Day 3: Border Awareness Experience, Nov. 1, 2017
by Kathy Sevig
Humankind has not woven the web of life,
We are but one thread within it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.
All things are bound together,
All things connect. Chief Seattle
Day 3 brings to the forefront the powerlessness of immigrants who have left their countries, their friends, and everything they have ever known to find a better life in a country they do not know. They face harsh realities when they arrive: they have come to a country where many of the powerful do not want them; they are disposable. But as Chief Seattle says, the powerless and the powerful are bound together because both are human and both are woven into the web of life. It is the way in which the powerless and the powerful are connected to each other that must be changed.
We visit two service organizations who work in El Paso to change the way the powerless and the powerful are bound together. They fight the powerful, support the powerless, and help them through the desperate situations they face.
Talk by Anna Hey, Deputy Director, Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services
The first organization we visit is the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services (DMRS). We listen to Anna Hey, an immigration lawyer, explain the complexities of our immigration laws and why immigrants are powerless to navigate the broken system on their own. Anna explains to us why she became an immigration lawyer; her father was a citizen so her mother did not worry about becoming a citizen. When Anna’s father died, her mother found herself in the United States without citizenship papers. She was lucky. Because she worked in the Federal Building as a cook, she knew many of the immigration judges who heard immigration cases. She pulled one aside and told him her dilemma. The judge gave her names of people and organizations that could help her navigate the immigration system and obtain her citizenship papers. Because of the help Anna’s mom received, Anna decided to become an immigration lawyer so she could help others the way her mom had been helped.
The DMRS where Anna works is the only full-service immigration legal aid clinic serving low-income immigrants and refugees residing in the Southwestern United States. They offer services to the crime victims’ unit, religious workers’ unit, removal defense unit for both detained and non-detained immigrants, unaccompanied minors’ program, and the legal orientation program.
Anna explains why Attorney General Jeff Session’s answer to immigration, “Stand in line and wait your turn to enter the United States legally,” is not only insensitive but also shows a complete lack of understanding of the way US immigration laws work. The law is as complex as IRS tax law and impossible to navigate without the expertise of immigration lawyers. The complexity begins with understanding the legal ways a person gains citizenship: 1) Be born a citizen, 2) Become a naturalized citizen by being a resident 3/5 years and be able to read, write, and speak English, 3) Inherit citizenship because a relative such as a grandparent or parent has been a citizen.
Privilege has a great deal to do with becoming a resident because the poor do not have the necessary qualifications which include being an investor with a minimum of one million dollars, having extraordinary ability in science, art, education, or athletics, or having a job offer because you possess advanced degrees or have specialized knowledge and skills. You can gain family-based residency if you have a citizen petition for parents, spouses, or children 21 and over.
Because only a limited number of visas are available each year, countries with higher demands face longer waiting periods. For example, if a US citizen mother petitions for her single 21-year-old child born in Mexico, the wait line is 22 years! The mother petitions in 1995 and her petition will not be heard until May of 2017. Often cases progress even more slowly than this because judges get behind and the wait line could extend decades. The system is in dire need of reform and Congress must move past its partisanship and get immigration reform done.
There is another sinister aspect of immigration wait time--economic corruption. Private prisons are in the business for profit and earn up to 195 dollars per day for each immigrant they detain. A luxury hotel would cost no more! In 1996, IRA law criminalized unlawful entry into the US as a felony and said 34,000 undocumented immigrants must be held in detention at all times. One can see the huge profits available to private prisons. Not only are undocumented immigrants held in prison-like detention centers, but also they are labeled with colored uniforms according to their degree of “threat” to the US. Low-threat level detainees wear blue, mid-threat level detainees wear orange, and high-threat level detainees (immigrants who have been convicted of a crime) wear red. It reminds me of the labeling in a concentration camp-- humiliating and degrading. Without immigration lawyers like Anna to help immigrants navigate the system, their situations would be even more hopeless.
Where immigrants are placed by ICE to wait for their asylum hearings also makes a difference in how their cases turn out. In El Paso, only 5% of immigrants are granted asylum whereas in New York City 85% of immigrants are granted asylum. Some judges are also much less likely to grant asylum than others. Detainees have no choice where they are placed or who their judge will be. One can see how powerless an immigrant is in the present system and how arbitrarily his or her case may be decided.
Meeting with La Frontera Farmworker’s Shelter Founder, Carlos Marentes
Our second visit is to La Frontera Farmworkers’ Shelter (Workforce solutions), a program for migrant seasonal farm worker’s services. Farm laborers, both documented and undocumented are powerless. They have no right to join a union or engage in collective bargaining. The purpose of the center is to support these agricultural workers on the border: 80% of US of farm workers are from Mexico and 20% are from Central America and the Caribbean.
We meet founder, Carlos Marentes, and his colleague, Rosemary, a Native American who shared an experience with five members of our group: she had visited the Standing Rock water-rights protests in North Dakota and had personally carried 300 letters written by children from three schools in El Paso. The children wrote that they would share their precious water if they could.
Carlos and Rosemary are giving a bilingual press conference about the fifth annual International Encounter of Migrant and Salaried Workers to be held November 2 – 5 in Juarez, Mexico. One of the main questions to be discussed is “How do we influence society when such a large sector believe in Donald Trump and his anti-immigrant policies and who believe building a border wall is a good thing?” The conference will include analysis of the current immigration system, debate on what can be done, and solutions to solve the crisis.
Carlos explains that immigrants are better off in the US than back home. However, the important questions are “Why do they leave their counties? Who created the conditions that caused them to leave? They once had vibrant local economies, so what happened?” The answer according to Carlos is NAFTA; if we don’t address the cause of immigration, we will never find solutions. We need to look at immigration a different way: it is the result of the destruction of the local economies of Mexico and Latin America. In Mexico there used to be ‘ajilos’ which was land owned by the community, not individuals, who worked together to make decisions about production, but now food is a brand name and finance capital for corporations who try to increase profits by any means possible. Food is now an economic commodity; it is no longer the “bread of life” which is sacred. The production of our food is now an oppressive enterprise that harms the workers. For example, we often wash our food when we get home to remove the chemical sprays, but we forget about the workers who touch the food in the fields, haul it, and arrange it beautifully on the shelves of our grocery stores.
People are now working to solve economic conditions in rural areas. If these problems are solved, people will no longer need to leave their countries to seek economic security or to escape the violence brought on by economic insecurity. Juarez and El Paso are sister cities; sadly, a wall of hatred is dividing them. The wall represents separation and is an act of aggression not only to people but also to the environment. When the wall was built in 2008, for example, concrete pillars poured five feet deep hurt animals that build tunnels to survive in the desert climate. The wall also stops the migration of larger animals. Migrant workers are an invisible part of our society, and it is the workers who must come together and come up with solutions to the universal issues of their human rights.
Migrant workers have incredibly difficult working conditions. They get on the bus in the middle of the night in order to arrive at daybreak; they often cannot bring their own water but have to buy beverages sold by the owners such as coca cola; they must pick produce, fill huge buckets, run to the truck, and dump the buckets. They earn only 70 cents per bucket. To even come close to a minimum wage of $7.50/hour, a worker would have to fill 100 buckets a day! Often they have no place to stay and sleep on pieces of cardboard on the sidewalk. The Center in El Paso evolved because of farm worker strikes in the 1980’s when organizers such as Carlos were trying to unionize the workers. One day a worker told Carlos, “You know what I would rather have? A place to sleep so I don’t freeze at night and food to eat.” Carlos realized that workers had more immediate needs and opened the center in 1996 which relies on community donations to stay open.
Activists such as Anna Hey and Carlos Marentes speak for the powerless by speaking truth to power. They understand how immigrants are made powerless by the immigration system and the migrant farm workers are made powerless by the corporations now controlling our food production whose only concern is for profit and dividends for their investors.
As Chief Seattle said, “All things are bound together, all things connect.” Human rights for immigrants and migrant farm workers, the most powerless people in society, are bound together with the impunity of the powerful, who write the immigration laws and control the economic system. Anna and Carlos shine a light on the evils of the system that binds together these two strata of society for the benefit of the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor and powerless.
“Whatever we do to the web of life we do to ourselves.” We, like Anna and Carlos, must take action to help make the “web of life” whole again for all humanity.