“Today the Headlines Clot in My Blood”*

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Brownsville graffiti, pre-election: “All Are Welcome”

This past Saturday, while on a quick run to the local grocery store, I ran into Sara.  She had her two youngest girls with her—one a tenth grader, and the other in the middle of her second year at the university. They are her seventh and eighth children, and, like their mom, bright-eyed and delightful to be with.

Sara been married “for forever,” as she put it, to an abusive fellow who was an American citizen. He held her in check with the threat of being able to have her deported “any time he wanted.” Fourteen years ago, however, Sara gathered up her courage, and her eight children, and walked away from the abuse, and headed down the street to our parish office. We helped set her up with housing and counseling. She, for her part, on her own, with eight children and no useful immigration status, created a new life.

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Same wall, post election. No more welcomes.

Her older children have grown up and established lives that any parent would be proud of. One is a much sought after computer scientist, another is an engineer, another a registered nurse working in an emergency room, and another a social worker.

As we chatted about her children and how they were doing, I asked her about her immigration status, had she managed to fix any of that. She said, “No, no, I am undocumented forever, I think.”

I asked her if she was nervous, what with this new president and his promise to deport people.

“Of course I am,” she said, “Especially here on the border. You know, the border patrol is everywhere, always watching. But God gave me this family to raise, and that is what I am doing.”

Later on, on that same morning, several hundred people gathered in front of the federal courthouse in Brownsville, within a short distance of the border wall, to join the million and more people from around the world walking in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington. The marchers were loud, and in plain sight. Many of them were undocumented, and perhaps, like Sara, nervous, but fearless.

One of the speakers, herself an American citizen, addressed the new president’s threat. “He wants to put up a wall? Well, we have our own wall—a wall of strong, courageous women!”

On this first Monday of a new administration in Washington, the school buses are running throughout the neighborhood, picking up kids for school. Mothers, documented and undocumented, are busily doing all the things that they daily do. I watch two border patrol trucks, one after another, rumble down my street, patrolling the neighborhood. While it is a beautiful, bright sunny morning, I know that there is dark fear inside many of my neighbors’ homes. I imagine that the parents of those school kids are nervously making plans as to how best to raise the family that God gave them.

I like their courage.

But when I read today’s newspaper, my heart hurts and my blood races.

I worry for them.

*(“Today the headlines clot in my blood” from Naomi Shihab Nye’s Blood)

 

Convivencia

cameron-park-posadaA typical conversation along the southern border moves fluidly from Spanish to English, and then back to Spanish again, inserting the word or the phrase that best suits the moment. This is a gift, as there are some things that just do not do well in translation.

I have never, for instance, found a good English equivalent for convivencia, a term which I understand captures the exquisite sense of a deeply  hospitable way of being.Those who have shared bread, drink, or  kindness with someone different than them has known how such an experience enriches life (the stories in Jennifer Harbury’s Bridge of Courage captures the heart and soul of this experience).

Convivencia is at the heart of the border  Christmas celebrations—even in our resource-stretched communities, entire city blocks are lit up as families string lights along their rooflines and in the trees that grace their yards, consciously or not, recalling the star that stood stock-still over the famous Bethlehem inn.

Sometimes convivencia can be a pile of hay and a place out of the cold wind.

This past Friday, families across the Rio Grande Valley here in south Texas began a series of celebrations known as “las posadas”, a ritualized party repeated for the nine days before Christmas. “Posada” means “inn” or “guest room” and recalls the Holy Family’s search for hospitality on that first Christmas.  Typically, two children are dressed up as Mary and Joseph, and, accompanied by a crowd of cheery folks, knock on the host families’ front door. In stylized song verses, the young families’ request for a place to stay is rejected, including threats to beat the couple if they continue to pester the homeowners’ peace and quiet.

In the end, the hosts realize that they had been engaging in a bit of racial profiling, and, as a matter of fact, were not dealing with regular old poor people, but with the Queen of Heaven. Then, of course, the doors to the home are thrown open, and the young couple, followed by neighbors and friends, line up for hot chocolate and tamales, and fill the house with song and laughter. O sea, a bit of convivencia.

00arise-posada-muniz1216_184359On this Friday past, I celebrated my first night of posadas in Colonia Muñiz, an unincorporated community in Hidalgo County. ARISE, a legacy community-based organization, had organized this posada. ARISE leaders saw it as a way of reassuring the community that while the threats from Washington and Austin to immigrant communities are real enough, the families in the local neighborhoods would not be abandoned. To the contrary, solidarity had now acquired a new urgency.

Many of the ninety-odd participants that night had already had first-hand experience that these were not idle threats. The State of Texas has spent more than $800 million to send State Troopers to our region to “secure the border.” In practice, this has meant unrelenting harassment. The state troopers have created a five-fold increase in traffic stops without tickets being issued–fishing expeditions that have made poor people realize that they are being targeted. The presence of border patrol agents parked at the entrances to the communities do not make the neighborhood feel safer. To the contrary, the residents knew that if the intention was to make families feel safer, that there would be, as a matter of natural law, far more agents parked outside the neighborhoods of the very wealthy, and next to none in the neighborhoods of the poor.

I mentioned that observation to one woman, and she told me, “They come after us because we are poor and brown,” and then she chortled, “Just like Joseph and Mary!”

Speakers at the posada reminded the crowd that this racial profiling by federal and state police in our border communities did not take place in any other regions in the USA, that it was something that could and should be changed. But for that kind of change to take place, everyone had to step up and be strong for the community. “A letter to your congressional representative, a phone call to an elected official, your presence at a community meeting—it all matters now. We are in this together; together we will live this out.” O sea, convivencia.

Amongst the seventy or so people that showed up for the posada, there was no royalty, political or otherwise, and neither was anyone there claiming divine status. But there was joy and energy, and that sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves that, down here, we call convivencia.

Anguish

anguishLast week I was helping clean up the small room that serves as a clinic at the Sacred Heart Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. Looking for a broom, I noticed a woman seated in a chair in the corner of the hallway, her ankle monitor plugged into a wall socket. She looked nervous and sad, and so I introduced myself. Our conversation was halting—she was from the Quiche region of Guatemala and Spanish was her second language, as she had grown up speaking her mother tongue.

I managed to ask her how often she had to charge the ankle device, and she looked at me, stricken, and said, “I really don’t know. They explained this part very fast, but the man told me that very bad things would happen if I didn’t keep it charged.”

After a moment she added, “I think that this (ankle device) is for bad people. I am not a bad person. I am an afraid person.”

We spoke for a while, longer, until her anguish seemed to overcome her, and she wanted to be left alone. I excused myself, leaving her attached to the device, and plugged into the wall, and short of breath.

I went outside, myself in need of a deep breath. I was anxious, not because I had an ankle monitor marking me as some sort of criminal, but because I did not have words of comfort for this human being who was clearly in need of consolation.

I did get my breath—a cool front had swept into the area during the afternoon and the air was sweet. I went back inside to find a broom, and get back to work. I noticed that the woman was intently studying her hands as she complied with the directives of Homeland Security to have her tracking device well-charged. As I passed her by, she smiled, wanly, and said, “Que tengas una buena noche.”

I thanked her, wondering at her civility, even in the midst of her own anguish.

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.