Tag Archives: immigration

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

Governmental & Catholic Powers Partner to Force Will on Tucson Community

“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.

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Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry
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Bishop Weisenburger of the Tucson Diocese

 

“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.

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Rev. Dr. Dottie Escobedo-Frank assists with intake at The Inn in 2017.

 

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? 

Voice your concern. Sign the petition now: http://chng.it/7ChGrbsy

Tents, Kids, Money & God

After the weeks I spent sitting at the gate of the tent city for kids in Tornillo, Texas, I realized I was having a hard time seeing the forest for the trees. I texted friends asking them to give me the big picture. Accustomed to trench work, to being close to the ground, I often see the things no one else sees, while at the same time missing the things everyone else is seeing.  

One of the biggest things that was weighing on me was that while offering continual observations from the ground, and listening to firsthand accounts from inside, I had done little to look into the faith-based organization that was running the tent city, Baptist Child and Family Services. That is why I was so grateful when University of Arizona professor, Dr. Elizabeth Jaeger, offered to begin the research into BCFS. Using her research as a starting point, I have attempted to reflect upon what is a faithful response to what we are seeing.

My mind has been particularly ill at ease, because time and again we have been given a date that Baptist Children and Family Services planned to end their involvement in Tornillo and shut down the tent city they were running for the United States Government. Yet, whenever the date drew close, it was extended, and it felt that promises were broken. It began to feel familiar; delay tactics in Texas are one thing I know well. Yet, why did BCFS stay involved? They were supposed to be crisis responders, making a temporary response to a momentary crisis created by family separations. 

It is now four months later and the kids are still there. Permanent structures have been constructed in addition to the tents. The timeline is now dragging on through the end of 2018. 

The initial crisis that BCFS was responding to, the zero-tolerance policy and consequent large numbers of children separated from their parents, has been expanded. Rather than working to reunify the families and children and then shut down, the vision of the tent city has grown to include unaccompanied minors of other forms. The facility has constantly expanded rather than contracted, leading up to the event that returned it to the public eye: the mass movement of kids, during the darkness of night, from shelters around the country to Tornillo. Capacity has been expanded to house close to 4,000 kids from the original 200. Bodies will have to be conscripted to fill those spots. An industry is  being created.

As projected date of closure after projected date of closure has passed, one begins to wonder whether the situation that Baptist Child and Family Services find themselves in is similar to the quandary that Maria Hinojosa exposed in her two part interview with Juan Sanchez, the CEO of Southwest Key. In their conversation, Hinojosa draws out the economic and financial considerations that Juan Sanchez feels he must consider when lining up what may be best for the kids against the financial survival of an institution he has built.

Sometimes we start out with the best of intentions… but then there are salaries to be paid. 

Finances

The CEO of Baptist Children and Family Services, Kevin Dunnin, for example, received a salary of $450,000 in 2013 (while the average salary for non-profit CEOs is closer to $285,000).

According to CNN, in June, a week after Tornillo opened, BCFS was expected to receive $127,000,000 from the US Government during the fiscal year. Since that first week, the number appears to have skyrocketed to between $428,569,971 and $441,234,738 (depending on whether you go by Issue Date Fiscal Year or Funding Fiscal Year respectively) according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. That is a lot of money, a lot of salaries. All relying on the continued imprisonment of children. All relying on the Administration’s policy of creating consequences in order to discourage sponsors from claiming children.

Beware the creation of an industry.

tornillo graph

(Grants made to BCFS by US Gov. Source: Department of Health and Human Services)

Transparency and Accountability

This leads us to some very important questions. First, the question of transparency and accountability. According to a 2014 article, concerns have been raised in the past to the Department of Health and Human Services about the lack of transparency exhibited by BCFS. If you were to look at their website, perhaps as a potential donor, you will not see any mention of the unaccompanied minor facilities, that presumably make up a good percentage of their income. While we can assume that running a tent city has not always been the history of BCFS, which began as an orphanage in Texas, that is the history that it is writing right now.

With each day that passes, and each child that spends another week or month in the desolation of Tornillo, we are normalizing the imprisonment of innocent children. With each person that signs a non-disclosure agreement to enter, and exits carrying the warm impression intentionally created for them and compassion for those that work there, normalization is carried back to the communities they inhabit.

How soon we forget our original horror.

When you open the website for BCFS, it opens with an image of a young blonde woman, and the words “Empowering Youth Through Education.” However, until a new press release was issued this week saying that children at Tornillo would be receiving instruction from teachers, they have only been provided with optional workbooks to work on if they choose. Establishing educational opportunities is surely a necessary and welcome change from the past 4 months. One would presume that the requirements to abide by State regulations, stipulated by the grants BCFS receives, should already have been being respected and that education should already have been being offered. However, Tornillo, being on Federal property, is not subject to State inspections or enforcement.

It has been difficult at times for advocates all along the border in Texas and Arizona to know how to respond. Most of the responses that have taken place have been directed towards the more profitable Southwest Key. Over the past few months, many advocates have restrained themselves from bringing attention to situations, fearing that children will be moved to even worse locations. To many, Tornillo seems like the worst-case scenario, but others fear that moving the kids out of sight to military bases would be even worse. It is hard to know what to do.

One thing I do know: we must fight normalizing this, and we must fight against the creation of one more mass incarceration institution reliant on bodies for income.

Part of me wonders if we are too late… has all of this already been happening, and already been established for years under our very noses? At the same time, looking at the numbers from the Department of Health and Human Services, I can see that income for both Southwest Key and BCFS has skyrocketed, doubling the amount of money they were receiving from the government last year. One can hope, that with the right amount of attention and pressure, we can prevent these and other organizations from being willing accomplices to the administration. One can hope, that we can discourage them from making this a normal part of their expected budget. One can hope, that we can prevent this from becoming business as usual.

Religious Responsibility

I have been struggling with what is our religious responsibility in this from the start. Throughout time when cruelty was enacted upon the vulnerable, there were religious leaders who collaborated and benefitted, and religious leaders who resisted in both public and private ways. When does the time come when we must choose? Where is the line that cannot be crossed? When does the moment come when we must risk it all?

These are questions that many of us have the luxury of asking, because we are not amongst the directly impacted community. Yet, I have heard the voice of a mother who expressed her shock that we were not jumping in our cars and storming the gates of Tornillo.

I have struggled with trying to be professional, trying to be collegial, trying to be respectful. I have held my tongue while watching different religious leaders make different choices.

That mother’s outrage at our complacency strips my soul bare.

Reading representatives from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention defending BCFS from critique, I know that Baptist Children and Family Services is not merely Baptist in name. They are claimed by the Southern Baptists, connected to the Southern Baptists. I wonder what my Baptists friends can do.

In seeking to examine our own practice, I have discussed with other pastors in Tucson how what we do with shelters here is different, and how to keep it that way. Most importantly, we do not hold children in confinement. We offer hospitality, welcome, food, clothing, and the freedom to leave at any time. There are not armed guards or fences, military helicopters or snipers on the roof as I saw on at least one occasion during my time at Tornillo. We work hard to communicate about consent and let guests know they are free to do as they choose and go where they choose. We are not funded by the government, we are supported by the church and you. We do not sign non-disclosure agreements, and as you see, have no problem using any knowledge we have to publicly critique the system. I believe those are important distinctions to maintain.

We must remain vigilant. The way things begin may not be how they end. You may start out setting up a few tents as a temporary shelter for separated kids, and end up running a tent city for thousands of unaccompanied minors.

How closely can the church cooperate with the government in serving immigrants before we have gone too far and become an accomplice to abuse? Where is the line? How much can we tolerate in order to maintain access to the vulnerable, without becoming desensitized to their suffering?

We must examine ourselves. Constantly. We must fight complacency.

 

There Is Something We Can Do

They are all I can see when I close my eyes. Little faces pressed up against the grated windows of prison buses. In the silence between us, I feel them plead for help, and there is nothing I can do. I realize where they are going, and I finally feel myself start to crack apart inside. 

I watch the bus disappear into the distance, driving away from the tent city where they have been holding kids separated from their parents here at the Tornillo-Guadelupe Port of Entry, and a lump rises in my throat. 

What could be worse than Tornillo? What could be worse than this piercing heat that roasts my skin, and this blinding brightness that makes it hard to see? What could be worse than watching preschool age children sit in rows of chairs under an awning waiting to be processed, knowing that it is 110 degrees in the shade?

What could be worse is two words: Indefinite and military.

First, Military because whatever happens there can be hidden. When the children and families are in some sense in our communities, even if behind bars, we have the possibility that visitation and support will some day be open to us. Once they are on military bases, there are different rules than in civilian land. There is less opportunity for transparency and accountability and support.

Second, Indefinite because the executive order that was signed to end family separation included the capacity to hold those reunited families indefinitely. The toll that takes on the psyche is astronomical. The toll that takes on the soul of our nation could be deadly. Indefinite is the kind of word used by dictators, used by tyrannies, used in places where rights have disappeared. 

This should concern you greatly, because as my father the lawyer once told me, if any of our rights are violated all of our rights are violated. Rights only exist if they exist for everyone. If they exist selectively, they are privileges not rights. If you allow your neighbors rights to be violated, you have signed the death sentence on your own rights. We stand together, or we fall together. Privilege is not something you want to stake the safety of your family upon. 

There is a bigger plan at work than we can see, although we can guess at it. Horrified at the cries of children torn from their mothers’ arms, will we once more permit entire families to be held in militarized internment camps. Will the outrage we felt in one moment tire us out enough that we will be docile and complacent in the next? Is this how they planned it all along? 

We must stop crying out that this is not who we are, and face that it is who we have been, so that we can face the future declaring that it is who we will no longer be. 

I close my eyes, and they are all I see. Little heads. Little faces. Pleading with me. 

I want to be with someone who understands. I find myself sitting with Mary, at the feet of la Virgen, at Saint Mark’s Catholic Church in El Paso. I know she understands. We took her son away as well. I sit there all night in silence with her, until total darkness covers us like a blanket. I know it’s time to go. I get up and walk closer to her and raise my face so that the water from her fountain can splash on my dirty, sunbu55133229648__07068729-219d-45a2-9c3f-de3823d2a91a.jpgrnt face. I leave the water there as I walk away, a welcome respite from the tears.

“Remember your baptism, and be thankful.” As the water drips down my face, I remember the words so often spoken in the church. 

We remember the grace that we do not deserve and cannot earn. We remember the tenets of our faith, and the covenant we have made. We remember the commitment we have made to love and support one another.

This is what we have committed to:

On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you:

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,

reject the evil powers of this world,

and repent of your sin?

I do.

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you

to resist evil, injustice, and oppression

in whatever forms they present themselves?

I do.

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,

put your whole trust in his grace,

and promise to serve him as your Lord,

in union with the Church which Christ has opened

to people of all ages, nations, and races?

I do.

I reject the evil powers of this world. I commit to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. I promise to serve in the company of people of all ages, nations, and races.

I close my eyes, and they are all I see. Little faces. Little heads. Pleading for help.

And there is most certainly something that we can do.

There are many things that we can do.

Please read my friend Melanie’s suggestions for action, and add your own in the comments. I will be moderating comments. 

To support folks here in El Paso:

Give to the Detained Immigrant Solidarity Committee here in El Paso, to bond people out so that they can fight for their families on the outside: https://www.fianzafund.org/donate.html

Help fund legal assistance locally to these families by donating to: https://www.facebook.com/lasamericasIAC/

Add your suggestions in the comments below!

Kids Are Still Arriving To Internment Camp

Far in the distance, on the other end of my camera lens, sat a little figure in pink pants and a pink shirt. A little girl. Four, maybe five years old. She reminded me of another child that it would be impossible to forget: little Omran Daqneesh, coveIMG_3232.JPGred in dust and blood, sitting motionless in the back of an ambulance in Aleppo, Syria in the summer of 2016. Like him, she seemed to sit motionless, straight up in her chair. Silent perhaps. Stunned. This is trauma. This is what hell looks like, I thought.

Cheers were erupting throughout the nation as Trump signed an executive order supposedly ending the most current form of child separationthat our nation and administration has manifested. Squinting my eyes in the sun, I could barely see on my phone screen that people were celebrating victory. Just then my attention was distracted as another bus full of children came rumbling past. It looked like a prison bus, bringing little kids to baby jail. A little kid with tousled hair pressed their face against the glass, trying to see out through the dirty, tinted windows. A barrier separated the kids from the officers driving the bus. It reminded me of the prison bus, whose crash released Dr. Richard Kimball in Harrison Ford’s 1993 film, The Fugitive. Only on this bus, there would be no escape. IMG_3216.jpg

As a wave of relief washed over the nation, we were coming up dry in Tornillo. 

Turning my attention back to the little girl, I spotted an even younger child sitting near her. A toddler. Sitting outside. Waiting to be processed. The reporter from NBC remarked that if it was 110 in the shade, it must be 120 in the heat of the sun. At least they were in the shade.

While people were celebrating that this journey of suffering was over, these children had only just arrived.

Prison buses carrying little kids into a tent city that brought to mind housing for captured enemy combatants. Tan tents, surfaces rippling in the wind. I did not know how sturdy they were or how well they would protect the kids from the heat. I longed to see instead those classic thick, sturdy canvas army tents that we have used to protect our own forces.

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Were these children alone or with people they knew? Why were there little kids out in this heat, when they had clearly tried to create the impression that only teenage boys would be kept at Tornillo? Was this the next step? Was our outrage over family separation only a precursor so that we would accept it if they begin to house whole families in places like this?

“So scary are the consequences of the collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.” –Toni Morrison 

We cannot let this become our normal. It is not too late for us yet. 

Tornillo: The Turning of the Screw

Tornillo. In Spanish it means screw – as in turning the screw – as in taking something bad and making it worse. That is exactly what has happened in this place.

Tonight I stood before the closed gate to the Tornillo-Guadelupe Port of Entry, beyond which sits the newly populated “tent cities” for children separated from their parents. I took it all in and struggled to find words. My colleague from University of Arizona, Juan Ortiz, had brought me there, weaving through the pitch blackness and utter isolation that lies east of El Paso, Texas. We drove as far as they would allow, and then I got out and walked the rest of the way while Juan kept watch. I’m a white woman in a clergy collar: my risk is infinitely less.

It was so dark. It was so isolated. I imagined that must be how the children held beyond this gate must feel. I imagined the tears that wet some of their pillows, like the Rio Grande winding through El Paso.

We are horrified. Finally. Why did it take us so long? Separating children from their parents is not new, but here it is – in Tornillo – that we find the turning of the screw. The point beyond which we cannot tolerate the pain. Dear God, I plead, let us not tolerate the pain. Let us not get used to it. Let us not rationalize and find comfort once again, while others are tortured. Torment us.

Throughout our history, this is what we have done when we have wanted to break the spirit of a people. What are we trying to do now, if not that? We seek to break the Spirit. To break apart families, to break hearts, perhaps in ways that can never be repaired.

Let me take a moment to be clear about what I mean when I say “we.” I mean the powers that be, and all of us that are not on the receiving end of their abuse but are merely mentally tortured by their constantly escalating atrocities. We who will not be the ones whose children are taken. We who cannot imagine a cause for our arrest, rather than dreading it’s arrival constantly. We who do nothing. Let us not be that we.

Let us step away from that “we” and into another. Let us resist. Let us embrace discomfort. Let us refuse to be silent.

The thing that I want us to remember is that while these conditions are horrible for children, there are no conditions into which we can place them that will diminish the horror, trauma, abuse and damage that you inflict upon a child when you separate them from a parent who loves them and is willing to risk their lives for that child. The separation itself is the horror.

Yet, that separation already happens when a family arrives together to seek asylum – a human right – and one parent is taken and held. That separation happens when a parent is deported away from their children.

That separation happens in our mind when we create a narrative where the child is a victim and the parent is a criminal, when in reality their parent is all too often their savior. We have already separated parent from child mentally, before we separated them physically. We have already placed them in separate categories, before we placed them in separate cages.

To end this, it will not be sufficient to end their physical separation. We must also tear down the walls that we have constructed between parent and child in our minds. Until we do that, we will remain complicit. It is our mental divide that has led to their physical one.

Let us bring them back together in our minds, so that we can bring them back together in the flesh.

Below is a portion of the El Paso mural by Francisco Delgado and Juan Ortiz.

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At least there was a baby to clothe…

Searching through the racks of baby clothes at Factory 2 U, only one thought was running through my mind: thank God they are together. The thought of the alternative made my stomach contort itself into knots. Five days earlier, I had knelt on the ground on the Mexico side of the Deconcini Port of Entry, pushing a small red car back and forth between this baby’s brother and I, while she laughed and built up the courage to crawl closer. They were halfway through what would be 11 days of waiting outside in the summer heat, with temperatures well over 100 degrees, hoping that their name would be called one morning and they would have a chance to go through that doorway into the United States and begin their plea. Next to them, five sick children – siblings – slept with limbs entwined on the ground in the heat and dust.

I had driven down that morning with my friends Gretchen and Kat, wanting to see for ourselves where the people were who usually filled the cots in our refugios. Hundreds of people stretched out from the doorway into the United States, all the way back to the small tables of wares and men offering taxis that welcome newcomers to Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. 

A man with a stethoscope slung over his shoulders, Panchito, walked the line, checking on the needs of those seeking asylum. Volunteers from Kino Border Initiative fed them, while Voices From the Border carried in water and clothes. Each day, only 5-12 people were being permitted through that doorway into the United States, the same one that I could walk through with such ease. 

When we did walk back through that doorway, only one of us with a passport but all of us with blonde hair, I spoke to the mother in the best Spanish I could manage. I tried to tell her that we would be waiting and praying on the other side; that we would have a place for them; that we wanted them; that they were welcome. I tried to hide the fear behind my eyes, knowing what our government had given itself the right to do. Knowing that some families do not make it to us; that some families are torn apart and sent to separate facilities, just as families throughout history’s cruelest moments have been sorted left and right. 

I did not know if I’d ever see her again. I prayed I would. The only families they send to our refugio are the ones where at least one parent has been permitted to stay with the children.

Five days later, when I unexpectedly saw her face, holding her baby and calling to me, I was overjoyed. With all the hundreds of families that we see each week, this week has felt different. For the first time, we were taking joy in something as small as no one having arbitrarily decided to tear this woman’s baby from her arms. This was a level of cruelty that I had not imagined we would have to face. This was a relief that I did not think I would ever have the necessity to feel.

I carried that relief with me as we dug through bins of clothes, searching for a clean shirt for her 18 month old, and came up with nothing. At least there was a baby here to clothe, I told myself.

Ten minutes later, standing alone in front of racks of baby clothes at Factory 2 U, I sorted through tshirts trying to find even a single one without Minnie Mouse or a white Disney Princess on it. At least there was a baby to put in that Minnie Mouse t-shirt, I told myself.

As an aunt of five with a sixth due any day, I am well versed in the skills of playing back-up and indulgent aunt. I am well versed in what it means to be family.  I am well versed in trying my best when I am not sure what to do… There are so many moments now when I am not sure what to do. 

Pulling down a fuzzy baby blanket from the wall, I thought of the two children who had spent the past month living under my roof, leaving drawings on my fridge, taking naps with my dog, watching telenovelas on my television, falling asleep in my arms. Once again, a spasm rocked my gut at the thought that they too could have been separated from both their parents instead of just their father. Just their father. As if a gaping hole in your heart that keeps you awake all night crying, and in bed all day sleeping could be captured by the word “Just.” Is this what we have come to? That we must give thanks that only one parent has been taken?

I am so tired of giving thanks for small mercies, with the knowledge ever pressing on my mind of the great cruelties that have been escaped, that hang ever threatening over our heads from my own government. I can do these little things. I can lessen the pain for those that cross my path. I can put warm socks on the cold feet of babies, and smiles on the faces of children too young to understand the truths that are causing their parents to despair. Yet, these are such small things, and this cruelty, this complacency, this occupation of our community is so vast. 

At least there is a baby to clothe, I tell myself. At least the baby wasn’t strapped into a car seat with dozens of other children in a converted prison bus, screaming as they are transported away from their parents. 

At least there was a baby to clothe.

Has it really come to this?

Somewhere, a Christian man or woman sits behind a computer, typing comments onto every post they can find. Not even understanding the laws themselves,* they are saying that these desperate families, these children, these mothers, should not have broken the law and deserve what they get. 

Whose law? 

While these parents and children stand accused by us of breaking the law of man, we stand guilty of breaking the law of God. We sort them left and right, mothers to one side, children to the other; yet, God has sorting to do as well.

“Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41-46)

Somewhere, a five year old child is crying out for their mother. They are tired. They are traumatized. They live their lives in fear 24 hours a day. They do not understand what the people around them are saying. Perhaps they are being held in an institution like Southwest Key where the staff speaks Spanish or English, but not Portuguese or K’iche’ or Q’eqchi’ or Kaqchikel or whichever language their mother uses to soothe them. Perhaps they have a video translation device that talks to them and translates the staff’s orders. Let go of your siblings. Be quiet. Behave.  Every day that passes, every tear that falls, was the choice of our government, and was a part of a system financially dependent upon keeping its beds full of children who are kept from getting tucked in by their papa with a good night kiss.

Here we stand, where the rest of the nation makes our decisions for us, and a Federal force occupies our streets, and we are relieved simply to see a baby still in her mother’s arms. 

You can organize. You can talk to your neighbors. You can petition. You can donate. You can call. You can write. You can refuse to let our elected officials rest until these children are resting back in their parents arms.

Stop. Family. Separation. Now. 

*For more information on how the United States Government is breaking it’s own laws read about American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh and the screening process that we are bound to apply for credible fear and reasonable fear.