Solitude can be hard to find as a Young Adult Volunteer. I spend most of my time in community, whether it be my house community, work community, or church community. I have come to appreciate all of these communities, but from time to time, I do crave solitude. My craving was answered this past week in the form of a desert sojourn retreat. On Monday, my housemates and I travelled to the small community of Cascabel, Arizona. We camped together for a night, then each headed out to a solo camping site in the desert. There, I spent three days by myself. Well, myself and flies, roadrunners, birds, saguaros, and wildflowers.
I had been very excited for my time in the desert. It had been a busy month, and time by myself sounded like a great way to recharge my batteries. Part of me was also hoping that time to write and think would lend me powerful new insights about the world and myself. What I found on my first day was boredom and discomfort. I tried to write, but the words would not come. I tried to sit with my thoughts, but all I could think about were tasks I would have to complete the next week. And I was uncomfortable. The temperatures rose past the 90’s and the sun was beating down on my camp site. The inside of my tent felt like a sauna. So I moved from rock to rock, chasing the bit of shade provided by the small trees as the sun moved across the sky. As day one came to a close, I was not feeling any closer to myself or the world around me.
The second day not only brought cooler temperatures, but also a greater sense of internal peace. I found myself lost in the book I had brought, which had not happened in a while. (FYI, the book was Borne by Jeff Vandermeer. I highly recommend it!) I also found it easier to write and think. While my mind would still drift back to deadlines and commitments, I also thought a lot about myself, the nature around me, and how I was feeling. By the morning of the third day, I felt truly happy and peaceful. I remember waking up and making some coffee. As I drank my coffee, I watched the sun rise over the cliffs. The world felt simple in that moment. Just me, my coffee, and creation. It hadn’t felt that simple in a long time.
While I do cherish the moments of serenity I had during the retreat, being alone was a complicated experience. I had some moments of utter boredom and some moments of total peace. There were times when I was thinking about how dirty I was or how uncomfortable the rock I was sitting on felt. But then other times I would completely forget how I physically felt and focus completely on the world around me.
Now that I am back in Tucson, I am grateful for the time alone, not in spite of being bored and uncomfortable at times, but partially because of those feelings. Those are two sensations that can be hard to tap into living in a modern world of connivence and technology. But they are a part of the human experience. Ultimately, I didn’t have any new, grand insights or revelations from my time in the desert, and it wasn’t three days of total peace and bliss. But it was three days to simply exist and be the person called Tanner, with all the emotional highs and lows that being a person on this Earth entails.
“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.
When exploring various options for a service year, one of the reasons I ultimately decided to apply for YAV over other programs, was its size and support system. It seemed that YAV was big enough to offer great opportunities but small enough to receive personal attention. I did not want to participate in a program where I would be a number among thousands of volunteers. Well, my inclination was accurate! As a YAV I have felt very supported on multiple levels by many people.
The Young Adult Volunteer program has a small national staff, made up of five people. I first met a member of the national staff when I had my initial interview, back in January. Rev. Richard Williams, the YAV coordinator (head honcho), spoke with me over the phone for probably an hour describing the program but also getting to know me and addressing my questions. It seemed that he really cared about my experience, that he wanted me to go to a site that would be a good fit, and that he would be available to me all throughout the process. The majority of my interaction with the national staff occurred during Orientation. The staff made up of five unique and quirky personalities offered training and support. We saw their serious side while explaining policy, and their silly side while performing in the talent show. Now, in my YAV year, I don’t communicate with the national staff too often, but I know that I could contact them at any time, and they would respond, knowing my name, and be happy to help. I was reminded by their presence and support when Richard sent me an email after I was hit by a car while biking to work in October. He told me that I was in the thoughts and prayers of the national staff, asked how I was recovering, and offered encouragement as a fellow biker.
If you are a regular reader of my blog, you’ve seen me reference our local Site Coordinator, Alison Wood, on several occasions. During a one-on-one meeting with her during my first week in Tucson, I told her that I wasn’t quite sure of the role of a site coordinator. She responded, “I’m not your friend. I’m not your boss.” Don’t tell Alison, but I think that she is actually both.
I understand the sentiment of her words, though. She is not my boss in the sense that she does not oversee my work at my site placement. She does, though, offer support related to my site placement and can serve as an intermediary between me and my placement supervisor if needed. She facilitates our community discussions each Friday, with a focus on developing vocational discernment tools and living into the value of intentional community. She holds office hours twice a week, which is an open invitation to chat one-on-one. She also offers not-so-optional opportunities to chat during monthly one-on-one check-ins. During retreats, we have played board games together and joked around. I like her sense of humor. After my bike accident, she drove me to the emergency room, and sat with me for hours, blowing up rubber gloves and telling me silly stories. When our 1998 Saturn, that serves as our program vehicle, does not start, she takes it to the shop. Really, she does a lot, so there is no way that I can include it all. The bottom line is: I can call her anytime, with an emergency, or with an existential question, and know that she will respond, not with answers but with challenging questions that allow me to grow.
Local Board of Directors
Each national YAV site has a board of directors. They function as the site coordinator’s bosses and an additional support system for us. Our board is made up of members of local churches, former YAVs, and community members. It is odd to refer to them as board members because they feel more like what I would usually call “family friends.” We see them at churches sometimes. Some have invited us over for dinner. Others have taken us to community events. I especially like when board members with young families invite us to do stuff with them and their kids! We typically do not interact with board members on a regular basis, but I know we can always reach out to them if we need assistance, and they will be happy to help and support us.
I do not know if other YAV sites have discernment partners or if it was Alison’s idea, but regardless, it was one aspect of the Tucson site that caught my attention during my initial interview. After getting to know us for about a month, Alison matched each of us YAVs with a discernment partner who she thought was similar in temperament, interests, etc. I prefer to call them “mentor buddies.” Our discernment partners support us human beings. They are not our Site Coordinator, nor on the Board of Directors, nor associated with our site placements, so they won’t heckle us about fund raising or specific assignments. They are just people we can talk who will support us. The idea is that we meet about once per month. My discernment partner and I usually meet for coffee in the evenings and chat for an hour. Others have gone on hikes, shared meals, or participated in other activities with their partners. Per the title, I think they are supposed to guide and offer support especially as it relates to vocational discernment. My experience is that my mentor buddy likes to get to know me, see how I’m doing, and hear my reflections on various aspects of life. It’s nice to have a neutral person with whom I can just chat.
This is not an exhaustive list of my sources of support. I also feel support from my supervisor and co-workers at my site placement, my family, church members, and friends of the YAV program. However, I wanted to take the time to describe the levels of support that are inherent in the YAV model. Yes, I moved to a new city in August, but I did not feel stranded or estranged. I was immediately enveloped in a caring community, and for that I am very grateful.
Flash blogs are short posts written to a shared prompt during community discussion time -- with a ten minute time limit. This practice helps us get used to blogging, stay in communication with our followers, and challenge ourselves to not overthink how we share with the world. See each YAV's response to this shared prompt below!
For starters, I totally had the idea to write a blog post about this in August or September-ish. Well, I didn’t. But because I had thought about it a bit back then, I already have some ideas and reflections on the Borderlands. Through this limited writing entry, I will see how those reflections have transformed through the last several months.
My first interaction with the Borderlands in my YAV year was that I decided to go to a site that is called “The Tucson Borderlands Site.” Right there in the name! At first, I thought that the borderlands was clearly referring to the U.S.- Mexico border to which we are so close here in Tucson. We’ve traveled to the border a number of times, and I remember in my initial interview with Alison before coming, she said something to the effect of, “The border is felt in all parts of life here in Tucson.”
My understanding of Borderlands changed at national YAV orientation when during our anti-racism training, we were presented with the borderlands framework. (Oh geez, how did I explain this in less than 10 minutes?) We split into groups and wrote sticky notes of all sorts of characteristics that are considered the “norm,” like: insured, Christian, educated, white, heterosexual, home owner, two-parent family. These sticky notes were posted into a square-ish shape on the wall. Then we wrote sticky notes that had traits that were societally perceived as outside of the norm like transgender, atheist, people of color, non-English speaking, immigrant, uninsured. These stickies were assembled around the square center, forming a border. I had never thought of the borderlands this way. The invisible, but far, far from nonexistent, lines in our society. I have returned to this framework of thinking many times throughout the year. Under this framework, any YAV site could have “Borderlands” in its name. Because of the emphasis and format of YAV, my peers all over the country and world are interacting with these invisible lines on a daily basis.
What do “The Borderlands” mean to me? Before becoming a Tucson Borderlands YAV, I had never heard the word “borderlands” before. When I thought of a border, I thought of a hard dividing line. Once you cross it, you are in an entire differently place than you were before. For example, once you cross the US/Mexico you go from being in Mexico to in the United States. It’s a black and white, night and day change. Seems reasonable right?
What I have learned during my YAV year is that while yes, that is the technical definition of a border, it does not really encompass the lived experience of people who make their lives in the lands near the border. The border is a lot less hard of a line than I thought, in fact, it is often very blurry. You may cross the border into the United States, but for the next 100 miles, you may be forced to show your ID or prove your a US citizen at a myriad of Border Patrol Checkpoints. So you are not really past the border once you step into the United States, it follows you, popping its head up and making you prove you belong on this side.
The border continues to follow you throughout Tucson. Every day, the green and white trucks of Border Patrol whiz up and down the city streets, reminding you of the ever present border. In the courtroom downtown, people’s lives are turned upside down on a daily basis as a judge rules they must return to the other side of the border, that they don’t belong on this side. In Southern Arizona, being 25 or 50 or 100 miles from the border is really meaningless. For some the border is always there. To me, that is why we live in the “Borderlands.” Whether we can see it or not, this land is shaped by the border, no matter how far away that border might be.
The borderlands and the myths/ideas surrounding a borderlands whether that is real or perceived is a subject of great importance but also of equally great confusion. A borderlands can exist anywhere where there is a space/gap between the familiar and unfamiliar. Whether this is within the realm of the material world or only within the minds of those living within it; the ramifications for those who exist outside of the familiar can all too often be isolation and unnecessary struggle. This also begs the question of what our role, as people of God, are in the face of this timeless struggle. Throughout many parts of the New Testament there are important reoccurring themes that reverberate throughout it. While they manifest themselves in different ways one of these central themes is simply to:
Live in Adversity
But what does this truly mean? I could spend countless pages; possibly whole books on what this fully entails but one thing is certain. That as believers we are called out of comfort, or the familiar, into the borderlands. Just like how a muscle cannot grow without first being torn or a skill learned without time and energy expended we are called to the borderlands to grow through necessary suffering. This allows us to not only grow stronger physically but also spiritually, and in doing so grow closer to God and our understanding of the work we are called to do.
At Community Home Repair, January and February are referred to as “SOOP Season.” This is in reference to the influx of new volunteers we get during these months through the Mennonite Church’s SOOP* program. Most SOOP volunteers are retired, and spend several months each year away from home, volunteering at a local non-profit. If that sounds a lot like YAV, well, it is! Just this week I went out into the field to make repairs with a SOOP volunteer named Doug. Doug and I are at very different places in our lives. He is now retired, and as we drove to our various jobs, he told me about all the places his career in the medical field took him. Unlike Doug, I am a recent college graduate, have never had a career, and have lived in only a handful of places during my life. Yet here we were, both brought to the desert by our respective churches sharing the common purpose of replacing a water heater and patching a roof.
*SOOP used to be an acronym, but following a controversy over the word “senior” to describe such an active bunch, the acronym was dropped.
This time of year has been busy at CHRPA for more reasons than simply the greater number of volunteers. I have been working with our Development Director, Carrie Nelson, on creating the inaugural CHRPA newsletter, and it should be launched next week! Additionally, CHRPA’s annual meeting is in two weeks, where we will be debuting another edition of CHRPA Tales. As I mentioned in the blog post “CHRPA Tales,” staff and long-term volunteers are required to write stories about their experiences at work. At each annual meeting, a book is presented containing a collection of stories written during the previous year. I have written a handful of stories, and I included one below from September. I hope you enjoy!
As a volunteer who began working at CHRPA in September, it was inevitable that my first month on the job would be filled with cooler repairs. After only several weeks working in the field, cooler repairs were already starting to feel routine. Most followed a similar pattern. You climb up onto the roof, clean or replace a few parts, sweat a lot, and voila, the client has cool air! Yet every once in a while, I come across a client that reminds me there is no such thing as “routine” at CHRPA.
One of the most remarkable client encounters I’ve had was with Diane. Claire and I arrived at her home one morning, and quickly learned that contractors had installed new parts on her cooler several weeks prior. Within minutes of climbing onto her roof and taking off the cooler pads, Claire and I realized the problem. While Diane’s cooler did indeed have new parts, they were installed incorrectly. It took us roughly twenty minutes to reinstall the parts correctly, and immediately, the cooler jumped to life, and Dianne’s home had cool air.
When we told Diane the good news, she teared up. With her voice shaking, she explained to us that the temperatures in her home had reached 95 to 100 degrees every afternoon for the past four weeks. One of my greatest joys each day is when I walk into my home after a long sweaty day in the field, and am greeted by a blast of cool air. Diane was deprived of that simple pleasure for almost a month. As I looked around her home, I only saw one small fan. I struggled to imagine a month where your only relief from triple digit heat is a fan the size of a textbook. But now, that was no longer Diane’s reality, she could be comfortable in her own home again. Later that afternoon, when Claire and I arrived back at the office, Kat informed us that Diane had left a voicemail soon after we left. We listened to the message where Diane described how a tall woman and a baby-faced young man (yes, that was me) had brought cool air back to her home and had treated her with kindness and dignity.
Some days at CHRPA can be a tiring slog. There are times when you’ve already been up on three roofs during a hot summer day, and the last thing you want is to climb up on another roof to repair another cooler. On those days, repairs can seem routine, or something to get through and move on to the next one. But it is during those moments when I think of Diane, and remind myself that what is our routine job is another person’s miracle.
A major part of the Young Adult Volunteer program is the placement of a volunteer with a community partner. That is, in each city, the YAV program has community partners, usually nonprofit organizations or churches, that are doing important work in the community that aligns with the YAV values. Although volunteers cycle in and out each year, the aim is to maintain strong partnerships between the local organizations and the YAV program for ages. This practice demonstrates the concept of volunteering or practicing mission where invited, alongside locals.
The Tucson Borderlands YAV site has a number of local partners doing exiting, challenging work in the Southern Arizona community. (Check them out on our local website!) This year, I am partnered with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. We call it the Florence Project, or FIRRP, for short. The Florence Project is the only nonprofit organization that provides free legal and social services to the 5,000 immigrants who are detained on any given day in Arizona. The Florence Project began in a small town called Florence, Arizona, but now has offices in Florence, Phoenix, and Tucson, with over 80 employees.
My specific placement with FIRRP is with the Children’s Program based out of the Tucson office. We service a 300 children facility that is located within the city of Tucson, a 50 children facility that is located about 1.5 hours away from Tucson, hidden away on the side of a mountain, and a 30 children long term foster care program in Tucson. Our team consists of three attorneys, four legal assistants, a social worker, and an administrative assistant. I essentially work in the capacity of a legal assistant. To best demonstrate the work that I do, I will describe a typical week in my life at the Florence Project.
Mondays are my least favorite days. No, not just because they are Mondays, but because they are office days. A typical Monday for me is spent solely in the office, not at shelters interacting with kids, which I have come to learn is my favorite part of this job. However, I recognize that the office work is also important as it is when I work on casework for clients, such as writing declarations, drafting dependency petitions, and completing asylum applications. On Monday afternoons, we have our weekly team meetings, at which all of the above-named people (attorneys, admin, and legal assistants) gather to discuss surfacing issues, protocol changes, and upcoming events. Immediately after team meeting, we launch into what is called Joint Case Review (JCR).
JCR is an opportunity to bring up any challenging cases so that all attorneys and legal assistants can strategize together and offer each other suggestions and support. JCR is also when legal assistants bring up new, pressing cases that they have identified at the shelters and try to convince an attorney to represent the child.** Because we have only three attorneys and we service 380 children, of course, not all of the children who need an attorney can have one. Sometimes I leave team meeting and JCR feeling encouraged, sensing strong teamwork. Sometimes I leave these meetings feeling defeated by the system and all of the barriers that it presents.
**An important parenthesis: immigrants in removal (read: deportation) proceedings are not guaranteed an attorney, like defendants are in criminal proceedings. This means that most migrants, including children, must defend themselves in a court of law in front of immigration judges, against government prosecutors. A study published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, found that “only 37% of all immigrants, and a mere 14% of detained immigrants, secured representation” in asylum hearing.
On a typical Tuesday, one legal assistant heads to the detention facility within Tucson to deliver a Know Your Rights presentation at 8:30am. We alternate giving these presentations, and I am a regular in the rotation. By law, children must receive a Know Your Rights presentation within 10 days of arriving at the facility. This presentation is conducted in Spanish, and delivered in a kid-friendly way with colorful graphics, interaction, and role-play. Following the approximately 1.5 hour-long presentation, the other legal assistants arrive at the shelter to assist with intakes. Intakes are a basic legal screening that all children who arrive at the facility receive. They are conducted in a private room, where we (ideally) cannot be overheard, but can be observed by shelter staff through a window or camera. As legal assistants, we explain confidentiality, and assure the kids that anything they tell us will not be shared with facility staff, ICE, or even their parents, without their consent. We then ask a series of questions designed to determine what type of legal relief the child may be eligible for, and to screen for abuse by Border Patrol. Intakes usually last from 10 am to about noon.
If all goes well for a child, we will not meet with them again. The best case, and most common, scenario is that within weeks (but it is usually several months) of their arrival to the shelter, they will be reunified with a sponsor already living in the U.S., usually a relative or close friend. When they arrive to their destination, we contact them to assist in finding an attorney to represent them in their legal case, which generally endures for years and years after being released from detention. If a child does not have a sponsor, or if their sponsor is rejected by the government, then we meet with child again to discuss other options. They can opt for a voluntary departure, in which they ask the immigration judge permission to return to their home country. Or, if they have a strong enough legal case (read: traumatic enough life), and are under age 17.5, we can assist them in applying for placement in a Long Term Foster Care program.
After a lunch break, we return to the facility at 1 pm to conduct follow-ups. Follow-ups are a second, third, fourth, or umpteenth meeting with a child because they are our client or they need specific assistance with their case, like applying for Long Term Foster Care or have an upcoming court hearing. After follow ups, I return to the office and complete office work for the remainder of the afternoon.
Wednesdays are my favorite day of the week! Although it is an early morning for me, arriving at the office at 7:30 am, compared to the usual 8:30, it is the day with the most direct interaction, which I have come to find very life-giving. At 7:30 am, I meet one other legal assistant at the office and we begin the 1.5 hour trek to the shelter located on the other side of Mt. Lemmon. The four legal assistants each rotate who goes to this facility each week because it is a big time-commitment. My “pet-project”, that was envisioned prior to my arrival at the Florence Project and assigned to me by my supervisor on my first day, is overseeing this facility by being a “regular” there. The goal was to have a more consistent presence for the kids there and to improve the rapport between FIRRP and the facility staff. So, while the full-time legal assistants only go to this shelter once a month, I go every week.
Beginning around 9 am when we arrive, the colleague accompanying me that day gives a KYR presentation while I conduct follow-ups. My consistent presence at the shelter has been very beneficial for follow-ups. The kids know me; I know them. I know exactly where I am in their case and what needs to be discussed each week. Some highlights of these relationships have included a child who loves to practice a bit of English with me each week and sings me Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” a child making me a thread bracelet that has my full name in the design, and children genuinely thanking me for just saying hi and asking how they’re doing.
After KYR and follow-ups, the other legal assistant and I conduct intakes with each new kid. We usually do not leave the shelter until 1 or 2 pm, so by the time we return to the office, I am almost at an 8 hour day, so a little bit of office work, and then I bike home. Though Wednesdays can be long and draining, I love the opportunity to work with the kids who are at such an isolated facility, showing them as best that I can, that they are not forgotten.
My Thursdays have a structure identical to Tuesdays. As the end of my work week, though, I tend to get a surge of energy to tie up loose ends, followed by excitement for the weekend. (The Tucson YAV model is a four-day work week at our site placements, committing to 32 – 36 hours per week. Friday is a designated community day featuring community discussions, work related to vocational discernment, local educational and activism events, and fellowship with housemates.)
You can see that my weeks are very busy, filled with work that requires much background information (which is why this post was so long!) I am very grateful for all of the opportunities that the Florence Project has afforded me over the last five months, and I am grateful to the YAV program for providing me the opportunity to work with FIRRP. I have learned about the system and its flaws through my work. I have learned about my strengths and my flaws through my work. This experience has, so far, solidified my passion for working with children, migrants, and survivors of trauma. It has also caused me to realize that channeling those passions through the legal field may not be the best fit. But, more to come on that later! For now, I hope that this post has increased your awareness of what I do with 32 – 36 hours of my life each week! There is so much more to be said, so I welcome any questions.
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!
On Friday the 30th we concluded with our border delegation/immersion experience with the Austin and Albuquerque YAV houses. Throughout the week we participated in many activities along the U.S. Mexico border to immerse ourselves within a variety of different perspectives and cultures based around those whose lives are affected by this situation on a continual basis. We spent time in and around the Douglas/Aqua Prieta port of entry. As part of this immersion experience, we visited many different facets of life along border communities. We spoke with the mayor of Douglas about the unique relationships border communities have with each other. We explored topics such as economic policies, education, and community structure as well as looking into how these concepts put in practice transcend traditional barriers. On the Mexican side we visited and spoke with families who have attempted to obtain a temporary visa and the issues they faced. There were also many types of community wealth we took part in observing. One such group is known as “Cafe Justo” and they are a fair-trade coffee cooperative working to help foster wealth for those in more distressed parts on the country. Another unintended side effect of increased border security is the costs to the black-market drug industry. While higher quantities of drugs are being stopped at the border due to increased security this also means that many of these illicit substances intended for US customers are now getting trapped along the border in border communities instead. This has resulted in a new epidemic along the southern border with treatment facilities on the rise to help remediate this issue. One such facility, the CRREDA, takes part in helping the community with substance abuse. The facility functions under a family structure model that focuses on the 12 steps and the beatitudes as the foundation of healing. Those who enter usually spend a minimum of 90 days.
On the last stop of our journey that week we witnessed the legal proceeding (known as Operation Streamline) taking place in Tucson’s court systems. These proceedings are a drastic step forward in combating illegal immigration by pushing as many as 70-90 people a day through Tucson’s courts in an effort to quickly combat illegal immigration while also minimizing the time/costs related with detention. Throughout these proceedings many of the defendants spoke Spanish but a few spoke different dialects and their level of comprehension at times was questionable at best. Usually 10 to 12 people were brought into the courtroom at a time. Then they would go down a line with the defendants being asked to yes or no questions about the nature of their detention. There was a translator and many of the lawyers spoke Spanish but I still at times questioned the overall level of comprehension among them. The law and your individual rights can at times be a complex and confusing animal even to someone raised in this country…
It’s about 9 pm on a Tuesday night. I’m in the back seat of our YAV car, the 1998 small Saturn that my housemates and I share. Alison is driving. Ryan and Tanner are fast asleep. We are on our way home from Agua Prieta/Douglas where we attended a binational Posada along the border wall, led by Frontera de Cristo. During and after the Posada, I chatted with new and old friends. As I sit in the backseat, look at the other people in this car, remember my evening, and reflect on my last four months, I feel a deep happiness bubbling inside of me. I love my life. It has been years since I have experienced this level of joy and contentment.
On Friday, three days from now, I will fly home to see family for Christmas. While I am excited to be with my loved ones, going home also means confronting family conflict and being in my small home town. I greatly appreciate the community I grew up in, but in some ways, I am very different than I was in high school. So although I am going home for the holidays, I am leaving the home and life that I have established in Tucson.
I did not instantly call Tucson home upon arrival. It took a while (a couple of months) to appreciate the city. In fact, during my first week here, I detested it. I told myself that it was only a year-long commitment, and I could return to Texas- or go anywhere- upon completion of my YAV year. Now, I am considering staying in Tucson, or in another part of Arizona, after the program concludes. I love the people here. I love the culture here. I don’t love the cacti yet, but they are growing on me.
My perception of the physical space in which I live has also transformed over the last four months. It was difficult to leave the cute one-bedroom apartment in San Antonio that was mine and Tanner’s first place together. Over the year and a half that we lived there, I meticulously decorated and organized every inch of that apartment. Moving into a new house with others meant relinquishing some of that control and perfectionism. I was overwhelmed when we first moved into our house. I did not expect the physical space adjustment to be as difficult as it was. The house that I moved into four months ago with two strangers, 50 dinner plates, and four mismatching couches, has become a cozy home.
My life in Tucson has come to feel like home. It has come to mean comfort, adjustment, learning, growing, challenging myself, developing relationships, and speaking up. I am nervous to leave all of that. As I prepare to “leave home” for the holidays, I hope to take with me my newfound confidence and joy. And the best part is, I get to come back in January!
As always, thank you for reading my blog. Part of gaining confidence and using my voice this year has come via my blog, so your readership means a lot to me! Merry Christmas and happy holidays, everyone!
When I first contemplated how I would format my blog post about the Border Delegation, I thought that I would title it, “Hurt and Hope,” and describe the ways in which I observed and experienced both throughout the week. I quickly realized, though, that sorting my experiences that way was too binary. Most of what I saw and learned encompassed hints of both hope and hurt. At church the Sunday after our Border Delegation concluded, Pastor Bart Smith spoke in his sermon about Emmanuel: God with us. He said that emmanuel is forever and ongoing. With it being the beginning of advent, he posed the question, “When is a good time for love to be born?” In my mind, I considered, “When is a good time to migrate?” Inspired by the sermon, I arrived at this title and framework: Emmanuel in the Borderlands.
Emmanuel at Café Justo
Café Justo (translated: fair or just coffee) is a coffee cooperative owned and operated by farmers in Chiapas, Mexico. The coffee is grown in Chiapas and roasted in Agua Prieta. It is sold in Mexico, the U.S., Canada, and France, mostly at churches. During our time in Agua Prieta, we were given a tour of the roasting facility and learned about their operations from Café Justo employees, Daniel and Adrián. Café Justo began in 2002 with a microloan from Frontera de Cristo. Many farmers from Chiapas were migrating to Northern Mexico or to the United States because the price of coffee fell so dramatically in the 1990s that they could no longer support themselves or their families. Community and family unity suffered greatly. In response to the economic and social crisis, Café Justo was formed as a way to cut out the middle man in the coffee growing and selling process so that the farmers in Chiapas could receive a fair price for their beans. In addition to being paid a fair price for the fruit of their labor, farmers who are part of the cooperative receive benefits, such as health insurance and retirement plans. Now, some of the original farmers are retiring, and their children are working as part of the co-op. The same families that would have been separated by migration as a result of environmental and economic factors out of their control, are now living and working intergenerationally and have the resources to invest in their community.
When is a good time to migrate?
Emmanuel in a Family’s Home
One evening during our time in DouglaPrieta, we were welcomed into the home of a young family: Flor, Miguel, and their daughter, Aleyda. We were a group of 13 people, but our hosts were very hospitable and generous. Flor prepared a lentil soup that we garnished with cilantro, onions, and lime. She served us pitchers full of agua fresca- piña, my favorite! Most of the time we were there, Aleyda, who is five, was in a side room watching cartoons and coloring with her dad. She wore shiny bows in her hair, and produced a shy smile when we asked her questions.
After enjoying la cena, Flor and Miguel spoke to us candidly about life on the border. Flor grew up in Agua Prieta; Miguel in Chiapas. Due to a lack of job opportunities over a decade ago, Miguel migrated to the U.S. He explained that during his time in the United States, he only left his home to go to work. He lived in constant fear of any interaction with law enforcement. One day, while on his way to work, the vehicle he was in was pulled over, I think for mechanical issues. Miguel was the only individual in the vehicle who did not have authorization to work, so he was taken to the immigrant detention facility in Florence, Arizona. (Some of my colleagues at the Florence Project provide legal services to individuals detained there). Miguel described his six months imprisoned there as difficult and ugly. I could see in his facial expressions and hear in his words that he had many painful memories of Florence. After six months of trying to obtain a work permit, but with no avail, Miguel decided to sign an order of deportation and return to Mexico. He ended up in Agua Prieta and applied for a job at a maquiladora, or factory. Flor was a new hire at the same maquiladora at that time. Also limited by economic opportunity, many Agua Prieta folks work at factories run by multinational cooperations that are located near the border due to lax labor and tax laws. Although Miguel annoyed Flor at first because he asked many questions during work orientation, they eventually became friends and are now married with a child.
As a United Statesian, I often have had the perception that people in Mexico are miserable. Especially people who live near the border, I thought, must have terrible lives filled with violence and despair. That is the opposite of what I experienced in the home of Flor, Miguel, and Aleyda. They were hopeful. They were hospitable. They were healthy. They were happy. Miguel said, “We have problems, like all families do, but we are very content to live in this community.”
When is a good time to migrate?
When is a good time for a child to be born?
Emmanuel at Operation Streamline
The part of our week in which it was the most difficult to believe Emmanuel: God with us was when we observed Operation Streamline in Tucson. Operation Streamline is a two hour-long, mass federal prosecutorial hearing that occurs every afternoon. Each day 70 to 80 individuals are prosecuted for a misdemeanor or a felony, solely related to entering the country not at a port of entry. If an individual has only entered once, and has not been deported, they generally plead guilty to a misdemeanor and are then turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) where they will be detained for months before being deported or, if they are statistically lucky, released to live in the U.S. If an individual has a prior deportation on their record, they are prosecuted for a felony and a misdemeanor, but will usually plead guilty to the misdemeanor so the felony is dropped. They are sentenced to 30 to 180 days in federal prison, after which they will be turned over to ICE and spend several months in detention until being deported, or if EXTRA statistically lucky, released.
Our group of 13 and another group of folks on a church/border education trip entered a massive federal court room and were seated in the back. Many attorneys sat in the jury box. All of the usual court personnel was there: a judge, a secretary, an interpreter, and many federal marshals. When the judge was ready to begin, a group of seven people wearing street clothes, handcuffs, ankle shackles, and chains around their waists came out from a side door, had headphones were placed on their ears (they could not do it themselves because of the handcuffs), and stood in front of the judge. Seven of the attorneys stepped down from the jury box and stood behind each defendant. The judge went down the line of people asking them to verify their names, read them their rights, asked if they wanted to waive their right to a trial, read them their charges, and asked for their plea. She would usually read the full text (for an example, the rights) to the first or second person in line. She would say, “Do you understand your rights as I just explained?” By the third, fourth, fifth, person in the order, she would just say, “Same question.” It was apparent that efficiency, not comprehension or justice, was the name of the game. After each defendant pleaded guilty to their charges, whether they really understood them or not, the group of seven would be escorted out, and another group of seven would be escorted in. This process was repeated about ten times. It was uncomfortable, sad, and shameful to watch people being treated like this, especially in a U.S. court room. It was very difficult to feel the presence of God in that room.
Among the approximately 70 humans who we saw in chains standing in front of a judge who spoke to them in complex legal terminology in a foreign language, were a pregnant woman, indigenous language speakers whom the judge coerced into using the Spanish interpreter even if comprehension was limited, and boys who appeared and sounded to be 14 or 15 years old, but told the judge they were 18.
One defendant broke out of the mechanical saying “Sí” to all of the judge’s questions, and decided to speak up when given the opportunity. I have contemplated his story several times over the last few weeks. Jorge was one of the individuals who had a prior deportation on his record, so he was being charged with a felony and sentenced to time in a federal prison. When the judge asked, “Do any of the defendants want to say anything?” Jorge bravely said yes. He approached the microphone and asked the judge if his sentence could be reduced. He explained that he is a single father, and his United States citizen daughter is in Mexico. The longer his prison sentence, the longer he would be separated from his daughter. It seemed like what he wanted was to quickly be deported so that he could return to caring and providing for her. The judge said, “I’m sorry to hear that, but I have no control over sentencing. It’s between your attorney and the government.” Jorge was sentenced to 180 days, six months, in a U.S. federal prison.
When is a good time to migrate?
Emmanuel at the Port of Entry
During our time in Agua Prieta, we had the pleasure of sharing a meal with migrants who were temporarily living at a shelter on the Mexican side of the border. There was a variety of identities present at the shelter, called C.A.M.E. There were a couple of Honduran and Guatemalan families. There were three Mexican men who had spent the majority of their lives in the U.S. There was a group of Honduran transgender women. The C.A.M.E. volunteers and the migrants collaborated to prepare a delicious dinner, do dishes, and clean. We tried to wash our own dishes and sweep, but as their guests, they generously cleaned up after us. While we ate, we had the honor of hearing their stories, sharing in their pain, joking and laughing.
Migrants are at this shelter, usually, waiting to cross into the United States. There is a small port of entry between Agua Prieta and Douglas. If a migrant sets foot on U.S. soil and expresses a desire to apply for asylum to a government official, U.S. and international law dictates that the person has the right to stay in the United States (often in detention) while fighting for asylum in immigration court. Entering the U.S. at a port of entry is the best way to do this because it is safer than crossing the desert or the Río Grande. It also carries less potential legal backlash than does entering not at a port of entry (see Operation Streamline, above). However, the number of people who can approach a port of entry and request asylum is limited. And, the number has been decreasing in recent months. (I discussed this phenomena in my post about El Paso.) The Agua Prieta/Douglas port of entry is small, but it has the capacity to process eight asylum seekers per day. In recent weeks, it has been processing maybe one or two people per day. So, some of the folks we met at C.A.M.E. were waiting to go to the port of entry and request asylum, but they had been turned away day after day.
During our dinner at C.A.M.E., we met María. She wore her hair in a pony tail, and had a beautiful smile. María was traveling with her 13 year-old daughter, Julisa, who was wearing a blue shirt with white buttons when I met her. The morning following our shared dinner, María and Julisa were planning to go to the port of entry, bright and early, accompanied by C.A.M.E. volunteers. Before leaving that night, we wished them luck and safe travels. The next day we were busy with our scheduled programming. We spent most of the day in Agua Prieta, but around 4 pm, we were crossing the border to participate in a prayer vigil in Douglas. As we approached the port of entry, we saw María and Julisa. Sitting on the concrete. Waiting. They told us that they had been there since 7 a.m., but had not yet been allowed to set foot on U.S. soil to request asylum. We were in a hurry to get to the prayer vigil, so we did not talk for long. We pulled our U.S. passports out of our pockets and were in the U.S. within minutes. After the prayer vigil, some members of our group returned to the port of entry with food, coats, and sleeping bags for María and Julisa. Although they could have returned to C.A.M.E. for the night, they decided to sleep on the concrete in the cold because they didn’t want to “lose their place in line.”
María was eight months pregnant, with bronchitis.
When is a good time for a baby to be born?
When is a good time to migrate?
Where is Emmanuel?
As we are now in advent, a time of preparation for the coming of Jesus, I am trying to identify Emmanuel in my life. I am trying to consider where God is with me. I experienced God in the faces and in the lives of Daniel, Adrián, Flor, Miguel, Aleyda, Jorge, María and Julisa. I experienced God in the many life-changing ministries of Frontera de Cristo. I experienced God in the DouglaPrieta community. I experienced God in the hope and in the hurt. As Pastor Bart said, Emmanuel is forever and ongoing.
When is a good time to migrate?
When is a good time for a baby to be born?
When is a good time for love to be born?