Do you wanna go on a field trip, my placement supervisor asked me.
I mean I can, I said. To where? Knowing full well that I actually had a full week of work that had piled up and I shouldn’t really be prioritizing this trip after missing all week in Colorado. However, we needed to get these motions for extensions to Eloy because there was no one to cover the hearings for tomorrow. All of the sudden, these papers were rather important. I grabbed eagerly at the keys to Pickle, my placement supervisors blue Prius, and hit the road for the 45 (more like hour) drive to Eloy. My first trip to the detention center. I had been rather excited for this moment most of my year thus far. I had not yet been to a detention center. When I first got to Tucson, I imagined that the facilities were like apartment complexes where people were held just so the government could “keep their eyes on them”. I had already heard that many times, people do nothing wrong to end up in these areas. When entering the US to start a new life, or sometimes even just to continue the lives they have always led, ICE would pick them up. Or, they would be stopped going to work, the grocery store, or a friends house. The term “driving while black” I have learned really just means driving while of color and anybody that is not white or does not fit the right profile therefore labeled “suspicious” and is susceptible to unauthorized harassment. As I was driving past the cotton fields and through Arizona’s countryside, I soon realized that in reality, our detention centers are prisons. I should have put it together sooner. That the term “detention” is never a pretty word. I approached the prison and walked to the tall front gate.
My placement supervisor had semi warned me of the process before I got there: walk to the gate, state yourself, walk through the doors, go through security, get escorted to the court, deliver the papers, walk out. As soon as I entered the cold, brick, and barbed wire facility, I forgot everything. I went to hit the button to be buzzed through the first of three doors to the building. The guard, clearly used to people knowing the routine, mumbles into the mic. Not understanding, I hit the button again. The guard sighs and says, “okay okay just come on through give me a minute”. I walk through the first set and realize the second set is again locked. I ring the button like a doorbell- I hit it twice, “I said hold on” the guard responded. 3 minutes, or forever later, the door opens. The main door, the last door, is unlocked and I am given passage. The guard sighs at me as we finally get to look each other in the eyes. “What are you doing here, state your business”. “I, I am from the public defender’s office, I am here dropping off court papers”. Okay, go through security- It’s just like the airport, she instructs. Luckily, I had just gone to Colorado and been traveling in the recent years, four years ago I would have been lost. As I got through the unguided security, the woman guard became busy. Hoping to alleviate pressure, I jumped up and followed the group of attorneys, thinking surely, they would know where we were going. We. Ha.
The attorneys, as it turned out, were taking a short tour of the facility and then going to speak to clients in the center. So, I toured too. And then, as we ended the tour I walked up to the guard doe eyed and apologized admitting I was lost. He calmly instructed me back to the lobby where I got stuck in, the BERMUDA triangle. Which is a corner hallway that is between two more locked doors. I was stuck and just when I was about to ring the button, the woman guard, the same one I had before, got back on the buzzer. “You’re just gonna have to wait there; I’m busy, and you didn’t follow the instructions I gave you”. Wait, she gave me instructions? I waited ten minutes, then left to the lobby where I was scolded and informed I was not to be going anywhere un-escorted. I think they were now weary of little old me being unattended. An escort came, picked me up, lead me down a long hallway with several more doors locked every so feet. Then, finally, I made it to court. A cheery office cubicle space decked out in Halloween garb. Little did they seem to realize that the cement walls, barbed wire, and cold metal locking doors were more frightening than the googly eyed bats and spiders on their door.
The ten minutes I was in that room was the most relaxed I felt. I waited, and waited, and my escort never came back despite her 6 warnings not to leave without her. Finally, the receptionist I talked to was leaving and offered to escort me. While hesitant to disturb the system, I was also ready to leave and I had my office-mates staying late waiting for me to return. As we walked I couldn’t help but ask her how long she worked here. Four and a half years, four and a half years too long, she admitted. But it gets less dreary and scary after a while. To demonstrate, she yelled back at the guard who mumbled on the intercom “COURRRRRTT”, clearly she knew the common system. She repeated the screeching through security and our three locked doors outside. Always locked, never easy to arrive or to leave.
My first trip to the Eloy detention center was not what I expected. It was a cold and sad place. It was filled with people who dreamed of being citizens but were now in orange jumpsuits awaiting the inevitable deportation or disappearance. I studied our prison systems enough in college to realize that they are unfairly made up of a large POC (people of color) population. Yet, this was just a further example of how we continue to separate families and put people in cages. And for what? In my personal opinion, these families are either A) looking for a better life(shouldn’t we be happy they think our country is so great?) or B) these families existed on the “border region” and who are we to withhold them from being on the land their families have owned for centuries? I need to know what we are doing America.
*Disclaimer: This is more political than I have ever been before but being in the desert, hearing stories, and watching things NOT get done- it’s easy to gain and feel the need to share this opinion. Please feel free to find me on social media, text me for a time to chat, or shoot me an email if you have questions or a differing opinion you feel needs heard.*
A month before I left Asheville, I made a decision to do a second YAV year. It was in no way an easy decision. As soon as spring hit, I began to think seriously about the options that laid ahead of me for the next year. I was supposed to have been using the whole year as a “gap year” focusing what came next after college and what interested me. I went into Asheville, hoping that it would possibly even lead to a future job or career path. As I got closer to the end, that dream became more and more of a reality as several options to stay came my way. Job offers, Americorps years, even options to go to my Illinois home for the year. None of them seemed right though. I was convinced that as much as I wanted to stay in Asheville, by staying, I would be taking an opportunity away from someone else. Also, I had came into Asheville knowing that the experience would only be a year and so in some ways, my subconscious was ready to move onto whatever came next. My heart may not have been ready, but every other part of me seemed to be- my muscles for instance were counting down the days as we entered June and they didn’t have to carry heavy sofas and prove themselves to old men who looked at me sideways. Going home also seemed like a step back- I had convinced myself that moving forward into the future had to mean a step forward. So, when a representative from the giving’s department of the PCUSA church came for a visit and asked us what came next in continuing this knowledge of faith in action, only one answer really made sense. In discerning my call last year, I started thinking about seminary, but am not yet ready. I need more hands-on experience and learning. There is so much of the social justice world that I am just beginning to get a flavor for. A year on the border stepping FAR out of my comfort zone, seemed like the perfect opportunity for change and growth. With a half an hour left on the clock to submit my application, I had committed to a second year.
The commitment has taken a while to sink in.
I left Asheville feeling like I was prepared and fully expecting the challenges ahead. However, writing this two weeks in, I can tell you that everyday here so far has proven me wrong. Although I am doing a second year of service through the PCUSA Missions Agency, the comparisons between my years end there. I am living with 5 women again, but they are completely different from my roommates last year. My current site supervisor may be friends with my past one, but their guidance styles are very different. Last year, I had a job where I was constantly on the move and lifting furniture; so far this year, I have had a lot of office work and sorting in the nice air conditioning. Last year, I had my car and relied on that privilege more often than I should; this year the temptation is gone, and my primary mode of transportation is a bicycle. The years are drastically different and although everybody was telling me not to compare, I did not realize how much I was doing so until I came face to face with the pre-conceived notions I carried. I am almost two weeks into the year and apart from realizing that it is different from my first, here are some other things I have discovered and learned about Tucson in particular:
It’s hot here but it’s a “dry heat”. It took me two days to realize that means dehydration becomes a problem as the heat inevitably sneaks up on you. I am living in a house in the midst of a neighborhood with a lot of U of A students. Our yard is full of “goat-heads” (or how I always knew them- sand burrs). To avoid getting flat tires on our bikes, we carry them anywhere there is not pavement. There is no grass here in Arizona, just cacti, gravel, and sand. The lady at the post office was joking with me yesterday and called Arizona the country’s largest beach without the water. My bike ride to work is about a three-mile ride through downtown Tucson. Two days into the year, we took an 8-hour intensive bike course where we had both a written and riding portion. I am certified in all biking endeavors but my “quick-stop” could use some work as the practice portion sent me flying over the handlebars. Helmets are not fashionable, but I learned in that instance they are in fact necessary. So, I am learning to adjust and live with it- my bun however is not so becoming bald may be in my future. My work placement this year is at Keep Tucson Together (KTT). It is a nonprofit organization that helps in providing legal assistance for members of the community that need representation in legal hearings, aid in filling out and filing court documents, and help understanding their current situations and figuring out options. The team is comprised of a few full-time employees but mostly it consists of retired lawyers and other volunteers (we are all volunteers as I am often reminded) who are looking to provide hands on assistance and help wherever they can. My job so far has been in going through and organizing client’s files and getting used to the “a# system”. I am quickly realizing how although it is not required, being able to speak Spanish in the workplace and community would be tremendously helpful. I start an intermediate level Spanish class on the 9th and as a house, we are reading and practicing vocab words together.
Two weeks in, I can see where my time in Asheville was an asset to my learning and how it can in some ways contribute to my year this year. However ultimately, these are two VERY different experiences and being able to live each of them has been a blessing and has helped in understanding just how diverse God has created this vast world. I am excited and obviously nervous to continue embracing each and every challenge, difference, and change that lies ahead.