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.