My wife, Katelyn, and I decided to take two weeks this summer to learn more about immigration and border issues by visiting key areas along the US-Mexico border. The three key places we visited were Casa Del Migrante in Tijuana, Mexico, Neighborhood Ministries in Phoenix, and the desert outside of Tucson, AZ.
After a 3-day drive across the country, meeting some great friends and encouragement along the way, we drove to the border in San Ysidro, CA, parked our car, and walked across the border to Mexico. We didn’t stand in any line – just went through a building, and some guards waved us through without
checking any bags, passports, or anything at all. We took a taxi to Casa Del Migrante, a Catholic migrant shelter. Gilberto Martinez and Father Pat greeted us, and immediately brought us to their office to ask us about our journey. We told them that we came to learn more about immigration, both in the US and Mexico. He shared with us a little about the shelter.
It was started in the 1980’s, when it was a shelter for people who were migrating from Mexico or Central America to Tijuana or to the United States for work. But since the immigration laws in the US have become more harsh toward immigrants in the past eight years, now 90% of residents at the shelter are there because they had been deported from the US. We had dinner with some of the men who were staying there. One guy we were sitting with said he came to the US when he was two years old and has never been to Mexico since. He was extremely bewildered and didn’t know what he was going to do next. He was arrested for having too many traffic violations, then the authorities found out he’s undocumented, put him in an ICE center, and deported him. The other guy we talked to had a 13 yr-old daughter and was trying to decide whether or not to try to go back to the US – he knew that if he was caught he’d face extremely punishment, but he hated the idea of his daughter growing up without her dad.
There was also a group from Intervarsity Christian Fellowship
at the shelter, a college ministry that I was actually involved in at University of Richmond. They were doing an urban project in partnership with their Mexican counterpart, Compa. They invited us to debrief with them, Gilberto, and Fr. Pat after dinner. And we found that many of the other stories of the migrants were very similar – they were arrested for petty crimes, found to be undocumented, and deported. Most of them were completely unfamiliar with Mexico. Some didn’t even speak Spanish. Some had all their family in the US, and no family or friends in Mexico. Destroying lives and destroying families is the norm when people get deported. Gilberto said that at the shelter they do many services, including family reunification, which he described as a “nightmare.” If someone is deported and his or her child has no family to stay with, that child goes into the foster care system. If the parent (who has just been deported) does not find that child within three months, the child can be adopted. Once the child is adopted the rights are with the adoptive parents and it is incredibly difficult to get the child back. And of course, not everyone who is deported has a lawyer to help reunite them with their children. Read more about this phenomenon here
Whereas getting into Mexico took about three minutes, getting through security into the US took about 2 hours. After we left, we jumped in the ocean in San Diego real quickly and then made our way to Phoenix to visit the community at Neighborhood Ministries.
We were welcomed by Susan Leon, director of “Mom’s Place”, a ministry for young moms. Susan’s house is also a hangout for many teens in the neighborhood. We had a great time hearing from Susan about her journey with NM. The following night we hung out with some fun teenage girls who live in the neighborhood. Susan is a fantastic cook – we ate like a queen and king, things like a frittatta, pancakes, and grilled chicken.
On our way to Tijuana, we had stopped in Albuquerque to spend some time with Father Richard Rohr. He shared with us three ways of engagement with people who are marginalized: 1) direct service, 2) advocacy, and 3) education. Neighborhood Ministries embodies all three of these ways of engagement. And the axis around which all of them are connected is relationships and community. They have many hands-on, direct service ministries, such as a health care clinic, multiple businesses that employ people in the neighborhood, a community garden, and fun events for kids. They also do the second form of engagement – advocacy – by having a designated arm of the ministry for social justice and working for policy change. We hung out with Ricardo and Alfonso (see an article
featuring him in Christianity Today) and some of the other activists who are housed within the ministry. They were passionate about justice, and passionate about Jesus. It was encouraging to hear them tell of how even the politicians who are adamantly in support of harsh immigration laws begin to change their minds when they look at Scripture’s call to welcome the stranger. It was just another reminder that sometimes people just need to read their Bibles. The third way of engagement – education – is done partly through advocacy, but also through Kit Danley (the founder) and others in the ministry who write and speak around the country about immigration and Christian witness. Not only this, but the community itself is a witness that may educate more than any article or talk. I was pretty convinced after meeting with Kit that we need more places that bring all three of these ways together on the basis of relationships and community. Especially where people indigenous to the community are the foundational voices. Kit told us herself, “Don’t ever do activism without relationships.” She said we’ll burnout, sellout, or simply become ineffective.
Most of all, we were blessed to be able to worship at Neighborhood Ministries. The church is at the center of the life of the community. It was refreshing and exciting to see worship connected with mission in this way.
Kit told us we should also visit the Heard Museum, the US’s largest museum for American Indians. It was a reminder that there’s a connection between our country’s formation and its current state with immigration. Although our country was founded on the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, there were certain people (namely, natives and slaves) who weren’t considered by the so-called “founding fathers”.
After two nights and two days in Phoenix, we left for Tucson, AZ to go on a day-trip into the dessert with Los Samaritanos (The Samaritans), a ministry that brings health aid, water, and food to migrants who are crossing through the desert. Every year about 200 migrants die in the desert trying to cross into the US.
Katelyn and I arrived at Southside Presbyterian Church at 7am, and met Consuelo Crow, who was the leader taking us into the desert. She is an anthropologist who studies the material relationship between migrants, humanitarians, and border control. She blogs at mexmigration.blogspot.com
. This summer, she has spent 6 days a week for the past six weeks in the Arizona desert looking for migrants and assisting them. She also does research in communities in Mexico, and as any anthropologist, deep immersion in the communities is essential to her work. She lives in Arivaca, a border town, where she has met a number of migrants.
We spent six hours driving and walking through the desert, looking for migrants. We found many traces, such as water bottles (one which Consuelo told us had water in it from a cow well – she knew this because of the chunky stuff that was in it), backpacks, shoes, and clothing. We didn’t see any groups of migrants, but as we drove with Consuelo, she told us stories about what she has seen in the desert since she’s been going out with Los Samaritanos. Here are a few examples:
Dead bodies: Consuelo told of one incident when she was sitting over a dead body for an hour trying to get a border patrol agent to come and do something with it. She said that border patrol prioritizes groups of migrants over individuals because the more migrants they catch, the faster they advance in rank. In other words a dead individual was less important to them because she or he was alone and dead. Consuelo said she stayed next to the person to make sure that animals didn’t destroy the body. She told another story of a woman’s body found, with crawl marks where her hands were in the ground. Another finding was a child who had been found sitting next to her dead
mother, waiting for her to wake up.
Violence and Rape: When a person from Central America or Mexico wants to come to the US, she or he (or a family member) pays a Coyote, a person who smuggles people into the US, to bring them across. The Coyotes charge up to $4,000. In fact, people smuggling has become a booming industry, including also the sale of dark backpacks and water bottles. The Coyote, who usually gets most of the money, doesn’t usually bring the group of migrants across – this is done by a “Guia”. Consuelo told us that most of the time, before they leave, the guia makes the women take contraceptives because it is almost definite that the women will be raped on the journey, either by the guia, or by other migrants. In the desert, you can find “rape trees” where women’s underwear is hung from a tree as a trophy for the man who raped her. They also make the travelers take speed pills so that they’ll keep up with the group. Imagine walking through the hot Arizona dessert, water-deprived, food-deprived, and having your heart racing because you’re on speed pills. Many people die of heart attacks.
The violence and rape doesn’t just exist within the group – border patrol has very little accountability, and can therefore treat migrants in the most inhumane ways. Consuelo talked to a women in Mexico who showed her gashes across her stomach because a border patrol agent dragged her by her hair across the desert. Sometimes the border patrol agents even work with the Coyotes. Here’s one example
of an agent found with a truck-full of marijuana. Here’s a whole lis
t of offenses, everything from small bribes to sexual assault and murder. Sadly this is a perfect recipe for sex slavery, because the women have no identity in the US, border patrol has no accountability, and if a women is sold into sex slavery, no one would know about it.
I think it’s useful to imagine that you’re a migrant. You and your family
are in extreme poverty, and you hear that there’s work in the US. Out of desperation, and to save the life of your family, you explore how you might get to the US. You hear that you must pay a Coyote, and it’s fine, they’re experienced, and they will certainly get you across. You raise money in your community to pay them. But then when you are on the journey you realize that the Coyote, or Guia, doesn’t care about you, but rather cares about the money. If you’re a woman, the Guia rapes you. You didn’t bring enough food and water on the journey. The Guia deserts you, then as you’re trying to find your way without the Guia, a border patrol agent finds you, calls you a whore and a host of racial slurs, sexually assaults you, and throws you violently into a truck. You go into court where you continue to be treated like the scum of the earth, then you’re sent to a part of Mexico you’ve never been to.
Desperation: Many of the migrants turn themselves in to border patrol. We asked Consuelo if she ever has given a ride to migrants to bring them to safety. She said, “I won’t answer that question, but I will say you can get 15 years in prison for riding in the same vehicle with someone who you know is undocumented.” That sounds familiar
. She has often seen completely delirious migrants standing by the side of the road who haven’t had food or water in days, and they simply want to be turned in to border patrol. She often does this because it’s the only way to save their lives.
Laws and Policies: Border patrol uses a policy of “Prevention by Deterrence,” which, in its statement is described such: “The prediction is that with traditional entry and smuggling routes disrupted, illegal traffic will be deterred, or forced over more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement.” What has happened, however, is that the more hostile terrain has not prevented more people from crossing illegally, but has rather resulted in more death. Consuelo has heard border patrol agents use the term “deterrence by death.” Another policy that was shocking was deporting migrant families separately from each other – a husband would be dropped off in one part of Mexico and a wife would be dropped off in another. The hope is that by doing so, it will teach them a lesson and they won’t come back. The fence was also a strange fixture – climbing
it only takes 20 seconds. Then there’s always the option of just walking around it. Seems that it’s more for the US’s peace of mind than actually preventing people from entering the country illegally.
How do we respond to this? It’s easy to begin thinking about who’s to blame or thinking about what kind of policy change needs to happen. I think those questions are important. But I wanted to first think about the people. Being in the desert and hearing these stories was like Hell. I can’t imagine being in such a desperate situation that I’m willing to put my life in the hands of Coyotes, Border Patrol, and the Arizona desert. When hearing about the smuggling industry, some jump and say that all immigrants are criminals, but most of the time they’re victims of some of the worst criminal activity. It’s also easy to think that all border patrol agents are hyper-masculine, violent racists, but many of them, as Consuelo reported, have compassion for the migrants. Or, they’re just people looking for a job. In a country where the best option for people who don’t go to a four year college is national security, this is where many of our young people find a way to feed their family. I think that reflecting first on people reminds me that the whole system of laws and policies is broken. It’s not a problem with “those people,” but rather a problem with the assumption that violence, exclusion, and greed is how we protect ourselves (whether we are a US lawmaker, US citizen, Coyote, or immigrant). I’m interested in exploring more what kind of policy changes would be helpful, such as creating more work visas (like we did before) for immigrants, or changing
our trade policies with Mexico so that we’re not dominating the markets that Mexican farmers depended on, or focusing our enforcement on the criminal activity of smugglers, rather than the immigrants themselves. But before I think as a US citizen, I want to think as a Christian, and as a Christian the main thing I feel is compassion for people who are going through such
We went to a coffee shop when we got back to Tucson to reflect a bit. I was drained – physically, emotionally, and spiritually overwhelmed. As we got in our car we began thinking about what this means for our own lives. It is certainly not disconnected from North Carolina. In fact the people from the Samaritans said that some migrants say, “I’m going to North Carolina.”
There was something else going on in our country the Saturday evening when we got home from our trip. But I had a sermon to preach the next day, so I wasn’t aware of it. We unpacked our bags, ate some dinner, and went to bed early. I woke up and got ready early, went to church, and preached. But when I was in church I still didn’t hear about that other thing that was going on.
When I got home from church, I found out that the jury found George Zimmerman neither guilty of manslaughter nor murder. He was not guilty. A neighborhood watch captain hunted down
an unarmed black boy because he “looked suspicious,” and murdered him – legally. We live in a country where people are being violently and hatefully excluded and punished because they are (or look) “illegal” for trying to provide for their families, and where a man who shoots and kills a teenager is acquitted, and many people are actually celebrating because everything he was doing was “legal.”
I am embarrassed that I wasn’t following the Trayvon Martin case more closely. I wish I looked at the news Sunday morning so that I could acknowledge it to my community of brothers and sisters in Christ when I preached Sunday Morning. But my failure to see that points to the slumber of white America. White privilege is a reality. And it’s this: these kind of things don’t have to affect us white people if we don’t want them to. All we have to do is create a law that keeps immigrants away, keeps black people out of white neighborhoods, and keeps us protected when we use violence to keep things the way things are.
I think the confusion about Zimmerman’s race is important. It sheds more light on what race actually is in the US. It’s generally known that the concept of race has no genetic basis and is a social construct, and I think the Zimmerman trial shows what this looks like in actuality. Whiteness in the US is an achievement. There was a point in our country’s history when Jews were not white, when Irish people were not white, and when Italians were not white. They were seen
as the dirty, inferior caste, until they proved that they could look like the ideal the US has created of the pure, innocent, moral superior person. Once they did, they became white. One of my professors from Divinity School, Willie Jennings, describes it as a spectrum. On one end is blackness, and at the founding of our country Native American and African slaves, who were considered uncivilized savages – partial people closer to animals than humans – were at that end. On the other end were the European Colonists. From that point on, gaining legitimacy and acceptance in society, whether you were a native, a slave, or an immigrant, meant striving to make it up the spectrum toward whiteness. Zimmerman is a victim to US’s ideal of whiteness. He believed in the dream of gated communities, proactive violence as self-defense, and disparaging not only African Americans, but also Mexicans
, as inferior. Probably one of the best analyses of the Zimmerman trial I’ve seen that gets at the heart of our racialized society is this one her
e by Brian Bantum.
Being at the border – the frontlines of immigration – reflecting on the connection with American Indians, and coming home to hearing that a black teenager was murdered without any consequences for the murderer was a cutting reminder that we are by no means in a post-racial society. It’s all connected, and it’s very broken. As a white person, I feel like I’m always waking up and I’m never fully awake. I thought I had woken up because of my awareness of the challenge of immigration, but because I’m not black, I didn’t find it urgent to hear about the Zimmerman trial. And so I wasn’t able to name the wrong to my church, the community that should be lamenting the most.
And so I want to end this reflection with a Scripture verse. I believe that Jesus Christ gives us the ability to see the way that he sees as one who was fully human, and who fully bore the pain of all humanity, and one who was fully God and was able to see this world with divine eyes. We need him to help us see so badly. It’s urgent, but it’s a journey, because as much as I think that I’m seeing, there’s still another level of clarity that I realize I need to gain.
“They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?” He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.” Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.” – Mark 8:22-25