Day 5: Border Awareness Experience, Nov. 3, 2017
by Kathy Sevig
“ . . . in the end understanding simply means having empathy for people.”
From Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
Border Patrol Guard: “How long is this going on?”
Dan: “If I am steadfast and strong enough, my whole life, I hope.”
Meditation in the Desert near Sunland Park, NM, and Border Wall
This is our last full day. Father Bob drives us to the desert divided by the 18 foot high border fence—El Paso on our side, Juarez on the other side. “We are on a spiritual quest to walk the steps of the displaced,” Father Bob, our host for the week, explains. We all go our separate ways, looking for a solitary spot to sit quietly and reflect on being in this place where so many migrants have walked and died, searching for the promised land. The same children we saw on Tuesday on the other side press their faces against the narrow openings between the steel poles of the wall and shout, “Gringa, Gringa!”
Through the opening I see a church with a cross pointing to the sky. I sit down under a prickly bush and hear the whistle of a freight train hurtling by, piercing the stillness. It is a startling juxtaposition of spirituality and materialism: On the Mexican side the cross, a symbol of Jesus who lived among and ministered to the poor; on the United States side, a train hauling material goods from factories to be sold for profit.
The sun beats down, the dry brush pokes my bare legs, an ant scurries by. Trash litters the ground, perhaps discarded by a migrant. A flock of birds suddenly flies up, startling me. I am faced with the challenge of returning home and doing something about what I have seen, heard, and felt. The words of the song we sang at our morning reflection run through my mind, “Here am I Lord, Send me.”
A horn honks, a signal to return to the van. We sit in a circle and reflect on our experience. Dan is not back so we wait. Soon he comes walking back across the tracks. He had been stopped by a border patrol guard who asks, “What are you doing here?”
“We are a faith group, walking the steps of the displaced,” Dan answers.
“How long is this going on?”
“If I am steadfast and strong enough, my whole life I hope,” Dan replies.
“OK, let’s get to the point.” The border patrol guard does not know this is the point: to go home and do something to help the people who have walked in this place but find nowhere to go.
Three border patrol cars pull up and stop, watching us. We know the desert has buried sensors and cameras pointing at us from the fence and the surrounding hills and mesa. Father Bob tells us that drones often circle above searching for migrants.
Deb says she immediately lost sight of everyone. Running through her mind were the words migrants must have thought: “What I am looking for must be here, take one step at a time, keep walking.” Father Bob recalls the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years; the clouds on top of the mountains are a reminder that God is near. The bushes remind Joe of the voice of God coming to Moses from the burning bush. He wonders, “If the bushes could talk, what stories would they tell us?”
Stephanie recalls the words of the song, “He was weeping over Jerusalem . . . because they could not see God’s Grace.” If Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell could be brought here, would it change their hearts? Ellen captures the reverence we feel being in this place where so many migrants have died trying to reach the promised land: “We are standing on Holy ground, and I know there are angels all around. We are standing in His presence on holy ground.” We file into the bus quietly and return to El Paso.
Talk by Reuben Garcia, Founder of Annunciation House
Since 1978, Annunciation House has been a house of hospitality to the very poorest of the poor in El Paso. Reuben Garcia, the house director for 40 years, explains that the house gives temporary hospitality to refugees and immigrants who find themselves on the border. Under Trump, US border policy has changed concerning what happens to immigrants when they get here because enforcement of immigration law has become most important.
Reuben receives never-ending calls and texts every day from Immigration. “Yesterday ICE called asking to drop off 60 people; the day before it was forty people.” He never knows from one day to the next how many people will be coming so the logistics of being ready with food and shelter for an unknown number of people every day is difficult. “If I do not take them, they will be sleeping in the streets.”
Reuben’s phone rings. “Excuse me. I must take this call because it is immigration.” ICE explains that they have a young, pregnant girl and want to know where to take her. “Send her to Casa Vita at four o’clock this afternoon; they will be ready for her.” She and other immigrants will move on to friends and relatives in the US who must send money for tickets to travel. After arrival, they may wait years for their asylum hearing.
The reality of immigrants is very different now because the language coming from Trump and many in the government is relentless and paints one group—immigrants—as criminals. “This characterization and denigration of one group of people is not new,” Reuben explains. “The ‘brush’ gives us a way to justify to ourselves what we do to immigrants—what could be called racism. We all live together on this earth and we all share one pie. The problem is our huge slice of the pie limits ‘the other’ to a tiny sliver. Trump and others want to talk about immigrants as murderers and rapists to distract us from how our economic system and our economic privilege perpetuate the system.”
Reuben goes on to explain the meaning of Prosecutorial discretion in immigration. A couple left Guatemala 12 years ago; they now have 4 children—who because they were born in the US—are US citizens. The couple is undocumented, but they are working to support their family and are law-abiding. One day the husband and wife are detained by ICE, charged with illegal entry, now a felony, and put into deportation. They are two of the 11,000,000 undocumented immigrants Trump is talking about. If you look back at several administrations before Trump, ICE was really looking for rapists and murderers; they were not interested in law-abiding, hard-working people who had been in the US for years. Obama and several presidents before him ordered prosecutorial discretion to be used in a situation like the Guatemalan couple: they were not to be bothered by ICE.
Enter Trump. He rescinded Obama’s order of prosecutorial discretion and issued a new order to open all these cases and deport anyone who is undocumented; thus the Guatemalan couple are deported and their children, who are US citizens, are left behind.
Another heartbreaking story is of a woman in Guatemala with three children. Her husband died, she can’t support her children, and hoping for a better life, she crosses the border and makes her way to Chicago. She gets a job and sends money back to her mother in Guatemala who is caring for her children, ages 2, 4, and 6. Several years pass. One day in Guatemala, the brother sees guys whistling at his sister and fears she will be taken away, raped, and killed—which commonly happens to young girls.
The Mom in Chicago looks for a smuggler and pays him $4,000 per child for them to be smuggled across the border. However, the kids get caught by the border patrol and their case is transferred to Chicago. Trump and Sessions have given the order to ICE to detain the kids, interview them, and bring charges against their mother for trafficking her children. It is a tragedy that could have been averted if prosecutorial discretion had not been rescinded by the Trump administration.
Trump has also ended the Dream Act (DACA) ordered by Obama because Trump and Sessions want to use it as leverage to get severe enforcement at the border. Sessions also wants to tighten the parameters of giving asylum to people who have come across the border to escape violence because their lives are in danger. Session says immigrants are using their asylum requests simply as a way to stay in the US. There are only five immigration judges in El Paso and they deny 95% of all asylum requests; Sessions thinks the 5% needs to be tightened more. It has always been extremely difficult to win asylum; Sessions has made it impossible.
Extortion gangs in Mexico are insidious. Reuben tells of a father who was being extorted by a man who called on the phone and said, “I saw your daughter today. She had a beautiful dress on. I will protect your lovely daughter for a price.” The extortionist kept raising the price and the father could no longer pay. One day while the family was out for a ride, a hit gang pulled up and shot the father and the couple’s ten-month-old baby through the head. The mother quickly buried her husband and her baby in Juarez, crossed the border illegally, and was given temporary shelter at Blessed Sacrament.
She was in shock. Because she was in such a rush, she had no time to put a marker on her baby’s grave. She was in agony because she felt she had abandoned her baby. Reuben tried to dissuade her from going back to place a marker on the grave. “You saw the shooter and could identify him. You will be at great risk and will most likely be killed if you go back.” Reuben did not tell her that if she stayed, she would never have won her asylum case despite the terrible violence she fled in Juarez. Jeff Sessions has made sure of that. She went back anyway and Reuben does not know what happened to her.
Reuben does not mince words. When people flee this violence in fear for their lives and cross the border for asylum, we have acquiesced to the present reality in the United States. We simply say, “They broke the law and laws must be obeyed.” If we are honest we must admit it is not that “laws must be obeyed” but because we want to keep our share of the pie. We are good at being charitable—having clothing drives and collecting money to help immigrants. But we are unwilling to risk; rather we compromise.
Reuben reminds us, “Two women found the courage to stand at the foot of the cross when Jesus was crucified; all of the men ran away. You all must ask yourselves if you are willing to stand at the foot of the cross with all that implies. Donald Trump did not get into office alone. Sixty million Americans said, ‘This is who we want.’ I have told you these stories today because I want you to know why I do what I do. What does it mean to you to stand at the foot of the cross?”
We ask, “When we go back home to our own communities, what can we do?” First, he tells us that we must find out the reality of immigrants in our community: Who are they? What do they need? How are they living? Are they eating? Are their children in school? Have they been vaccinated? We need to give them practical help by opening food and clothing banks at our churches. Then we need to find legal resources to help immigrants in court. We can volunteer to do analysis of what dangers they face and identify documents that need to be translated. Immigration lawyers have enormous loads, and we can volunteer to help them with research and anything else they simply do not have the time to do.
Deb asks, “What do I do when I get back to my bakery coffee group and people think it's easy to solve these problems?” Reuben tells her she must simply ask them what they want rather than what they think because arguments solve nothing. Then she can tell them what she learned at the border and what she wants. Reuben concludes, “We cannot change them but only speak our truth. It is their right to choose.”
We ask Reuben what we can do to help support Annunciation house. “We are on the front lines; our building is so old that it doesn’t meet code. We are raising $1,000,000 to renovate it. We are not asking the government or NGO’s to help because we want to be our own masters. We have raised $420,000 since May of 2016 and you can help us with your donations. You can also volunteer to work at Annunciation House. Everyone working here is a volunteer. Many volunteer for a year for more, but anyone can volunteer for as long a time as they are able.
As we leave, Reuben’s stories of the real face of immigration stay with us. In our morning reflection we sang this hymn: “Here am I, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.” Do we mean what we sing?
Participation in two Eucharists at the El Paso Processing Center
We drive up to the detention center which is a prison. Large white buildings are surrounded by fences with barbed wire on the top. Border patrol and ICE cars and vans fill the parking lot. We file inside the office, turn in our passports, and sign a ledger so the guard can match our signatures to the signature on our passport. She places yellow bands around our wrists, and we are led through a security gate, give our names to a guard behind a screened window, and then are taken into a large auditorium where mass is held.
Flags from other countries are displayed on both sides and across the front of the room. The US flag hangs in back of the room. The room is filled with male prisoners in blue, orange, and red jumpsuits. As the priest leads the service, they sit reverently and listen carefully. A detainee in a red jumpsuit plays the guitar and the men sing enthusiastically songs they know well. After mass, we hand out plastic rosaries to the men who want them; as they leave they shake our hands and thank us for coming.
The women’s mass is next. Women in the detention center are at least 18 years old; many of them look no more than 12. They also listen intently to the priests words and sing enthusiastically. The priest invites us to pass the peace, and I turn around to greet the woman behind me. She is sobbing, I reach out to hug her; she puts her arms around me tightly and sobs, whispering to me in Spanish. I don’t understand what she is saying but tears run down my face as I whisper back, “te amo,” which is “I love you,” in Spanish. I think about the stories I have heard about women who have crossed the border. “What is her story?”
When the mass is over, I turn around to say goodbye to the women. The woman behind me is still sobbing; I hug her tightly and tell her once more, “te amo.” One by one the women pass our group and give us hugs, many with tears in their eyes. I whisper “te amo” to each one of them. The truth of “immigration enforcement” is in the faces of these women who have fled violence and asked for asylum, crossed the border so they can provide for their children, or have come to join family members already in the US. We know all will most likely be deported to the country they have left.
As we drive away from the detention center with tears in our eyes, I think of the prayer Dan read to us:
“We ask for courage to protect the powerless, but we prefer to remain safe, preserving ourselves for future challenges. You ask us to speak out for justice, but we whisper, in case we are heard. You ask us to stand up for what is right, but we would rather blend into the crowd. You ask us to have faith, when doubting seems so much easier. Lord forgive us for our calculated efforts to do your work on earth only when it is convenient to do so, only in those places where it is safe, only with those who make it easy to do so. Let us go the other way—to make an effort to put on decency, graciousness, patience, humility, and courage to seek a purity of heart that is stable and everlasting.”
Border patrol guard: “How long is this going on?” May each of our answers be Dan’s answer: “If I am steadfast and strong, my whole life, I hope.”