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Welcoming the migrant is a matter of faith

Issue Date: 
Wed, 11/11/2009


"Raid targets Mexican cartel; 303 arrested," read the headline on an inside page of The Washington Post just after I returned from the Border Patrol Wall that hideously marks, or I should say mars, the border between Arizona and Mexico.

The Post story goes on to mention the raid against one of the newest and largest drug cartels took place in 38 cities from Seattle to Boston including Nogales.

I traveled to Nogales, both in Arizona and Mexico, with seven members of Foundry UMC on a mission trip to learn about immigration issues. We were hosted by Borderlinks, an ecumenical group that welcomes guests such as ourselves throughout the year.

We crossed the border - passports in hand - six or eight times during the week of Oct. 10-16 that we spent in Tucson, Douglas, Aguas Prieta, Naco and Nogales and their cities on the Mexico side that have now been split in two because of the Wall.

Our experience did not include the drug cartels, though we may have encountered people who were part of them. We were only interested in the ordinary Mexican citizen trying to come to the United States for economic and family reasons, people who may come to Washington as day laborers, as many already have.

We met leaders, such as Cecile Lumar, who run shelters and aid stations for the migrants who "get caught," as they try to enter the U.S. Her nondescript place, the Migrant Resource Center, a block or two from the immigration entry post in Naco, Sonora, that day was overflowing with migrants who needed a place to sleep overnight before continuing their journeys. One couple we talked to, at least were together; oftentimes they are separated. They had attempted to cross but were sent back and were awaiting a bus that would take them to a relative's house many miles away.

Arrangements had been made for our group to sleep in the shelter that evening, after eating a meal at a restaurant in town. But it was not to be; there were too many people to occupy the 40 beds. So Cecile took us to her own home and put us up for the night. It was a modest home in Bisbee, a half hour away in Arizona, where we put our sleeping bags and mats on the floors, couch and the one bed available.

We had our first of several trips along the Wall as we drove 15 miles to visit with Bill Ogle, a rancher whose scrub desert land abuts the Wall at the San Pedro River. He, an avid environmentalist, added a dimension of the problems brought on by the Wall when he talked about the disruption it does to the migration of wildlife trying to reach the water on the other side. At 12-15 feet, the Wall is too high for deer to jump (though drug cartel trucks have managed to get across by actually building ramps up and over.).

We'd all heard and read the horror stories connected to the maquiladoras or maquilas, the factories that make up a large part of the border cities. We visited one in Aguas Prieta on the Mexican side, which had no resemblance to the old textile maquilas we've seen in movies and on TV. The Japanese-owned Takata factory makes seat belts for cars and was clean, well-lit and buzzing with the noise of small machines as standing men and women did the tedious job of assembling even tiny parts of the seat belts, each person doing one activity. The roughly $5/day the factory workers make has to support whole families in many cases, but most laborers are grateful for even that, $1/day above minimum wage in Mexico. The ones that can't get the jobs or can't bear the dull tedious work are often the people who are trying to cross to the U.S. where they expect better pay, if not better jobs.

I read that the remittances migrants working in the US send to Mexico is the second or third largest source of income for the country, after the drug business. The economic recession has caused great suffering since so many migrants in the U.S. are now out of work.

In Douglas, Ariz., we spent a part of the day at the largest Border Patrol station along the border. That is the federal police agency throughout the country, concentrated on the Mexico border, whose mission is to prevent people without proper immigration documents from entering the U.S., as well as stopping those in possession of illegal substances. The fence, made largely by National Guard units during the past two years, stretches for 400 miles along the U.S. southern border. In mid-October, members of Congress quashed a plan to add another 300 miles.

Articulate and attractive Border Patrol agent Monica George led us through the facility, including to the detention center where migrants picked up for detention are processed. I had expected an arrogance and secretiveness in the presentation, but she smilingly answered even our toughest questions. We asked dozens. She was a convincing spokesperson, but unable to convince us of the value of the current policies and culture of the Border Patrol agency.

One of the more positive things it does is to rescue people who get stranded in attempting to cross the long stretches of scrub desert many attempt. Most migrants don't realize what a long, arduous trek it is to cross some seven miles with scorching sun in the day and freezing nights. One recent rescue was of a woman who went into labor in the desert. She was taken to a hospital in Tucson, delivered her baby (an American citizen) and they were then deported. She had no idea where her husband was because he, too, was detained and deported, but separately from her.

For me, the splitting up of families is the most heart-rending part of the whole border crossing process. When picked up together, they are separated into men and women's facilities and there is no effort to tell each other where the other is. Children over the age of 10 are put into juvenile detention, again with no word to parents where they are, nor any way to reach them.

We got a glimpse of the desert trek when we met in the desert with Gene Lefebvre, a longtime volunteer with No Mas Muertes (No More Deaths), which has a tent station in the middle of the desert. They provide water at set places along known trails to Tucson and rescue many who are stranded. They do not detain or arrest, rather offer food and water, first aid and information.

On the Mexico side we spent a morning at Grupos Beta, a federally-funded agency with 17 centers scattered along the border with the US as well as the southern border with Guatemala; it offers basic services to migrants in Mexico. In Nogales, it offers migrants information on the dangers of the desert they must cross as they head north, and on what rights they have once they cross. It is essentially an effort to dissuade Mexican citizens from leaving. It's largely unsuccessful. Most of the 30 or more migrants we spoke with there had been picked up and sent back.

An important service Grupos offers the migrant, as do most of the humanitarian aid agencies we visited, is a free phone call to a relative to send money or make arrangements to return and two meals a day at The Comedor, a feeding program run by the Mexican Catholic sisters, Misioneras de la Eucaristia, and the Jesuits.

I met "Humberto" at Grupos Beta as he waited to make his phone call, and later that day we served him (and maybe 120 others) supper at The Comedor. That morning, while I was talking through an interpreter (Jana Mayer from Foundry) to some women at Grupos, he called to me - in English. So we talked. He had worked as a landscaper for 18 years in Phoenix, but no longer had work. He said he'd been homeless for six months, but was single and able to cope. He was picked up in Phoenix by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the former Immigration Naturalization Service) because the light was out on his car. So now, like it or not, ready or not, he was being deported.

Humberto was passionate about people he traveled with, others who ICE had picked up in their towns and villages on the U.S. side. But mostly, he was hurting for the women and children being sent back, a story we heard from women we talked to at Grupos and in the shelters.

Some had American husbands or children who were American citizens. Without citizenship papers they were fair game for deportation. Some had lived in the U.S. for years. Some were young, perhaps in their teens or early 20s, mostly looking for a new life better than the one in their rural villages or city slums in Mexico.

We saw the results of the Border Patrol arrests when we spent the morning in the Federal District Court our last day, as the Operation Streamline court was in session. The zero-tolerance program targets illegal entrants with misdemeanors and deports them immediately. The judge hears the cases of nearly 100 migrants in the two or three hours of court, each represented (in groups or categories) by a public defender. Most were admonished and deported immediately. Once a migrant has been deported, future arrests hold harsher penalties than misdemeanor charges and no jail time. Some were sentenced to a few days or months in jail, especially if they had felony charges on record.

As we walked in the footsteps of migrants crossing the desert I thought of the first full day of this trip when we attended the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, the church that started the sanctuary movement. It was fittingly "Migrant Sunday," and the service was not only in three languages (Spanish, English and a Native American language) but centered our thinking on what the Bible says about welcoming the stranger and the sojourner in our lands.

At the end of the service, we chose a small rock from rocks piled at the altar in the center of the sanctuary-in-the-round, on which was written the name and date of someone who had died in the desert. The rock I then deposited at a special shrine just outside the church building in a lovely garden corner said "Joseph Salazar, 5/19/2009." He was one of 206 migrants whose bodies had been picked up in the desert from October 2008 through September 2009.

At the next Migrant Sunday, I pray there won't be so many, that there won't be any new rocks. Families should be able to cross the border to reunite with family members, to seek economic opportunity, or to shop for bargains. They should have a simple way of doing that, as they did before the Border Wall was built.

Drug and human trafficking needs to be controlled but safe passage for those who simply want a better life or to rejoin their families also needs to be allowed. All of us would benefit. It's a matter of justice.

What The United Methodist Church says:

We therefore call the United Methodist Church ... to seek ways to welcome, assist, and empower the refugee, immigrant, visitors, and undocumented persons in their neighborhood and to denounce the persecution of the sojourner in the U.S. as prejudicial and racist. (The 2004 Book of Resolutions, #119)

In the Bible sojourners were messengers. The message they sent them as well as today is that the spirit of God is with each of us as we sojourn through life. We are all on a journey and God is with us. (2004 Book of Resolutions #265)

"Many of the migrant laborers' situations are aggravated because they are racial and ethnic persons who have been oppressed with numerous other inequities within the society. We advocate for the rights of all migrants and applaud their efforts toward responsible self-organization and self-determination." (Social Principles, para. 163F)