You will get to a point one day, where this won’t be so hard, it won’t hurt so much.
This is what Margo Cowan, a woman who has been engaged with activism for over 45 years, told me as I walked her files into court last fall. It was my second week on the job, and in a plan to get to know me better, she asked how I liked my work with Keep Tucson Together. KTT is a new work placement for the TBYAVS, and it has been a lot of learning and growing for all involved. I went in knowing nothing about law or immigration. I also knew that I didn’t have the best boundaries when it came to work. That I have trouble separating areas of my life and not getting too focused on one thing that I forget other things around me. I knew going into, that this year was going to hold a lot of growth.
Keep Tucson Together is an organization that strives to offer free legal services to undocumented families in Tucson that cannot afford a lawyer to represent them in immigration court. The organization started in 2011, helping people submit their DACA and citizenship applications. However, now, there is a growing need to defend people in deportation proceedings as cases that were closed 5 years ago are being reopened and more and more people are getting stopped for traffic violations and then deported. This year has brought me a constant awareness of the ways in which our government uses tactics of oppression to further instill racism fear into society.
My first week on the job we discussed the importance of an A# or an alien #. The government refers to our clients not as people, but as aliens, and instead of going through the trouble of learning names, ICE assigns them #’s. My second week on the job, I attended my first Thursday night clinic and sat in on our team’s meetings with clients. I heard second hand through a translator the stories of people seeking political asylum, I heard of families whose son or sister or parent had gotten detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) because they weren’t wearing a seatbelt one afternoon and ICE was called because the driver didn’t have papers. The following Monday, I relived those stories again and again as I entered them into our database and then sent them by email to our lawyers and teams so that these folks could get help.
Many emails came back with further questions, lawyers looking for more information that made this plea for asylum unique compared to the dozen that they heard earlier in the month. The first few emails, made me angry, why should it matter- why are we forcing people to relive their trauma’s? IF they were from Europe would we be needing as much information?
When Margo told me at the end of my second week that I would one day build up a shell and that this work wouldn’t affect me, I didn’t believe her. How could I ever get used to these stories and become numb to all of the tears and panic that came into our office every day? In my first month with KTT I began to see through lawyer and volunteer interactions, through emails, the “numbness” that Margo was hinting at. However, I still wasn’t sure that becoming “numb” was possible for me. I did not see the value in it.
Thirty-six weeks later, I am now beginning to unpack what she was saying that day. This numbness doesn’t mean the work no longer affects you, it’s that it doesn’t paralyze you. I began to understand that even though our lawyers and volunteers weren’t visibly distressed each time a new client’s story was heard, they still feel each one. Instead of getting upset and shutting down when I hear these stories, I now get angry when the 27th person comes to the clinic or calls us to explain their situation. I am angry because 27 people shouldn’t have to call in one day for a lawyer. They should not be sitting in a detention facility waiting to have their story heard. A story that 8 times out of ten, involves a loved one they know or themselves fleeing death threats after being kidnapped or harassed by a cartel.
Two minutes before I got up to tell this story, I was replying to a comment on a Facebook post for the Justice for All campaign. I told you— it’s hard to put work aside! This campaign is fighting to create a public defenders office in Pima County strictly for folks in immigration court. To alleviate the workload that nonprofits like Keep Tucson Together are facing when taking on 700+ cases at a time. The saying, you have a right to an attorney and if you cannot afford one, one will be appointed to you, does not apply to non-citizens. Because in the eyes of Americans, if you are not a citizen you are not a person, you are an alien, why should you get a lawyer?
I am channeling anger tonight because I have had to tell the 9th person on Facebook for the 27th time that to get here “legally” amounts to more than having money and waiting two weeks for a passport or visa. I am angry because no matter how many ways it gets said, some people still struggle to connect the dots. And it’s not their fault, the system that we play into has caused us to be this way, to feel this way- or really, to not feel at all. But, how can I share my thoughts about what I am learning at the border when people are too built into their systems to listen. What happens when everyone plays into this “numb” feeling and a person’s life becomes a case instead of a story.
I now get angry instead of sad and in this current situation where KTT has 53 clients in ICE custody, in detention, awaiting infection, my blood is boiling and I challenge why more people’s do not. I am disgusted that our first question isn’t how can we help people who need help it’s, well are they here legally? When our second question isn’t how do we fix this, it’s how dangerous are these people? I am angry because I question how long social justice initiatives will have to keep fighting. I am angry now because some days, I wish I could live in Margo’s advice and be numb to the stories. To have this unawareness that friends, family, and Facebook strangers do. I am angry because as I am wishing for one day where I don’t have to be engulfed by work and immigration, I am also scared of becoming numb. It scares me to think that when this YAV year ends I will have the option not to think about the folks sitting in detention or being harassed by our government systems. It scares me to recognize the continuous battle in fighting the privilege to “numb out” and the challenge that comes with also taking time for self-care.
As we approach week 44, the end of our YAV year, and possibly the end of my time in Tucson, I get scared of leaving all I have learned behind and turning back to “numbing out”. People’s stories should not have to go on display in order for us to understand their situation. Yet, I have been given the gift this year of true vulnerability in the clients I work with and a few friends I hold dear. Their vulnerability should not go unnoticed. They are “Rock Stars” as Margo often says– and in a world that is threatening to dim their light, their stories need to be heard. The lesson that this year has taught me and the feelings that I am left with are that we can’t numb out and get used to these stories. As tempting as it is, we can’t take the easy way out and avoid seeing these people as people. Because if we do that, the system won’t change, people won’t change. As scared as I am for this YAV year to end, that does not mean the learning ends. We live in a world that will always offer one more story.
I have been thinking about writing a blog post on a movie for a while now- first, it was Frozen 2 (something about vocational discernment and entering the unknown), then Little Women (Jo’s line in the attic about women being more than a face/ romance), heck, I even debated CATS (a movie everyone hates because they either don’t understand or are thinking too hard). You see, I have been “escaping” or at least attempting to escape through t.v. However tonight, I watched the pre-release of Party of Five on Freeform and I found what I need to blog about.
During my first week here, I had my first interaction with Margo Cowan. I was going to her truck to get files for the office and I was on a time crunch- no time for small talk but Margo insisted anyways. I think she could tell I was stressed and overwhelmed at the responsibilities I had been given. She asked me how things were going and how I felt and with tears in my eyes, I told her it was hard, that this is gut-wrenching work and I am not sure I am cut out for it. I don’t like the feeling of responsibility (possibly why I have procrastinated “joining the ‘REAL’ workforce” and have done two volunteer years), of having people’s lives depend on my decisions. She looked at me and sighed, and said that it would not always be like this- the pain and discomfort. She said that eventually, I would become immune to it and slowly but surely build up a wall. I looked at her like she was insane and said: “no way, this is meant to hurt, it will always hurt”. That was 4 months ago- four short months ago. I should have listened and believed the woman that has been doing this work for over 50 years.
This past week, I have been struggling with work. I have been frustrated that we did not have many days off for the holidays and that with so many co-workers out of town, I have been embracing a lot of new responsibilities that I cannot run away from (despite the effort in trying). I was mad at the systems- for giving other lawyers the holiday week off and cramming so many hearings into our pro-bono schedule. We had seven hearings the day after Christmas, the number is averaged normally to two or three a day. We have also had a few ‘emergencies’ take place at the office that have made for long hours instead of half days. I have been exhausted this week and the free time I have had has been spent sleeping or, as previously stated, binging t .v. I did not get to go on all the hikes or bike rides like I had planned to while being home alone.
At the beginning of the year, my stance on the matter was easy- families should not be ripped apart and all the anger I had was placed at ICE agents and the Judges for making horrible decisions. I have been told numerous times this year that the verdict depends 82% on how the judge feels one day- however, I am no longer sure I believe it. I have a book on my nightstand right now, The Line Becomes A River, it is about a border patrol agent’s experience. I haven’t been able to pick it up and read it yet- probably for the same reason, many won’t watch Party of Five or listen to me with full concentration when I discuss work. It is easier to hate a system, a PERSON, when you choose the facts you know and do not get both sides of a story. It is easier to shield yourself with walls, and build emotional borders and just look at the facts but, the facts change. We are currently living in a broken system that has not been updated and people, families are suffering from the lack of repair and growth to that system.
I cried during “Party of Five”, I cried watching it harder than I have cried in a long time- because my wall was broken. I realized what an idiot I have been groaning about going to work when, as Margo recently said in a holiday email, “our brothers and sisters in detention are facing a much harder inconvenience”. The Acosta family (from Party of Five) may be fictional- but their story is not. It may seem like their story is dramatized for the big screen and you may doubt the events but I can assure you that if anything, their story has been simplified. Margo is like one of many pro bono lawyers that the family first turns to- we have close to 600 ACTIVE cases right now that need her constant attention- at 70+ years old. Watching this family get ripped apart and hearing Val, a seventh graders, testimony on why she needs her mom and dad in her life, I instantly remembered the countless intakes I read every morning that discuss mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, cousins, nieces/ nephews, children, and friends begging to get support for their loved ones. This year, I am supposed to be embracing “vulnerability” but mine is a joke compared to what families have to go through and experience just to get help.
We can’t be mad at each other, we can’t be mad at the Judges, the border patrol agents, the prosecutors and ICE agents for doing their job. We can’t be mad and call each other names and bicker over who is right. We have to change the system, be mad at the system, that has not been improved for 40 years. We have to educate and sensitize ourselves to the truths. We are not just fighting the border walls of steel and concertina wire, we have to break down the walls we have mentally built up that have allowed this to be “okay”.
Spanish has BY FAR been one of the biggest unexpected struggles I have faced since moving here to Tucson. Please allow me to expand on the fact that a week in Mexico did not help. I’m going to be frank in this blog post that my white privilege comes out a lot when I get frustrated over being monolingual. As a house, we have a goal to point out white supremacy when we see it, and I am expanding that right now to publicly admitting when I am wrong. There have been many times this year where I have felt just a pinch of what it must feel like to be a minority in a setting. However, even in those times that I think I understand, I am speaking on the stance of my privilege.
My job placement this year, primarily speaks Spanish. Our Monday meetings are in Spanish and everyone goes to great lengths trying to accommodate to me, but I hate the feeling that I am missing out on conversations and bonding moments. I get frustrated that I am missing out on so much due to not being able to be authentically open and be my normal talkative self in spaces. I also feel I am constantly letting down coworkers because answering the phone, calling clients, and even answering the door and doing basic office functions that I normally love to do, provide a struggle. Although I know basic phrases and with the help of a few coworkers am attempting to learn more, I get lost rather quickly as the conversation progresses.
In my second week in Tucson, I went out with coworkers to a sushi restaurant. The waiter spoke clearly to my coworkers in Spanish but not to me. He didn’t acknowledge me. When menus came around, one of my coworkers had trouble reading their options. As I leaned over to explain, I noticed my menu was in English and all the rest were in Spanish. I was being stereotyped. Correctly so, but still stereotyped.
A month in, I attempted to take a Spanish class at an intermediate level. I figured I took all four years in high school and a semester in college, I had a basic vocabulary and didn’t need to start from the beginning. Soon, however, I found I was mistaken. We were doing introductions around the room and were asked to give three things about ourselves. That was the only part of the class I understood. And luckily, I was the last to speak so all I had to do was copy my other two roommates that went before me. And luckily, although they were late, they made it. The end of the class didn’t go so well. We had to say something we learned from class today. Fortunately, I learned a lot from that class; unfortunately, I had no idea how to recite any of it in Spanish and this time we went counterclockwise around the room- I was first. I rushed out of the room after and apologized to the instructor that I didn’t feel I was ready for intermediate. I was STRUGGLING. I was also mad. I was mad at myself for not remembering, understanding, and being mono-lingual.
In Mexico this past month, I was presented with constant situations in which I was uncomfortable and frustrated with myself. Whether it be through buying things and talking with cashiers, asking questions of our tour guides, or even understanding firsthand the experiences and stories our guides, friends, and mentors were sharing. I wanted to be present but I was not ready to be vulnerable. I was learning from other’s vulnerability that week, that was enough right?
A few Mondays ago, I attended a meeting for my workplace. As soon as we got there, there was an announcement that there were translation devices (like walkie talkies) upfront for those that did not speak Spanish or English. Frustrated I turned to my coworker and in the echoed room stated, “this meeting is in English AND Spanish?” To which he (a native Spanish speaker) replied calmly, yes. I got my headset and wandered back to my seat and turned it on. The frustration grew when only two of the people spoke Spanish and the rest of the meeting was in English. It wasn’t until we went to approve proposals that I was put in my place. We were approving a proposal about the use of translators and equipment in event spaces, emails, and meetings. Everyone was confused at the request and organizations seemed to believe they were all doing well with translating and keeping lines of communication open for everyone. That’s when our personal translator (a bi-lingual woman who was translating the meeting in both languages through a walkie- talkie) spoke up and addressed that 3/4th of the room was bi-lingual. We could be having the whole meeting in Spanish and the same number that spoke English would need things translated like the current Spanish speakers were then. We as a culture assume and project that everyone knows English and if they don’t, they can follow along. We don’t think about the fact that it’s just as uncomfortable for Spanish speakers to struggle to understand- like it is frustrating for me to understand.
I was never more ashamed as I was in that meeting. As the translator was “pitching” why we should be doing better at accommodating to everyone, I had been agreeing and was frustrated that people weren’t understanding. Then, I realized just how many times I have been in the wrong this year and just how many times I have not given the same courtesy of “accommodation”. I have come to recognize (rather slowly) that through my frustrations, the person I am really mad at is myself. I am an independent person who is now limited by my language speaking abilities. I am mad at how it affects my social life and my work and its easier to get frustrated at others than myself and to admit that I am uncomfortable even trying to attempt speaking Spanish because it puts me in a vulnerable place. I thought I had the vulnerability component of being a YAV covered, I open up to more people than necessary and I share more than people need or want to know. Just as long as it is within my comfort zone of knowing what I am talking about. Just so long as it is in English.
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.