PLU Alternative Spring Break 2015
This year CCES sponsored two Alternative Spring Break trips. Check out our reflections below from students who participated in the different experiences!
Co-sponsored by CCES, ASPLU, & Residential Life
10 PLU students engaged in service, exploration and learning activities in the Parkland area. Community partners included Keithley Middle School, L’Arche Farm and Gardens, Trinity Lutheran Church, and Emergency Food Network.
Trip Leaders: Ashley Carrasco, Mercy Daramola, and Rachel Haxtema.
Border Immersion Program
In this course, we deepened our understanding of the liminal space of the US-Mexico border through an immersion experience in El Paso, TX and Las Cruces, NM.
Sitting in the makeshift courtroom at the detention center, a facility better described as a haphazard prison, I began to feel anxious. Our tour was to begin a half hour prior and as the Pastora had told us before, ICE was never late. We knew something must have happened that morning. In entered the officer who was to be our impromptu tour guide. He stood on the other side of the partition towering over all of us women with his head held high, chest puffed and gun exposed. In further delay, he proceeded to stress the importance of obedience, law and order for the next hour. He explained, “the law is the law and it must be followed. I have always taught my kids that.” Looking at his dark complexion and wondering about his experience growing up as African American in the South, I internally questioned—was the law the end all be all in the Jim Crow south? What good is teaching passivity to your children in the face of injustice? What if immigration happens to be the modern civil rights?
As we stepped into the compound it became clear to me that the detainees or ‘campers’ were nothing but prisoners subject to humility, stringent schedules and punishments like solitary confinement. I couldn’t reconcile the fact that most of the inmates were detained for merely crossing a line arbitrarily drawn by forefathers yet treated as criminals of the worst offense. I couldn’t help but notice that the overwhelming majority seemed of Mexican or Central American origin. They were moved about in herds and seemed like animals being lead from one building to the next. All areas were public—the showers, bedrooms, cafeteria—resulting in the loss of individuality. It felt wrong being there like witnessing a very private matter soon to be settled in a boxing ring. Except in one corner you have heavyweight Uncle SAM and the other a humble migrant simply looking for a better life. Both are expected to compete in the same arena, but in the case of the humble migrant they are forced to fight with hands and feet in chains, in an unfamiliar place and with all rules read in an unknown language. This fight hardly seems fair and is very rarely won.
If America prides itself on values such as freedom, equality and democracy then I urge the public to open its eyes. See the reality that these core beliefs are not present in our society and historically have never been. This doesn’t mean that we cannot collectively attain these ideals in the future, but the first step in the right direction is realizing our current state. I guess that is the beauty of this country—that there is possibility for change, that there is opportunity to hope, dream, seek. Sometimes when you’re born into privilege, by which I amply define as having US citizenship, you are blinded by what is so readily and easily accessible. While we appear apathetic in contributing to society there are millions of our neighbors lining up who would gladly partake in our democracy and be grateful to enjoy the personal liberties we so often take for granted.
I believe that if the American population were aware of the heavy militarization, injustice and dehumanization that is taking place on our Southern border and “detention” centers they would be moved to action. Even the Statue of Liberty, an American icon, beckons those coming from the East in proclaiming “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” If only this same sentiment could be extended to our southern neighbors. My hope is that our individual convictions would move us. That we would force ourselves to see the injustice, to think of the mother detained for seeking a better life for her children, the father crossing to be reunited with his family, the adolescent seeking asylum, and be moved with a sense of urgency to rebuild a nation ready to receive the “huddled masses yearning to be free.” That day in the detention center is where I saw American democracy die. I briefly lost hope and then thought surely this injustice is unknown to the American public. Through education and spreading awareness I believe that we can reconcile our values with our reality and create a nation that welcomes not just those with a pretty penny, but the tired and the poor with open arms instead of a cage and shackles.
Hearing a stranger bear their soul to you is a reverent, even awe inspiring experience, yet amidst a tight circle of solemn faces and empathetic nodding, it was hard to ignore the moody 10 year old girl wiggling in her mother’s lap. Despite her disturbance, this girl was not really a trouble maker. Just the day before I had watched her complete geometry questions with gusto and charm every student volunteer within reach. It was in fact this girl’s father who was currently struggling to maintain his composure in front of our group, as he told his about life as an undocumented immigrant. His story began in a spirited, upbeat tone with an emphasis on hard work, the same way someone from two generations earlier may have told their tale of immigration. The American dream hasn’t changed much, but the type of person allowed to achieve it certainly has. Our speaker brought his family to America years ago, where he then enrolled his daughter in a good school, got his GED, worked hard to support his family, and generally became a productive member of his church and community. However, while our grandparents’ generation was rewarded for hard work with stability, he was met with constant uncertainty. Exploitation and pay fraud means undocumented workers earn much less than minimum wage, making it incredibly difficult to support a family. The looming threat of deportation takes a huge emotional toll on the whole family, that must live in constant fear of being uprooted and separated.
As shocking as it is to see a parent brought to tears by these worries in front of their family, by day four of my Mexico-US border immersion trip, this was not even the first time I had witnessed it. This struggle is a pattern among undocumented immigrants. Hardships in their home countries make it a necessity to move, while legal entry into the US is simply impossible for most. In this hopeless situation immigrants need empathy from the US, yet instead they are met with miles of cold metal fence. So many US citizens refuse to acknowledge this very real suffering and our ability to alleviate it. We build our own emotional walls by rationalizing, dehumanizing, and ignoring those who are affected.
More than anything, we choose to remain ignorant of immigration issues. In truth, immigration law can be complex, but millions of hopeful immigrants must navigate this maze. If more US citizens understood the purpose of life changing acts like DACA and DAPA, these acts would undoubtedly gain more support. With our blind faith in the immigration system its flaws won’t be addressed. The current immigration system simply doesn’t make sense. It takes massive amounts of money to police the border and deport economic immigrants as if they were dangerous criminals. If immigration law was reformed so that these immigrants could enter legally, then border policing could truly focus on criminals. Border patrol supposedly makes border communities safer by deporting illegal immigrants, but in reality they are deporting the very families they are supposed to protect.
In the eyes of an energetic fourth grade girl the economic and legal concerns surrounding immigration are not important. A child’s perspective strips away our weak justifications and rationalizations, leaving the inherent injustice of our immigration system bare. The reality is much more complex of course, but this recognition of injustice is the start of change. The next generation will look back on our immigration policies and wonder how we could ever have seen such extreme measures as normal or necessary. To overcome our present inertia, we need to create connections with the undocumented immigrants in our area to bring light to their presence and value in our community. Using our community’s influence we can help individuals move past their internal barriers, and into understanding.
The most profound experience that I had while on the Alternative Spring Break Border Immersion trip was at Operation Streamline in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Operation Streamline is a program that was introduced by the George W. Bush administration and is continued to be enforced by the Obama administration, which serves as a platform for undocumented individuals who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, to be read their charges. This streamline method is used to get through mass amounts of people. When we visited, about fifteen individuals were told what charges have been bestowed upon them. Everyday this happens around the country, resulting in thousands of undocumented individuals detained and deemed “criminals”. Our group entered into the courtroom, sat on benches and waited for the pre-pre hearing to start. (The detainees were then sentenced to their preliminary hearing a few days later) While we were waiting, the courtroom was filled with buzzing sounds of laughter and footsteps of lawyers walking in and out. U.S. marshals were joking around and talking really loud while the representative lawyer of all the detainees was trying to talk to them. The ambiance of the courtroom juxtaposed the seriousness of the issue which was being presented. The detainees were also handed translator devices, so that they could understand what was being said to them. About fifteen minutes after the hearing was supposed to start, the judge walked in and an immediate shift in ambiance occurred. The marshals were no longer joking and the cloud of noise had ceased. The age range of detainees was from twenty years old to sixty-seven, with various charges; such as drug possession, smuggling immigrants, and illegal entry/re-entry into the U.S. All of these detainees had to process through this criminal court before going to immigration court. These detainees were wearing green jumpsuits and shackles with handcuffs. The judge called up about four to seven detainees at a time to ask them to state the answers of name, age, language, and if their charges were read to them previously and if they understood them. After one line of detainees were through, the judge called the next one up. Each line was then sent out of the courtroom. There were a few detainees that requested translators in their native language, Quiché being one of them. This part of the court process took about forty minutes to complete.
Before the hearing began, I felt confused and frustrated by the ambiance of the courtroom. The U.S. marshals made me frustrated because I couldn’t hear what the representative lawyer was saying to the detainees. It seemed as though there was lack of respect for the space, but as soon as the judge or most authoritative figure stepped into the room, serious respect turned on. I didn’t understand why this was so. Another part of this hearing that will stick in my memory forever is seeing the detainees in handcuffs and shackles. The clank of the metal reminded me of the imagery of slaves during the slave trade. Thinking about that sound still pierces my ears today. The detainees were barely able to raise their right hand when taking oath because the handcuffs restricted them from doing so. It hurt my heart so bad to watch these individuals be treated like animals; this dehumanization made my stomach turn in a knot. The method of Operation Streamline is similar to an assembly line, which also reiterates the dehumanization of these individuals. There isn’t much time taken to make sure that the detainee’s needs are being met. This method is an illustration of industrialization, which America values. I also wondered what happened to the detainees as they left the courtroom; do they go back to holding? It’s as though they are swept away and hidden—just like how the issue and people are invisible to the public. There was also a lack of empathy in the court. One of the detainees did not understand why he was being charged with illegal entry because he just wanted to provide for his family. He began to plea and explain his story when the judge mentioned that this time wasn’t right to say those things. I could hear the pain in this man’s voice, just begging for a chance to be heard. The judge also responded to one of the detainees with insensitivity in the form of a microaggression. A detainee told the judge that he was bi-lingual in Spanish and English and she said “Good for you”. With this response I just shook my head with disappointment. Although the judge probably meant this statement as a compliment, it didn’t come off that way.
I think this experience matters because it really sheds a light about the criminal justice system and emphasizes how it functions in its immigration cases. This experience shows that immigration is treated on a group level instead of mostly an individual level because of the streamline method itself. The streamline method takes away the human aspect of the detainee’s stories and as individuals. I don’t understand the purpose of this method; why can’t the detainees be read their charges in a private room and then get assigned their preliminary hearing? Another aspect of this method system is some judges don’t agree with it. When our group talked with Brian Erickson from ACLU, he mentioned in his presentation that some judges don’t agree with the Operation Streamline method and say this part of the system isn’t working, but continue to oversee immigration cases. Why don’t the judges stand up and work towards getting rid of Operation Streamline? Why do they compromise their morals and ethics for their job? Does it have to be that way?
Being able to see what happens in a criminal court hearing makes me want to spread the word about not only this experience, but about immigration as a whole. Our responsibility as a community in addressing this issue begins with awareness; this is the first step in the “Cycle of Liberation”. If others don’t know about the issue at all, then how are allies supposed to invite them to become one too? Not knowing about the issue and its people only perpetuates the invisibility of it. When trying to inform others about immigration, one is going to probably encounter some resistance. If this occurs, a way to combat this is with kindness, patience, and with an open-mind. Something I’ve found difficult when trying to tell others about the trip is—how do I translate my passion for immigration to inspire them to care too? No matter how much I express my feelings of being at the border, hearing individual’s stories, and seeing the beauty and tragedy collide together, it seems as though there still is a barrier to break down. I want to strive to have transparency with everyone I talk to and maybe that will help bring in others to share a glimpse of what my experience was.
13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.15 Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. – NKJV
We rested in the sanctuary of Iglesia Luterana Cristo Rey in El Paso Texas, for a small worship service beginning our last reflection of our Border Immersion experience. Pastora Rosa led us by asking two questions. Who has been a light for us in our journey? Who has made an impact on you this week? How could I possible summarize my experience engaging in a community when I had learned so much?
It was only seven days earlier that I embarked on my journey, clumsy, cramped and confused. Boarding the plane, I had dropped my glass water bottle on someone’s head. I was assigned the middle seat, consequently fretting over a load of books I couldn’t get to. I later spilling my flimsy cup of water onto my neighbor. Intermittently leaning forward seeking to rest on my travel teddy bear, as nervousness haunted my muffled dreams.
We arrived safely after eight hours of traveling. On my 32nd hour of being awake, I prayed for energy and pinched myself, frustrated that I still had not learned Spanish as Carmen shared her story. She, humble, self-less, and resilient opened up to us. She questioned why we have borders when, “Dios no dividó el cielo.” This struck me in the deepest and most personal way. The question of manmade limits followed me through the week.
Deep in the Colonias, lands sold without services such as safe drinking water and plumbing, we listened to Argelia’s story. I couldn’t stop my tears from flowing as she shared her overwhelming faith and resilience. She asked, “Why do you come here and cry with us?”
Dr. Mendoza, a pioneer in social medicine, reminded us that too often, “The only treatment the poor gets is extractions.” As a missionary doctor in Juarez, Mexico helping people with no access to medical care and providing scholarships for kids to go to school, she promotes education as a way to break the cycle of poverty. “I use my skills to show my love for my neighbors, solidarity for their needs, advocating for voices of people who don’t speak for themselves.” She charged us to stand and do our part. “Don’t ever feel you’re too small, too poor, or too busy that you cannot help your neighbor.”
I reflected on how each of these women, their stories, and questions, have served as lights for me. I didn’t have answers for them then, and I pray their questions continue swimming in my heart, guiding my journey. I share Dr. Mendoza’s heart for servant leadership. I pray for the resilience of Carmen, the faith of Argelia, and the grace of Pastora Rosa whom ended our reflection asking, “What are the walls we erect in everyday lives separating from others?”
For those who are beginning your social justice journeys, don’t let the burden of privilege cause you to “other” issues, nor lights. We will never gain faith through understanding, but through an open heart. Do not allow stories of resilience to serve only as catharsis, but rather as catalyst to be the change you want to see. You too can be a light in this world.
Tear Down the Walls
Why did you come here to cry with us?
Argelia asked us, after we sat crying and listening to her family’s story in a small, patched together house in the El Paso Colonias. She had spent the better part of the last 15 years fighting to survive, faced with her husband’s deportation, multiple attempted crossings and raising her 3 children in extreme poverty, off of the earnings she made from selling tamales. We had the honor of stepping into holy ground to hear Argelia tell us her story. It’s a story of immense faith, survival and strength. It is also a story of crazy-making injustice and the very reason why our immigration system is working to keep out good people like Argelia’s husband, is working to separate families and is working to racialize and criminalize immigrants.
The border is a place where the insanities of our US policies hit the ground and “grate against” the impacts they have on the people who inhabit the border. In the border, we learned that the Rio Grande no longer flows through Texas. We learned that most migrants, “in order to go through the door and not the window” or in other words to enter into the country legally with a work or travel visa, is a 15 to 25 year wait for some, and an impossibility for most. We learned that while Border Patrol gets quarterly trainings on use of force and firearms, they aren’t offered a single opportunity to learn about NAFTA, Free Trade Policies or the War on Drugs. We learned that the fence is a police solution to an economic problem. We learned that immigrants in El Paso, New Mexico and along many parts of the border, go through “Assembly Line Justice” where 15-30 immigrants are paraded in front of a judge in criminal court in lieu of an individual trial to do their sentencing for their immigration “crimes”. We learned at, at the border patrol checkpoints that litter the state highways, Latino drivers are pulled over 20x more than white drivers for secondary screenings and body/car searches on under the allegation of “suspicious behavior”. We learned story after story after story of people coming to the US out of economic and security necessity, but being blocked, cast aside and discarded by the immigration policies of our department of homeland “security”.
So to answer Argelia’s question in one respect, we came to the border to hear stories, learn new perspectives, to become better allies and to relearn everything we thought we knew about the border
But I think that beyond that, we had things to learn about ourselves, our callings, and our everyday lives that intersect with the border. After another woman, Carmen, told us her story, one filled with separation from her family, moves across borders with legal visas that had since expired, and economic and medical necessity for herself and her daughter, I learned perhaps my most important lesson. Carmen told us, that although borders exist to create divisions between “us and the other” and that the wall is built to keep some people out and others in, these are human created divisions. Carmen believes “el cielo no está dividido; the sky is not divided”.
In order to make a change to our border, our wall, and our system of immigration enforcement, we need an aspirational vision, like the one that Carmen articulated. Otro mundo es posible and we demand a world where all worlds fit. The border cannot continue to be a question of us versus them and of danger versus national security. Being in the border helped me to realize that we are all already mixed in people in culture and in languages. We need to reflect on our own roles as Americans to reflect on our own country’s values. Do we want to be a country that turns people in need away at the gate or one that allows people to come here to work and fight for a better life? Do we want to be a country that profits off of the pain of America’s immigrant families or one that honors the love between partners, parents and children? We need to organize to change large structures policies like the Merida Initiative and NAFTA, and their connection to socioeconomic conditions and violence in Mexico. But at the same time, we need to make individual changes. One piece of advice from Carmen was that if, in our paths, we came across an immigrant, that we should “dale la mano, or give them a hand”. I ask you to take these requests seriously on behalf of each of the people who have strong voices in the border that we encountered, but whose position makes it difficult for their voices to be heard.
Walls are not natural, but migration is. The walls were built by our apathy, together we can tear them down.
We can’t do this from a place of hate. The border wall is build from self-interest, hate and fear. We need to fight back with fiercely love, compassion and grace. Maybe we do just need more people to come here the stories and to “Come and cry with us”.
To continue the conversation, consider joining one of the Saturday Solidarity Days at the Northwest Detention Center in our own backyard in Tacoma, Washington. Here, down in the tide flats, exists the fifth largest detention center for immigrants in the country. Follow the NWDC Resistance on Facebook for more information about the solidarity days and ways you can plug into the local movement to abolish borders and fight in resistance to the Northwest Detention Center.
For break this year, I chose to participate in PLU’s alternative spring break border immersion program in El Paso, Texas and Las Cruces, New Mexico. Prior to going on the trip I had been exposed to certain aspects of immigration. I spent a semester in Oaxaca, Mexico, and I have seen where many migrants come from. I live in Tacoma, Washington in the Pacific Northwest, a region where many migrants settle. For every beginning and end, there is always a climax or some sort of middle ground. I wanted to gain a better understanding of what happens in the space between Mexico and the United States. A space where peoples’ lives are made are broken and where that climactic moment results in apprehension and deportation, or the opportunity to stay.
We received a holistic understanding of the issues associated with immigration, having met with people who migrate here, all the way to people who sign off on the deportations. During our immersion we were assigned border-related readings that often correlated to our schedule. On one of the days we met with Border Patrol along the fence. As we were wrapping up our discussion, the officer mentioned that if there were more jobs in Mexico, not as many people would attempt to come into the United States. In one of our readings from National Geographic, titled “Our Wall” by Charles Bowden, the topic of immigration is approached from various perspectives. In the article, Bowden states that, “Everyone realizes the wall is a police solution to an economic problem…Of the millions of illegal immigrants living in the United States, few would have come if there wasn’t a job waiting for them” (4). People want the opportunity to work and to provide for their families. Perhaps not everyone deserves to come here, but everyone does deserve a chance at life. The current policies and system in place makes that nearly impossible. The migrants that come here are people like you and me. They have families, they have feelings, and they have the drive to better their lives. Which, often times, is believed to only be possible in the United States.
This is important because the current mindset our nation has regarding immigration is not doing anything to confront the issues that exist on the border, and in migrant communities in the United States. Migrants face various injustices while attempting to come to the United States, and continue to experience them when they finally arrive. As an active member of the community, it is our responsibility to stay informed on these issues. Media portrayal is not sufficient in taking an unbiased stance. Having a different perspective on these issues makes way for new solutions.