Posts Tagged ‘Borderland’

Nonviolence in Rio Bosque

December 19, 2008

55-year-old Judy Ackerman arrived at the Rio Bosque (river forest) Wetlands Park at 6:30 am.  She crossed the canal through this park she, the Friends of Rio Bosque, and the Sierra Club helped conserve.  At 7:00, the construction crews arrived on the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) land and were confronted by this white-haired, retired Army veteran in a hard hat and construction vest.  She was cordial, the epitome of nonviolence, chatting cheerfully with the construction crews.  As she told the El Paso Times, “They have a job to do, but today their job is to take a break.”

Gandhi once wrote, “There is hope for a violent man to be some day non-violent, but there is none for a coward.” Ms. Ackerman has seen her share of violence throughout her 26 years in the Army, and she’d never be mistaken for a coward.  That’s what makes her nonviolent stand against the border wall so compelling.  In a completely peaceful demonstration, she singlehandedly held up construction for most of Wednesday, December 17.

While the construction crews resumed building of the border wall through this 370-acre borderland park, pursuant to the Secure Fence Act of 2006, Ms. Ackerman demonstrated that nonviolence is more effective than ever and that border communities are worth preserving.  Ackerman told the Associated Press she was motivated to make her stand because, “They have this wonderful park here, and the wall is messing it up. This is life. The river is life. But not the wall; the wall is death.” (AP, Houston Chronicle)


Federal officials are still towing the party line that the 500 miles of border barriers are effective in deterring illegal immigration, drug smuggling, and terrorism (though no terrorists are alleged to have crossed the southern border prior to the border wall construction).  Local communities and border residents, however, see a different story. They see the animals traveling 15 miles to get a drink of water. They see the way these border walls merely reroute immigrants through the most lethal parts of the desert.  People like Ms. Ackerman know the beauty of this land, a beauty now being marred by 15-feet high border fencing in El Paso, Texas.

I will be venturing down to El Paso in but a few short weeks. I fully plan on going to Rio Bosque and voicing my concerns/protest with those of the nonviolent residents there.  Please keep border communities in your prayers this holiday season, and if you are anywhere within a thousand miles, consider coming down to support them in their time of need.


The ABC of Agriprocessors

December 7, 2008

Nearly seven months after their Postville processing plant was raided by Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE), Agriprocessors pled not guilty on all charges Friday, December 5, 2008. Their lawyer, who phoned in to make the plea, did not mention the plight of the 389 unauthorized immigrants or their families (http://www.desmoinesregister.com/article/20081205/NEWS/81205033). He didn’t highlight the fact that these hard workers were steered into cattle barns and misled to believe that if they admitted all charges against them the process would somehow be easier and more lenient. Agriprocessors’ attorney didn’t mention their Nebraska plant that closed down or the Chapter 11 bankruptcy the company filed on November 4 to “reinvigorate the company,” according to their bankruptcy lawyer Kevin Nash. (Preston, Julia. New York Times)

The saddest aspect of Agriprocessors’ court proceedings is that they are being tried for the wrong crimes. Agriprocessors will face a jury trial on January 20 on the charges of “harboring and aiding undocumented workers, document fraud, identity theft and bank fraud.” (http://www.postbulletin.com/newsmanager/templates/localnews_story.asp?z=7&a=374130) They are not awaiting judgment for their notorious safety violations, underpayment of their immigrant workers, and mandatory unpaid overtime, all of which community members like Rev. Paul Oderkirk of Saint Bridget’s Catholic Church had been decrying for years. They are on trial for “aiding” unauthorized” workers that they intentionally recruited and then kept illegal so as to have a docile, underpaid workforce. They are on trial for helping immigrants rather than for the fact that they worked to keep their workforce illegal because unauthorized workers can’t unionize or lobby for better conditions. They are being prosecuted to the full extent of the law for helping immigrants but not even being chastised for filling the deported immigrants’ positions with Latino workers scooped out of Texas homeless shelters this past June (http://immigrationmexicanamerican.blogspot.com/2008/06/breaking-news-agriprocessors.html).  This kosher meatpacking plant that boasted revenues of $300 million will not be sitting before the jury for its criminal hourly wages or its exploitation of the most vulnerable community within our borders. No, they are on trial for “harboring and aiding undocumented workers.”


It is deeply saddening that immigrants are criminalized so deeply in this country that everyone associated with them becomes guilty by association rather than by exploitation. When people are made criminal by unjust laws, the worst crime imaginable is aiding and abetting them. Harking back to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 which were repealed just a few years later in the infancy of our nation, these laws are even more shameful in that they prosecute rather than protect the most vulnerable, unrepresented sector of American society, the 12 million extralegal immigrant workers living within our borders with little chance of effectively working toward citizenship.

14 days before Agriprocessors’ jury trial, ABC will be airing its new reality television show “Homeland Security USA.” This new series which profits off the often-fatal journey of immigrants through the most dangerous parts of desert borderland seems perfectly congruous with Agriprocessors’ charges of harboring and aiding extralegal immigrants (Stelter, Brian. New York Times). Something is fundamentally flawed in the United States when we are entertained by the criminalization, hunting, and deportation of people whose only crime is the desire for work and enough money for their family. Both ABC and Agriprocessors’ board of directors share this understanding and have figured out ways to profit from others’ painful, life-threatening choice to seek work in America.


Brownsville in Washington

November 7, 2008

Despite legislation like the 2006 Secure Fence Act, the Rio Grande Valley might now have a voice in Washington.  Dr. Juliet Garcia, the first Latino president of a four-year university, was just tapped as one of the key members in Obama’s Presidential transition team. (http://www.brownsvilleherald.com/news/garcia_91496___article.html/obama_president.html)

Prior to November 5, University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) President Garcia had been in the headlines for resisting the federal government. For months, Juliet Garcia had refused to compromise with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), who wanted to survey and conduct pre-construction practices for a border wall on UTB property.  Reports from the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) stated that the wall could be 18-feet high and consist of two thick concrete barriers. Unlike public institutions like Hidalgo County, which compromised with a levee-wall arrangement with DHS this past spring, (http://www.brownsvilleherald.com/news/border_85925___article.html/fence_security.html) Garcia refused even to allow government agents entrance to the university property.  By July 31, 2008, Garcia and DHS agreed to a compromise, wherein UTB would repair a chain-link fence on its property while DHS would bypass UTB property along the Rio Grande.  Garcia envisioned the fence with, “bougainvillea and vine growing all over it” (http://www.brownsvilleherald.com/news/utb_88804___article.html/fence_tsc.html). Either way, it was a partial victory for the entire border region in that at least one party successfully resisted the U.S. government’s efforts to forcefully acquire land and construct a border wall along the Rio Grande.

Obama’s choice of Garcia could suggest a host of possible reasonings. It could have been his successful visit to Brownsville February 29, when he participated in the annual Sombrero Fest during the international twin-sister celebration of Charro Days. (http://www.brownsvilleherald.com/articles/obama_84848___article.html/president_festival.html) Perhaps he got a good taste of the Rio Grande Valley, of this borderland he and McCain and Clinton all voted to build a wall through in 2006.  Perhaps he saw the community, the people, the Tejano music, rancheros, corridos, tamales, elotes, the friendly smiles across the transnational bridges, the grapefruit hanging heavy in the orchards, the happiness and the peaceful coexistence of two countries in a place traditionally framed as a point of friction but in reality is a land of cohesion.  Perhaps he plans to cease the Secure Fence Act of 2006 when he takes office in January, in exchange for true immigration reform which can yield lasting results.  The Valley, the US, and the entire world watching the construction of a border wall between two countries at peace can celebrate Garcia’s appointment to Obama’s transistion team.

No Border Wall Walk- Day 7 or A Day of Thanksgiving

March 14, 2008

   No Border Wall Walk- Day 7 with the Heedless Horseman from Smokin’ Joe’s BBQ

    Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Progreso, like so many other churches along our walk, absolutely saw the sojourner in us and welcomed us like a Good Samaritan. We came asking only shelter, and Yolanda and Father Thomas fed us snacks. We were looking for a place to lay our head, and they provided us much-needed showers and our only laundry services of the whole 9-day walk. As tired and beleaguered wanderers, we were welcomed wholeheartedly by this faith community, and one gets the feeling that an extralegal immigrant and his family might find the same welcome at the doors of Holy Spirit. Surely they are living the call of Leviticus 19:33-34 which calls peoples of faith to embrace immigrants, stating, “The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

    Day 7 was at least 99 degrees, and by some accounts as hot as 102. Many of us got burnt, I suffered heat hives, and all of us slowed our 2-3 mph pace considerably in the sweltering sun. It was hotter than a human heart, the organ this entire walk has targeted. Believing that people are innately good, we feel that they simply must not know the wonderful people and beautiful places which a wall would destroy and immigration legislation could enhance. As members of the walk give interviews with local news stations or national newspapers, we are laying out the facts of the immigration debate and the logic as to why the United States should not build a wall. The real story, the story we pray is reaching the hearts of the world, is on display behind us, in the gorgeous palm groves and birding preserves and in the single-story homes and land grant ranches which will be devastated by the building of any wall.

One of the most historically fascinating parts of the trip came at the Rio Rico historic landmark. Sipping some much-needed Gatorade (donated by yet another church), we learned that when the international boundaries were moved from the Nueces River to the Rio Grande and everyone to the north was given citizenship status, some people took their rights into their own hands. The people of Rio Rico dug a canal in the 1800s, changing the course of the river so it would flow south of them and give them certain “inalienable rights.” Though this met with some opposition, all 200 of them were finally given full citizenship status and are now proud to be called Americans. People have been subverting unjust immigration laws for a long, long time…

This Friday’s march was another great opportunity to dialogue with the amazing people who have pledged 9 days of their lives and 120 miles of their feet to speak out against the Secure Fence Act of 2006. Some new recruits to the group were discussing political figures who have let down the American public, either through faulty promises or mismanagement or the profit motive. Hearing this rhetoric, though, I could see many of the through-walkers bristle at its negativity. We are not waging a campaign against people, because people are never beyond redemption. In his speech “Loving your Enemies,” our hero and mentor Martin Luther King said,

…This simply means that there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies. When we look beneath the surface, beneath. the impulsive evil deed, we see within our enemy-neighbor a measure of goodness and know that the viciousness and evilness of his acts are not quite representative of all that he is. We see him in a new light. We recognize that his hate grows out of fear, pride, ignorance, prejudice, and misunderstanding…

We are working to change oppressive and unjust systems in our nation and in the world, but our struggles can never be directed at a single person because it becomes hate and cyclical violence. So, I spoke up to him as he was bashing a man who has waived 19 different environmental laws in order to build the wall in Arizona. I said that it is fruitless and ultimately violent to direct anger at people. If we have a problem with someone, we should not even say their name. Our conflict is not with them but with their actions. On the other side, however, when someone deserves praise, we should use their names in the most intimate way. Praise should always be extremely personal and direct; critiques should always be directed at fixed systems or established actions rather than people, because people possess the power to change.

With that in mind, I would love to praise Laura and Jonathan Loveless for their generous providence of another homemade lunch today in the tiny town of Santa Maria – your surname is clearly a misnomer. I wish to praise the heedless horseman Vince for riding his horse Tocallo and enlivening us with his sage vaquero wisdom and his cowboy guitar-playing. I would like to thank Gene for riding his bike from Brownsville to join us for most of the day’s walk. Jose, your calm discussion about the border region and your work with UTPA students kept me walking when I was most affected by the heat. To all the ladies at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Las Rusias, God bless you for your tambourines and noisemakers as we hobbled home to your fish dinner and your old-time Spanish praise songs. God bless you Nenna for sharing the lives of your eight children, your land along the levee and the site of the proposed border wall, and the encouraging shower at your house. Father Albert – we are so grateful for our kind reception at your church. You and Father Thomas from Progreso, both immigrants from the Congo, illustrate the beauty and the love and the potential immigrants can and do offer if only given the opportunity through our immigration system. Thanks to all 250 of you who have walked even a step of this march thus far; your footsteps give us the faith that we are not alone.

Continuing in the same vein of praise, I would also like to thank the individual members of this walk. These people have dedicated nine days of their lives, 126 miles of their feet, and 24 hours of every single day to the purpose of protesting the injustice of the Secure Fence Act of 2006, supporting the sanctity of all border regions, and respecting the divine spark of humanity in every single immigrant. I am eternally grateful to Mike and Cindy Johnson, both educators from the Brownsville school system who devoted their entire spring break to an issue in which they believe. Mike’s endless energy has uplifted our spirits on many a long day, and Cindy’s heart for each house we pass reminds me of why we are walking. Thank you Cindy for talking with each of these landowners, informing them of their legal rights, and encouraging them with the faith that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Matt Smith

Thank you Matt Smith for your love of the communities on both sides of the river. Your work in the maquiladora factories in Mexico prove that you are willing to work at righting injustice, and you bring that same moral indignation to this No Border Wall Walk. Your guitar-playing and IPOD-blasting have kept us dancing and singing and positive all 100 miles so far, and they are sure to see us all the way to Brownsville. Thank you also Domingo Gonzalez; your offer of transportation has been invaluable, and your happy car honks always seem to lift our spirits. Cesar Chavez, your fellow UFW mate, would be proud.

Crystal Canales

I have to thank Crystal Canales for her limitless energy, her youthful idealism, and her passion for people. Crystal is the only UTB student who sacrificed an entire spring break to protest a border wall in the Valley she has always called home. Her words of support and positivity, both in Spanish and in English, have been truly profound and have made the most cynical of us act in love.

Elizabeth Stephens

Elizabeth Stephens, we owe you so much thanks for your organizing skills in Progreso and your understated leadership on the march. Bearing blisters since Day 2, you have found a quiet reserve of strength and managed to “mount up on wings of eagles” when others would be plummeting like sparrows. Perhaps it has something to do with your button which states, “I am loved.” We all pray you will continue your activism here in Brownsville and the greater Rio Grande Valley for many years to come.

Nat Stone

Nat Stone, every single member of this walk is grateful for your constant encouragement and your affirmation of our work. Your daily documentary film-making reminds us that our protest is not here in the Valley but in the hearts of our nation. We all pray that your talented filmography manages to prick our country’s conscience. Seeing you leap-frogging us again and again has kept us walking when we would just as soon take yet another water break. We also thank you because no other documentary makers would be calling the Obama campaign office everyday, nor would they be handing out legal information to local residents, nor would they stop and be a first responder at a car accident. You make us all proud to live on la frontera.

Jay Johnson-Castro – your 600 miles of walks before March 8 made our march possible. Your guidance from walks past, as well as your teeming knowledge about this issue, have guided our thinking and our planning on this walk. You have brought media attention to the Valley and to the issues we confront, and we pray you will continue to nonviolently campaign for justice on the border.

Kiel Harell

Kiel Harell, how can we ever thank you for the days and days of accumulated time you spent on the phone rallying support for this March Against the Wall. Your quiet strength, your welcoming persona in your down-home overalls that harken back to the SNCC days of the civil rights movement, your conversational tone with reporters and recalcitrant locals, your well-read understanding of nonviolence and your recent exploration of faith – we are thankful that you canceled your plane ticket home and are campaigning for the homes of thousands along our nation’s southern border.

John Moore

Brother John Moore, this walk was your dream some two months ago. You have lived in San Diego, El Paso, and now Brownsville, and your triangulated perspective on the border gives purpose and far-reaching unity to our efforts here. We are not alone, nor are we simply campaigning for the rights of these people within a 120-mile stretch of this snaking Rio Grande. Our efforts are for the 5,000 mile Canadian border, the largest international border in the world, just as much as they are for the Mexican border. Thank you for directing our anger into purposeful, nonviolent ways; thank you for reminding us of the power of redemption and the promises of our God. Thank you for turning me on to nonviolence and its application to every part of my life.

The thanks could go on indefinitely. We have been brimming with gratitude for the opportunity to hear the stories of this Valley and the opportunity to participate in a story of redemption here on the border. Contrary to the opinions of many, this border wall has not been built yet, and although it is a law right now, so was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the 1924 Immigration Quota based on nation of origin. The Secure Fence Act of 2006 is not inevitable; it has only as much mandate as we give it. Please write your Congressman and convince them to vote for the Grijalva Bill which begins to bring the border wall discussion into environmental accountability, and also urge them to vote against the other bill which would set a certain date for the beginning of construction on this destructive symbol of division. Any prayers and support you can offer this march in its final days would be precious.


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