Learning on the border

By Russ Hall
Special Contributor

BorderLinks (www.borderlinks.org) began 25 years ago as a spin-off of the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s. Its purpose is to educate and raise awareness to inspire action against injustice along the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. In October, I was part of a student delegation from Phillips Theological Seminary that flew to Tucson, Ariz., to learn from BorderLinks. The experience broadened my perspective on the problems faced by those who cross our southern border. We received an overview of the history of our border with Mexico, and met with local social justice figures such as Ken Kennon, an original member of the “Gang of Four” in the Sanctuary Movement for Salvadorian refugees seeking political asylum in the 1980s. We met a young undocumented student Dario, currently enrolled at Pima County Community College, and heard his story about DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants temporary residency documents so undocumented students may qualify for college admission. Dario and other students have formed Scholarships A-Z, an organization helping undocumented DREAM Act students with college education resources. A woman from Casa Mariposa, an organization that provides assistance to migrants picked up in the desert, informed us about a federal court program, Operation Streamline, that mass processes migrants and can charge them with a felony and sentence them to jail time before deporting them back to Mexico. Later that day, our group would witness an Operation Streamline court proceeding at the federal courthouse in Tucson. Afterward, all of us doubted that any of these migrants, with only a 15-minute consultation that morning with a public defender, had received justice. That same day Rick Crocker, an agent of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, shared slides and video of ICE’s primary mission: to investigate smuggling operations into and out of the U.S. Some of that illegal activity is the smuggling of immigrants. Rick is married to a legal Guatemalan immigrant and supports reform of U.S. immigration laws, believing that a Guest Worker Program could allow migrant workers to earn a living without fear of abuse by U.S. employers.

Action, prayers, protests

My most meaningful encounters took place as we ventured into the Arizona desert and into Mexico to meet people who were engaged in making a positive difference for the poor of the borderlands. Our trek in the desert outside of Green Valley gave our delegation a taste of what migrants face in their multi-day journeys through land filled with spiny cholla and barrel cactus. Our guide, Laurie, a member of the Green Valley Samaritans, took us to three desert sites where remains of migrants had been found, all within one mile of her own home. At each site we read a poem, said a prayer and left a gift of water or a stone to honor the life of our migrant brother or sister who perished. In Douglas, Ariz., we met with Mark Adams, a Presbyterian minister and director of Frontera De Christo, a border ministry involved in migrant, health and desert water ministries, and a just-trade center. Our group met with Mark and others for a prayer vigil for those who died in the desert while migrating into the U.S. I was particularly moved as we gathered up marker crosses printed with the names and dates of death of migrants who perished in the desert. As a protest for No More Deaths, each person would call out the name on the cross they held up, and the entire group would respond with “Presente!” as a means to remember those who died in the desert. Our delegation’s first overnight visit to Mexico began at HEPAC (translated as “home of peace and hope,”), a community center in Nogales. That evening we experienced gracious Mexican hospitality at the home of Estella Torres, who started HEPAC’s feeding ministry. Estella fed us American Anglos a wonderful home-cooked Mexican meal. She had started out feeding neighborhood kids in her home, and expanded it into a program that daily feeds more than 100 children of maquilas workers. With support from Mexican and American churches, HEPAC expanded to provide basic education for maquila workers so they can get better jobs, become self-sufficient and be able to stay in Mexico.

Human toll of injustice

Each evening our group discussed the issues we encountered through the day’s experiences: unfair economic trade policies, inhumane treatment of migrants, a federal legal system that feeds the private prison industry, militarization of the border, poverty-wage jobs, unsafe work conditions in the border factories and second-class status of undocumented workers in the U.S., just to name a few. Our views often differed, but we all agreed that because we learned first-hand of the moral and ethical issues surrounding immigration, how we respond in the future will be very different from our responses in the past—because we have met the people, heard their stories and witnessed for ourselves how unfairly and oftentimes inhumanely migrants are treated at our own border. This unjust system is not the America I know and admire and love. A change is badly needed to bring economic equity, allowing people to support themselves in their own homelands. And for those already living within our borders, a fair and comprehensive immigration policy would provide an opportunity for their American dream, allowing people to work, to educate themselves and become citizens of the America that I do know and will always love. The Rev. Hall serves as pastor of Decatur and Highfill UMCs.