(Names and some details of location have been changed to protect the children of this story).
Thomas Kennedy’s “In the Company of Angels” is a dark novel. Set in Copenhagen, it follows the story of a man trying to come to grips with his life after having been tortured during Chile’s dirty war. The torture victim is a university professor who was imprisoned for doing his job—-for teaching poetry. The torturers mutilate his mind, body and spirit, demanding that the professor sign a confession. The poor man holds out, even in the deepest of his agonies, insisting on his right to refuse to sign the paper. In the end, the demons in charge of extracting his signature bring in a mother and a child. They begin torturing the mother in front of the toddler, and, with this spin on evil, gain the professor’s signature.
I have been working my way through the story during these past weeks, in some way trying to understand the mystery of the evil of the torturers, as well as the tenacity and the strength of the professor.
I understand none of it, and I have lost sleep over the questions that the book raises for me.
Yesterday I went to visit a community-based organization in one of the neighborhoods in this border region. The group was celebrating six of the youth in its “grupo de jóvenes” who had just graduated from high school. There were pictures, a grand meal featuring roast turkey, and a cake, and smiles and tears.
Amongst the graduates was Sandra (her name has been changed). She told me that she wanted to study medicine and that she would like to be a surgeon. I said, “What a great thing to aim for. Congratulations!”
She said, “Thank you,” and then sighed. “Yes, it is a beautiful dream, but it is not to be. For me, it looks like I am never going to get out of the fields.” She went on to tell me that two weeks ago, just after Sandra’s graduation ceremony, she and her family had gotten up early on a Monday morning, piled into the family car and headed out to the tomato fields. Sandra and her mom and dad and her older sister would make about $50 a piece for a hard day’s work weeding tomato plants in the blazing south Texas sun. On that Monday morning, however, as they headed toward the tomato farm, a border patrol vehicle parked outside their neighborhood, pulled them over.
As Sandra tells the story, the officer came up to the car and asked to see their immigration documents. The family, although they have lived and worked in Texas for more than ten years, remain undocumented, and so, apart from the two and three year old babies, no one could produce any immigration documents.
The officer ordered them out of the car. He called for backup and began searching the family for weapons and drugs. All he found, of course, were some hoes and spare diapers.
In short order, another border patrol agent arrived. The officer asked the arresting agent about the probable cause for the arrest. Sandra told me, “The guy pointed at my face and screamed, ‘Because they are brown! Don’t you know a Mexican when you see one?!’”
Sandra told me that the family was then taken to a “processing center.” After a while, other officers brought them some papers to sign. “Just sign right here, where it says, “voluntary deportation.” But the family, with more than ten years in the country and with some small children who were US citizens, wanted a hearing on their case from an immigration judge. Sandra said, “We saw this little box at the top of the page where you can ask for a hearing, so we checked “yes,” but then this official came in and saw that we had checked that box, so he tore up the piece of paper and said, “No, you are not going to request a hearing. You are going to ask for voluntary deportation.” He laid a new form on the table, and walked out.
The family held out for nearly five hours, as one officer after another came in demanding their signatures. Finally, just after noon, a border patrol official came into the holding cell. He looked at the family and said, “You will sign this document, or your family will be separated. The adults go to the detention center, and your children go someplace else. You will be lucky to see them again.”
Sandra looked down at the floor, and then she said to me, “Up until then, we had been strong. My mother had told us, ‘You will not cry! We are not criminals. We are a family,’ but when the border patrol went to pick up the little ones, they started to cry and so did we, so we signed the paper, and were deported across the border.
The family knew no one there, but friends in the community began making phone calls and gathering together funds. By the very evening of the same day that they had been arrested, they found a smuggler and along with 42 other people, crossed the Rio Grande in a rubber boat, walked for five hours through the brush, making it home by midnight.
The smuggler charged them $550 a piece and the family had to come up with another $300 so that someone could pay the fees to get their car out of the border patrol impoundment lot. Instead of earning $ 200 cleaning tomatoes, they had lost nearly $1,500.
I asked Sandra why they had come back. She looked at me as if I had just said something truly silly, and said, “Why, this is our home. We have no place in Mexico. We have no place.”
Sandra took her leave and went off to share a piece of cake with her friends. They all had documents, and were excitedly talking about their plans for university.
Last night, I went back to my book. I am well aware of the world of difference between Chile’s Dirty War, with its murders and torture chambers and America’s War on Immigrants. All the same, the shared vocabulary and the shared intentions niggle at me. Signatures. Confessions. Psychological tricks. In the novel, everyone is just “doing their jobs”, be it teaching poetry, or torturing those who teach poetry. Here on the border, we are busily doing our jobs, whether that be weeding tomatoes or tracking down the tomato weeders. At the end of the day, we are simply taking care of our families, whether that means refusing to sign a paper or insisting that a paper be signed. There is so much that binds us together and so much that drives us apart.
The use of children as tactical weapons (“do this, or you will never see them again!”), though, is a clear sign that our fears as a nation have begun (once again) to own our souls. While this is apparently not a new tactic (I have known of cases like Sandra’s for years now), I worry that this sort of thing is becoming the norm.
In the paper this morning, I read that someone in Arizona is writing a law to deny children born in the United States their citizenship, if it turns out that their parents are undocumented immigrants. These would be, of course, brown children, and therefore, according to one Border Patrol officer, easy pickings for those feeling righteous and hateful.
The lovely, brown-skinned Sandra may have her dreams deferred for the moment, but I feel that she will find a way to fashion her life in a fruitful way. I do hate the idea that this border community, in such need of doctors and leaders, will have lost yet another soul to the war for security.
That idea makes me nervous, insecure, deeply troubled.