Day 1: Border Awareness Experience, October 30, 2017
by Kathy Sevig
“This is what I saw, this is what I heard, this is what I felt,” put into focus for me and for our group the meaning of this week’s Border Awareness Experience in El Paso, TX. Shared by Vicki, these words provide a framework for our first day, October 30, 2017. We begin the day by sharing our expectations and our fears of the coming week. Our expectations include gaining a deeper understanding of the complexities of immigration through our experiences, correcting false assumptions that we hold, gaining knowledge to speak more credibly about immigration when we return to our own communities, and challenging ourselves to act on what we have learned. Our fears include speaking our truth when we return home without judgment and with the goal of “doing no harm.”
Presentation by US Border Patrol
Our Introduction to the week is a trip to the border where two border patrol agents, Oscar Cervantes and Joe Reyes, meet us, give us an overview of their 19 weeks’ training, their responsibilities as border patrol agents, and their personal experiences. What we see is a large sandy field off the highway which faces a border fence, a canal, the dry bed of the Rio Grande River, and the rugged, brown mountains in the distance—so different from the green we have just left behind in Minnesota and North Dakota.
What we hear is how they were trained to use firearms, taught to drive in all weathers on all terrains, and instructed in first responder and search and rescue techniques. Joe tells us that in the 15 years of being a border patrol agent he has pulled his firearm only once: he attempted to stop the driver of a van who turned out to be a smuggler, but the man escaped in his van after dropping off 15 undocumented immigrants in the US. Oscar has never drawn his firearm in the 9 years he has been with the agency.
Joe also relates the story of a BP agent tying a rope around his waist and jumping into the canal to save a man who had refused to grab the rope thrown to him and was being pulled underground by the undertow. The agent pulled him out at the last minute, one of 40 people rescued from the canal in 2017. Nine people have drowned in the canal this year when the current pulled them underground. Joe’s story reinforces the idea that border patrol agents’ jobs are to deter and stop undocumented immigrants from entering the United States illegally, but they also try to be humane and do everything in their power to save lives of immigrants in danger.
ICE handles long term detentions, patrols the skies, and handles field operations including cargo and ports of entry. BP agents, because they wear official uniforms, are the face of immigration and often are held responsible for things that are done by ICE agents.
BP agents are most interested in capturing the smugglers and seeing them prosecuted because they are responsible for bringing undocumented immigrants into the country. If they can stop the smugglers, they can stop the flow of immigrants trying to enter the US. It is difficult, however, because the smugglers have frightened the people they are smuggling by threatening to hurt their families back home if they talk to the BP agents and identify their smugglers. Only two percent of detainees are drug smugglers; the rest are seeking asylum, trying to rejoin family members living in the US, or trying to find better economic opportunities for themselves and their families.
Repeat offenders are either taken to the airport and flown back to their home country or returned to their country by BP agents. First time offenders with no criminal records can request a hearing with a judge; however, since there are only 260 immigration judges in the US, detainees are held two to three years in a detention center waiting for their hearing. Because of a strange quota law, 34,000 undocumented immigrants must be held in detention centers at all times. ICE manages these centers, not the BP.
According to Oscar, being a BP agent is stressful; the border patrol is the largest law enforcement agency in the US, and it also has the highest percentage of suicides. Now they have a chaplaincy as well as counseling and support to help agents deal with stress. Finally, we hear a plea for us to call and write our Senators and representatives in order to give the BP agents a voice. “We are never listened to,” Oscar and Joe lament, “so you must be our voice and demand immigration reform.”
What I feel listening to them is how demanding their jobs are, the weight of responsibility they feel to uphold the law but also to be humane, and their frustration at being misunderstood and blamed for things they feel they are not responsible for. From where I sit, looking at the empty land, dry river bed, and rugged mountains in the distance, I understand the difficulty of the task they have been given—detecting and detaining 60 to 70 people a day in this vast area stretching for276 miles along the west Texas and New Mexico border.
Presentation at the Women’s Intercultural Center by director, Mary Carter
Our second stop is the Women’s Intercultural Center opened by the Sisters of Mercy in 1992 to help undocumented immigrant women overcome their isolation and lack of alternative educational opportunities. The center is a 7,000 square feet, eco-friendly facility constructed of earth and tires. We tour the building and see the thrift shop, art gallery--with a labyrinth patterned after a 5000-year-old labyrinth--displaying art made from recycled materials, a commercial kitchen for cooking classes and preparing communal dinners, an emergency food pantry, an ESL classroom for teaching the citizenship program, a commercial office lent out to whoever needs one, and the healing arts room where reiki and massage therapy are taught.
We listen as Mary Carter, the center’s vivacious director, explains the myriad programs offered to empower women: (1) Alternative Education and Personal Development, (2) Border Awareness to raise border issues and promote cross-cultural dialogue, (3) Consciousness Raising for women to arrive at their own truth, determine a means of action and organization to create and change their lives and their community, and (4) Economic Self-sufficiency by fostering the entrepreneurial spirit of women through developing diverse and creative opportunities and skills that will enable them to support themselves and their families.
Mary tells the story of a 17-year-old girl with three children who was abandoned by her husband and was homeless. Her mother was an alcoholic and the young mother had nowhere to turn. The center gave her counseling services and sent her to a GED program; she gained self-worth and wanted to break the cycle of poverty and victimhood for her daughters. She started an Herbal Life business, remarried, and now is a successful business woman. The center teaches women the law so they learn not to become victims; the programs are solution based, empowering women to solve their own problems. Success is measured by watching women evolve and move on, as the young mother did.
I feel a current of energy running through the center, radiating optimism, joy, and hope. I marvel how Mary and the volunteers are able to do so much with so little money; their vision and determination empowers 3,400 women a year to change their lives and their families’ lives.
Visit to Holy Cross Retreat Center, meeting with Jorge Taborda
Perhaps the most moving experience is meeting Jorge Taborda, an undocumented immigrant from Columbia given sanctuary by Father Tom Smith in the Holy Cross Retreat Center in Mesilla. We see the spacious grounds, the lovely rose garden, and the beautiful chapel which embodied peacefulness. Jorge has lived here since May 9th, 2017, when his nightmare began. He has never left the grounds because he would be captured by ICE and deported immediately.
He entered the US in 1997, escaping a civil war in his country. He and his wife found work here, paid taxes, and raised their two sons. He has volunteered for the Red Cross in disaster areas all over the US: Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, and Harvey to name just a few. On May 9th ICE agents arrived at his house and took his wife to the El Paso detention center where she was held for a month in humiliating and degrading conditions, and then deported her to Columbia. She was not allowed to call a lawyer or talk to her family.
Jorge found out that she was captured and drove to his church where he was given sanctuary by Father Tom. His older son, Jeff, is a Dreamer and his younger son, Steven, was born here so is a US Citizen. The family applied for asylum when they first came, but after 9/11 all asylum applications were denied. Despite letters and phone calls of support, the US government will not listen to Jorge’s pleas to reunite his family. He does not know whether he will ever see his wife again or whether she will ever see her sons again.
We see the tears roll down his cheeks and hear his voice break as he struggles to tell us his story. We feel his pain and agony and we feel our own anger at the heartlessness of our government that will not see his families’ humanity. They have destroyed his family and many families like his—without compassion or mercy—for the sake of politics. We hear his pleas to write and call our Senators and Representatives and tell his story, which is being repeated hundreds of times all over the United States.
Ecumenical Service, 500th Anniversary of the Reformation
The day, already filled with three eye-opening experiences, ends at Sacred Heart Catholic Church where Catholics and Lutherans come together in unity to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It is a fitting close to a day that reinforces our belief that only coming together as fellow human beings will heal us and heal our divided and broken world.