hushed rendition of “Jar of Hearts” by Christina Perri.

WHAT WE SAW:

Sitting outside of Borderlinks in the hot Tucson morning, Carolina laid out various detainee files on the table in front of us. They were full of personal information, both written by the detainees themselves and by other visitors that had volunteered through Mariposas Sin Fronteras, and in the logs of volunteers there was special attention paid to their perceived mental states, court dates, status of their asylum applications, or their desires for visits and letters of support. The detainees had filled out forms that asked them about their stories, their sexuality, and their hopes for their lives in America if they were granted asylum. Some of the detainees had been visited every day this week, however this probably has to do with the fact that many schools have break this week, and thus there was a lot of people volunteering with Mariposas Sin Fronteras. By coming into contact with Mariposas Sin Fronteras, these detainees now have an organization that is keeping track of them, and as we have seen throughout the past week, it is very easy to lose track of a detainee within a system that doesn’t seem to pay much attention to who they are or care for their basic human rights.

We each took a file and loaded into the van, beginning the journey to the Florence detention center. Also in Florence were various other detention facilities and prisons, and Michael, our instructor for the day who worked for No More Deaths, told us that the city of Florence existed solely due to the detention centers. As we drove we pored over the files, trying to take in as much information as we could as we wouldn’t be able to bring the files into the visitations with us. There was ample time for this though, as the detention center was an hour and a half from Tucson. This made us wonder how likely it would be for a detainee’s family to visit them in Florence when not only did one have to account for the drive, but they also had to consider the anywhere from one to four hour wait to see a detainee. And this assumed the mobility of the people trying to visit — but what if they didn’t even have a car?  

Perhaps the most jarring thing about the Florence Correctional Center was its resemblance to an actual prison, or rather the prisons we had seen in TV or the movies. At every door, we had to be buzzed in by guards, going through a metal detector and then walking along narrow paths next to fences with barbed wire. The dress code was strict as well: closed-toed shoes, long pants, nothing suggestive or tight or revealing, and hair down. We were also not able to bring anything in with us, and thus we all left our phones and bags and water bottles in the van.

Inside the visitation room, there were no windows, no natural light, only fluorescents. We signed in again and then turned around to see a stark, sterile room filled with small tables, 2 chairs on each side. Detainees sat at the tables in crocs or slip-ons and various colored uniforms and, which we never quite figured out the reason for — detainees had different ideas as to what the various colors meant, but there was a general confusion from the detainees on what it all meant.

As instructed by Carolina, we were not allowed to sit directly next to the detainee, and thus had to pull up a chair to the side adjacent to them for our meetings. This again reinforced the idea that they were dangerous criminals in prison, rather than apprehended undocumented immigrants.

On top of their stories, they also brought us things. One man showed a group of us documents he had saved that chronicled important milestones throughout his life — his certificate of graduation from his university, his high school report card, and other important documents that revealed the successes of his life prior to his detention.

What we didn’t see today was the time racing by on the clock behind us as we talked and shared with these various detainees. At one point we got a call alerting us that it had been nearly 3 hours and the van was waiting, and we were all surprised at how much time had passed. And as we exited we were acutely aware of the fact that although we could easily leave, all the people behind us couldn’t, and some of them didn’t have any idea if they ever would walk freely into America.

WHAT WE FELT:

The sad truth is that Florence has one of the highest deportation rates of immigration centers in the country. Nearly 90% of detainees are deported. It was hard for us to align the realization of this fact with the hope and faith of the detainees we met with, but in many ways their attitudes were admirable and inspiring. In some ways we felt hopeless, but unlike our reactions to Operation Streamline, the detainees we met at the Florence Detention Center seemed optimistic in that they still had a chance at asylum, and this optimism was palpable.

At certain points within our meetings, we felt uncomfortable. One of us described it as feeling like she wanted to leave, yet having the strange sensation that if the person across the table from her wanted the same, they would not have the right to do so. Perhaps we felt uncomfortable when there were pauses in our conversations, however we also have to remember that these detainees wanted this contact and this connection, stuck within a transient environment in which they lack connection.

Thus, we learned it is as important to just talk with them, connect with them, let them speak with you, or laugh will them as it is to get details like their court dates, perhaps even more important. For Mariposas, it is important to get these details so they can keep track of the people they are helping, but for detainees, they need these meetings and these letters of support to get through the monotony of their sentences, and we felt happy that we had these kinds of interactions with them.

After we left, we were instructed by to write letters, both to the detainees as well as a letter for their file that speaks of their character. Michael told us that these letters are to prove to a judge that these detainees are not dangerous or a risk, and this was angering, because it showed that these human beings were looked at as less than human until proven otherwise to the judge. How is this just or fair?

We leave today, and this trip, with many questions, and just a few are articulated below:

All four detainees we met with are at different points in their quests for asylum from their home countries, and the question on all of our minds was will they be able to get it? Is it at all possible?

Why do we let these detention centers resemble prisons? Why do we treat our detainees as we would prisoners and criminals? How can we rationalize this?

But we also leave today with hope, as these four men and their strength and bravery inspire us and make us hope for their potential futures in the United States. As Cy told us at some point during the week, she has seen people flight harder and give up less when they have faith or a religion to believe. It seems as though some of these detainees have developed faith as a consequence of being in detention, as we heard from one man that if you don’t have faith you have nothing, but regardless we leave today with the we hope that this faith carries these detainees as they seek asylum and their dreams in the United States.

*specific names and home countries of detainees have been changed for privacy

 

Day Six: How to Take Action

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After two days of early mornings, speaking Spanish, meeting with empowered women and Border Patrol agents, and traveling through borderlands in Arizona and Mexico, we spent the day at Borderlinks. While it was a more restful day, two people from an environmental conservation organization and a humanitarian group came to talk with us about their work and their connection to this contested border. These people provided new perspectives about actions that they take and ones that we can be inspired by and potentially adopt in the future.

WHAT WE HEARD:

Dan Millis, an advocate and educator for the Sierra Club, presented us with the environmental impacts of the physical border wall. The wall not only acts as a dam during monsoon season, but also prevents wildlife migration and impedes survival. When googling the US-Mexico border, the images that appear are of the wall and of green-striped Border Patrol vehicles, instead of the landscape, including the rivers like the Rio Grande and various national parks. The Sierra Club is at the forefront of environmental issues at the US-Mexico border, trying to protect endangered species that are at risk of going extinct due to the problems that the border wall creates as well as holding Border Patrol accountable through litigation for their destruction of nature with their vehicle treads. The border wall introduces issues for human beings, animals, and the land itself. Millis emphasized that walls don’t work as people have climbed over, passed under, and gone through. If those strategies are unsuccessful, people attempt to go around the wall, which in turn forces people to enter the desert. The Sierra Club provided a different perspective to the border, one that we had not previously considered.

Belín, a mother of four, a wife of an ICE detainee, and a member of Paisanos Unidos, an organization that provides legal assistance for immigrants, spoke with us about her involvement in the Tucson Immigrant Community. The long term goal of the organization is to acquire Municipal IDs from a credit union for immigrants, including transgender people, a form of documentation to show if law enforcement approached them. They also are working on pamphlets to help immigrants know their rights and try to prevent detentions by creating human barriers and sometimes, crawling under law enforcement cars. Members additionally provide moral support for families who have been separated due to immigration. The actions of Paisanos Unidos demonstrate the ability of the civilian to intervene between undocumented immigrants and law enforcement officials without the use of violence.

WHAT WE SAW:

We walked from Borderlinks to a shrine a couple blocks over called ‘El Tiradito’ or the Wishing Shrine. Adorned with  candles and photos of loved ones, this shrine is the only one in the U.S. “dedicated to the soul of a sinner.” The man buried there died fighting for the love of a woman. The walls of the shrine house letters and prayers from the heartbroken, asking for the healing of the heart. We saw the relevance of this shrine in relation to the migrant experience as prayers for missing loved ones. We saw the emotions these individuals poured into the shrine, we saw the optimism present within the harsh border issue.

The love we saw at the shrine was also seen in our meeting with Belín. A mother of four, she was late to our meeting because she had to take one daughter to a doctor’s appointment and had to pick up another from home. She came into the room at Borderlinks with her children close by her side. As Belín informed us of the nature of her job, her two daughters interchanged between sitting in her lap and eating cookies on the floor. She explained to us how immigration issues have permeated into her own family. Belín recounted one moment where she and her husband were driving down the highway when a police car came by. The children were worried that their parents were going to be taken away. Despite the fear clearly present within this family’s life, we definitely witnessed the love that keeps them together. Nearing the end of a very intense week of depressing emotions and complicated issues, it was very comforting to see the love of this family. To meet a family going through the problems of immigration, we were able to see the most human side of the issue, something that we have not had much of a chance to do thus far.

WHAT WE FELT:

Today was mostly centered around a discussion of how we can move forward with the knowledge we have acquired over the course of this trip. We brainstormed ways to make these issues more prevalent within our own communities at Kenyon and at home. The group sentiment was centered around the want to help but the fear to fail. None of us want to compartmentalize this experience and store it away as just another event. But for many of us, the task of continuing the dialogue can seem paralyzing and daunting. After free-writing in our journals about what the next steps will be, the group shared our hopes and fears as a whole. We all recognize the value of this type of learning environment, and have grown extremely thankful for the relationships we have been able to develop with each other in such a short amount of time. Our ability to have conductive conversations and to move forward when there are disagreements is something we wish to mimic among the rest of the relationships we have with students at Kenyon. We recognize the privilege we all have to be students at such wonderful liberal arts college, and instead of feeling guilty for the opportunities we have been given, we have decided it is more productive to use our privilege for the greater good. Our Borderlinks leader, Cy, told us that college is the greatest place to test out activism. We can use Kenyon to find ways to be proactive. We can take advantage of the resources we have in order to keep moving forward and doing our part. Although we have come up with ways to continue our work with the immigration issue, we still have doubts about our abilities to move forward. We leave today with a few questions:

How do we apply what we have learned on this trip to our own communities?

How can we make sure that we use our experience with the travel seminar to make a difference?

But we also leave today with hope:

There are people out there that care, and they are doing their part. We also care, so we can surely do our part as well.

Day 5: Nogales

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WHAT WE SAW:

Today, following our overnight in the New Hope community center in Agua Prieta, we got up bright and early and loaded up the van at 6:00 am. We first traveled to Nogales, Arizona, crossing back through to the US-side. Here, we got close up to the border wall in Nogales, where we began seeing messages on the border saying “RIP José” along with stickers with José’s face on them, wondering who he could be. After crossing back into Mexico, we got up close to the shrine to José Antonio Elena Rodriguez, where we began to learn more about who he is.

16-year old JoDSC_0780.JPGsé Antonio Elena Rodriguez was walking home from school on October 10, 2012, when two men smuggling drugs over the border wall were being apprehended. People began throwing rocks at the border patrol as this occurred, which, in the Border Patrol’s view, constitutes enough risk to begin using lethal force. They opened fire and José, who had no connection to the situation, was shot by border patrol 10 times, from behind. As our guide explained to us, José’s story is just one example of the ways that border militarization has become deadly to innocent people. We continued along the border wall, observing shrines to and paintings of José, along with paintings that read “Chinga la Migra!” (Fuck Border Patrol!) and other art pieces along the wall, making statements against it and honoring those lost crossing.

We then went to visit Grupo Beta, which is the Mexican equivalent of “border patrol,” but instead of apprehensions and consequences, Grupo Beta focuses on providing resources to migrants who have crossed and been apprehended, or are planning to cross in the near future. We entered through an administrative building, where we were given an orientation to the activities that are done there, and then went out to the back of the building, where there was a larger, empty building where many migrants were getting their hair cut. We saw about 15 or 20 migrants in the yard and the building, which had been turned into a peluquería for the day–just one of the many uses for this building. The men there seemed relaxed, chatting with each other, sharing youtube videos, and laughing. We noticed that a few of them had camouflage backpacks, as they had already crossed or were preparing to go.

After a lunch break, we crossed back into the US, where we had a much different experience from our crossing into Mexico. In Mexico, we saw almost no security. We walked straight through the checkpoint without even showing our passports. On our way back into the US, there was a long line to be vetted for at least 2-3 minutes each and have our bags searched. The ICE officers had large computers and fingerprint machines, while we didn’t see any of this technology while crossing into Mexico.

Once in the U.S., we headed to the Border Patrol station for the Tucson sector. Upon entering the facility, we were automatically greeted with pictures of officers who lost their lives in active duty as a border patrol agent. After we signed in on a roster and received badges, we were given a tour –that was required weeks in advance for background checks– by officer Lenny and his colleague. As we were shown around the facility, we stopped at several locations to learn about the history of border patrol and the wall. We were given the opportunity to hold a pepper spray gun, thermal binoculars, ceramic vest, and other “toys” as described by the border patrol agent. As a final touch, we were shown the communications room, where no photography was allowed. Here is where we got to witness live surveillance of footage along the wall. A red outline began to blink on several screens and that indicated movement in the area. Quickly, an agent was able to zoom in and eliminate the movement to be due to cattle.

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WHAT WE HEARD:

At Grupo Beta, we had the opportunity to talk with the migrants that were receiving aid there. After splitting into smaller groups to talk to different people and be able to translate for our peers more effectively. Overall, we found that the migrants were more than willing to chat with us and share their stories, despite our varying levels of Spanish ability. Two of us were able to sit down with 4 men, who told us about their different situations with crossing attempts and their connections to the US. One man told us that his wife lived in Oregon, and he wanted to get back to her but it was just too hard. Another man, from Mexico City, told us that he had attempted to cross 3 times, but was apprehended all 3. The last time he was apprehended, he spent two months in detention in Phoenix, Arizona, before being deported. One man was from Guatemala, and one was from Honduras, and had traveled all the way from their homes to attempt crossing. Many of them now live in migrant shelters in Nogales, and spend their days at Grupo Beta. Despite their tough situations, the men seemed happy to talk and laugh with us. They got out a large map of Mexico to point out their hometowns, as we were unfamiliar with the locations they were describing to us. One even invited us to come and stay with him in Morelia, where the food is allegedly much better than in Nogales.

In stark contrast to our experience at Grupo Beta, where we heard the genuine and difficult stories of human suffering, at the Nogales Border Patrol station we heard from the people who actually enforce the laws that cause the suffering. First, unlike the other organizations we have interacted with, the Border Patrol agents referred to the migrants as “illegal immigrants” or even “illegal aliens.” From the start, there was an air of defensiveness, along with an extreme macho attitude from the two officers who led our tour. After starting the tour with a lewd comment about how Britney Spears is “hot,” when we asked the officer why there were only 5% women officers in CBP, he responded that we should “ask the females” what they think.

There were many other comments that piqued our interest at border patrol. The officers continuously referred to their weapons as “cool toys,” as well as repeatedly describing their job as “cool.” When asked about the use of this term, they explained that it is “cool” to know that they are apprehending real “bad guys”–rapists, murderers, felons–and keeping both US citizens and migrants safe from dangerous coyotes and bandits. One officer told us that no migrant can cross without association with or help from a drug cartel, as the cartels now have a monopoly over the highly profitable smuggling industry. When asked, they did not seem to see a connection between the policies that make crossing more difficult and the increased smuggling among cartels.

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The officers also said that it is “cool” to be able to help people and provide humanitarian aid, such as when one officer was able to reunite a child with his aunt after he was sent to cross by himself with a smuggler. The officer explained that they also do “humanitarian work.” When asked about the videos that No More Deaths showed us of officers slashing and kicking water jugs left out for migrants, the officers explained that those officers were just “a few bad ones,” and that the rest of CBP was outraged at the video. An officer outside our tour piped in to comment that what we don’t see are the numerous accounts of border patrol officers sharing their “own personal water” and food with migrants.

Finally, the officers explained to us that they “enforce, not interpret.” Despite the sympathy they may have for migrant’s “personal plights,” the officer explained that they are simply doing their job. Since there is no way to know which migrants are the “bad guys” and which ones are simply crossing for a better life, there is no choice but to apprehend everyone they see. The officers became very defensive at our questions regarding Prevention Through Deterrence, and the way in which the policy funnels migrants into dangerous desert terrain. The main officer leading our tour went so far as to say that he “hasn’t seen that policy anywhere” and that the goal is to funnel people not into the desert, but into “legal” ports of entry.

WHAT WE FELT:

Even after going to the border wall yesterday on the Agua Prieta/Douglas divide, something about the wall in Nogales felt different. The fact that you could see a community divided into two, with people walking on both sides, made it more “real.” Knowing that people must live with this constant reminder of a division in their lives, we could feel the power this wall created. Once we came upon José Antonio Elena Rodriguez’s mural and shrine, they gave the environment a sense of reality; the lives of those who are lost because of the militarization of the border are always remembered. The wall was something more than a physical divide between two countries, but between two communities, two neighborhoods, two families.

We initially felt some discomfort about being invited to speak with the migrants at Grupo Beta, who were there to get haircuts and hang out and were not necessarily warned we would be coming. At first it felt invasive to ask them about their crossing experience while they were going about their daily business. However, they seemed happy to share their stories with us and seemed to speak easily about their experiences. This was the first time we had actually gotten to speak to migrants about their experiences, which made the stories all the more real and present to us after reading so much about life on la línea (the area just south of the Nogales border). Our initial discomfort was assuaged when we were able to make these meaningful connections.

Our group had mixed feelings about the visit to border patrol. Primarily, we felt discomfort being in a space that runs the operation that has caused the suffering we have been reading about, and just witnessed at Grupo Beta. Many of us also felt uncomfortable around the large amount of weaponry that the officers were wearing and showed to us, knowing they are used to hurt and kill migrants. Many of us felt that, after a few minutes, we no longer wanted to be there or hear what they had to say. Others felt that our visit complicated the border issue, as the agents didn’t seem quite as evil as they sound in the books we read, and seeing them in front of us, as humans who truly believe that their way is best, was slightly jarring and confusing. We were disappointed that our conversations seemed to be stifled in a way, both by the defensiveness of the officers and the sheer distance between the beliefs of the officers and the beliefs shared by our group.

Todays events leave us with the following questions to take us forward in our learning experience:

What would it look like if the US border patrol began to align their mission with that of Grupo Beta? Is this feasible and what would the effects be?

We learned today that the “border zone” extends 100 miles from the border, encompassing 2/3 of the population. What would the effects of reducing this border zone be? Furthermore, how can we hold sanctuary cities accountable for protecting their citizens?

Day 4: The Wall

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OVERVIEW:

Day four was jam packed in every sense of the term. We started with a long drive to the border, stopping briefly in Douglas, a small historical town in south Arizona, to meet Randy, a volunteer for Frontera de Cristo, a Presbyterian border ministry focused on education and aid in Arizona and northern Mexico. With Randy, we visited a small community center in Agua Prieta, Sonora focused on education and independence for women in the area. After visiting the community center, we went to Café Justo, a coffee shop that grew out of a coffee farmer co-opt developing good coffee at good prices. Then came the border wall, our fist visit to the gigantic steel beams that we’ve been studying for months and that have haunted our travels these last few days. We got up close and personal with them, driving on a potentially restricted road with Randy’s guidance to visit some amazing vantage points. The day ended with group participation in a Border Vigil that honored the deaths of immigrants in the region by holding up crosses and declaring the deceased’s names. We crossed back through the checkpoint into Mexico and got dinner, talked, and went to bed at a community center in Agua Prieta.

WHAT WE HEARD:

The noises of day four really began with the women of Agua Prieta recalling their stories to us through the medium of a translator. It was the first day that translators were necessary, and it presented an interesting dynamic that up until this point hadn’t been considered. To us, the women’s stories seemed disjointed and were only understood to many in the group through the efforts of Evie’s interpretation. Jason De León claimed in The Land of Open Graves that a crucial essence of communication is lost when taken through the double vice of translation and interpretation, and that was clear to all of us today. We encountered some further difficulties in back-and-forth communication regarding who to direct our comments to (translator or intended audience), and the variation in Spanish fluency amongst the group served as another challenge to unimpeded understanding with the women of Agua Prieta. During our vigil we payed our respects to this land through our audible recollection of the names of deceased passing migrants. Each name was inscribed on its own cross, and during the walk each was shouted aloud by its carrier, and met with the crowds simultaneous ‘presente’. Hearing the names out loud gave us a cue to connect to for each migrant, and was met in response with passerby’s beeping and vocal gratitude. The sounds of the day carried with them a lot of weighted emotion, but our consensus is that it was not what we heard, but what we did not hear that left us moved. Today’s sounds were punctuated by long segments of silence as we stood together along the expanse of the border. Randy set the somber tone by announcing about the ground we stood on: “this is holy land, its consecrated with the deaths of those who died there”.

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WHAT WE SAW:

In terms of sight, Wednesday morning began like every other morning: dim light viewed through squinty eyes. After that though, complex and amazing images started to come through like the cowboys’ overdone, commercial costumes in Douglas or Randy’s intense years of wear and tear that brought forward so much wisdom. Once we got to the border, so much radically changed. People frantically tried to wash cars lined up to cross the barrier. Every car filed through, got looked over by the border guards’ peering eyes, and, seemingly arbitrarily, got selected for further screening or was let through. That was, assuming you weren’t in the fast lane, an almost Disneyland like separate pathway for quicker travel. Once we got into Mexico the entire surrounding area changed: the architecture was different, food stores appeared almost endlessly, names brands faded away into personalized stores, and paintings and murals covered the border wall to commemorate the hope so seemingly washed away on the American side. Beside us were dozens of small kids walking to school, appearing as if the border crossing was a regular daily occurrence for them instead of the exceptional act that it so clearly was for all of us. Once we arrived at the community center in Agua Prieta we saw the amazing garden, livestock, and home that the women there had built and maintained independently, speaking so amazingly to their strength in coming together and creating something unique. It wasn’t until we really saw the border that we noticed how, well, massive it was. It was like a scar cutting through the earth, destroying the land immediately around it and juxtaposing the sky, with its clear lake of a line, so much that it almost seemed artificial or made up. The border’s steel beams, which we later learned were made from railroads and old Vietnam War landing strips, seemed to extend for miles, riding the hills up to and beyond the horizon. The land was all that could overpower it, but it sure as hell did. It reminded us, collectively, of what existed before the border was placed there and what will continue to exist, fighting against the unnatural wall between two interlocking regions. All along the border path were border patrol agents, sprinkling the landscape with white and green trucks. One agent seemed to almost pose for us, standing next to his truck and looking through his binoculars for an oddly long period of time while we were close before driving off in the other direction. The attached photo tries to capture at least some small bit of the grandness we saw there. The final ceremony, the religious vigil, floored many of us, communicating the sheer volume of deaths form the border with the massive number of superficially identical but specifically different white crosses, each of which defiantly spoke to a life lost but never forgotten. A lot of these images have burned into our heads, materially existing only in memories and pictures but driving us to accomplish something more in the future.

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WHAT WE FELT:

Today’s tone was set early when the group took in the site of an abandoned copper mine. The destroyed earth and the upheaval of the land stood as a bold testament to the exploitative capitalist system we live in, the remnants of which were palpable at the border. It seemed like the only valuable thing in  the town, as per the townspeople, was the memory of what had once been, deeming all of the present and future as almost worthless. Then Randy showed up. Oh Randy. Randy immediately sent a ray of sunshine into our group, his respect, compassion, and understanding of all involved parties was a compelling testament to the possibility of progress, and left us feeling optimistic about our activism. Our visits to the Agua Prieta co-op and Café Justo further emboldened this feeling of optimism as both institutions offered a place for independent development of Mexican communities against the type of exploitative capitalism that creates the drive for northern migration in the first place. While standing at the border the group agreed on the arbitrary feeling of its location, both physically and in its place in the dynamics between those who live north and south of it. The manager of Café Justo left us with a powerful message about the reality of the border as a physical space, while contrasting this image with the fabricated nature of borders as they exist between people. The vigil continued to foster this feeling of connection by vocalizing not the nationality of the passing migrants, but their names. While each’s history was unclear, the vigil leader announced about each lost migrating human that they “were made in the god’s image, and were beloved by god”. While the religious imagery was not necessarily a critical part of the message for our group, the sentiment about human equity continues to resonate in our hearts and minds.  

Day 3: Operation Streamline

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WHAT WE HEARD:

Today we had the opportunity to examine the legal component of immigration from several different perspectives. In the morning, we listened to a talk by Matthew, a member of the “End Streamline Coalition.” He told us about Operation Streamline, a policy enacted to expedite the legal process for people apprehended attempting to cross the Mexican-American border. His talk was important preparation for our visit to the Federal Courthouse that afternoon. We learned the technicalities of the process–how migrants are strong-armed into plea deals for a misdemeanor to avoid the much harsher felony charges. He also explained that the process is disorganized and constantly changing between different districts and over time, adding to the already arbitrary and confusing nature of the policy. He said that he himself as a native English speaker who had been studying the issue for several years would often get confused by the technicalities of the policy.

Many of the problems discussed in the talk became important when we got to the courtroom. The judge began the proceedings by telling the detained migrants that they did not have to plead guilty to the charges, however after knowing the time they could be facing with the felony charges it clearly left the migrants without much of a choice. The proceedings themselves were extremely formulaic. The judge asked each migrant whether they wanted to waive their rights to take the plea deal and whether they were guilty. None of the migrants appeared to speak English and everything was translated for them. They all answered “sí” (yes) and “culpable” (guilty) to the judge’s questions. It was easy to see how the process could be confusing and a few of the migrants didn’t understand what they were being asked. Many of us noticed how oddly nonchalant the lawyers and judges were when talking to the detainees. The judge often messed up or mispronounced the names of the migrants and confused which person he was addressing.

After the trip to the courtroom we met and talked with an immigration lawyer, Katie Ruhl, who explained her work and offered more details about the immigration legal system outside of Operation Streamline. She talked about the difficult process to get asylum–only about 3-10% of request are granted by federal judges. Applicants for asylum must prove that they are being prosecuted for either their political affiliation, social group, race, religion or nationality. Even if a person faces mortal danger upon return to their home country, their application will be refused if they do not meet this criteria. She also discussed her interesting work with gender and sexual orientation claims for asylum. A final and important point that she highlighted in her talk was how a specific prosecutor’s or judge’s personal beliefs on immigration will often cause them to be more or less sympathetic towards migrants, continuing the theme of the arbitrary and unjust nature of this country’s immigration system.    

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WHAT WE SAW:

When we walked into the courtroom, it was surprising how many people were present. Besides the obvious lawyers, court clerks, and staff, there were 56 migrants sitting in long rows of chairs before the judge’s bench. It was the first time that we saw the very people whose stories and experiences we are studying. The group was predominantly men of varying ages, though some women were sitting separately in the area normally reserved for a jury. We learned that 56 was a relatively low number, especially given that this was a group that would include apprehensions over a long weekend. The number of migrants in Operation Streamline Hearings has been going down in recent months—more likely a symptom of slightly reduced migration numbers than a reduction in the actual number of migrants being selected for OSL. On average, 13% of all detainees are sent through OSL, though why those 13% are selected is a mystery to the general public, and a question we hope to pose to Border Patrol later in the week.

We were unable to interact with the migrants involved in the hearing, but we recognized looks of confusion on their faces as we filed in. Though we knew our purpose in the experience, it was clear that the presence of large groups of college students, us along with several other student groups, made very little sense to them. We watched the migrants interactions with their attorneys—some friendly and engaging, others more short and distant. We also saw one of the attorneys interact with some of the few family members present—explaining that unfortunately the family would not be able to interact with their loved one after the proceedings as it presented a “security risk.”

Finally, we observed some of processes that seemed unnecessarily criminalizing and dehumanizing. The Border Patrol officers responsible for leading the migrants out of the court room following the sentencing wore plastic gloves and interacted with the migrants in only the most bare minimum manner. The migrants shuffled by in shoes without laces, another sight we associate more with prisons than with immigration. Most startling though, were the chains. Each migrant was handcuffed and chained around the waist, the sounds of the chains rattling with every step they took. In case the emphasis on migrants as criminals hadn’t been emphasized enough, we certainly picked up on it then.

Most significantly, what we saw were not proceedings taking place in an immigration court. This was a criminal court and and these were criminal proceedings.

WHAT WE FELT:

Today we felt intrusive. We felt uncomfortable and complicit. We felt out of place and out of sorts. It seemed as though the migrants should have a choice as to whether or not we were there in the courtroom. It felt as though we were witnessing something we weren’t supposed to. It was a personal experience and our presence, though silent and with the intention only to observe, did have an effect, whether it was intended or not.

We were shocked by what we saw and what we heard. Though we had been told, none of us had a full understanding of what the criminal proceedings would look like.

We felt powerless to express things. Powerless to make our discomfort known and raise issues with the problems we were seeing. This was certainly not something we supported, but by our lack of action and inability to explain ourselves to the migrants whose personal challenges we were witnessing, it felt as though we were making ourselves complicit with the system.

Witnessing this injustice was important, but it was hard to find the line between showing solidarity and intruding on an experience we weren’t a part of.

We felt a lot of things today, but we’re still struggling with how to express them. More will certainly come in the following days, but for now we are left with two important questions:

Whose lives do we consider and recognize as valuable?

What does a humane border look like and can those two words even exist in the same sentence?

Day 2: Walking A Migrant Trail

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WHAT WE SAW:

The first time we crossed through the border patrol checkpoint, we didn’t even have to stop, because we were headed towards the border so the Border Patrol didn’t care. This particular checkpoint, we later found out, has never actually apprehended someone and was originally established as “temporary” over a decade ago. This was a pretty clear example of a way of deterring people deeper into the desert.

After meeting with People Helping People in their office, we drove into the desert to a migrant trail head. The Sonoran desert is not a stereotypical desert; it is incredibly hilly, and made of a mix of tall grass and dirt. There are lots of small, scratchy trees and much fewer cacti than expected. On the way we passed many green Border Patrol SUVs sitting, waiting, and saw one of the surveillance towers that have been built in the desert. The tower has proven useless; it takes bad quality photos and is not reliable in differentiating cows from crossing immigrants. But the tower is still an effective deterrence to funnel people into more dangerous areas, like the Border Patrol checkpoint.

While we walked a migrant trail today, our experience was nothing like the experience of an immigrant walking the same trail. We walked during the middle of a cloudy day; as our guides pointed out, immigrants would be walking this area at night to avoid being seen, and usually the desert climate is much harsher. At one point we climbed up and down an empty waterfall bed; none of us could imagine attempting that in the dark, in a hurry. After dropping food at a point on the trail, we walked on to a shrine along the trail. The small niche with images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary also held some candles and rosaries. We sat there and read a short prayer, as well as some of the names of those who have died on the trail in the past year. Beneath the shrine were empty cans of food, and some water bottles with messages about love and safe passage written on them.

WHAT WE HEARD:

In Arivaca, a small rural community on the border of about 700 people, we met members of the organization People Helping People. They gave us a brief history of how the border and Border Patrol have evolved through the 1900’s until now. The organization provides aid for those who are crossing or who have recently crossed. They have a clinic that will treat people who have been injured during crossing and act as a sort of service for the community, which can call the organization if an immigrant comes to their home asking for help. One of the leaders mentioned “the weight of human tragedy in a small community,” and how the residents have responded to immigrants passing through, but sometimes don’t know what to do. That’s the goal of People Helping People; giving the community someone to call when they want to help immigrants, but don’t know how. The leaders expressed that is it still hard to communicate what is happening in this border town to the larger world because the community is so small. They also told stories of the Border Patrol resistance to their aid; how they’ve slashed water jugs left on the trail, or put food coloring in it so it looks poisoned.

While at the shrine, we read the list of immigrant deaths in this area in 2016; most around 30 years old, some our age or younger. The leaders encouraged the use the rhetoric of “disappeared” as a verb, because the US policies are what is making others disappear. In addition to names, there were many unknowns, some where even the gender was unidentifiable due to the destruction of the desert. At the shrine, the immigrants are within the US, but they still have 100 miles to walk before they are safely within a city. Many human remains are found in this zone, which is created by the Border Patrol’s jurisdiction, which extends 100 miles from the border.

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WHAT WE FELT:

Today we all felt small; in terms of the terrain and the issue. Some of us felt sick, either due to actual illness or to the situation. As we headed out into the desert by choice, many of us reflected on how privileged we were; we were entering the desert with guides, well prepared, with a safe home and citizenship waiting for us afterwards. We saw shoes and clothes abandoned as we walked, and after we read the names of the deceased, these had new meaning. At the shrine and on the trail, we felt somewhat displaced; we didn’t really belong there, and we were intruding, as we were not travelers, but simply guests, trying to fathom someone else’s struggle, which is impossible. When we started the hike, it felt more like a normal outing, but the shrine made it seem much more real.

The emotions of the day definitely brought us closer as a group. Now that we have exposed ourselves to something we’ve previously only read about, we have to consider what we will do with all of this information. When we met as the end of the day, we ended with a final question:

Where do we go from here?