Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Border Immersion, Part 2

The Border Immersion was definitely one of the things that drew me towards the Mexico YAGM program when I first heard about it at DIP last April, and the excitement was reignited this past fall when Andrea told us again that this week is always one of the highlights of the year.  As a U.S. citizen, especially during the current political push for immigration reform, it was a little embarrassing how little I knew about U.S. immigration policy and what issues are going on in the borderlands right now.  I am incredibly grateful for the chance to spend a week visiting the border and learning many different perspectives about what is happening.

Day 1: Travel Day!

Excitement about having a short "vacation" from Mexico.  Excitement about travel in general, and the anticipation that comes from being in an airport.  Having someone else be in charge of travel plans.  The ease of getting through U.S. immigration and customs because I hold that precious, expensive, powerful, liberating little blue passport.  We were so giddy at dinner that night.  All the American food choices at the Phoenix airport!  U.S. money!  Ordering in English!  Putting my backpack on the floor (This doesn't happen in Mexico because the floor is "too dirty" or spirits will get into my bag and steal my money.  It's just another of those funny little cultural norms that I've had to get used to, but that I violate in the safety of my own bedroom every day).

We didn't arrive at Borderlinks in Tucson until 10:30 that night, only to discover that we were locked out and needed to wait for a staff member to arrive and let us in.  In those 15 minutes of waiting, I realized that we were going to have a cold week ahead of us!  It's about 90 degrees in Cuernavaca now, so the 35 degree winter night in Tucson was a bit of a shock!

Day 2: Douglas, AZ and Agua Prieta, Sonora

Our day started ridiculously early, with a 6 am departure from Tucson for our 2 1/2 hour drive to Douglas.  First stop: Frontera de Cristo.  Frontera de Cristo is a bi-national Presbyterian ministry that works to address physical and spiritual needs of people on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.  They're affiliated with a lot of non-profit groups in Douglas and Agua Prieta and helped connect us these groups.  Mark took us out to the wall and gave our group a basic orientation to the features of the wall and some of the challenges migrants face when attempting to cross the border.  Among them: sections of the wall made taller, security cameras that have a 3 mile radius, floodlights that keep the wall lit up in Douglas all night, sections of the fence that are only designed to stop cars.  The taller wall has done little, if anything, to deter migrants from attempting to cross.  Rather, it has made the crossing more dangerous and they are seeing more broken bones as a result of falls.  I was also struck by the design of the fence: it's made up of poles that are easy to see between, so people living close to the border can easily see their neighbors through the fence.

This section of the wall was recently made taller.

This was left behind by a migrant

An example of the vehicle obstruction fences - designed to stop cars rather than individual migrants from crossing
Our next stop was the Douglas Border Patrol Station.  The Douglas station is responsible for 40.5 linear miles of border and 1450 square miles of mountainous terrain.  Our visit to the Border Patrol was...interesting.  We were all a little disappointed with how rushed the tour felt; our tour guide (a public relations agent) didn't always go into a lot of detail.  But seeing the realities of the Border Patrol trucks, which sometimes carry up to 10 migrants in a small holding area in the back and hearing about the level of discretion each agent has in choosing what weapons to carry and how to supply their own truck made it easy to see how reports of abuse by Border Patrol agents happens.  Not that this always happens, but we were told that it's up to each agents as to if the holding area is air conditioned or heated, what amount of food is carried, what types of first aid supplies are on board, and what methods each agent will use to control a large migrant group.  This can lead to a large variety in the level of treatment migrants might receive.  The Border Patrol agent also explained that the official U.S. policy is to use the mountains and desert as a "lethal deterrent" to dissuade migrants from attempting to cross.  The theory is that this threat of death in the desert will slow the number of migrants, but this hasn't been the case.  Instead, there has been a spike in the death counts because migrants are being pushed further and further away from the cities into the most dangerous areas of the desert.

After meeting with the Border Patrol we crossed the border into Mexico for lunch and a visit to a community garden with DouglaPrieta Works.  Delicious chiles rellenos and a cold and windy visit to a community garden with crops, chickens, and rabbits. DouglaPrieta Works, along with Café Justo, a visit later in the afternoon, work to provide a more sustainable livelihood for Mexicans in the area.  Café Justo is a coffee roasting company that provides wages far above the level of fair trade.  By doing so, they hope to create more economic opportunities in Mexico so people don't have to migrate to the U.S.  A recurring theme of our visits to organizations was the fact that many Mexicans don't want to be in the U.S.  Many people would rather be home, with their families, in their home communities, but they can't because of the economic opportunity in the U.S.  By providing better economic opportunities in Mexico, Café Justo tries to allow more families to stay together in Mexico.

One of my favorite visits of the day was the Centro de Recursos Para Migrantes, aka the Migrant Resource Center.
It's literally the first thing you see after you get through customs and enter Mexico and is located just feet across the border.  The resource center is often the first stop for migrants who have been repatriated back to Mexico after being caught by the Border Patrol; they are escorted to the border by Border Patrol agents and then left to fend for themselves with no resources of their own.  That's where the resource center comes in.  Migrants can stop by for a warm place to sit, a burrito, water and coffee, a clean pair of socks, new shoelaces, free or reduced bus tickets back to their place of origin in Mexico.  Some migrants come in looking for a way home, others just stop by for a quick snack before looking to reconnect with their coyote for another attempt at crossing the border.  When we were visiting, there were 20 or so people waiting for their bus ticket from the Mexican government so they could return home to their families.

I still can't get the image of the pair of men who arrived near the end of our visit.  They appeared to be father and son, and it was clear they had just been returned by the Border Patrol.  As they sat down to eat a sandwich, I couldn't help but notice their shoes.  The younger man had on a pair of orange and white Nikes that were missing their shoelaces.  It's common for Border Patrol agents, when apprehending a group of migrants, to gather the shoelaces of the migrants as a deterrent to running away.  The image of the shoes without their laces stuck with me, and just made it that much more real.  U.S. border policies aren't an abstract thing.  They directly impact thousands of people every day, thousands of individuals who might be sitting down eating a burrito right about now.

Our last visit of the day was to CAME, the Centro de Atención al Migrante "Exodus," a migrant shelter in Agua Prieta.  We ate dinner with migrants, some of whom had been deported and were heading home, and others who were on their way to the United States.  We were so privileged to hear the stories of these people!  The man Casey and I sat with at dinner shared his story with us (we unfortunately didn't catch his name).  He's lived in Boca Raton, FL for over 20 years, and has a Cuban wife and an American-born son who both have U.S. citizenship.  A little while ago he returned to Mexico to help care for a sick family member, and was then returning to Florida to be with his family when his car blew a tire outside of Tucson.  A police officer stopped to help him with his car, discovered his immigration status, and he was returned to Mexico.  When we met him, he was in CAME working on crossing again so he could return to his family. 

This was such a heartbreaking story to hear.  It put an individual face on some of the injustice of U.S. immigration policy.  This man has lived in the U.S. for his entire adult life, but he must live in fear everyday that some freak event will occur that will allow him to be deported.  His wife is a Cuban immigrant, who received asylum simply by setting foot on U.S. soil.  His college aged son is a citizen by virtue of being born in the U.S.  This man was so calm and so quiet, but it was clear he was working as hard as he could to get back to his family and his home.  As we were leaving I had to wish him safe travels, and that I hoped he would make it home.  For me, in this case, U.S. border policy that intends to close our borders doesn't matter.  What matters is reuniting a man with his family.

More reflections from the border to come!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Border Immersion, Part 1

This is the first of many posts to come from the 2013 Border Immersion!  We traveled to Arizona to spend a week visiting and learning about the U.S.-Mexico border.  It was an intense and emotional experience, and one that will stick with me forever.  To start off the reflecting, here are a few pictures:

Our first morning in Douglas, AZ we visited the wall that marks the border between Mexico and the U.S.  It's incredibly intimidating, and stretches out as far as the eye can see.  On the U.S. side the wall is lit up by bright lights and closely monitored by surveillance cameras with a 3 mile range.  Border Patrol trucks are a common sight.  Douglas, AZ is the city on the right side of the fence, and Agua Prieta, Sonora is the city on the left side of the fence.  Due to its construction, you can see through the fence.  So people living close to the border can wake up every morning to literally see the homes of their neighbors on the other side of the fence.

Catie looking up at the fence.  This section of the fence was recently rebuilt, and was made even taller.  However, everyone we talked to, Border Patrol agents included, admitted that the fence doesn't stop any migrants from crossing.  It might slow them down, and there has been a drastic increase in the amount of injuries from the fence (broken legs, sprained ankles, etc.).  But the people who are crossing are so desperate that even the threat of injury from the fence, a criminal deportation, or death in the desert is not enough to dissuade them from crossing in search of a better life.
We woke up on Tuesday morning to snow in Douglas.  Coming from Cuernavaca's heat, the desert felt especially cold.  But we had met with migrants the night before who were planning on crossing, and most of them were just wearing a hooded sweatshirt and jeans.  No one was expecting snow.  Waking up to snow, I couldn't stop thinking about all the migrants who slept or walked through the snow in the desert the night before.  It must have been a miserable night.

Painted on the wall of a community center in Agua Prieta.  It reminded me of a quote that stood out to me in The Devil's Highway, that came from St. Toribio's "Prayer for Crossing Without Papers."  "I believe I am a citizen of the world, and of a church without borders."

Another view through the wall.  The landscape is exactly the same on either side.  Lethal desert that has killed thousands of migrants.

While walking in the desert we kept coming across items left behind by migrants as proof of their journey.  The most common items to see were bottles - bottles of water, of pop, of beer.  But we also ran across backpacks, clothing, deodorant tubes, combs, even part of a ladder.  Our guides could tell just by looking at jugs of water how long ago the migrant had passed through.

This is a political cartoon that was on the wall in Borderlinks, which was the organization we stayed with in Tuscon.  Our country's economy relies so much on undocumented labor.  Undocumented workers pick our crops and cook our food.  Without them, costs to consumers would be far higher than we are currently willing to pay.  But at the same time, we have in place a system that punishes workers for being undocumented while still desperately needing them.  The ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, formerly the INS: Immigration and Naturalization Service) agent we spoke to also discussed this a bit.  He mentioned that if we gave everyone papers, then they would move to a new job with better pay and better benefits, leaving behind a job that another undocumented worker would take.  It's a vicious cycle.

This is part of a monument for migrants who have died while crossing the desert.  Each rock holds the name of an individual who died, while the unknown deaths are marked simply by "Desconocido" (unknown).

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


This is a hard post to write. 


 Mexican immigration. 

There are so many negative connotations about this floating around in the the American consciousness right now.  You only need to read the comments section of an article about Obama's push for immigration reform to see some of the sheer hatred, racism, and misinformation that many Americans feel.  From where I sit right now, it's hard to see the justification for some of these comments, if there even is one.  Everyone has a story of crossing to the U.S., of trying to earn a living wage, of walking through the desert, of applying for visas at the U.S. embassy. 

One of my previous co-workers was shot and paralyzed while trying to help someone being robbed.  He was shot while being in the U.S. without papers.  Does this mean that he is an evil individual without regard for U.S. law?  I don't think so.  Was he taking an "American" job?  Sure.  Was it a job that a U.S. citizen wanted to perform?  Probably not.  This issue is complicated and far more muddled than most people want to see. 

Let me help you clear up some myths about Mexican immigration, as I see it:

Myth 1: Mexican immigrants take American jobs.
 Yes, technically undocumented Mexican workers are working in American jobs, that theoretically U.S. citizens could be working at.  But the reality is that most undocumented workers are working jobs for pay that American citizens are unwilling to work them at.  Last summer a lot of the Washington asparagus crop didn't get harvested, because there weren't enough workers willing to spend all day cutting asparagus.  A couple of years ago Stephen Colbert talked about immigration on his show, and put out a job application for a farm worker, doing the type of work many undocumented Mexican workers do.  Only a handful of people applied.  Even documented Mexicans aren't usually willing to do this work; if they can get a legitimate waged job, that's what a lot of people are going to choose.

Myth 2: Undocumented immigrants cost American taxpayers thousands of dollars a year.
Luis Alberto Urrea discusses the financial costs vs. benefits of undocumented workers in the U.S. in his book The Devil's Highway (check out the final chapter of the book for a good breakdown on these issues).  According to the Center for Immigration Studies, the average adult Mexican immigrant costs taxpayers $55, 200 over a lifetime.  Urrea breaks this down further though: those $55,000 equal social services that immigrants use and don't pay for.  However, most migrants pay federal and state income taxes and social security out of their paychecks, and they won't be filing for a tax refund or be receiving the social security later on.  Regardless of where your income is coming from, everyone pays sales tax, and everyone has to buy food and pay for rent somewhere, which again fuels the economy and pays for services that likely won't be taken advantage of.  Undocumented workers are also far less likely to attempt to access social services for fear of being deported.  The American Graduate School of International Management found out that in 2002, Mexican immigrants paid $600 million in taxes, but received only about $250 million in social services.  That means that the U.S. financially profits from undocumented immigrants.  The same study reported that Arizona annually receives $8 billion in economic impact from their relationship with Mexico.

Myth 3: Mexican immigrants are going to take over the U.S.!
You've probably heard the statistic that in 20 years or so, people of Caucasian descent will no longer be the majority in the U.S., and that Hispanics are the fastest growing minority.  I have no reason to doubt these statistics, but there was actually a net loss in the number of Mexicans in the U.S. in 2012, as more people returned to Mexico voluntarily or were deported (Obama is actually the president with the most deportations, despite calls for immigration reform) than actually entered the country.

Americans need to understand the situation around Mexican immigration, and understand the role the U.S. has played in encouraging some of this migration.  Minimum wage in Mexico is 60 pesos a day, which comes to 1200 pesos a month, or about $100.  It's not surprising, then, that many Mexicans look to well-paying jobs in the U.S., where they can make more in an hour than they could in an entire day.  For families fighting for their lives, this sort of decision makes sense, and I don't want to judge someone who has to choose whether to feed their family or cross into the U.S. without papers.  As Americans, we also need to recognize how U.S. policy has played into this.  (I wrote a little about this after our November retreat.)  NAFTA and other economic policies screwed the Mexican economy and helped lead to some of these conditions, while at the same time U.S. immigration policy changed, which forced immigrants to go through the most dangerous parts of the desert and has resulted in thousands of deaths

During our retreat, Andrea handed out copies of the ELCA's social message on immigration as a way to help us frame some of our thoughts and reflections.  Reading this document, it was helpful to realize that my church recognizes the brokenness of the system and the need to advocate for immigration reform, along with our responsibility to care for our neighbor and those who appear to be strangers in our midst, recalling that we are an immigrant country and an immigrant church.  "Recalling that our families were once the 'stranger' - and remembering our Lord's call to love our neighbor as ourselves - can expand our moral imagination, enable us to see the new 'stranger' as our neighbor, and open us to welcome today's newcomers" (2). 

I'm not writing this post to tell you to support the immigration of undocumented Mexican workers to the U.S.  Clearly, this is a complicated issue, but I hope we can come together anyways, and work for justice for all people.

I hope we can continue to extend support to our neighbors who have immigrated, whether they have come with papers or without papers.

I hope we can continue to advocate for economic justice for all people, including our Mexican neighbors.

I hope we can agree that separated families are a bad thing, and we should work to keep families together.

I hope we can work for better solutions than sending thousands of people to die in desert in search of a better life.