Emergency on the Southern Border

Legal ObserverLate last Friday evening I got a text message from one of the young, tough activists in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. He was requesting legal observers from the ACLU to be present the next morning for a two-mile march between Lloyd Bentsen State Park and the National Butterfly Center. Both places are beloved parks and nature preserves located outside of McAllen, Texas. Trump’s version of the border wall would plow right through the middle of them, and destroy them.

“We are planning a peaceful march but have already heard that there will be a lot of police present, and would like some support,” the activist texted.

In an electronic blink of an eye, my intrepid ACLU colleague Maria Cordero did her magic and drummed up a dozen observers for the march the next day. While it was a very last minute effort to plan and pull off such a march, I absolutely agreed with the idea. Just a couple of weeks before, industrial-grade bulldozers had been trucked down and parked just outside the National Butterfly Center. Those contractors with their bulldozers had their marching orders from Trump and were just waiting for the word to plow their way through one of the most beloved areas in our region.

Although I have been a legal observer several different times in my life, the responsibility never ceases to make me nervous. One assumes, naturally, that if you are going to serve as an observer, then something will probably happen that would need watching and recording. Those “somethings” are not usually pleasant, and, way too often in the history of non-violent marches and protests, turn violent.

Wall the marchIMG_2373Usually the makeup of the crowd that the observers are to watch establishes the level of nervousness. This past Saturday morning there were about 150 people present. About a third of them were very, very old, using walkers and wearing a charming combination of flinty-eyed kindness. Another third were very very young, riding in strollers and attended to by young parents. The final third of the group were energetic and wise young people. Interspersed with the rest of the crowd was a nice fellow with a saxophone, some people on bicycles, and a whole bunch of people walking their dogs. Some Native Americans with banners and tribal staffs were to lead the marchers along the way.

At first glance, this group didn’t make me nervous. Who wouldn’t love them all? But soon after we set out on our march, the pace picked up, the chanting began and it became clear to me that this was a crowd with grit, one that would probably not back down from a police confrontation. Even those with strollers moved along at a good pace, the chanting never died off, and soon we were at the site where the border wall would severe the park from the river.

Wall SulemaThe octogenarian with the walker had refused a ride, but she soon rolled her way right up to the top of the levee where she joined the rest of the marchers as they faced off against the police: two agents in two border patrol pickup trucks, three border patrol agents on ATVs, a deputy from the county sheriff’s office, an officer from the Mission Police Department, an agent from the Fish and Wildlife Service, and a constable from the county, all accompanied by a helicopter that circled overhead the entire time.

The marchers’ intentions were clear. They were going to march up to the top of the levee, gather in a circle, have some prayer, enjoy some silence, sing a few chants and listen to some speeches. Afterwards, they would spread out along the levee for a group photo. And then they would go home.

The police had their plans as well, apparently. They were to have their authority respected and so there could be no gathering, no prayer, no speeches, and, certainly, no group photo.

Although the police must know her well, I am not sure why they keep under estimating the powerful presence of Marianna Treviño Wright, the director of the Butterfly Center. The poor constable who was sent up to confront her and the group was told by her, in steely terms, that HE was “the one trespassing, that all that you (the government) have  any case is an easement—this is the Butterfly Center’s private property and our guests can traverse it or cross it or walk on it or, they want, watch butterflies from it.”

Wall Line on Levee01Spoke her words powerfully, no doubt impelled by the emergency that her center was facing—the loss of private property, the obliteration of a lifelong project, and the spiteful destruction of a lovely park located in a safe place along the Rio Grande River. Her words were, likewise, backed by a powerful chorus of the young and the not-so-young, people from the Rio Grande Valley and people from Minnesota and Nebraska, who had made this place their home.

The constable backed away. The photos were shot. Cheers were made—and we all headed by home.

As we made our way back down the levee to the road, the lady with the walker shouted out, clearly, “Ya nos vamos, pero no nos corrieron (We are leaving now, but it sure ain’t because you ran us off)” (my translation).

The police left as well, even though the helicopter nervously followed us up the road. I suppose one never knows just how much of an emergency people defending their parks and their properties and their right to assemble and speak, can get create.

Thank God.





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(from Naomi Shihab Nye)

On Wednesday of last week I found myself invited to a fancy picnic at a spot in between the border wall and the Rio Grande. A large tent had been set up on the property of a local farmer, whose fields are stuck in the “no man’s lands” between the wall and the river. I was there with a family from a town outside of Brownsville, and we were sitting at a table and chatting as we waited for the people we had been invited to share lunch with.

Nora, the family’s two year old, was fidgety, but quiet. Her father was nervous. He had agreed to speak to some “very important people” about his family’s circumstances. My ACLU colleague and I were coaching him a little, encouraging him to speak to them as if he were speaking to his daughter. “Use short sentences, go slow, they have no idea of how complicated your life is.” We reminded him to be sure to show them the ankle monitor shackled to his leg, and to be sure to explain how his only crime was living with his family in Texas without immigration documents.

He had been given the ankle monitor because he lacked $9,000 in cash to pay his bond after he had been stopped by a state trooper and, having no driver’s license, was handed over to Border Patrol (back in 2008, Texas Department of Public Safety decided to stop issuing driver’s licenses to people without authorized immigration status).


There were some other families invited to the picnic as well, guests from the Catholic Charities’ Respite Center in McAllen. They, too, seemed nervous, which meant to me that they had a good dose of common sense: what on earth were they doing sitting between the border wall and a river that they had just crossed, at no small peril, just a few days ago?

ArrivalEventually the important people arrived—about fifty of them. From what I could gather, they had come from all over the world to visit Texas. They were business people, and so their interests were entrepreneurial in nature. Indeed, they were coming to the picnic having just toured Elon Musk’s Space X project on the Boca Chica beach that was about an hour’s drive from Brownsville. The meeting with the immigrants and refugees was their last stop before they would be leaving the Rio Grande Valley for wherever it is that very wealthy people go.

I was struck by the boldness of the Brownsville mayor who had pushed for this moment on the tour. He had spent most of the day, after all, promoting the opportunities for investment in the area. But here we were, some of the most powerful, financially secure people on the earth sharing barbecue with some of the most vulnerable people in the hemisphere.

I was nervous, too—not due to the presence of the very rich people (or the very poor people) but the extraordinary power gap between the two groups.

At least at my table, where I was translating between a German, an Austrian, two Australians and a family from Honduras, there was respectful, frank, if rather one-way conversation. While the Hondurans had no questions for them, the captains of industry had patient, kind inquiries for the Hondurans. The Honduran father, who just two days ago was shivering in a freezing border patrol holding cell, looked his table partners in the eye as he fielded their questions, each time setting down his knife and fork, and considering his answer before speaking.

It is hard to know what, if anything, would come of this picnic. Many of the group would be meeting the next day with the governor of Texas, a man whose investments in our region have largely been along the lines of sending $1.2 billion worth of state troopers, officers whose job is to hunt down people like Nora’s dad. Perhaps there would be a frank conversation about Texas’ treatment of immigrants.

Nora’s dad did well with his presentation. After he explained his story, one of the wealthy guests said that that was horrible situation, and that he, himself, would pay off the $9,000 bond so that Nora’s dad could be rid of the ankle shackle. Nora’s father was gracious and relieved by the gesture.

As the picnic ended, a slight breeze from the north blew across the field, ruffled the tent, and tickled the river. The families got back into their vans and crossed the border wall for the third time in a week, headed later that day for Boston, for Falls Church,  for Los Angeles, and for other parts of the USA where they would weave themselves into the American family.

The other guests boarded private jets and headed off to their business responsibilities.

In Washington, DC, the president’s aids were preparing his national emergency proclamation, citing amongst his reasons, the terrible peril along the southern border and the need for a border wall. For my part, I was left thinking about the remark that one of the Central American mothers at the picnic had made. She said, “You know, it is just so very peaceful here.” And then she laughed, pointing at the border wall and the many police officers, and said, “a pesar de todo esto (despite all of this!).”


The Desert Wall

human remains 02

The large, white binder was lettered “2017, Human Remains, Book 1.” Inside were 521 photos of human cadavers, bodies found in Brooks County, a place about an hour’s drive north of McAllen, Texas.

The photos were horrific, post-death pictures of someone’s friend or son or mother who had tried to avoid arrest by the United States Border Patrol by going around the highway checkpoint. Some of them had walked for days, perhaps, before dying of hyperthermia or heat exhaustion or thirst or, I could imagine, desperate loneliness.

The sheriff, Benny Martinez, given his responsibilities, is a surprisingly affable man. He had agreed to a last-minute meeting with a group of immigration advocates. Shortly after we began the meeting, the sheriff willingly shared this very visible evidence of the consequences of US immigration enforcement activity. He noted, “For every person in that book, there are five more people that we did not find. That is a very sad thing.”

“So,” I asked, “That would be 2,500 people who died here in 2017?”

The sheriff grimaced and said, “At least that many. And we haven’t finished putting together the data for 2018. But too many people. Too many.”

As I paged through the book, briefly looking at the photo of a skeleton that was still partially clothed, or at the bloated, barefooted body of a woman dressed in jeans and tee-shirt, I was reminded of the curated photos in the Holocaust Museum of the bodies from the Nazi concentration camps and of the photos in the Human Rights’ Memorial in Santiago of the victims of Chile’s dirty wars. The scale is certainly different, as are the historical drivers of those events, but the cruel indifference to the consequences of national security policies is the same

The sheriff spoke a bit about the efforts he and the border patrol were collaborating on, including putting out GPS markers so that those who became desperate (and still had a working cell phone) could give rescuers a location. He talked about rescue beacons and other efforts, but the overall sense was that there was still going to be a lot of dying going on in this small county, and that his collection of Human Remains Books would continue to grow.

Our visit to this section of the dying fields that is part of the nation’s southwest border took place during the government’s longest shutdown. The attempt to pass a budget had foundered upon the president’s insistence on the need for more border wall funding. The Democrats, at this point, were holding fast to no funding for a border wall, but they were busy offering “technological alternatives” to a border wall. The national freakout over the best way to “secure our borders” is shaping our existence as a functioning national entity. This frankly boggles my mind. I am reminded of the poor fellow trying to dance a waltz to a band playing the two-step: it is wrong, unpardonably (disgracefully/shockingly/amazingly) wrong.

The discussion assumes that the border is unsecured, that someone from Guatemala or Mexico (or Ireland or England) could merrily wade the Rio Grande, call an Uber and end up a couple of hours later in Houston. The term “crisis” is repeated, over and again, until most of the country believes that there is a flood of humanity overrunning south Texas, and that we do indeed need to “do something” about our southern border.

The United States is indeed doing something about the southern border, but it is not something that my mother would be proud of. Instead of working hard to create a comprehensive, humane, 21st century overhaul of our immigration policy, our national leadership has doubled down on a policy of deterrence. This presumes that if we are cruel enough, no one will want to be come here; if enough people die trying to cross into the United States, then maybe people will think twice about coming; if they do manage to cross the river, then we will hunt them down, forcing them off the highway and into the desert, where they may well lose their way, run out of water, and die an excruciating and lonely death.

Two Thanksgivings ago, as our family was gathering for a meal in Brownsville, I received a call from a lawyer who works with refugees. She had gotten a plea from help from a family in California, whose uncle had crossed the river, was wandering in the brush somewhere outside of a border town and was feared to be in dangerous condition. The fellow had a cell phone that worked, and managed to send his family his GPS location. The lawyer wondered if I could rush the man some water and some food, so that he would not die.

My lovely son-in-law and I hurriedly packed a bag and made our way to where the man was supposed to be waiting for us. We did not find him. Concerned, we left the bag out in the open, snapped a picture and “pinned” the location, sending all of that back to the California family. Over a year later, in the midst of the government shutdown and the ranting about border security, I received a note from the lawyer. The man had, in fact, finally made it to his family. He was safe, and wanted to express his gratitude, as did his family.

For my part, I was happy to know that  his photo would not be found in Sheriff Martinez’s Book of Human Remains.