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?
This happened one year ago. June 1st, 2014….a day that will go down in infamy. Well, to me it will. For many other Facebook countless friends of mine, they will also have (or have had) a similar day. However, this is not the reality for millions upon billions more people around the world. On my news feed, I am not a minority. In the world’s population, I am a minority. I have been to college. It’s one of the things I admitted more feebly and timidly this past week when I was in Mexico teaching English. (I was subbing for the week while my fellow YAV, James was on the Migrant Trail walk. This is a 75-mile walk done in order to simulate – even the slightest bit – the trek that millions of migrants have taken across the Sonoran desert).
As I sat with my host father after dinner one night, he asked me what I had studied in college. I told him Adolescent Education and Adolescent English and that I was trying to decide this year and discern further if teaching is the career I wish to pursue. I told him that I had experienced how education seemed to be more respected in other countries besides America. Therefore – I also told him – it is not as respected and as a paid-well job in the United States as other jobs (i.e. optometrist, pediatrician, lawyer, etc). These are the complaints I have often heard from my teaching mentors and other family friends back home (New England society) and therefore, find myself repeating these same truths that I have found consistent with my own experience.
Next, my host father asked me how much I would make as a teacher in this new teaching job. (I am staying in Tucson after my YAV year and teaching at a local high school). I told him but I was afraid to admit a number that would be a little more than his wage. When he told me that he made $50 a week. My jaw dropped. “But you have this huge home!” I stated immediately, trying to find something to cover up my inaccurate, naive, and privileged comment about how teaching jobs don’t pay as well as other careers in the States. Well, this might be “true” in America but that would be “rolling in the dough” here in Mexico. Mi padre went on to explain more about how he had built this house and how he did all the foundation, cement, tiling, plumbing, roofing. All of it. Todo. My eyes kind of glazed over as I stayed fixated on his previous comment. But it didn’t even make sense. His house’s appearance did not match his income. How can someone who looks so happy and his house that seems to have so much come from an income that is so low? But that is the reality in Mexico, he told me.
Our conversation died down for the evening. I retreated to my departamento – the apartment off the side that the family rents out to bring in more income. They had let me stay in this whole room to myself. I felt selfish when I realized they could have rented it out this week to someone else other than me. I wish that they had so I would not be monopolizing the space. This reality check came after this conversation – when they moved the previous tenant’s furniture out of the room – so they could make space for me. I mean, that was not the only reason. She was moving out anyways. But they could have used that room. Instead, they wanted me to have it. Their hospitality was unreal. An American would never do that! I wish I was not occupying the room. I wish a paying tenant was there.
All this talk of recognizing one’s privilege – that is often found throughout the YAV year – has been summed up in two occasions:
1) My college graduation. See picture of myself and my three best friends above. Here is the Facebook status I wrote upon the 1st year anniversary of my college graduation:
2) A flashback to my high school opinion’s:
When I was in high school, I used to say to my family and friends, “I love airports! You see all sorts of people in airports! People from all walks of life!”
“Yes, you do,” my present self would reply. “However, you see ‘all sorts of people’ who can afford an airplane ticket of $250 and above. You see ‘all sorts of people’ who can all afford expensive designer or at least luggage that looks presentable. There are not going to be people here who are food-insecure. There are not going to be people here who are homeless. Yet surprisingly, they may be a man who is an orphan because his two parents died in the war.”
I am privileged. I am white. I am from a middle/upper-class family who has access to higher education. Of course I’m going to be walking through the airport….However, millions of people do not even know what the inside of a plane or a lecture hall look like.
I guess there are a few things my professors left out of the syllabus…