A Break in the Border Wall

brownsville-wallIf there is a time and a place where it could be said that the veil between heaven and earth opens just a bit, it would be the moment that a group of Central American refugees walk into the Sacred Heart Respite Center, in McAllen, Texas.

These displaced people, typically children and their mothers and fathers, have come a long way to reach the center. Every last one of them that I have spoken with told me that they left their homes not by choice, but by necessity.

“The gang shot my husband and then told my ten year old that she had to be the gang ‘girl-friend’. I couldn’t live with that,” said one mother.

“They burned down our home, and then they found us living with my sister and they killed her. We had to leave,” said a father.

The trip across Mexico is a particular hell—while I have spoken with people who made the trip without incident, many others survived beatings and extortion, hunger and thirst.

The Central Americans came north with faith in the US—a family member or a friend or an acquaintance had assured them that it was o.k. here in the USA, that the children would be safe.

When the refugees finally reach the border, they have the final task of going over or around the $6 million per mile border wall that the US put up. This last physical obstacle is a bump in the road, adding a few more minutes to the journey and a thousand or more dollars to the smugglers’ fees. But it is a clear sign of things to come.

The Central Americans, after crossing the wall, for the most part, surrender to the Border Patrol, betting their lives on the mercy of the people of the United States. The Border Patrol does their job, taking the children, the women, and the men to a “processing” center where they can spend up to two days locked up in what are best described as jail cells.

The fortunate ones get bus tickets supplied by their family or friends, and are then taken to Sacred Heart. They are exhausted, filthy from weeks on the road, and frightened.

The refugees walk through the doors at the respite center, and pause. At this point, all of the volunteers, busily preparing hot meals, sorting supplies and cleaning up the place, stop their work and, simply, beautifully, begin to clap.

It is a sustained applause, coupled with shouts of “¡Bienvenidos!” The visitors are taken aback by this greeting. Many shyly smile, others look down. Others, mainly the mothers, begin to weep.

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(Photo by Verónica Cárdenas)

This is the moment when the veil between what is and what could be is lifted, at least for a short time. The applause, offered and received, is a moment of shared hope, the breaking and sharing of a substantial bread that flies in the face of the bitter, fearful rhetoric that so scars our national psyche.

The applause draws to a close and people get back to their responsibilities. The volunteers fix hot soup; the refugees  gratefully eat the meal, both accepting this shared hope as a way, at least in this moment, of breaking through the border wall.

Border Security

kites-on-the-border-wallThis past Saturday was a glorious day to be out and about in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, here in South Texas. It was the first cool day we have had in two seasons.

I spent some of the morning at Hope Park, looking through the bars of the border wall and across the Rio Grande to Mexico. I was with a reporter and a photographer from Le Monde, the French equivalent, I am thinking, of the New York Times.

Also enjoying the cooler weather were a couple of women setting up some performance art. They were planning to fly some kites that had been created by Brownsville children, at the same time that some neighbors in Matamoros, the Mexican sister city to Brownsville, were going to launch their own kites. It was a gentle way to create yet another bridge with Mexico.

Earlier during the week, the Texas House Homeland Security Committee had come to town to hear testimony and hold discussion on issues related to border security and operations. This was a good thing, as the 2015 Texas Legislature had given $800 million to the Department of Public Safety (the state troopers and the Texas Rangers) to “secure the border with Mexico.” This is an enormous sum of money that did not otherwise go to education, access to health care or affordable housing. It was also money being spent on what is essentially a duplication of efforts—the federal government is already spending at least $10 billion (by my count) on border security. The representatives of the people were looking for a report on the usage of that money.

Commander Steve McCraw of the Texas Department of Public Safety, the man responsible for this accounting, was there for the testimony. He was supposed to explain not only the results of the $800 million effort, but needed to lay out the reasons that he was asking for yet another $300 million to continue the job.

McCraw was pressed by the legislators to show what effect that investment had on border security. “What are the people of Texas getting from this investment? Please show us how the border is more secure,” the Commander was asked over and again. McCraw’s replies were round about; he complicated them with Powerpoint pie charts and graphs. “But what does that mean?” asked the representative from Del Rio, the border town up the river from Brownsville, “How are we better off?”

The question that drove the entire day of hearings was “What does it mean to have a secure border?” The answer to that question, if it is simply restricted to criminal activity, is so difficult to gauge.

But many of us who live here along the border have a different way of gauging security. A secure border, for us, is a place in which all residents feel safe—whether they are living in a border community, or passing through a border community. That safety means much more than a lack of crime (according to FBI reports, border cities are the safest in the state—both before and after the “surge” of state troopers).

What makes our border community feel insecure is the fact that we do not have a public hospital, and that Texas did not expand Medicaid, leaving an estimated 400,000 people in our region without access to affordable medical care.

What makes our mothers and fathers nervous is not so much the specter of shootouts on our streets, but that are schools are so underfunded as to make it nearly impossible for our children to compete with fellow students from other parts of the country.

As citizens, we know that the solutions to these and other issues that profoundly affect our quality of life require a financial investment on the part of the state. When we see the state invest $800 million in border security, when we hear about plans to bump that up another $300 million this session—and when there are no good reasons for these expenditures, our profound sense of insecurity receives a jolt of despair. And we are becoming increasingly angry.

For it has been clearly shown that investment in community clinics saves lives (and we can show those numbers), we cannot understand how the diversion of funds from that noble enterprise is justified by what seems to be a bait and switch scheme that actually undermines our communities’ trust in law enforcement.

Just as we can establish that each dollar invested in public education yields a proportionately better return on that investment in terms of jobs and community well-being, we would like to understand how an increased police presence in our border is better for business or our community’s well being.

Finally, just as we can know when a storm drainage plan works (pipes carry water away), how can we tell that these $800 million have made a bit of difference in the security of our already safe, much beloved communities? We would like to be able to use that information when we explain to our children that this money was better spent on policing than schools, clinics or infrastructure.

63f27-dsc_7740We have multiple walls along our border. There is the famous prototype for the Trump plan (which all agree has been a colossal waste of money), and there is the souped up Border Patrol presence—the largest police force in the world (“So many Border Patrol agents now patrol the southern border that if they lined up equally from Brownsville to San Diego, they would stand in plain sight of one another”).

And, recently, there are the state troopers.

So very much of this in response to the “surge” in 2014 of Central American women and children and fathers and grandfathers, refugees in any normal sense of the term. These poor people crossed the river, and surrendered to the Border Patrol. They were not deterred by the multiple police forces; they were not trying to outfox the government and escape into the depths of our country. The Border Patrol did its job, as did the Central Americans. It is so very difficult to understand how a billion dollars of scarce state resources will change any of that.

Life along the border is richly complicated, as the photographer from Le Monde learned on Saturday. She was taking pictures of a thirteen or fourteen year old girl as the she peered at the river through the border wall bars. They spoke together for a few minutes and then the photographer rejoined me in the parking lot. “You know,” the photo-journalist said, “She thinks that this is the spot where her parents crossed her into the USA, when she was but a little girl.”

The girl joined her dad and mom. They walked along the sidewalk toward town, three border residents who were going about their business of taking care of each other, of taking care of their family, of worrying about each other.

Watching Out

0894f-cross02“Look, but do not stare,” I tell myself, as our group was walked into a circle of hell.

There were about forty of us, advocates in different ways for the immigrants who have made their way to our country. Several of the organizations had been working for years to make the Border Patrol transparent and responsible for its policing actions. The quarterly meetings with Border Patrol leadership had resulted in scant change. Since 2010, at least forty-six people have died as the result of an encounter with US border agents. The discussions between the immigrant advocates and the Border Patrol typically take place in Washington, DC, but, this time the meeting was being held in McAllen, Texas.

The McAllen Border Patrol processing center achieved infamy for the shameful way thousands of Central American children were treated in the summer of 2014. The nation’s largest police agency, even with its extraordinary budget, had been overwhelmed by the children and families that had surrendered to them. Children had been packed into cement cells in conditions that inspired concentration camp type metaphors. The center, commonly known by immigrants as la hielera (“the icebox”) for the practice of keeping the temperatures a chilling 68 degrees, had since been revamped. The advocates had been invited to see the improvements that the border patrol had introduced since the summer of 2014.

As we walked through the security doors into the processing center, I sidled up to one of the advocates visiting from Arizona. I said to her, “I know we are here to observe, but I hate looking at the detainees.” “Yes,” she said, “It is the most frequent complaint we get—the fact that there is no privacy, that they are stared at, as if they were animals in the zoo. And that they are treated as criminals.”

The immigrants are not criminals. For all of the rhetoric in public about “illegal aliens,” most of the men, women, and children crossing into Texas from the south are refugees desperately fleeing horror. Many, many of them could make legitimate asylum claims. But first, they have to get to the US (applying for asylum in a Central American country doesn’t work), and the Border Patrol’s processing center is the alternative port of entry for the poorest and most desperate, for those who cannot get a visa.

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Dr Marsha Griffin with family at Sacred Heart Respite Center, McAllen, Tx (photo taken with permission)

The stories are distressingly similar. A gentle Honduran whom I had met at a refugee center just the day before our visit to the processing center had told me his story. “My wife was raped and scalped. I knew that my children would be next; I knew this, so I put them into the hands of God and headed north. I have a brother who lives in (he struggled to pronounce Silver Spring, Maryland), if I can just get there. We survived Mexico, but oh, how we prayed, oh how we had people praying with us. And then we crossed the Rio Bravo, and surrendered to the Border Patrol who took us to the hielera.”

As the group filed through the processing center, I continued to do my best not to stare. But there were so many children in that place. Their faces were pressed up against the smudged windows of the cell doors, their eyes wide open. They were staring at us. We were the only ones in the room not wearing either the green uniform of the Border Patrol, or the worn out uniform of the immigrant. Perhaps, to them, we represented hope.

The children were packed into their cells, and then there were the other cells, jammed with younger mothers. The moms seemed worn out, and distressed, their babies whimpering.

man with childThrough the window of another cell, I could see a man, lying face up on the concrete bench in the cell. He was asleep. On his chest, lying face down, slept a baby. The man’s arm was draped over the baby, creating a small safe place for his child. They were both lying there, quite still, and in that place of racket and fear, I was reminded of the tenderness of the Pieta. Only in case the child is alive; this child escaped crucifixion.

They had survived the journey across Mexico. And now they were resting.

The holding cells open out into a center space. Computers and screens were set out around a horseshoe-shaped desk. After the 2014 public relations disaster, the border patrol now aims to get the newly arrested immigrants processed and on their way within forty-eight hours. To facilitate the procedure, they had set up a remote screening process, so that agents from around the country could help. At one screen, I noticed a mother sitting sideways on a bench, her baby, a toddler, leaning up against her thin legs. On the computer monitor she was using, I could see another woman, dressed as a border patrol agent, taking notes. The two women seem to be about the same age.

This mother was sharing the bench with another woman, who was having her own interview on a screen set right next to the other monitor. There was no privacy, and, while the helpful agent conducting the tour assured us that the immigrants were only sharing biographical information, we knew that these people had been trafficked by human smugglers. The coyotes will do all they can to protect their dirty business. The traffickers know where the refugees’ families live in Central America, and use that threat to control their human cargo. No one is going to say much in front of others, who may be spies or traffickers themselves. I was told by an attorney that this initial interview is critical to the asylum claim, but the lack of privacy here undermines that claim from the beginning.

The immigrants had not bathed and their clothing was filthy. The center was filled with the cloying stench of wet tennis shoes, and another, subtle but disturbing odor.

One of the visitors said, “You can smell the fear in here.”

During the days prior to this tour, I had been reading Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden. Aslam has a passage about the importance of seeing, of staring:

Father Mede stands up and crosses the room that has a pattern of black and white griffins on the floor. He comes to stand before the small painting on the wall that Sofia had made for him. The crucified Christ, and the weeping figures at the foot of the cross. They are his mother and his friends and they are weeping because this — the crucifixion — is taking place, and it is powerful because the suffering of the tortured man and the suffering of those watching him are in the same picture. Are in the same glance. Injustice is not occurring in a distant hidden pocket, and the grief of the victim’s relatives is not in a far removed place, disconnected from the crime. He will die, and those who love him are watching him — and all of it being watched by the viewer.

And so, as we came to the end of our tour, I stopped, and I took one last, long look at this place. I stared, aware now that I was not looking but watching, that I had accepted the responsibility that comes with having seen an injustice taking place in my midst.

This injustice was not created by the border patrol agents, but by my people, our people. As a nation, we have become disabled by our common fear of the stranger. This terror has expanded to include children and the innocent. That we as a nation suffer from that fear terrorizes me.

And yet I can’t think of a single person in my personal life, not even amongst the most socially conservative of them, that would turn their backs on even one of these innocents. Not if they could see them, not if they could speak with them, and then, speaking with them, come to know them, and, then, in very short order, not fear them.

At that point, perhaps, my fellow Americans would begin to watch out for them.

Resistance

7abfa-10sanfelipeskies2008I answered the quiet knock at the door. The very tall, very thin visitor was from Quebec, working on a Master’s thesis in geology. He had emailed me a couple of weeks before, wanting to discuss my experiences of living and working in a border region.

He had said, “I am interested in learning how people living in difficult circumstances organize themselves against oppression.”

I was glad to have that sort of discussion and invited him to our home for a talk.

One of the benefits of living alongside an international border is the number of academics who make their way here, anxious for a conversation, looking for an insight, and searching for a new notion about things they have invested a lot of time researching. They are students of public health and of public education. They are sociologists and anthropologists. Every now and again, they can seem arrogant, but most of the time, they are humble and gracious.

Before he met with me, the Québécois researcher had had a number of conversations with people from across south Texas. He had visited a lot of families and neighborhoods,  and our conversation was one of the last ones he would have before moving on.

I offered him some coffee. He said, “No thank you, just water, no ice.”

He sipped his water and leaned forward, with almost monk-like attention. He reminded me that his interest was in the different ways people fight injustice and oppression. He told me that he was disturbed with how little organization there seemed to be down here.

“I find that  people here are so disconnected, they are isolated and powerless,” he said, “I don’t understand why they don’t take to the streets and demand better lives.”

That was an observation I had heard before, and often. Good people, sensitive folks, make their way to the Rio Grande Valley, and run smack into the warmness and generosity of the people—as well as into the misery and horrors of poverty on a scale that is impossible to equate with the wealth of the state of Texas. A family flies a Dallas Cowboys pennant on the front porch of a house that is leaning into collapse. Other families drape their chainlink fences with second-hand clothing hung out on the chain link fences, flapping the breeze like flags signaling the presence of yet another hardworking, poor family.

The researchers go into these homes, and they hear the stories of early and unnecessary deaths, of wage-theft and poorly paying jobs. The students of human community come here from California, or Houston, or Dallas, or Canada and they have a deep sense of the degree of inequity at play here. They realize just how damned unfair and unnecessary the poverty in south Texas has become.

Why indeed don’t people throw off their shackles and rise up?

The sentiment is understandable, but the question reveals a deep naïveté about the nature of struggle. It is an insulting question as well, a back-handed dismissal of entire community’s history and sense of self.

I try to explain this to the student from Canada. I tell him that I believe that the resistance to oppression must take many forms, and that not every historical moment is a good one for just any sort of social action.

I tell him that the Valley community is composed of deeply courageous leaders who resist in ingenious ways. They know that there is a moment for taking to the street (as happened during the 2006 protests against anti-immigrant legislation), and that they will turn out, time and again, in public displays of protest against anything that would threaten to steal the future from their children.

I sense that he is doubtful about all of this, but I insist that our communities are in a moment of survival, and that our communities are quietly playing the system. Our families will not so easily surrender their livelihoods to someone else’s best new idea. They opt, instead, to play the long game. Parents focus on the education of their children. They seek, against all odds, to figure out a way to own a home, to fence in a space for their family, their things, and their pride.

The casual observer will miss this, distracted perhaps by the intimations of public corruption and the old, sour tunes of the national candidates who, casting their eyes to the south, talk about walls and roving patrols and torture.

The young man became quiet. He finished up some notes, and then asked me to capture my sense of the border community in two words.

I said, “Young.”

I said “Patient.”

He thanked me, and took his leave.

It was a Saturday afternoon, and the neighbor across the street had five families visiting. His yard streamed with children.

I shouted a hello at him and he crossed the street to greet me.

“My boys are doing really well in school”, he said to me, in Spanish. “All A-s.”

He nodded good-bye, finished his cigarette and headed back through the gate into his yard. A soccer ball careened toward him. He deftly trapped the ball, and then gently tapped it between two posts.

“!Gol!” he shouted.

“!Gol!” agreed his all-A’s sons.

The gods of  resistance smiled.

Conversations about Home

A poem by Warsaw Shire, 26 November 2012 (This poem was originally published in Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth’ (2011).

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Well, I think home spat me out, the blackouts and curfews like tongue against loose tooth. God, do you know how difficult it is, to talk about the day your own city dragged you by the hair, past the old prison, past the school gates, past the burning torsos erected on poles like flags? When I meet others like me I recognise the longing, the missing, the memory of ash on their faces. No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. I’ve been carrying the old anthem in my mouth for so long that there’s no space for another song, another tongue or another language. I know a shame that shrouds, totally engulfs. I tore up and ate my own passport in an airport hotel. I’m bloated with language I can’t afford to forget.

They ask me how did you get here? Can’t you see it on my body? The Libyan desert red with immigrant bodies, the Gulf of Aden bloated, the city of Rome with no jacket. I hope the journey meant more than miles because all of my children are in the water. I thought the sea was safer than the land. I want to make love but my hair smells of war and running and running. I want to lay down, but these countries are like uncles who touch you when you’re young and asleep. Look at all these borders, foaming at the mouth with bodies broken and desperate. I’m the colour of hot sun on my face, my mother’s remains were never buried. I spent days and nights in the stomach of the truck, I did not come out the same. Sometimes it feels like someone else is wearing my body.

I know a few things to be true. I do not know where I am going, where I have come from is disappearing, I am unwelcome and my beauty is not beauty here. My body is burning with the shame of not belonging, my body is longing. I am the sin of memory and the absence of memory. I watch the news and my mouth becomes a sink full of blood. The lines, the forms, the people at the desks, the calling cards, the immigration officer, the looks on the street, the cold settling deep into my bones, the English classes at night, the distance I am from home. But Alhamdulilah all of this is better than the scent of a woman completely on fire, or a truckload of men who look like my father, pulling out my teeth and nails, or fourteen men between my legs, or a gun, or a promise, or a lie, or his name, or his manhood in my mouth.

I hear them say, go home, I hear them say, fucking immigrants, fucking refugees. Are they really this arrogant? Do they not know that stability is like a lover with a sweet mouth upon your body one second and the next you are a tremor lying on the floor covered in rubble and old currency waiting for its return. All I can say is, I was once like you, the apathy, the pity, the ungrateful placement and now my home is the mouth of a shark, now my home is the barrel of a gun. I’ll see you on the other side.

This poem was originally published in Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth’ (2011).

Our Children, Left Behind

How Are the Children?Last spring, the mother of an eighth grader living in a community just outside of Brownsville, Texas, went to the offices of her daughter’s school. A tall, strong and stern looking woman, the mother is a respectful, patient, and kind person. After three trips to the office, the mother finally got an appointment with the school’s guidance counselor.

During the meeting, the mother told the counselor that she was concerned that her daughter would not be able to get into a university upon high school graduation, and, to that end, that she wanted to be sure that her girl would be enrolled in an Algebra II class. “If she doesn’t take Algebra II, she can’t enroll in the university.”

According to the mother, the guidance counselor chuckled and said, “My dear, there are only 62 seats in the Algebra II course, and those are reserved for the very special students. You know that not all students are college material.”

Fortunately for her daughter, this mother was a member of a “Comunitario”, a community-based, family leadership group that leverages the collective wisdom of its members to create change in their children’s schools. The mother, like the others in the Comunitario, knew that her child had a right to equal treatment under the law. Her participation in the Comunitario, however, had helped the mom to understand that achieving equal treatment for her child would not happen magically. Indeed, getting her daughter “college ready” would require an extraordinary amount of effort that she was all too willing to do.

“The thing that concerns me more than anything, more than my job, more than even my health, is that my daughter get the best education there is,” commented the mother after having shared her story.

Ever since its 2008 Equal Voice for America’s Families Campaign, members of the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network have continued to select education as a policy priority. Unfortunately for our region’s school children, the State of Texas has not been a willing partner in this effort. In 2011, Texas cut billions of dollars from public education programs, and, then in 2013, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed into law HB5, a mandate that exponentially cheapened high school graduation requirements, leaving many graduates unable to enter a university. With HB5, eighth graders (13 year olds) were expected to choose a career path, a decision that, if uninformed, could easily cripple any chance for them to escape poverty.

School districts in Texas have accommodated themselves in different ways to HB5. The bill’s requirement are so complicated that whether or not a child could enroll in an Algebra II course before graduation became the litmus test for the quality of her high school diploma. Offering Algebra II to all students is the expensive option, as it requires the school districts to hire the appropriate personnel. Most districts, in the end, made nice with the new tracking system.

One school superintendent told me that he thought it was great that the state was finally encouraging “shop” classes. “You know, so many of these kids have no business preparing for college. Being a welder is a great job, and brings in good money,” he told me.

I asked him, “Well, that may be the case, but how on earth can an 8th grader make that decision?”

“That’s the job of the parents!” he shot back.

Equal Voice leaders, however, were not so sure that parents were even aware of the choices that their 8th graders were being asked to make. With the help of the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) out of San Antonio and with the deep collaboration of RGV-EV core organizations, a survey instrument was designed to measure just how much parents knew about the consequences of HB5. Throughout the spring of 2015, over 1,600 parents from across the region were questioned about HB5.

The results were disturbing. https://magic.piktochart.com/output/5884973-equal-voice-rgv-hb5-community-survey-infographic-english

nada en absoluto85% of those surveyed said they had little or no knowledge about the changes in Texas’ graduation plans. 80% said that they had little or no sense of the impact of HB5 on their children’s future. Two-thirds of the parents with children in middle school or high school said that they did not know which track their children were in.

The members of the Equal Voice comunitarios reflected on the results. One question that came up, again and again, was whether or not school officials were aware of just how far ranging the ignorance around HB5 was. The group decided to invite school superintendents, and local university and college officials to a regional round-table in August. A regional collective-impact group (RGV-Focus) offered their support, and plans were made.

03 Mesa Comunitaria Aug 201531The meeting was successful beyond expectations. Parents shared stories and school administrators shared frustrations. Both parents and school district officials talked about their personal dreams for the children of the region. At the end of the long morning, the stakeholders gathered with their peers and drew up a set of action plans designed to address, at least to a manageable degree, the great gap between what parents knew, and what they needed to know with regard to the children’s education.

The bigger issue is of course, school funding. The simple fact that there is a huge lack of school counselors will doom many of our children to a stunted educational career, simply because there was no one there to help them navigate this new way of creating a future.

In the light of this new future, there is no lack of Texans working on behalf of the children that will be left behind. A couple of weeks ago I was invited to Austin to share this experience with a group of researchers who were focused in on how to make the best out of HB5. I had gone up a day earlier to meet with a young woman who had grown up in Brownsville and was presently studying linguistics at the University of Texas. At the end of our breakfast together, I had asked her if there was anything that had happened recently that had caused her joy. She smiled, and said, “Yes! My counselor told me that my linguistics coursework could be set so that I could choose any language that I wanted. I choose Urdu!”

It is a very long way from Brownsville to the lands where Urdu is spoken, and it is a complicated path to negotiate. This young Texan, however, had had the advantage of someone helping her chart that route. What I have learned from our Comunitarios, is that some of the best navigators for children are often their parents—especially when they know the lay of the land.