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.