“So your plan is to do everything through one site, utilizing Catholic Community Services and your location at the jail, and not include any of the other faith communities that have been caring for immigrants because it is easiest for you?” County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry was asked at the Humanitarian Crisis Roundtable that met on Monday, July 15th.
“Yes,” was his simple answer, confirming that this was not merely a decision to move guests from the Monastery to the Juvenile Jail, but further a decision to seek to end other faith communities hosting guests. It was a decision that had been made by Bishop Weisenburger, and the undisclosed members of his committee, without consulting the greater network of hosting sites. In a letter to the County on July 3rd, Bishop Weisenberger had conveyed the idea that the faith community in Tucson was not able to handle the work of continuing to host guests and needed the government to step in and help.
Engaging in a collegial and collaborative manner by engaging the input of colleagues doing the same work, rather than given the appearance of speaking for the faith community as a whole, would have been a simple thing to do because the mechanisms had already been being put in place.
Several months before, the Southern Arizona Border Care Network met for the first time on December 6, 2018, to dream of creating a community of transparency, support, and collaboration. They dreamt of shifting the culture of humanitarian aid to center immigrant voices, knowing how often decisions were made in a way that did not include directly impacted people. Little did they know how soon those dreams of collaboration would be shattered as a display of institutional power would assert itself over the community and decree that the families they aided would be moved to cells within the Juvenile Jail complex.
As people filed into the small chapel off of the sanctuary of St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church that first day, the number kept growing and growing and more and more chairs were pulled into the circle. In a few seats by the door were a cluster of Unitarian Universalists; over on the far side of the room were clergy who were immigrants from Mexico themselves, serving and offering hospitality in Nogales, Tucson, etc. In the room, there were people who knew each other well, and people who were just meeting for the first time.
Intentionality had been taken in the planning of the meeting, with an awareness of the faith community’s propensity to call upon white clergy to lead and speak. Therefore, a Latina woman who had grown up on the border in Nogales, who had her roots dug deep into the sand of the Sonoran desert, was chosen to lead the conversation. The Rev. Dr. Dottie Escobedo-Frank was deeply familiar with the work of providing hospitality to asylum seeking families after having served as the Chair of the Board of The Inn Project since 2016, during which time over 10,000 courageous people had walked through its doors.
The Rev. Dr. Dottie Escobedo-Frank led the meeting in a gentle, but intentional way, that drew in the voices of immigrant clergy and centered their stories. It felt like something different was happening. It felt like there was a glow in the air. It felt like a family curse had been broken, as the voices of pastors who were immigrants themselves found themselves heard in a new way. People leaned into the warmth of the moment and stood for long minutes chatting afterwards at the door. Women of color – accustomed to being ignored in these kinds of meetings – talked about the confidence and inspiration that Dottie’s leadership and centering of them had awakened. The truth that they mattered and that their voices mattered was unapologetically proclaimed in that space.
In the meetings that followed, stories would be shared, a narrative and invitation of hospitality would be written, and an atmosphere of trust and transparency would be built and assumed.
In March 2019, the group would approve a statement to be released to the community that would detail the militarization we experience in Southern Arizona, the ministry of hospitality on the border, and the need for support from others. Groups signing on as members of the Southern Arizona Border Care Network would include: The Inn, Casa Alitas, Casa Mariposa, El Mesías United Methodist Church, First Christian Church, Justice for Our Neighbors, Keep Tucson Together, Mariposas Sin Fronteras, Menlo Park United Methodist Church, Mountain Vista Unitarian Universalist, Southern Arizona Sanctuary Coalition, Southside Presbyterian Church, St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church, St. Francis in the Foothills United Methodist Church, Unitarian Universalist Justice Arizona Network, Borderlands Unitarian Universalist.
One line from the narrative that they signed was, “An increased number of asylees are being detained in mostly for-profit prison-like facilities. They are not given legal options. They are herded through our legal system without due process. Children are put in detention with parents, as well as unaccompanied minors being detained in prison-like tent facilities. We are treating the immigrant among us as criminals, instead of asylees or refugees or neighbors.”
The group would meet again on May 2nd to discuss how to support one another and reach out further into the community.
A couple days later on May 4th, however, the first cracks in the veneer of transparency would appear when a press conference would be held by the City to begin to frame the narrative in Tucson in a very different way. The new narrative centered the work of only one of the members of the Southern Arizona Border Care Network in a way that erased the work of the others and the community of trust that they were trying to build.
This member, Casa Alitas, had expanded their capacity a few months earlier and were seeking community support in maintaining the numbers they were serving.
In the months that followed, the narrative would be continually strengthened that all other sites providing hospitality in Tucson were small, temporary satellite sites of Casa Alitas, solidifying power, in the perception of the government and the public, in the hands of one group. This appearance of dominance would give the Catholic Community Services that oversaw the work of Casa Alitas, and specifically the Catholic Bishop, sole negotiating power with the County over the fate of asylum seeking families.
Conversations would happen behind the scenes, amongst the stakeholders that Bishop Weisenberger chose to include, about what would happen to the families. By speaking of a “committee of faith leaders” making the decision, it would give the impression that others doing the work were included in making the decision. Yet, despite the fact that Casa Alitas had signed on as a member of the Southern Arizona Border Care Network, key members of that community would not be invited to the table, nor would it be made clear and transparent who was. An agreement would be made privately between the County Government and the Catholic Bishop to relocate asylum seeking families to cells in the Pima County Juvenile Justice Complex, then shared afterwards with the community.
The news was shared with the public in a news article on July 8th, with the acknowledgement that it would create dissension and divisions in the community, “Kozachik concedes that putting the families inside the Pima County Juvenile Justice Complex doesn’t look good at first glance, but said it should not feel like asylum seekers are being kept in custody.”
Immediately there was an outcry from many Women of Color in Tucson, most notably prison policy expert, Tiera Rainey, who was well schooled on the effect that incarceration atmospheres have on individuals. In contrast to how Women of Color were treated at that first Southern Arizona Border Care Network meeting six months before, their voices were dismissed by those forcing the plan forward.
According to the Tucson Sentinal, Councilman Kozachik said, ”Look they’re well-intentioned, but we’re not incarcerating Guatemalans,” he said. “I think people when they see the changes, they’ll be on board,” he said, adding that the county was picking up costs for the facility, including maintenance, food prep and laundry costs.”
And Catholic Community Services Director, Teresa Cavendish said, “Right now we’re having our hands tied, while work that we’ve been doing for five years is being second-guessed by people who don’t do this work.”
The community was told to just trust the government and the Catholic Church, without being given a reason to do so. We were thrust backwards into the atmosphere where the white men with power make the decisions, and the rest of the community “trusts” that they know best. The very definition of paternalism. We remembered those who have not experienced incarceration themselves may have a hard time recognizing it when they see it.
In reality, the community had actually been given a very clear reason not to “just trust” as the Government and Catholic Community Services had partnered with the media in creating a narrative that was inaccurate and that intentionally and strategically erased the work of their partners in order to position the Catholic Bishop as the sole person to make the decision about what to do with asylum seekers, and to position Catholic Community Services as the sole controller of spaces for asylum seekers in Tucson.
The work of the Latina woman who had been laboring to organize the Southern Arizona Border Care Network was erased and strategically undermined.
The voices of Women of Color like Tiera Rainey were demeaned and dismissed, by decision makers, by the media, and by community members that insisted we should “just trust.”
The meeting to approve the plan was moved up from August to July 22 in order to accomplish the power play before the movement resisting it could gain traction, and before community members and faith leaders had a chance to talk.
According to the Tucson Sentinal, Councilman Kozachik threatened, “If this falls off the rails,” because of objections, “(opponents) own the street release option, if we don’t get this facility.”
Intimidation flourished. Institutional authority took precedence over expertise and experience. The community floundered under the sense of manipulative urgency that was being thrust upon them. The desire for power, control and funds were prioritized over the unity and well-being of the Tucson community.
Federal funds could be used to reinvigorate County facilities, with the Catholic Church sharing credit with the government. It was a win for decision makers, but a loss for those they had excluded from the table.
What will it cost our soul to insist that a jail cell is a dorm room? What did it cost those that called a tent city a summer camp just a year ago?
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