“Quiero ser chef.” “I want to be a chef.” Braulio’s face lit up as he told me this during his legal screening. His cheeks rounded and his eyes brightened as a big smile formed. This was his response to my question, “Why did you leave your country?” In the hundreds of legal screenings I have done, I had not received such a precise, illustrative answer. I felt inspired by his enthusiasm, and I also smiled. The inspiration was replaced by dread fifteen minutes later when I had to mark Braulio’s intake with a “U.” U means unknown relief. U means that according to the information the child has disclosed during the screening, it is not clear that they are eligible for a visa. U means that Braulio’s intake will be put in a pile with others that we do not refer to an attorney once they are released and living in another part of the U.S. while in court proceedings. U means that Braulio will likely be deported. As I write the “U” on the upper corner of his intake, I feel a sinking in my stomach.
Wanting to be a chef, wanting to study or work, wanting to live with a parent or sibling who is already in the U.S., or wanting to escape extreme poverty and hunger is not enough. On intakes like that, I have to write a “U.” And don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of children I meet who are fleeing gang violence, who have been abused by their parents, who have suffered injuries because of working as small children in dangerous conditions. But there are others, like Braulio, who either do not disclose to me, or just honestly haven’t experienced such horrendous traumas. And without that compelling trauma, they are not eligible for any legal relief or any path to potentially stay in the U.S.
This reality makes me feel frustrated, sad, hopeless.
I am frustrated by a legal system that cannot serve Braulio. It is not that legal assistants like me and attorneys do not want to help kids like Braulio; of course we do! But there are so few attorneys and legal teams who are already working tirelessly to help children who DO have a strong case, who have experienced substantial trauma, and, therefore, might have a chance at obtaining a visa. In an overburdened legal system, strong cases must be prioritized. If a child is to receive legal assistance, the sadder, more traumatic the life story, the better!
I am frustrated by policies that do not provide any options for people who are starving, who can no longer make a living due to global environmental and economic factors, or who want to be with family members who are already working in the United States to support their hungry, struggling loved ones back home. It is one thing to understand on paper that economic migration is not authorized, but it is another to look into a smiling child’s eyes when he says, “Quiero ser chef,” and know that he doesn’t stand a chance in this system.
With these immigration policies and these inadequate legal systems, we as a nation are telling Braulio that he is unworthy. He is unworthy to share in what we have and enjoy everyday in this country. He is undeserving of the time and attention of attorneys. Braulio is marked with a U. He is unknown.
I hope you all enjoy and learn something useful from this carefully crafted analysis of some of our shared values relating to my personal thoughts on the Border Immersion experience.
As a result of that week, I have been struggling with this idea of what is responsibility and what is my role in that? The word “responsibility” is built off the framework of the word response, or as an action verb, to respond. Now when you add the suffix -ibility (or ability) to the end the word literally translates to “the ability to respond or take action”. As I continue to perceive and bear witness to many events unfolding around me, I am left with one simple question. What is my personal and/or moral responsibility to respond and to what extent? Yet this opens even more avenues of exploration with even more questions to accompany it. This includes everything from the abstract and theoretical to the contextual and circumstantial. Then there is the question of where does my moral, ethical and personal values intersect in the face of all this???
In my struggles to try to perceive this issue from an open-minded angle I am again confronted with many contradictory facts and ideas that just seem to further compound the situation. I believe as part of our core being, we all struggle with this to some extent and fear where it may ultimately take us. This is often due to the answers lying outside our comfort zones in the realms of the unfamiliar. We are all, to some extent, quick to make assumptions on things at face value because it offers us an easy and simplified solution to difficult and often complex problems. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. In some cases, it can allow us to sort through large volumes of information so that we can get to the heart or core of the issue faster with less energy exerted in doing so. Unfortunately, this can also have far-reaching and often unintended consequences. In certain instances, we can quickly glance through information that may seem trivial to us in the moment but may contain important components that allow us to perceive and understand a problem in its entirety.
In some instances, we can neglect to take responsibility and instead scapegoat the problem somewhere else. By doing so we are not only removing ourselves from the equation, but we are also essentially saying that the solutions are beyond us in a way that completely negates our ability to do something about it. One way we let go of our responsibility (and our ability to act) is through letting go of it in a way that places it somewhere else. This can be done through the act of blame which is defined in the dictionary as assigning responsibility for a fault or wrong. The word blame has many origins but in the Latin sense it comes from a word known as “blastemare” which translates roughly to “to accuse or place responsibility upon”. Blame and its historical origins may also have connections to the origins of another word we know of today as “blasphemy”. I personally found this to be very intriguing because of how this understanding of the blame could affect our ability to have free will over a given situation? In many instances, are we voluntarily limiting ourselves and our own ability to act? And, more importantly, are we exercising this in situations where we need this the most?
In the face of all these questions I seemingly have no choice but to look to other sources. Perhaps at stories of when and where others have been confronted with this same dilemma. What were the conclusions in these situations? What about biblical narratives of people who were confronted with similar dilemmas? Two stories immediately come to mind. The first, the story of Adam and Eve. This narrative seems to have philosophical undertones relating to the initial roles of responsibility and blame in the context of the formation of later humans’ value systems. Now we must consider that, to a certain extent, these were individuals within a complex system and power hierarchy that was not fully understandable to them. We must then realize that many of us are in similar situation today, but… that still does not relieve them or us of our shared responsibilities in these situations. In this story let’s look at what happens after they had eaten the forbidden fruit. God, almost immediately, shows up and asks them to explain what has happened and where they have gone. After a bit of confusion Adam not only admits but blames his wife Eve for making them eat the forbidden fruit. Then, the next direct action is that Eve does the exact same thing to the snake. Would things have turned out differently if they had merely taken responsibility for their own personal role in the events that had just transpired? Possibly, but unfortunately those events never unfolded, and we are only left to guess.
Maybe there is more to this story. First, some context clues. I believe that we can all come to an understandable conclusion that the God of the Bible is a God of order and not chaos. When God first comes to the garden who does he call first? God calls for the person in charge which was… Adam. This seems (from my perspective) like a logical and orderly way of getting to the heart of the situation (verse 9). Yet, Adam’s response was to cast blame on Eve, who then cast blame on the snake, but the snake said or did nothing in its defense. It is the very fact that the snake said nothing in response to these accusations that I found somewhat confusing. Maybe we can logically assume this is due to the snake having nothing to say or because there is an omitted piece of information that is understood. Maybe, but not likely. This information in question is that while Adam and Eve both cast responsibility of the situation onto the snake it did not return the favor or even attempt to defend itself. Perhaps, by placing blame onto the snake they unknowingly also cast away their responsibility as well. If this is true, then this also implies that the snake is the only entity going forwards (other than God of course) who has all the responsibility. God is a God of order, so I believe we can go forward logically if just like before; God will respond in a way that acknowledges that hierarchy. In the very next verse (verse 14) God responds to who first? God responds next by condemning the snake, then condemning the woman and reversing what she did by saying “Your desire will be your husband, and he will rule over you”, and finally by condemning Adam. Reversing the order of the previous interaction between them. Maybe I’m reading too much into nothing but if I haven’t this has far-reaching importance. This leaves me with one thought: “If there is truth to this, then did they unknowingly hand over control of the world to the serpent?”
Let’s not forget about another biblical narrative. What about Jesus, the person who came according to the Biblical narrative to set it all straight? Time and time again we see Jesus taking responsibility and welcoming all of God’s creations into community with him regardless of their social, material, geographic, or physical standing in life. Jesus had every right to condemn and cast blame upon the unjust systems that would inevitably lead to his untimely demise. While he challenged many of the corrupt systems in place at the time, he also had this to say: “Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgement on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy you. But you – who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James Ch. 4 v. 11 and 12). This sentiment is again echoed in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus bravely professes to those who will listen by asking them how they can judge the speck of dust in their brothers and sisters’ eyes when they have not even begun to remove the plank from their own? A very hard-hitting question to say the least. Yet, despite seeing firsthand the ways humankind had corrupted a once pure world; Jesus still went forward and died as a “blameless” sacrifice for all regardless of this obvious fact. The fact that we were unworthy from every angle yet despite all this Jesus made us worthy by paying the ultimate sacrifice. God not only loved us before we learned to love, but God loved us even when we hated God. Now that is powerful.
Yet, what about the people themselves who are affected today? Many of whom are fleeing failing states, extreme violence, inescapable poverty, and inner cities ruled by gangs. Those who hear of the American dream and hear the stories that America is a very charitable, wealthy country made up of a melting pot of immigrants from across the globe can’t help but want some of that for themselves. In their hour of darkness many of them cling to this as their only candle of hope to guide them through this void they are surrounded by. So, the question then becomes, “Why don’t they just immigrate here legally if things are so horrendous?” Well… many of them try… and fail. This is because our system of application and visa processing is prehistorically outdated and cannot handle the sheer volume of possible applicants for starters. To give you an idea the current process is so inefficient that it can take up to an estimated 30 YEARS to be accepted for even a legal residency position (otherwise known as a green card). All the while, waiting outside a port of entry having to fees associated with the review process during this ordeal without even a guarantee of acceptance. This is no opinion either; this is what is currently being expressed to us by many who work in this field including lawyers who work in the courts, advocacy groups, and those we spoke with in the border towns of Aqua Prieta and Douglas. And just when it couldn’t get any more complicated… we haven’t even discussed asylum seekers, or those who are fleeing extreme persecution in their home countries or are under the threat of death/torture if they ever return.
I just want to finish by saying how thankful I am for all of you who take the time to read these entries and stay updated about this journey. I look forward in the new year to continuing to inform you all with updates about my time here.
Until then, Happy New Year!
I wish this blog post was a little more cheerful than any I’ve really posted lately. Spoiler alert, it’s really not. This year is a journey of discovery and living into the reality that things I take for granted are not guaranteed. Things I enjoy and look forward to may mean harsh times for others. Fall/Winter weather has finally arrived in Tucson. Temperatures that make my friends up North scoff mean we shiver and put on jackets. And while our heat was broken and our maintenance man, Mike, was super concerned, I realized I was whining about how my blankets barely kept me warm enough in my house, where I have a bed, a roof, and food. A chance to take a shower everyday, and wash and dry my clothes whenever I please.
And I go to work everyday to serve women who don’t have those things. Tomorrow I’ll go in and sleep on a cot with a mat with the women we are able to shelter. And there will be many more who sleep on the street, in the cold. Unsafe and unsheltered. We give them what we can, sleeping bags, blankets, warm clothes, and a breakfast and sack lunch. We hope to have enough time for everyone to shower and do laundry, but there is never enough time. Everyday I ask myself, how can anyone who has the ability to make this stop, the ability to make sustainable, long term change sleep at night if they choose not to? I can barely sleep sometimes for knowing I have tried to make all the change I can, for knowing that in the past two years I have realized more about my privilege, my ability to sit in discomfort and allow it to gnaw at me, and that it still isn’t good enough. That until every woman that walked through those doors today and the day before and will walk through them tomorrow and the next and the next and so one is housed, it will never be good enough. I am one small voice. But I will keep speaking. Because at some point those who sleep soundly in their beds writing policies that allow fortunes to pass hand to hand comfortably from generation to generation on the backs of the poor will have to answer to the poor who work for them. I believe it.
Enough listening to my soapboxing, I started writing to tell you a story, not to preach to the choir, because you’re reading this for a reason. Everyday, a mass of human experiences teems through our double doors. Right now, we’re decked for a myriad of holidays, Kwanza, Hannukah, Christmas, you get the idea. It’s light and bright in an attempt to bring joy. And it does help. So two more stories. We’ve had a new guest lately, I do not know her name, because she’s not in everyday and she’s very soft spoken. She wears full Hijab and I was curious how others would respond. She carries her prayer mat with her things. Somehow, amidst being on the street and experiencing homelessness, this remarkable woman still manages to do her prayers five times daily as she is called to do in the Q’uran. Today, I overheard her speaking with another of our ladies who was asking about her practice and how she does it. her first prayer time is at 4am. All of the ladies know her now and make space, allowing her to use the library for her prayers. They have learned not to walk in front of her when praying, that it breaks the direct contact with Allah (God in Arabic, for those who have missed that memo). It was one of those moments where you realize when people share being so very marginalized already, learning about another piece of someone’s marginalized culture is not scary to them. It made my heart feel light.
The other was watching a new woman come to the center who clearly needed much help and interact with our executive director. Hearing someone explain the pain that drove them to alcoholism, to drinking, to staying on the street away from family. This woman’s story of having been incarcerated, of learning of the death of her children while she was in prison, and being unable to do anything but attempt to numb herself. It was gut wrenching. I wanted to rip my heart out for her. To give her something that might be broken, but maybe a little less so. Jean found out what she needed. Not only got her those needs, but knew who would be a good person to help comfort her. And then did something that amazed me. “Promise me you won’t leave without telling me first.” She wanted to make sure to say goodbye. That has stuck with me throughout this day. She wanted to make sure, I think, that this individual was welcomed, and that she would know she was welcomed back. “I’m so tired.” That’s all I remember her saying, over and over.
Tonight, I want to pray, for those who are tired, weary, out in the cold whether it is their first night or their five hundredth night. They all have a story, whether someone has listened, another person experiencing homelessness or an angel on earth like Jean. We have no right to decide if they deserve help. They are human. They are us, with a different set of life circumstances.
I am so excited for being part of a church that stands for justice in this world. I am so excited to be part of a church who refuses to stand back and let the world just “do its thing” while people are being hurt, emotionally and verbally harassed, murdered, raped, persecuted, put-down and humiliated.
For the most part, I would like to say that the Presbyterian Church (USA) kicks serious butt at social justice.
However, just as any organization or institution has its flaws, so does the PC(USA), my friends. We are not unlike any other denomination because we are human. We put bumper stickers on our car which read: Coexist….Yet we cannot even get along with our neighbor. Things slip through the cracks. Gossip ensues. Communication fails. We get more relaxed in our attitude towards helping others because the problem or issue is “not as pressing.” We forget to remember the good we once saw in one another. We invest our finances in the ineffective investments. We bully each other. We mistrust each other’s judgment. We stand up for the victim just to suppress his or her voice.
One thing I learned from YAV Orientation (or rather “Disorientation”) is that we often “love justice” more than we “do justice.”
I have been guilty of these above things and we, Church have been guilty of these things. As the church (Presbyterian) and Church (all Christians), we sometimes are the MOST guilty of it as we preach and aim to practice our righteous and wholesome Christian ways. We all have fallen victim to the “easy” option.
Who could blame us really? Justice is really challenging. Justice is raw. Justice is messy. Justice is often choosing the more vulnerable, honest, uncomfortable choice.
But at the end of the day, I would rather stay with the Presbyterian Church in our efforts than to step away from all the good we are trying to do. Obviously, I am biased towards the PC(USA) because I have grown up in this denomination, however, I am still eager and joyous to call this church my home. Just check out some of the justice being done here through this PC(USA) video about the U.S.-Mexico border.
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly[a] with your God.” -Micah 6:8