Their freedom was never ours to give away.

On Monday, July 22, at 9:00 am, the Tucson Board of Supervisors will meet to decide whether to approve a plan negotiated between the Catholic Bishop and the Pima County Administrator, a decision made unilaterally and without consulting the greater faith community, to remove families from church buildings and deliver them to the County Juvenile Jail under the care of Catholic Community Services. http://chng.it/7ChGrbsy

Recently processed asylum seeking families are the responsibility of the religious community to welcome, not to contain. It is our responsibility to celebrate their freedom, not to limit it. It is our responsibility to approach them in solidarity, to honor their dignity, intelligence, courage, and self agency – not to pity their vulnerability and take pleasure in trumpeting their gratefulness for our charity. 

Their freedom was never ours to control, to contain, to transfer. Bishop Weisenburger, their freedom was never yours to give away. 

They have risked their lives in the pursuit of this fragile, precious freedom they pursue. Every inch of it is priceless. Every inch of it was paid for in blood and sweat and tears. Every inch of it demands our respect, summons our acknowledgement, and compels our honoring. 

How many inches of it will we choose to compromise to satisfy our pride, to avoid the financial cost and physical toll of welcoming them, while still maintaining the control and the credit? 

Something very insidious has crept into the conversation we are having in Tucson about how to best offer hospitality to asylum seekers. A very important nuance: these families are not being transferred to our custody. They have been released and were supposed to be given a ride to the vicinity of a loving space where they would be offered hospitality, if they chose to accept it. They could then choose whether to enter the many sites of hospitality scattered around the city, and receive our offering of “Bienvenidos,” or they could choose not to. As hospitality sites, we were only ever supposed to be an option for courageous families with self-agency. They were ours to embrace, not contain. 

This is something different. Driving families to a far part of Tucson, into an institutionalized government building, this feels more like a transfer of custody than an offer of welcome. Whatever the conditions they will find inside, it will not change the reality of where they are. They will be being transferred from one detention center to another, we will have intercepted their confidence that they have reached freedom for a tiny bit longer. 

This is not a matter of diminishing the incredible beauty of the sacred work that Casa Alitas has done for the past several years, or questioning its tradition of intentional and compassionate hospitality. We have a responsibility to examine the situation at hand, and how decisions have been made, and what the consequences may be for our community in the short term, and for communities in which this model may be replicated in the long term. 

This deal struck between the Catholic Church and the Government, would give the Catholic Church full control, using this deeper level of partnership with Border Patrol to force all other religious communities engaged in hosting to be under the control of Catholic Community Services. No longer would there be spaces independent of them, whose numbers did not count in the numbers they could claim of people hosted through their work.

This impulse, directed in part by the desire of Border Patrol to have a central location where all processing will take place, is also one where government figures will inevitably have easier access than in the local congregations who have been determined to protect the freedom of these families upon their release.

It feels as if we are forgetting that we are not the ones processing these families out of custody. Our intake forms are not their pathway to release. They were only supposed to be a way of gathering information about their travel plans so that we could help them get safely to their destination. They were never supposed to be used to pursue media attention and wrack up numbers about how many we have served in order gain notoriety, control, and funding. 

This is not supposed to be about us. Not supposed to be about what “we think is best.” Not supposed to be about the public image we can curate. This work is best done without people knowing the exact location. This work is best done by those directly impacted folxs in our community who understand and can empathize with our guests – exactly the type of people who will be unable to participate anymore if we put this in a detention facility, because they themselves are undocumented, or triggered by incarceration spaces, or vulnerable. 

I have been offering hospitality to asylum seekers alongside such leaders since 2014, first in the Greyhound bus station in Houston, Texas, and now through the shelters of Tucson. Yet, that ability to offer empathy is not my expertise but theirs.

Rather, while some people are experts on the inside of jails, I am an expert on the outside of jails. I have likely spent around 1000 hours in the past few years observing the trauma incurred on the human spirit when you deliver them to institutionalized detention areas. Sitting in vigil in front of the Waller County Jail for the first three months after the death of Sandra Bland, I became an expert on the tears of visiting family members, and the dehumanizing way guards changing shifts talked about those inside. Sitting in vigil in front of the Tornillo detention camp for the first couple weeks it was open, I became an expert on the look of terror on children’s faces as they were driven inside.

I know that Pima County & CCS will work to make this look as good as possible at the start. I know how media can be used to selectively paint the picture we want. I know the children and parents who are taken into the Pima County Juvenile Jail will make the most of it. They will still offer up the gratefulness that paternalism thrives upon, because it will be better than the dog cages and the ice boxes and even the street. 

But this was never our only option, and they will not believe you if you tell them they are free. This will be a half-way house, a step down unit, a space where those with power have made the choice to slide their freedom back an inch or two. This will be the institutional embodiment of the ankle monitors that it pains us so much to see them wearing – a diminishing of the distance between them and the places and people who caused their trauma. A reminder. A place where servants of the State have more access to knowledge about their whereabouts and movement than in the churches that prioritize guarding their privacy and freedom.

The Church in America – excluding those parts like the AME Church built through the liberation of people of color themselves – has always been good at these negotiations.

Powerful arms of the Christian institution have always been so good at determining what is best for others. We found ways to argue that the way we treated enslaved people was kinder than others and, therefore, “Christian slave-holding.” We found ways to feel fully confident that the kidnapping of Indigenous children to hold in schools was what was best for them because it would help them assimilate. We have always known best how others should be clothed, and housed, and fed, and contained.

I have heard all these arguments before. I have heard all these questions before. That this is better than the other options – that we have strategically been barred from exploring or knowing exist. That we must trust those making the decisions, despite the secretive and problematic way they reach their decisions. We should “just trust them” many of the people of San Antonio said when Baptist Children & Family Services was running Tornillo, while their headquarters were based in the San Antonio community. How easy it was for us to take to the streets and pass judgement – and how difficult it was for them. How easy it is now for them to see the error of our ways – and how difficult for us. We can be so farsighted – it is so easy to see clearly what is true and just from a distance, but it becomes so murky close up when we know the people. 

It makes one question whether freedom and self-agency and dignity has been the priority of the institutional culture making this decision. There is a wide divide between charity and solidarity. How much are we resisting our desire for the gratitude of vulnerable people? How much are we fighting the inherent temptations of white supremacist culture to believe that we know best, that we do best, that we are best?

The narrative being offered up by some is that if we do not “contain” these families upon their release then they will take to a life of crime, GOP Board of Supervisors Member Ally Miller even saying that these families would present a threat to our community safety. How is it that this decision satisfies a longing some have to “lock them up”? Where is it that we are sliding towards in the erosion of our ethics and the fatigue of our compassion?

It was never our job to contain them. It was always our responsibility to love them, to treat them as equals, to honor their courage and dignity, and their right to make decisions for themselves.  

Cooking sopa de pollo in the kitchen themselves. Walking out to go up the street and get a Dr. Pepper themselves. Kicking a ball in the free and unfettered and unfenced air. Debating about whether to postpone bedtime in order to finish the movie. These are the precious things people start to do when they feel free. These are the precious things we stand to lose. These are the actions that replenish the spirit, that are the food of freedom helping it to grow strong.

Their freedom from our custody may be fresh, even newborn. Yet, it is theirs.

Their freedom was never ours to give away. Never ours to control. Never ours to exchange.

 

Voice your concern about #nochildjailshelter at http://chng.it/7ChGrbsy

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