Animals

ClaudiaA few weeks ago, the president of the United States referred to immigrants as “animals”. His apologists hastened to insist that he was referring to gang members, but the remark was consistent with a recent series of actions that establish the degree to which the Trump administration views immigrants as less than human.

Last week, unarmed, twenty-year old Claudia Patricia Gomez was shot to death in a dusty town just north of the border. She had crossed into the United States to join her husband and was traveling with a group of immigrants. The aftermath of the shooting was captured on Facebook Live by a neighbor. As the Border Patrol rounded up other members of the group, an agent is heard saying to some of immigrants, “This is what happens to you people.”

This most recent death of an unarmed civilian at the hands of a Border Patrol agent came a month to the day after a different Border Patrol agent was found innocent of homicide after shooting 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena to death. In that case, the defense lawyer argued that the first three shots were fired in self-defense, and, since one of those first shots would have killed the teenager, the other six that the agent fired could not have been homicidal as the boy was already dead.

Sandwiched between these events was the announcement from the Department of Justice that the United States would follow a “zero tolerance” program on immigrants. Attorney General Jeff Sessions crowed that one new policy would be that children crossing the border would be separated from their parents as a matter of policy. Since that announcement, more than 1000 children have been rendered orphans. Court watch witnesses report fathers and mothers pleading with the federal magistrate judge to “tell me where my little boy is, please!” The Judge (in this instance), serving willingly or not as a cog in the deportation machine muttered “there is a special place in hell for the people who created this (policy).”

Indeed. Workers at the site where the detained families are first taken after being picked up by the Border Patrol said that when the children are removed from the parents the scene “fue algo de Satanas” (“was something created by Satan”). “Puro grito, pura llorada”—just screaming and wailing.

I invite you to contemplate the hell that the mom or dad who had their child taken from them must have felt then—and is still feeling now.

I can only enter into a dark prayer as I wonder, worse still, what the children must feel. I have been made painfully aware of the horrors that have been visited upon the tender hearts of these children from Honduras or El Salvador or Guatemala or Mexico. To have their sole emotional and spiritual support ripped from them—this takes torture to an entirely new level.

As the investigation of the shooting of Claudia Patricia proceeds, I invite you to reflect upon her photograph. Look into her eyes. She is not an “animal.”

Lessons

eddie canales picEddie Canales runs the South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias, Texas. His office is roughly 75 miles north of McAllen, just across the street from the Brooks County Court House and a few minutes drive from the checkpoint that the Border Patrol operates along highway 281.

For those who are unaware, much like in eastern European countries before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States operates internal checkpoints, and has done so for decades. The checkpoints in south Texas are located approximately eighty miles north of Brownsville and McAllen. Everyone traveling along the two highways that lead out of the region is subjected to the same scrutiny, as if they were entering into the country for the first time. It is an unnerving experience for the uninitiated—in the middle of America an armed federal agent pulls the traveler over and insists that she prove her innocence, that she has a right to be there.

Immigrants for whom obtaining permission to be here is nigh near impossible, must therefore escape detection at least twice—once upon crossing the Rio Grande, and, once more, going further north. Many of them take their chances and try crossing around the checkpoints by heading out into the surrounding desert. The journey is dangerous. Many people—hundreds, it is estimated—die in the scrub land that blankets Eddie’s home county.

The checkpoints are the reason Eddie created his Human Rights’ Center. He has a rough job. He maintains dozens of water stations spread out across this area, formerly known as the Wild Horse Desert, and he has advocated for years to the federal government on behalf of these traveling souls, arguing for a more humane immigration policy, for shutting down the checkpoints, for having the border patrol do more to save the lives of those lost in the desert.

During a visit with him back in February, he talked about the recent discovery of the bodies of a group of migrants. “It had gotten really cold, and we found these individuals who apparently didn’t know how to huddle up together (to share their warmth). They all died. Then, not long afterwards, we found this other group that knew how to huddle up. They survived.”

Life lessons can be found anywhere, of course, but for those paying attention, the Wild Horse Desert offers them up in spades.

As a measure of the desperation of the migrant: not only is the traverse around the check point complicated by heat (or cold), a lack of water (you simply cannot carry the amount of water that you need to survive), the thorns, the rattlesnakes, the scorpions, but the migrant is walking on sand—sand that is loose, deep, and seemingly designed by some demon to wear a person out. These details are well known by those thinking about making the trip. They know of the risk, they know that people disappear and die while making the journey, and yet they feel that they must take this chance. Something dire indeed is driving people to make this trek.

As a measure of the courage, the generosity and the strength of many who have joined Eddie’s work: exhuming and identifying bodies so that families can have at least the peace of knowing the finality of their loved ones, is an exhausting task that pits good-hearted people against hard-headed bureaucracies ranging from our own federal government (which refuses to facilitate the identification of victims between Eddie and the families) to a county coroner who, without a lot more work, could facilitate the matching of DNA data between families who are searching for a loved ones and those who have died.

As a measure of just how casually cruel people can be: the water stations are regularly vandalized (this is not specific to south Texas. This video clip shows Border Patrol agents doing this in Arizona, a particularly chilling rationale for that behavior).

As a measure of the loss of our sensibility as human beings: that we have spent billions of dollars on “securing the border” when the vast, overwhelming majority of the people crossing into the USA are families (moms and dads and their children) who surrender to the first border patrol agent they encounter, and who are seeking asylum. Those who do try to avoid apprehension by the Border Patrol, and who end up wandering in the desert have names. They have mothers and children. They have best friends. Some of the ones that I have known (who made it across the desert alive) played shortstop for their local baseball team, others taught Sunday school, and yet others were hired out to serenade mothers on Mothers’ Day.

Eddie knows many of those who did not make it through the desert. He would not have recognized them in real life, as he only saw their remains. But mixed in those remains could be a small purse with some photos in it, giving a hint of the family that awaits news of her, somewhere south of the US. He might find a prayer card invoking the intervention of San Toribio, or a small notebook with phone numbers. Whether or not there is much physical evidence left of the individual, Eddie does know that this was someone who was a son or a father or a best friend.

The shift to a policy of deterrence and prevention of unauthorized immigration by the Border Patrol has been clearly linked to the increase in deaths of immigrants (RadioLab recently produced a series laying out this move, and its disastrous human toll). This policy has been picked up by Homeland Security, who has shamelessly suggested that separating children from their parents at the border is a good idea.

All of this begs the question of why on earth people would migrate at all. What diabolical forces must be at work in someone’s home country that would force them to leave their kin, their community, their language and the place of their ancestors? In the very long, heated national discussions about immigration, only the briefest nod is paid to the so-called “push factors”, those critical conditions that force the decision to migrate.

The Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol Sector Chief Manuel Padilla has a long-standing relationship with Eddie, and Eddie seems somewhat encouraged by recent conversations. But the political change in Washington, and the continued dehumanization of the immigrant, makes any sort of meaningful change a very long-term project.

In the meantime, Eddie and his volunteers will continue to stumble upon the remains of those who, perhaps, did not have someone else to huddle up with, or who just needed water, and, lacking that, died, alone, unnecessarily, north of the American border.

(To help with the mission of the South Texas Human Rights’ Center, go to their website by clicking here).

Magical Thinking

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Visiting physicians studying the existing border fence. 

Today, hundreds of thousands of people across the Rio Grande Valley will line up in a church to have ashes placed upon their foreheads. The ashes may be placed in a cross, along with the minister’s traditional admonition “Remember that you are dust and unto to dust you will return.”

The statement is a call to humility, a reminder of just who we are in the grand scheme of things: bound-to-the earth, ephemeral creatures, fashioned marvelously from those same elements shared with all creation, infused with the very breath of God into something eternally precious.

Over the years I have had many conversations with people about the importance to them of this Ash Wednesday rite. In nearly every case, the believer spoke about how the reception of the ashes reminded them to be unafraid, to trust in God. As one child put it, “God watches out for everything, even dirt. So I don’t have to be so afraid.”

Speaking of religious people, we border residents have heard that this coming Friday, the first Friday in this year’s Lent, Vice-president Mike Pence is planning on visiting the Rio Grande Valley. Apparently he is going to go to the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge.  Santa Ana was targeted for the first parts of Donald Trump’s border wall. The refuge received this dubious distinction as it is one of the few properties along the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas that is federal property, so the government will not have to deal with pesky landowners. On the other hand, the enormous, eighteen foot tall concrete wall will functionally destroy an exquisite wildlife refuge, a park so extraordinary that a 100,000 visitors a year come from around the world to see it.

fingerw 2018 Border wallIMG_2025

Handprints from someone climbing the border fence. 

In my mind, the border wall functions exactly the opposite way as do ashes on the forehead. First, while the rite of imposition of ashes inspires trust, the construction of a border wall stimulates fear. Second, while the words of the rite are a call to recognize the truth of our situation (“dust to dust”), the rationale for the border wall is a pack of lies. The president’s claim that a wall is needed because “illegals are pouring across the southern border” is demonstratively untrue. More people return to Mexico each year than cross into the USA. Those who are crossing the river are legal immigrants—people from Central America and other countries fleeing violence and seeking asylum. They cross the river and then seek out the Border Patrol. They want to be apprehended, so that they can begin the process to legalize their status. In any case, over and again, even the Border Patrol admits that a border wall would only marginally slow passage into the USA.

Third, ashes are of course, cheap. The cost of the border wall, on the other hand, challenges mathematical conceptualizing. The present proposal stands at $25 billion. A friend of mine (to stay with the religious theme) figured that that would be roughly $35,000 a day since the time of Jesus. The cost estimates go up and down, but the price of this marginally effective structure cannot, reasonably, be justified.

The comparison between the imposition of ashes during a religious ceremony and the imposition of a border wall as political posturing doesn’t end with comments on fear, truth, and costs. I think that both the wall and the Ash Wednesday ritual can be  understood as manifestations of magical thinking. For instance, I know a lot of people who believe that the ashes are somehow sacred, offering healing and forgiveness and (magically) a new way of life. In a similar way, huge numbers of Americans believe that the construction of a border wall would (magically) stop the flow and the effects of immigration.

Neither is true. A new way of life requires insight, patience, discipline and a host of other factors that go way beyond the power of ashes. Immigration will not be stopped by the border wall. Most of the undocumented immigrants living in the USA entered with a visa. These people came in through a port of entry, and overstayed their visit. Immigrants running from death are not put off by what is just one more obstacle in their flight to safety. The wall does not live up to its promise.

The ashes, however, even if magical thinking, do indicate some sort of noble aspiration, a desire to open one’s self to new possibilities, to embrace, as it were, a transformation of oneself. That the ashes are distributed in a community of people believing in the possibility of change is a powerful testimony to new, even political, possibilities.

The border wall, though, is a harsh reminder of just how well fear has taken a hold of the American psyche. Americans, it seems, are fine with spending billions of our precious resources to create something that will steal peoples’ land (under the rubric of “eminent domain”), put dozens of communities at risk from flooding, and ruin some of our last remaining wildlife refuges here in south Texas.

The construction of the 2018 border wall is an act of hubris, an arrogant imposition of the will of some powerful Americans upon their fellow citizens. As with all acts of hubris, this project will, one day, fail as well. The astronomical costs to build the wall do not include the costs of maintenance. As Silvestre Reyes, a former Border Patrol Sector chief once noted in a Congressional hearing in Brownsville, eventually “the damned things fall down.”

Before the wall can fall down, it first has to be built. That folly, in fact, is not yet a reality. As Mike Pence makes his way this Friday to visit the proposed initial site for the border wall, one prays that he will recognize at least a bit of truth when it stares him in the face.

That, unfortunately, also seems like magical thinking.

 

 

Dreamers

kids at federal courthouseClaudia is a teacher and a soccer coach. Jessica works for child protective services. Juan married his childhood sweetheart and now is raising children who will soon have their own sweethearts. Marilu helps people fill out applications and prepare for their interviews for naturalization as US citizens.

Like most everyone else in my community, they have love/hate relationships with their bosses, worry about getting sick (no insurance), but spend more time anticipating possible vacation trips. They consider themselves religious. All of them have pretty good jobs, but small bank accounts. They are my friends and they are lovely and alive, and have been, until recently, mostly hopeful about their lives.

They are also people whose presence in the United States is “unauthorized.” They all were brought to the US as children and have been unable to get their immigration status regularized (for a quick view into how crazed a process that is, you might read this article).

The “mostly” qualifier of their hope is, in large part, due to their decision a short time ago to trust the United States of America, and enroll in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

This program, announced by President Barak Obama back in 2012, allowed some individuals who entered the USA as children without immigration authorization to receive a renewable, two-year protection from deportation. Importantly, they were eligible for work permits.

About 750,000 people enrolled in the program. Called “Dreamers” (after the Dream Act Bill), the success they have had in the short time that the program has been in place is nothing less than remarkable. DACA recipients received increased wages (they work), reducing the numbers of families living in poverty while boosting the economy in general. The Dreamers contributed to the well being of communities across the US in all the ways that people given half a chance typically do. They paid into Social Security and Medicaid, showed up for work, and made plans. They were suddenly, measurably happy.

Making 750,000 people happy is good, although apparently not for everyone. In early September of last year, the president of the United States decided to dismantle DACA. He claimed to be acting “fairly” as the Dreamers were victimizing “millions of Americans.” Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, noted that the program had “denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same illegal aliens to take those jobs.”

These assertions about Dreamers are wrong (Aviva Chomsky’s two works, “They Take Our Jobs! And 20 Other Myths about Immigration” and “Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal” offer clear, in-depth rebuttals to those careless claims). Both the president’s and the attorney general’s beliefs are out of step with what the American public believes (overwhelming majorities of both Democrats and Republicans support the Dreamers).

All the same, the inchoate, racist fear of immigrants that lies just beneath the veneer of American decency is a powerful tool for venal politicians looking for cheap votes. All of the talk against Dreamers, and the incessant crowing in favor of an astronomical investment in an intrusive, ineffective border wall seemed to have worked. The government has shut down. The president is delighted to have 750,000 scapegoats to tie to the Democrats, most of them, are unwilling, so far, to sell out these young people and the deeply-held American value of fairness.

And so, while initially these Dreamers’ chose to trust the people of United Statements served them well—with DACA they began to lose the habit of worrying about their life coming to that abrupt, sudden, violent change brought by deportation (for a sense of that violence, take the time to watch ACLU of Texas’ reporter Debbie Nathan’s work in this Intercept piece), this moment of happiness may in the end have been just that—a moment.

Christian is one of those Dreamers who has now begun looking over his shoulder at a threat that may well be coming down the pike. He is a teacher who loves his job in a local community college. We met for coffee a few months back, and he told me that he loved the work that the Dreamers were doing, but that he himself was not particularly cut out for activism. “The activist is my sister,” he said, with a proud smile.

I remember asking him then that if DACA was shut down and if there were no Dream Act—if he would become, once again, “criminalized”, would he, while he still had travel documents, leave the border area to go to some place in the US where it might be easier to go underground, where he might have an easier time finding a decent job.

He leaned back from the table and said, emphatically, “No way! My parents can’t leave the area, and, after all that they have done for me, there is no way that I would leave them. I wouldn’t leave them. We would just suffer together. That’s how we do things—together.”

Well of course. That is what normal human beings do—suffer together. Look out for each other. Hang in there together. It is a survival mechanism, this solidarity, but it is also a lovely way to lead a life. It is not an easy way to live, by no means, for this solidarity requires selflessness, some times over a long period of time, and courage, and trust. But for some of us, that is just how we do things—together.

In What Do I Dare to Trust?

casa sofia student

The School

The six grade girl in a school near McAllen, Texas, is bright, brave, and, of course, attentive.

The girl returned home after classes one day to report to her mother that her teacher had begun the day telling the class that “Homeland Security had authorized” the teacher to collect additional data about her pupils. The teacher then gave each student a sheet of paper that, amongst other things, asked for the immigration status of the members of the child’s family.

The girl’s mother is an active participant in a local community-based organization that focuses upon education issues. She, like her daughter, is bright, brave, and attentive, and, now, outraged. The mother complained to her friends at the community organization, who in turn, called the superintendent of the school district.

The report of the teacher’s actions alarmed the superintendent, who had gone out of his way to assure his school community that all students in his schools would be protected from the ramped up persecution of immigrant families. The superintendent called the school’s principal, only to discover that it was the principal who had authorized the collection of data. A new hire, the principal had come across a stack of documents, reportedly from Homeland Security, asking for this information.

The school superintendent nixed that notion, and the data collection process ended, although not without calling into question the school’s loyalty to its families.

Along the border, families increasingly worry about whether they can trust their schools.

Health Care

Carlos is a young undocumented Mexican national who had been living for a couple of years in Brownsville. He is a good fellow, well-connected to his family, loved by his friends.

Carlos had slipped off of a ladder while on a construction job. He suffered a compound fracture to his ankle. In the emergency room, the attending physician told him that the injury was so bad that Carlos would need to go to San Antonio to get the medical attention that he needed. He was told that he would be transported there by ambulance.

As the ambulance staff readied him for transport, Carlos, knowing that to get to San Antonio that they would have to pass through a border patrol checkpoint, told the staff that he was undocumented. “Don’t worry,” said one of the attendants, “we got that covered.”

Carlos’ sister was going to go with him, but she had second thoughts, as she too is undocumented, so she called an aunt, a well-documented American citizen, who agreed to go with Carlos to San Antonio.

The aunt rode up front in the ambulance, next to the driver. When they reached the check point, the driver shocked her when he told the border patrol agent, “Hey, we’ve got an illegal in the back.”

The border patrol agents cuffed Carlos, followed him to the hospital, sat outside the surgical ward during the procedure, and, after he was released, put him into deportation proceedings.

“Wow. So now medical facilities work for immigration? What ever happened to that oath thing that they take?” said the aunt, upon reflection.

When told that ambulance drivers don’t take the Hippocratic Oath, she replied, sarcastically, “Well, that is a relief. I feel much better now.”

This sort of thing (hospital transportation teams turning people into immigration authorities) is not new, but remains deeply disturbing. A well-publicized incident involving an infant in need of surgery, as well as a recent story about a pregnant Honduran refugee being denied access to care, have refocused a national discussion about the immigration enforcement actions invading the sacred space between people in need of medical care—and those who provide that care.

The Park

In February, Debbie Nathan, a grizzeld investigative reporter for the ACLU of Texas, wrote a piece about an over-the-top action involving troopers from the Texas Department of Public Safety, and Border Patrol agents. The short version of the story is that a local family went to enjoy the opening game of a baseball park that had just been inaugurated. The park was so new that restroom facilities weren’t up and running yet, so when the mom heard the inevitable complaint of the six year old (“I need to pee!”), she took the boy just outside the park into the privacy of some trees and bushes.

Apparently the kid’s urinary actions set off some sort of surveillance device, which alerted mission headquarters in Austin, who in turn ordered state troopers to the site of the incident.

The ballgame was interrupted when several agents, both state troopers and border patrol, pulled up in their cars, went into the stands and surrounded the mother and her children, and arrested the mother.

After furious public outrage, especially by the mayor of the town, whose happy community event was ruined by a military response to a boy peeing, the mother was not deported, but released with a veiled threat of “we’ll let your child finish school in May.”

The home team, however, was crippled by the action, as several of the players were unwilling to risk the racial profiling of state troopers and border patrol agents.

The umpire’s happy cry of “safe!” has taken on another meaning in that ballpark, as well as in the lives of those that gathered for that game.

As Nathan notes in her article, perhaps this enforcement action is a sign of more to come, an ironic disruption to community peace in the name of national security.

Do Not Obey in Advance

ninos inmigrantesIn mid-May, just before the end of the school year, a mother drove to a local grammar school to pick up her three children. As she was parking her truck, a Brownsville police officer, apparently doing traffic duty, asked her for her papers. The woman, however, having suffered an onslaught of news reports about SB4, the Texas “Show Me Your Papers” law, told me that she thought that he meant her immigration documents. The policeman was only asking about her driver’s license and proof of insurance.

The woman, shaken, went into the school office to collect her children.

Inside the school, the mother ran into the school secretary. As is the case in many communities, the secretary is considered a reliable source of knowledge. This mom, afraid, pled her case. “But the police have no right to ask me for my papers; they have no right to do that on school property! Who can I complain to?”

The secretary responded, “Ah, but you see, with that new law, SB4, everything has changed. The police can come into the school any time they want and they can take illegal people away. You should be glad that he didn’t deport you. But he will be back!”

The mother of three gasped; the secretary went back to answering phones and attending other parents’ needs. The mother went home and called her local parish. The priest was able to calm her fears, reminding her that she had the support of her church, and of many others. “I am not sure what exactly we will do as a parish,” the priest told me, “But we will come up with something.”

On May 7, 2017 Texas Governor Greg Abbot went live on Facebook and signed Senate Bill 4. On September 1st, SB4 effectively creates federal immigration agents out of city, county and college police. Police department chiefs and other authorities that refuse to cooperate will be subject to criminal prosecution.

“People hunting has become the state-sponsored sport of the moment,” remarked an older friend of mine.

So it seems.

One small church has joined in the hunt early on. Just days after the governor signed SB4, the pastor of that community took the trouble one Sunday to exhort the undocumented immigrants in his church to “pack up and leave. God wants you to follow the law!”

And so fourteen families sold all that they had and self-deported. These families are mixed-status—some are US citizens, some are undocumented residents. In one case, three American-born siblings were told that they had a week to say goodbye to their friends, that the family was moving to the mother’s native Peru. None of those kids really knows what “Peru” means; they have never been there, and, in any case, they had been preoccupied with navigating that other unknown territory known as adolescence.

During that same week that the school mom received her fright, I got a call from a fellow who works with a community clinic. Doctors there were worrying about the number of parents missing appointments. The patients, apparently, were afraid that they would be picked up by the Border Patrol, which likes to hang out at the taqueria across the street from the clinic.

At a different community clinic, a border patrol agent had taken to sitting in his patrol car during lunch in the patients’ parking lot. He may have been simply eating his sandwich; the clinic’s clients skipped their appointments. “You never know,” concluded one of the patient advocates who works at the clinic.

One of the best summer programs for kids in the region has lost half the participants that they had last year. The director of the organization noted that the constant presence of Texas State troopers, who have committed their officers to stopping anyone who appears to them to be an undocumented immigrant, has created all sorts of hardships for their programs. “People are afraid,” she said.

Timothy Snyder, a scholar specializing in the history of fascist Europe, has laid out a list of the kinds of symptoms that indicated that the hearts and minds of “regular citizens” had accepted some of the rankest evils in our recent history. Amongst these symptoms was the willingness of citizens to obey in advance, to put aside critical thought and generous sensibilities in an effort to align themselves with what appeared to be the new reality. In this way, perhaps unwittingly, the citizens helped usher in all manner of evil. It became acceptable to segregate Jewish people, for example, which led to the tolerance of rounding up those neighbors, and, later, to the silent cooperation in their murders.

Snyder addresses his thoughts to our entire nation, but the admonition to “not obey in advance” has a particular immediacy in the Rio Grande Valley. Our region is, after all, along a border; in some places, it is a ten-minute drive to the bridge. A family’s fortunes can change in those ten to fifteen minutes. There is neither the time nor the legal resources for a family to establish a lawful claim of presence. Furthermore, the Valley, like much of the southern border, has been militarized over the past ten years. The state of Texas itself will have spent nearly $2 billion over four years to fill the area with state troopers, who act as surrogates for the border patrol. And, of course, there is SB4, a law that will exponentially expand the reach of the border patrol by adding hundreds of local police officers to their force. All of this works to create a social space that makes the abuse and exploitation of people much easier. While there have always been individuals in our area who cheat and exploit the undocumented, the strident criminalization of all immigrants offers a temptation for others to either look the other way and ignore these abuses, or, sadly, engage in their own form of exploitation.

There are, on the other hand, an uncountable number of people who refuse to accept the hunting down of friends and neighbors as the new normal. Artists and educators, physicians and activists, younger folks and older ones have spent the spring and early part of the summer organizing what is called The Resistance.

These are thoughtful, creative and courageous people who know their history, refuse an easy obedience to evil, and who believe in their power.

They are God-sent gifts for a difficult time.

Truth

sb4 hearingAbout a month ago I was part of a group of people assaulted by a guy who used the National Anthem as a weapon.

About a hundred of us were standing in line, waiting to offer our testimony before the Texas House of Representatives’ State Affairs’ Committee. We were part of more than a thousand people gathered that day, determined to testify on the multiple ways that Senate Bill 4, the Texas “anti-sanctuary cities” bill, was a curse, a pox, and a bad law. The law would authorize, indeed, would require local police officers to act as immigration agents.

We were chatting easily in the hallway, enjoying the remarkable hospitality of fellow traveller, when an older fellow, an American flag bandana tied around his forehead, swaggered up the hall. His name tag identified him as a member of the Fredericksburg Tea Party. The man stopped about fifteen away, scowled at the group for a long moment, and then launched into the Star-Spangled Banner.

To give him credit, he was brave to attack us with such a clumsy weapon. This is a tune with some impossible high notes—and it goes on forever and ever. It seems to me that it would be just plain hard to express passionate anger for that long a time, but this guy apparently had a lot of bile to fuel his effort.

His intent, however, was interrupted by some of the younger members of our group. They turned toward him and began singing their own songs. The songs were followed by chants, all of which filled the long hallways of the Capitol, attracting news media and others to the scene.

The Tea Party fellow finally finished—not that I could hear him. He gave a fist pump directed to whoever sits on high, looking down on all of this, and then wandered back off down the hall, the American flag, looking a little worn, still sitting on his head.

In the meantime, the testimonies against the bill continued. I was delighted with the energy and patience that my representative, Rene Oliveira from Brownsville, demonstrated as a member of the committee. Over and again he followed up on objections to the law, drawing out the salient points about just how this was bad public policy. Someone spoke about her fear that the community would not call local police as a witness—or a victim—of crime, and how that would ruin good police work. One of the committee members responded, “Well, if they are here legally, they shouldn’t be afraid.” Representative Oliveira responded, “Yes, well there are over a hundred different kinds of visas that allow a lawful presence—which patrol cop is going to have the time to learn all of that?”

Terry Canales, a representative from Edinburg, while not a member of this committee, had also been loud and clear in opposition to this particular bit of legislation. His passion with regard to this attack on our communities appealed to many of those who had come up from the Rio Grande Valley to testify.

SB4 austin 2017IMG_1372One of those liking Canales’ words was a Brownsville neighbor who confided that “I don’t really like this public speaking stuff. This is not my thing. But I just can’t be quiet on this one. It is so wrong. We are not criminals, we are not even criminal suspects…but that is how they will treat us. So I gotta speak my truth.”

Over the past two months there had been loads of speaking truth to power. In the end, however, despite the powerful testimony from other representatives, police chiefs, sheriffs, bishops, physicians, teachers and citizens, the House passed the bill. Not only did the House pass the Senate version of the bill, but they went to the trouble to make it a nastier piece of work, insisting on an amendment that would allow a police officer to ask a child about his or her citizenship.

I believe that speaking truth to power is a moral imperative, but that it also does shape history, in its own way. But the damage done in the meantime by those in power is considerable. Part of this truth that must be spoken must be directed to the nation, to our state, and to the larger community so that these fellow citizens know full and well what is taking place in their names, in our names, in the names of all of us. This said in the hope that they would understand that those who suffer from these decisions have names, too, and have friends and neighbors and allies.

It is clear that the Anti-Sanctuary Cities’ legislation was purely an effort by a majority of the representatives to manipulate their constituents’ fears. There are no sanctuary cities in Texas; the few efforts to push back against cooperation with federal immigration officials was in the name of good police work and had little to do, unfortunately, in my opinion, with a heroic defense of the integrity of those communities which are home to immigrant families.

It is fair to classify the legislators that support this bill as Bible thumpers, for they will bow to the Word of the Lord at the drop of a hat—or at least to those words that happen to suit them and their cause of the moment. If truth be told, and it must be so, especially these days, the Word of the Lord has a lot to say about sanctuary. And while there are long arguments back on forth about just what the Bible means when it speaks about our moral obligations to strangers, it is clear to me that the author of sacred scripture could not countenance the criminalization of entire peoples for the purposes of advancing political careers. To the contrary, there are bushels of blessings and promises of prosperity for those governments that love the orphan, the widow, the hungry, the sick—and the stranger.