On the Border: Part V

July 17th - Last Day in Arizona

On Friday the 17th, our final day of the trip, we met with a whole host of people of different views to hear about the immigration crisis from all sides.

We started the day with a presentation by an agent from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  ICE is "the principal investigative arm of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the second largest investigative agency in the federal government.  Created in 2003 through a merger of the investigative and interior enforcement elements of the US Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (the former INS), ICE now has more than 20,000 employees in offices in all 50 states and 48 foreign countries" (BorderLinks document).  The agent showed us a slideshow of their work: catching illegal human smugglers, arresting illegal border crossers, targeting drug rings and weapons dealers.  He had photos of drug smugglers using drones, disguised trucks, gliders, even ramps to get trucks over the wall, and tunnels to get under it.  His personal take on the situation is that the drugs and guns are the problem, not the migrants who often get caught in the crossfire.  He thought that the US should focus on cutting down on the demand for illegal drugs, since shutting down the supply chain completely is probably impossible - when there's a will to smuggle drugs, there's a way.  He described joint efforts by the US and Mexico to control smuggling but thought that eliminating demand would be the best way to address it.  He also described the difficulty of working for the federal government, whose priorities change with every new administration, and how he wished there could be consistent immigration policy that would make it easier to enforce the law.

Next up, back at BorderLinks, we met with a representative of Corazon de Tucson (I can't find a website for them but here's a related article), an immigrant rights group that advises its members on how to deal with law enforcement in order to avoid deportation if they are detained.  The representative challenged us to see the conflict over immigration as driven purely by racism, arguing that racism is the root cause and the one thing that needs to be addressed to solve the conflict.  He described how members of the group educate themselves on their rights, carry cards that help remind them what to say (and not say) to law enforcement, and support each other in posting bail (if needed) to get out of detention and fight their cases in the courts.  With local law enforcement working hand-in-hand with federal immigration agents, it can be difficult to protect the rights of people who are stopped at a traffic stop and then asked for their immigration papers.

In the afternoon we were able to see Operation Streamline for ourselves, back at the federal district court.  I have to say that this was one of the most depressing things I've ever seen.  The offenders, looking very bleak, were shackled hand and foot with their attorneys standing behind them.  Chained together in long lines, they stood together in a row as the judge went down the line, asking whether they pleaded guilty or not.  Only one man questioned his sentence, but the judge counseled him not to challenge it, because the cruel irony is that pleading "not guilty" means you wind up spending even longer in prison waiting for your trial than if you simply plead guilty, serve your six months, and are deported.  The man finally seemed to understand and withdrew his protest.  The whole group of fifty or sixty people were sentenced quickly, without commentary, and were led away.  The judge seemed tired but sympathetic to the rows of detainees, but there was nothing he could do differently.  It was clear how easily this system could deny entry to someone who was lawfully in the US, as a relative of a citizen, or an asylum seeker or refugee, if they were not able to communicate well with their public defender.  Operation Streamline has received a good deal of criticism but remains in effect.

Back at BorderLinks we met with another immigration attorney, this time with someone who helps skilled foreigners attempt to immigrate legally.  He explained how long and difficult the process is even if you have work sponsorship, money, and valuable skills.  The current quota system in place makes it particularly difficult to immigrate if you are from India, the Philippines, China, or, of course, Mexico.  He told us stories of weird quirks in the system that prevent people from immigrating, up to and including people who were turned down for no reason at all, since this type of immigration visa is discretionary.  We learned that the wait list for people from some countries is over 20 years long, and only getting longer, with no hope in sight.  (For example, if you are the adult child of a US citizen or permanent resident trying to immigrate from Mexico, the visas currently being processed (as of April 2017) were submitted in 1995 - 22 years ago.)  So to those people who think that illegal immigrants should just "get in line," you should understand that the wait in line is over 20 years long with no guarantee you'll be approved.  At that rate, it's easy to see why some people would risk coming illegally, so they could spend that time with their family.

At the end of the day we went out to dinner and then tried to reflect on everything we'd learned.  My personal takeaway was to try to understand better how we Americans use architecture as a weapon against our neighbors.  The next day, we flew back to California, trying to come to terms with an overload of information and thoughts about the border.


Fast forward to 2017, when I actually finished writing this post (embarrassing, I know).  News about the border wall has been exploding in the media this year, as Voldemort (or 45, as some have taken to calling him) has pressed on with his insane wish to continue building the wall.  Here's a small sampling of NYTimes articles on the subject.  And one more with a shout-out to my senator from California at the end.  While I didn't have much to say or think on the topic of immigration over the last two years, with Voldemort now in power, this issue has become critical.  What especially irritates me is that this "immigration crisis" isn't a real crisis of too many people immigrating.  After the peak of illegal border crossings back in 2005-2006, many fewer people are coming, and the number of illegal immigrants in the US seems to have stabilized since 2009.  One might ask why Voldemort is so keen on building a wall to protect against a "threat" that has already passed - but one might ask a lot of questions about Voldemort and get no answers.

I don't have any answers either, only more questions, and more anger about irrationally spending my tax dollars on violating human rights, degrading the environment, and "solving" a "problem" that doesn't exist.  Further militarization of our southern border will do nothing but cause more deaths of people who have done nothing wrong but try to flee to a country that supposedly welcomes the poor, the homeless, and those seeking freedom from oppression.  Try telling that to Voldemort.

What next?  Architects, tell your friends: Don't build the border wall.  Don't let scare tactics by the new administration convince you that it's needed or that it will be effective.  It's not and it won't be.  Fewer people are coming anyway, thanks to changing economic conditions and rightful fear of the new administration, and to other factors outside its control.  Building the wall will do nothing but leave a bigger, deeper scar on the landscape and leave more bodies in its wake.


What can you do?

  • Call your senators and representative, and tell them to oppose the expansion of the border wall.  Voldemort doesn't have the funding ready, so there's still time to oppose this.
  • Talk to your friends and neighbors, colleagues, church members, or anyone who doesn't know what to think about this issue.  The border wall doesn't affect everyone, so we need to make more people aware of its effects.
  • If you're in the building industry, talk to your colleagues and get them to oppose this project.  If you know anyone who has responded to the RFP (the deadline just passed), talk to them about the risks to their reputation, among other things, of taking on this project.  Ask them to reconsider.  (If you're curious, here's the actual RFP.)  (And in case you missed it, here's the fake IKEA response.)
  • If you're in the vicinity of the border wall, take pictures, talk to people, and share your thoughts with your friends across the country.  Two years ago, I didn't know anything about this issue, and would have been happy to accept whatever argument I heard from the people closest to it - the people who have to live with it every day.  If more people know your story, they can oppose the wall with you.  Guerrilla art also seems to get people's attention.
  • If you want to learn even more or see things for yourself, consider going on a delegation to the border.  BorderLinks is a good place to start.

Back to Part I  - Part II - Part III - Part IV


On the Border: Part IV

July 16th - The Sonoran Desert

For the entire trip, we'd heard about the hazards of crossing the border through the desert, and now it was finally our turn to see what it was like for ourselves.  We drove out to the home of Ed Lord, a member of the Green Valley Samaritans, who lives in an affluent retirement community on the edge of the desert.  The Samaritans are an organization dedicated to saving the lives of people in the desert.  They know the landscape and walk the trails looking for people in need.  We followed him to the home of a friend that adjoins land owned by the local mining company.  During our walk, an enormous plateau of tailings was visible in the distance, like an unnatural ridge, with tiny tractors running across it.

We left early in the morning, around 9 am, and it was already 100 degrees and full sun.  Ed showed us his collection of items he'd found in the desert, dropped by migrants, including clothes, shoes, backpacks, and even a notebook with Spanish-to-English phrases.  He pointed out more items as we walked.  We noted the cow tanks: water left out for cows that is fine for them to drink, but after sitting out for weeks or months, becomes poisonous to humans; unwary migrants have tried to drink this water only to become worse off than before.  We all wore long sleeves and pants to protect against the thorny plants; in this desert, every plant has spines, not just the cacti.  Nearly everyone in our group got spines stuck to their pants or shoes.

The purpose of our walk was to visit the sites where the bodies of three migrants were found back in 2009.  The sites were close together and less than a mile from the ranch where we started.  Only these three people have been found in this area, although from the rubbish along the way, it was clear that many more people had passed through.  The three sites are marked with small crosses and rocks.  It's unknown if the three people, two men and a woman, were traveling together or were related; they have never been identified.

The plants are beautiful despite being dangerous, and the landscape is also beautiful in a severe way.  The ground is rocky and rutted with arroyos (washes) from flash flooding, which is yet another hazard for travelers.  After less than two hours out, we were all sweating through our clothes and drinking water often, and most of the group was exhausted when we returned.  By the end of the walk, I couldn't decide if it was easier now to imagine hiking for three days through this desert to reach Tucson, or even harder to imagine since I had some idea of what it would be like.  What's hardest to imagine is that less than ten years ago, people were dying here in the backyards of wealthy retirees, less than a mile from air conditioning and indoor plumbing.

In the afternoon we stayed inside.  We met with a public defender, Laura, at the US District Court in Tucson.  As a public defender, she represents immigrants detained by Border Patrol and tries to determine their immigration status.  She was an eloquent speaker and made a number of points that I will summarize here.  She spoke forcefully about:

  • The injustice of executive / prosecutorial discretion as an immigration tool, which can arbitrarily allow some immigrants to be released while keeping others in prison
  • The lack of time given to public defenders to meet with their clients, since the attorneys need time to understand who's a citizen or otherwise eligible to stay; who's a refugee or asylee; who's had a concussion or other medical emergency and needs continued care before appearing in court; etc.  All of this has to happen through one or more translators, since most immigrants do not speak English, and many do not speak Spanish but instead speak other indigenous languages of Central America
  • The problem caused by forcing judges and lawyers to spend substantial time sentencing migrants instead of focusing on addressing violent crime, drug smuggling, or other public harms
Her main target of criticism was Operation Streamline, which was a result of the criminalization of illegal border crossing; she said that prior to 2001, being in the county illegally was an administrative offense for not having the right papers, rather than a criminal act.  (More to come on this in my next post.)  Once it became a criminal offense, processing all those criminals was a strain on the judicial system, so Operation Streamline was developed to deport people faster, creating a situation with the potential to violate the human rights of thousands of people.  She asked us to let her know as soon as we figured out immigration reform.  We said we would.

For the rest of the afternoon, we discussed the difference between charity and solidarity, noting that many of the organizations we'd met were asking for the latter - more education, more opportunities to make their voices heard - rather than the former.  And then we made cookies.  Sometimes you really need some cookies at the end of a day of heat stroke and heartbreak.

To be continued in Part V.

Learn more about the Sonoran Desert:


On the Border: Part III

July 15th - Agua Prieta, Mexico

After an uncomfortable night on the floor, we crossed into Mexico to visit several organizations working with migrants on the Mexican side of the border.  The trip across the border into Mexico took no time at all.  Immediately on the other side, we stopped at the Migrant Resource Center (Centro de Recursos para Migrantes), which assists people who have been repatriated by Border Patrols; warns against trying to cross the desert and the hazards there; and helps people return to their homes elsewhere in Mexico.  The workers at the Center told us that lately there have been fewer people trying to cross due to the relatively weak economy, but even while we were there, a woman came in to get help.  The Center documents abuses by Border Patrol during deportation proceedings (lack of medical attention, taking of identification or belongings, violence, etc) and liaises with other organizations to provide comprehensive services for migrants.  The tiny center is doing what it can to stand up to a big problem, since many times, people who are deported back to Mexico are not from anywhere nearby, and have no idea how to return home or where to go after deportation.

View of the US from Mexico.  Welcome to America!

 Our next stop was DouglaPrieta Works, a co-op founded by a Presbyterian group.  Nine families work in the co-op, which farms vegetables, chicken, and rabbits, and teaches sewing and other skills to bring additional income.  The co-op farmstead and the neighborhood around it reminded me of towns I had seen in Guatemala: dirt roads and floors, abandoned tires and trash, and improvised building materials.  It's hard to believe this level of poverty is right across our border -- the lack of adequate municipal services (trash collection and infrastructure repairs, for example) was obvious.  The families in the co-op strive to achieve a better standard of living for their members despite living in a place where the major employers are factories that pay the equivalent of $8 per day.  We had lunch at the co-op main building and then the women of the organization led us on a tour around the farm.  The women spoke about the empowerment they felt at being able to contribute to their families' income by farming and producing sewn items for sale; they had a variety of clothing and decorative items from the sewing efforts.  While we were there, a painter was creating a mural above the front door -- every aspect of the co-op is created and cared for by the group.

After lunch and the farm tour, our next stop was at Cafe Justo (Just Coffee), a coffee co-op again started with assistance from a Presbyterian group, this time using a micro-loan.  The co-op is run by a family which originally wanted to move to the US, but decided they could do more good by staying in Mexico and partnering with other families to produce coffee for export.  Forty families in the state of Chiapas (a major coffee-growing region in Mexico) grow the coffee which is then roasted, packaged, and exported from the facility in Agua Prieta.  Controlling the entire production process allows the co-op to capture most of the value of the coffee, which otherwise goes to the exporter (and to Starbucks).  Their coffee is thus Fair Trade certified, as well as organic, and smelled so good, even to this non-coffee-drinker!  Unfortunately for me, they only sell coffee (it is, after all, "just" coffee) so I didn't buy anything there.  The workers explained that by running their co-op they could provide living wages to all the families involved, so that they could remain in their homes and avoid having to move away to seek work.  We toured their production facility and shop.  A new coffee shop was under construction, where they hoped to be able to employ local youth and provide a safe place for them to gather off the street.

Before heading back to the US, we stopped on the Mexican side of the border wall.  By chance, we encountered a woman who was visiting the shrine of her 16-year-old nephew who had been killed by Border Patrol on the Mexican side of the border.  She told us that her family was trying to sue in the US for justice and invited us to an event happening later that week.  We had to decline due to our schedule.  She was grateful to know that there are people like us who are trying to educate ourselves about the violence at the border so that her nephew is not forgotten.  We were all thankful for the chance to have met her and to hear from someone directly touched by the conflict.  Looking around, the houses along the border street appeared militarized, with tall fences, gates, shrubs, and trees blocking any view from the wall; it must be incredibly difficult to live along that road, with the ever-present possibility of gunfire when the Border Patrol pursues a suspect.  It's hard for me to imagine living in a place where a teenager could be shot on your doorstop at any time.

Back across the border we went, which took much longer than the trip over, as US Customs inspected our passports and vehicle.  We returned to BorderLinks and readied ourselves for the next day.

To be continued in Part IV.

Want to support the organizations we visited?


On the Border: Part II

It's been over a year since my last post about my trip to the US-Mexico border, but I'm finally getting around to posting the rest of my thoughts and photos.  If you want to remind yourself why this is an important topic (aside from the election-year immigration hype), check out the following short documentary.  Thousands of unaccompanied minors are still trying to cross into the US from Honduras and Central America.

Between Borders: American Migrant Crisis (New York Times)

July 14th - Douglas, AZ

Our second day at BorderLinks had us up early and on the road to Douglas, Arizona, a border town that neighbors the larger town of Agua Prieta in Mexico.  During the two-hour drive, we stopped at Tombstone, AZ, a laughable tourist trap where there was once a pointless gunfight that for some reason has become famous.  We wandered around for a bit, marveling at the racist stereotypes on display in the shop windows, before finishing our trip to Douglas.

Douglas is a town of about 18,000 people, while neighboring Agua Prieta has around 80,000 people.  Our first stop in Douglas turned out to be lunch with the mayor, Danny Ortega Jr.  (Mayor Ortega has since stepped down, deciding not to pursue another term.)  Our meeting was arranged by Frontera di Cristo, a Presbyterian-founded border ministry, which assists with outreach events like this one.  Mayor Ortega had grown up in the area and remembered what the towns were like before the border walls were built.  Understandably, his primary concern seemed to be economic progress, and he said that he was pushing for an upgrade to the port to make trade easier.  The economy of Douglas relies heavily on Agua Prieta because it is so much smaller, and he described how the two towns would sponsor joint events in the years before the wall.  Now his town was suffering because of the trade and travel restrictions it imposed.

After lunch, and much discussion of the wall, we finally got to see the border wall for ourselves.  We met with Jack Knox, a retired Mennonite minister who is active in trying to care for migrants and advocating for more humane immigration practices.  He and his wife Linda visit the wall every day to pray and look for people in distress.  He described the various forms that the wall takes, and we drove along it, able to see it for ourselves.  Closest to the official border crossing (the port), the wall is double-layered, metal and mesh, and very tall.  From there it transitions to a tall steel panel wall, then to vehicle barricades, and finally to a simple fence.  The road along the fence creates a scar on the landscape that seems to have no end.  US Customs & Border Patrol is stationed along its length every few hundred yards - at least near the town - in their white and green trucks, watching it.  Our little group grew exhausted from the heat after being outside only a few minutes in the brutal July sun.  We would learn later about the many casualties, often youths, who have been shot while climbing the wall, including American citizens.  The Border Patrol often cannot tell the difference between American and Mexican citizens, and the shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality that seems to be shaking the nation this year appears to be quite common at the border.

The net result of this mish-mash of walls, fencing, and barricades is that people trying to cross illegally into the US are attempting their crossings further and further out in the desert, where the crossing is less guarded but more physically difficult.  I do not believe that people will stop trying to cross even if we were to build a massive wall all the way along the border.  (Based on our later meeting with Border Patrol, it appears that determined people have found plenty of ways to subvert the walls we do have.)  Instead, the walls seem to cause needless deaths from exposure as the most vulnerable people try to cross in the least safe locations.  Looking out at the desert, it seemed insane to try to build a wall along the entire length of the border.  What good would it do?  People in desperation always find a way over, under, or around any obstacle.  The harms, on the other hand, seem very concrete: more people dying, a massive waste of resources, and environmental degradation.  This architectural obstacle is a fool's solution to the problem of immigration, which is really caused by grinding poverty and systemic violence.  Unless we solve those root problems, erecting higher and longer walls will do nothing but hurt more people.

We spent a short time at Frontera di Cristo's offices afterwards to cool down, then attended the border vigil that Jack and Linda host every week.  They said that in all the many years they have been doing this, they have never had to hold the vigil by themselves; someone else always shows up.  That week, it was our group and a few others.  We walked down the main road leading to the border crossing and laid crosses on the sidewalk in memory of those who have died in the desert trying to reach safety in the US.  We laid over 200 crosses, but there have actually been many more deaths than that.  While we walked, it started to rain, and the smell of rain and cars was very strong.  It was the first time I had seen rain for some time, and I still remember feeling grateful for it.

We had dinner at Jack and Linda's home, then spent the night at the house of a sympathetic Border Patrol officer, who happened to be out of town and let us use his home.  As you can imagine, there are those who feel strongly that the Border Patrol does have good work to do - preventing drug and weapons smuggling, etc - and who feel that changes in their methods related to the treatment of migrants can come from within.

Our next adventure: crossing the border ourselves!  In Part III.

Want to learn more?  Read:
  • Death toll in Arizona from exposure in the desert: this map from the Humane Borders project
  • Recent news report (May 2016) on the number of deaths this year.  Despite overall lower numbers of people crossing now compared to the early 2000s, the death toll remains high relative to the number of people attempting to cross.
  • Wikipedia article on the death toll