The summer before my senior year of college, my parents adopted a cat. When they found him he was covered in dirt and matted fur. He hung his head low and did not purr. When you ran your hand over him, he was skin and bone to the touch. Then my parents took him to the vet where he was groomed. They took him into a home where he received nourishment and love. Day by day, he became more confident and started to reveal more of his personality. He began to purr. He was like a brand new cat.
Some weeks later, my step-dad brought up this transformation. Speaking to the condition in which he was originally found, my step-dad said, “If being in those conditions does that to a cat, imagine what it does to a human being.”
I thought about that interaction while sitting in a courtroom in El Paso, TX watching as 10 young men and one young woman stood in front of the judge in shackles and blue jump suits. All were first time offenders and none had a criminal history. “We shackle them in case they get violent,” the judge said when we were able to speak with him after the sentencing. “I don’t even see the shackles anymore. It’s a good thing. It helps me to not see them as criminals.”
But I can’t forget the shackles. I don’t want to forget.
What does it do to a human being to be treated like a criminal when s/he is not one? What does it do to a human being to have to apologize for “crimes committed against God and the United States” when s/he was only trying to make a better life for him or herself? What does it do to a human being to be seen as invalid by other human beings?
“It’s important to come to the border. To come here is to be unsettled by truth.”
These were the words spoken to us by Rubin Garcia, one of the founders and the current executive director of Annunciation House, our host for the week in El Paso. Being unsettled by truth was the unofficial theme during the Justicia en la Frontera/Justice at the Border Friendship Tour.
We were unsettled by truth as we gathered at the border fence. Some children on the other side ran up to see the approaching foreigners. Their mother kept a watchful eye on them from a distance. Despite the fence that indicated and assumed arbitrary differences between “us” and “them”, and despite border patrol agents watching our every move, we met with them. Like all children, they wanted to know if we had candy. They wanted to laugh with us. They wanted to show us their puppy. Yet the fence between us made contact and relationships limited. “These are people I’ll never know,” said one of our group members. “How can I get to know them through a fence?”
As we were leaving, one of the little girls dropped the fork she had been playing with onto the U.S. side of the fence. As I stooped down to pick it up, I thought, “Isn’t it interesting that this piece of plastic has more of a ‘right’ to be here than she does.” I slid the fork back through the fence to her, wondering what the border patrol might be thinking.
We were unsettled by truth as we learned about U.S policies and practices and their harmful effects. Such as the Merida Initiative, an agreement passed into law in 2008 between the US and Mexico to stop arms and drugs from being trafficked across the border. This resulted in highly militarized police forces in Juarez and other cities throughout Mexico. Father Peter, a Catholic Priest who has been living in Juarez for almost 20 years, said, “Militarization distorts the role of the police. The idea of the military is to ‘fight against enemies,’ so a militarized police force creates a rift and distrust between the people and the police.” Or the Secure Communities Program (also 2008) where local police are put in charge of enforcing immigration policies and identifying “criminal aliens” in their communities. Or the Bracero Program that brought 5 million Mexican migrant workers to the U.S. between 1942 and 1964 to take over rural farm areas when the majority of Americans were moving to the cities. When the program ended (due to technological advancements in farm machinery and the fact that farm owners could hire undocumented workers more cheaply), industrialized agriculture became the norm. The current food industry is propelled by greed, profit, racism, classism, and indifference from society. Only 10 corporations control food production and distribution, and food producers care more about making a profit than caring for actual nutritional value, humanity, or the environment. Carlos Marentes, the director of the Farm Labor Union (Centro de los Trabajasores Fronterizos), dreams of an Oppression-Free Food movement; oppression free for both the worker and the environment.
We were unsettled by truth as we met with Carman, the Annunciation House volunteer who informed us of the realities she experiences daily. Guests (those living at Annunciation House) being stopped at gas stations and asked to show papers. Families divided as some members are separated, detained, or deported while others are allowed to stay. The U.S. denying people asylum because we do not see their fear as credible. The fact that the detainment centers and prisons are owned by private companies and “need to fill beds.”
We were unsettled by truth from the border patrol agents who said that, yes, they will teargas people they catch actively cutting the fence. From Shalini at Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services who said, regarding legal immigration, that we can’t realistically expect people to wait in that line as it will take some 150 years or more to get their application processed. From Patty, an Annunciation House guest and former small business owner who shared her heartbreaking story of asking the U.S. for asylum after being threatened and extorted by the drug cartels. From Luis who introduced us to the term Unaccompanied Alien Children, the official term used to describe the thousands of unaccompanied children coming into the U.S.
But despite the often painful topics and emotional encounters, I saw God.
God was there when we met with Christina who runs a children’s library in Anapra, Juarez and provides scholarships to help families with their school fees.
God was present in the passionate and feisty spirit of Lorena Andrade, the coordinator for Centro Mayapan, who spoke about the organization’s focus of creating leadership roles and encouraging women to advocate for policy that supports economic development, workers’ rights, and food justice for themselves and their community.
God was present in the welcoming community and friendly smiles from the volunteers and guests at Annunciation House.
And God was there when Patty, despite everything she’s been through, said, “I don’t hate those people. I feel sorry for them and hope that God will touch their hearts so all of this will end.”
I want to close with an excerpt from a poem shared on the Friendship Tour:
I guess at first, there were the people who invented the borders
And then the borders began to invent people.
They invented border police, armies and border guards.
While borders are still standing, we are all in prehistory.
The real story begins when all borders are gone.
Supongo que al principio, fuera la gente que inventó las fronteras
Y entonces las fronteras comenzaron a inventar a la gente.
Era las fronteras que inventaron a la policía,
Los ejércitos y los guardias de la frontera.
Mientras las fronteras todavía están de pie
Estamos todos en prehistoria
La historia real comenzará cuando todas las fronteras ya se habrán ido.
— Yevgeny Yevtushenko