Posts Tagged ‘Brownsville’

Letter to Gates, McHugh, Casey RE. Former Student

October 22, 2009

Robert Gates

U.S. Secretary of Defense

1400 Defense Pentagon
Washington DC 20301-1400

 

 

Re: The War Budget Generally & Specifically the Sending of My Student to Afghanistan

 

 

Dear Mr. Gates,

 

I write to you as a former high-school teacher, a person of faith, and a citizen concerned for marginalized communities and our national values.  The current debate about funding and sending more troops to Afghanistan misses the point in that it frames the choice as between Iraq and Afghanistan.  War is not inevitable; conflict is.  War is not a viable long-term solution to conflict – it has never brought about real peace in any circumstance, unless it was the stillness of a cemetery. General Barry McCaffrey himself has said, “We can’t shoot our way out of Afghanistan;” this is not solely limited to Afghanistan but applies to war in general.

 

In a time of rebuilding after a worldwide economic crisis, Dr. King’s words ring louder than ever: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” The trillions of dollars funding the killing of other human beings overseas would be better served in feeding hungry children, funding small business, investing in schools, and enabling social welfare programs which have been gutted recently by many state and federal budgets.

 

One of my former students, Tony, is leaving for Afghanistan this week because of your orders.  He was one of the most intelligent and promising students I had the pleasure to work with as a high-school English teacher at Rivera High School in Brownsville, Texas.  Tony plans to one day attend law school and give back to his community.  Tony joined the military to fund his higher education. 

 

While he will be in my daily prayers, I owe more to my student than that.  I am writing to you in hopes that you will reconsider all our current wars and pursue peace-building, civil solutions with all parties involved.  I close with another quote from Dr. King:  “I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor . . . I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop must be ours.”

 

Please take the initiative to end our current military engagements, for Tony, for me, for our nation, for the world.

 

Respectfully,

 

Matthew Webster

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Poetry of the Fields

August 16, 2009

They were both Guadalupe,

Named for the virgin of Mexico,

With 9 children,

One a citizen,

The other 80 and finally ready

To vote after 40 years

on the Seneca Canning line

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

I water this garden in the coolness

The dew heavy on vines and stems


Martha also walks outside in the coolness,

Though she trudges after ten hours

Inside the canning plant

Turning green silky stalks into tin cans

Bearing full-color portraits

Of green silky stalks.

Monitoring daily the progress of each,

This one throwing out seeds – cut it back

This one thriving – thin out around it

Here’s one shriveling – water it and mound the soil

There a runt – rip it out by the roots and replant something


Tasting the air, noting the dew

On her walk home to her cramped mobile home

Here in Plainview

Hoping beyond hope that the cold northern wind

Will blow late this year,

Will hold its frost until mid-October

So she can buy new clothes for her kids

Coming into the classroom a month late

A flock of turkeys flew in last night,

And as if clipping their beards,

Each one snipped the tops of our green bean plants

Taking fruit and plant alike


But when it comes, as frost always will,

Martha gathers her things

Works the last shift until the corn

Coming in is mealy, not for resale.

Her eyes turn south, steeling up

For the long stretch until the sun awakens

This land once again

Calling her back to its lakes and its plenty

In the morning, expecting growth and green

And finding toppled stalks, knocked-down vines,

Ruined work –

What is there to do but shore up what is left

Of roots, stems, sprouts, shoots,

And tie white plastic bags on string

to keep out the turkeys next time?

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

In Brownsville, hurricanes;

In Owatonna, tornadoes.

This year droughts in south Texas,

Floods in Fargo.

Life’s margins shaving closer and closer

So that weeds won’t even grow anymore,

The rocks are all picked,

The machines are faster and better and smarter,

The vegetables ripen faster and are done in a week,

Always our work in our second home shrinking

like the Life-giving Rio Grande in our other

Roundup-Ready Grapes of Wrath

August 1, 2009

“The tractors came over the roads and into the fields, great crawlers moving like insects, having the incredible strength of insects…Snub-nosed monsters, raising the dust and sticking their snouts into it, straight down the country, across the country, through fences, through dooryards, in and out of gullies in straight lines. They did not run on the ground, but on their own roadbeds. They ignored hills and gulches, water courses, fences, houses.

That man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man; gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth, he was a part of the monster, a robot in the seat…The driver could not control it – straight across country it went, cutting through a dozen farms and straight back. A twitch at the controls could swerve the ‘cat, but the driver’s hands could not twitch because the monster that built the tractor, the monster that sent the tractor out, had somehow gotten into the driver’s hands, into his brain and muscle, had goggled him and muzzled him – goggled his mind, muzzled his speech, goggled his perception, muzzled his protest. He could not see the land as it was, he could not smell the land as it smelled; his feet did not stamp the clods or feel the warmth and power of the earth. He sat in an iron seat and stepped on iron pedals. He could not cheer or beat or curse or encourage the extension of his power, and because of this he could not cheer or whip or curse or encourage himself. He did not know or own or trust or beseech the land. If a seed dropped did not germinate, it was no skin off his ass. If the young thrusting plant withered in drought or drowned in a flood of rain, it was no more to the driver than to the tractor.

He loved the land no more than the bank loved the land. He could admire the tractor – its machined surfaces, its surge of power, the roar of its detonating cylinders; but it was not his tractor. Behind the tractor rolled the shining disks, cutting the earth with blades – not plowing but surgery…The driver sat in his iron seat and he was proud of the straight lines he did not will, proud of the tractor he did not own or love, proud of the power he could not control. And when that crop grew, and was harvested, no man had crumbled a hot clod in his fingers and let the earth sift past his fingertips. No man had touched the seed, or lusted for the growth. Men ate what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread. The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died; for it was not loved or hated, it had no prayers or curses.” (Steinbeck, John. Grapes of Wrath, 35-36)

In the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, it is only fitting that I am reading Steinbeck’s great novel while working with migrant farmworkers in southeastern Minnesota this summer.  In that book, as in that time, farmers and families were displaced by the dust storms, drought, banks, and mechanization.  The Okies migrated to California and Washington, seeking a decent day’s wage to feed their roving families.  The poignant scene above describes what replaced the tenant-farming Okies from the Great Plains – tractors, mass production, industrial-sized operations.

This summer, we have seen 2/3 less migrant farmworkers in southeastern Minnesota than usual. This is not because they have found alternate work in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, but rather because the economy is so bad that the farmers and canning companies in Minnesota recruited very little this year.  For pea-pack and corn-pack (when the canning companies pack the various vegetables into tin cans), the numbers of migrant families driving to Minnesota in their overloaded trucks fueled with tax-return dollars has dwindled.  Some came without contracts, hoping beyond hope that somehow there would be jobs for them here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, jobs that didn’t exist in the 115 degree drought of southern Texas.  (Benning, Tom. Wall Street Journal) Some found odd jobs; others made the long lonely trip back to Texas, poorer than when they arrived.

Because budgets are tight in 2009, farmers are hiring fewer workers and trying to mechanize as much as possible, to cut costs and widen any sort of profit margin.  Years ago, migrant farmworkers from Texas picked rocks during the month of May; now, farmers have machines that do almost as good a job and for cheaper.  Many vegetables that were once hand-picked through back-breaking manual labor now are harvested with a tractor-pulled reaper.  Farmers also shied away from planting more labor-intensive crops. Additionally, migrant farmworkers in some places are now competing with recently laid-off local workers who were hired months before the migrant season began in May.  In a nation experiencing 9.5% unemployment (the highest since just before I was born in 1983), there is no such thing as plenty, particularly in the margins of society.  (http://www.tradingeconomics.com/Economics/Unemployment-rate.aspx?Symbol=USD)

Weeding, once a mainstay of migrant farmworkers’ summer jobs, has been reduced through modern technology.  Controversial genetically modified crops are cropping up in more and more Midwestern fields.  Rather than using this technology to increase the yield for mainstay crops in third-world countries and combating worldwide famine, GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are predominantly being created to reduce the amount of manual labor per crop in first-world countries.  In Minnesota, for example, “Roundup Ready” beets are planted throughout the state. Rather than being larger, or sweeter, or more nutritious, or better for the land, these beets have only one advantage over regular sugar beets – they do not shrivel up and die when exposed to high levels of herbicides or pesticides.  From 1994 to 2005, the United States saw 15-fold increase in the direct application of glyphosate to our major field crops. (Sourcewatch)  Hundreds and thousands of jobs for migrant farmworkers across the United States have been eliminated through the creation of such GMO crops. Whereas in the past humans weeded the rows and tended the plants, now a single sprayer or a lone airplane can douse an entire field with herbicides, leaving only the hardy genetically-modified food crops behind.

One has to wonder what good this is doing. While these plants can survive herbicides and insecticides, few long-term studies have been conducted to see if humans can withstand them.  Additionally, the thousands of migrant families that depended on weeding work are now jobless.  And farmers still need to spend a good deal to purchase the premium Roundup Ready seeds and the gallons and gallons of chemicals to keep their fields tidy. When these vegetables finally make it to the plate of the average American, has any positive change taken place?

Family farms are now a thing of the past.  John Steinbeck, in his beautiful novel assigned to most 9th-graders throughout the US, details the dawn of a new age where mass production, tractors, and cash crops replaced family tenants, horse-drawn plows, and subsistence farming.  In 2009, a new book could be penned about the coming age of Roundup-Ready plants, genetically modified crops, and roaming jobless migrant farmworkers.

As my wife and I roved through the Olmsted County Fair last night, we were mesmerized by the draft horses.  Morgans, Blondies, Clydesdales – these beautiful beasts gracefully pawed the dust and pulled carts in synchronized canter.  I was reminded of a writer at the turn of the 19th century who, upon seeing one of the first automobiles driving through an American city, quipped that these machines would replace horses and make urban living quieter (without the hoof beats) and cleaner (without the manure on streets).  While a laughable prophecy in the 20th century, it seems like writers today could tell a similar story about the wonders of modern agriculture in the Breadbasket of the World.  Seeing those beautiful beasts in Rochester, I had to think we’d sold our birthright for a bowl of porridge.  And we’re doing so again.

Plainview Migrant Fest

June 16, 2009

In a little Minnesota town of 3,000, more than 100 people gathered on a Friday evening for Migrant Fest.  Hosted by the Incarnation Church, this local festival in Plainview has been running for several years now to welcome the migrant farmworkers back to their summer home.  They come to work for Lakeside Foods, by far the largest employer in this small rural hamlet in southeastern Minnesota.

I had the privilege to man an information booth for legal services, speaking with immigrant families about everything from employment and immigration to domestic violence and housing questions.  Being a legal assistant, I couldn’t give them legal advice, but I was able to chat it up in Spanish, set appointments, and hand out alertas which provided them with more information.  Although it was difficult to keep los ninos from taking all my candy and “colors” (the border word for crayons), it was great to speak with families who had traveled all the way from Mission, Pharr, and Brownsville just this week.

The Plainview Migrant Fest boasted numerous other immigrant agencies.  Some were Migrant Health Services, AAA (Aging), Mayo Clinic Diversity Research Unit, Olmsted County Medical Center, San Joachim Church, MET, Tri-Valley Action Council, and Three Rivers Community Action Center. I learned right alongside the immigrant families, as I hadn’t known about many of these organizations previously.  I look forward to working with them to help aid and protect these migrant farmworkers in their vulnerable position as transient denizens of Minnesota.

While we were disseminating information to the migrant families, Latino reggaeton and rancheros were playing in the background, courtesy of DJ Armando.  It was refreshing to hear the children laughing and running around with musical chairs and sack races.  I even got the chance to run in the sack race, though I lost to Christina Gonzalez, the representative from Mayo Clinic Diversity Research Unit, a program designed to increase minority participation in research so as to increase the data’s accuracy.

At this festival, I learned that many of these families are in a bad way this summer.  A nearby meat processing plant in Chatfield burned down on April 17 (NPR.org), and many of those workers came to Plainview looking for work while the plant rebuilds.  As a result, the migrant farmworkers’ awaited jobs have dwindled, and several of the families don’t have the money to return to Texas, even if there was the promise of work there.  This year particularly, farmworkers are going to struggle to find work for a living wage.

Leaving Plainview with the taste of a taco still in my mouth and Latino pop songs ringing in my ears, the Lakeside Foods plant stands just a hundred yards from the road, a beacon which has drawn whole families more than 1000 miles north for a four-month stint.  Though it doesn’t look like much, some of these families’ savings from their work this summer will have to last them until the next.

Migrant Families Make their Way to Midwest Once More

May 30, 2009

Every year for decades, migrant families have boarded up their houses, told friends to check their mail, taken final exams a few weeks early, packed up their cars, and headed north to weed, tend, harvest, and process the foods we buy in the produce section of our local grocery stores.  Many families pay for the journey with their income tax return, arriving with scant assets and little more than a hope of a good growing season.  Migrant workers fall into one of three categories.  Some are recruited by a corporate employer, such as a processing or canning company.  They receive written contracts, sometimes are granted free housing in a labor camp, and are guaranteed work.  Others have a longstanding relationship with a particular farmer.  While the agreement might not be oral, some of these relationships extend back to a handshake between grandfathers.  This form of migrant work is more tenuous, however, than the corporate employer, as it hinges on good weather – if a drought or infestation should occur, the migrants could be 2000 miles from home with no money and no work.  Finally, some migrant families head North with only a hope of work – no contract, no contact, no housing, no plan other than to find a farm and pitch their services.

Migrant farmworkers are not immigrants; instead, they are either legal visitors with temporary work permits, legal permanent residents or citizens migrating internally within the United States.

This summer looks to be a difficult one for migrant families. Fargo remains inundated after the Red River flooding, and is months behind its agricultural calendar.  Other areas of the country are struggling with drought or other natural difficulties.  More importantly, however, is the economic depression. Farmers that once employed workers are either hiring less or none at all, in hopes of saving even just a few dollars.  Some farmers are using more pesticides or herbicides this year, in order to save money on paying migrant workers to weed or tend the rows.  Other farms have filed bankruptcy. Many farmers that have hired migrant workers for decades have called to tell them they will not be needing their services this year.

While the migrant families working for corporate employers or specific farmers will surely find this year a difficult one, the workers who just leave their hometowns in the Rio Grand Valley for the possibility of work in the Midwest could face a devastating summer.  Unable to find work and with little resources to return home, they will be easy prey for less-than-ethical employers. (Druley, Laurel. “Life on the Bottom Rung: No Place for Migrants”)

This summer, I will be working with the Migrant Farmworkers unit of Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, Inc. Under my supervisor Ana Maria Gomez-Gomez, I will primarily be working in Rochester, Owatonna, Plainview, and Elysian, though I will be covering cases in Dakota, Steele, Olmsted, Le Seur, and Waseca counties.  My work will focus on assisting migrant farmworkers with their adjustment to life in Minnesota, with any housing claims, employment wage claims, immigration questions, and any other legal questions that come up in the course of the summer.

I so look forward to working with migrant families from the Rio Grande Valley as they make their temporary homes here in southeastern Minnesota.  Having made that same journey myself, from Brownsville, TX, to Rochester, MN, I hope to be able to offer them some meaningful support and aid.  I wonder if any of the students to whom I gave early exams will be coming up with their families this season… Regardless, I hope to be able to help them get at least a minimum wage, secure decent housing, receive their security deposits at the end of the summer (something I have yet to ever receive myself), work in safe conditions, receive any public benefits to which they are entitled and require, renew or apply for new immigration status, and generally become adjusted to a new community.  It’s going to be a busy summer, but certainly one filled with meaning.

My work with SMRLS this summer comes at a dynamic time in immigration law, with Obama pledging to make progress towards comprehensive immigration reform in his first year of presidency. It comes less than a month after the first anniversary of the first large-scale ICE raid in Postville, IA, just a few hours south of here.  The work begins in a time when local law enforcement officers through 287(g) are attempting to enforce federal immigration laws in many of our nation’s cities and towns, resulting in racial profiling, arbitrary searches and arrests, and a terrified immigrant community unwilling to cooperate with the law enforcement they need and that needs them. (Moffett, Dan. “Cops aren’t Border Patrol”).  My role as Summer Advocate with SMRLS also comes at a time when Ms. Sonia Sotomayor, a Latina woman from the Bronx, has been put forth as Obama’s candidate to replace Justice Souter on the Supreme Court.  It also comes at a time that xenophobic individuals are seeking to place the blame of Wall Street on immigrants who don’t even own a bank account, when states and municipalities are balancing their budgets by cutting public welfare and other services to the indigent (in New York state, for example, elderly, disabled and blind legal residents will now get half of what they had previously received after the ruling in Khrapunskiy v. Robert Doar). But, my summer advocate role also coincides with bipartisan legislation like AgJobs, a bill supported by both the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Farmworker Justice which seeks to relieve labor shortages while securing rights for migrant workers and discouraging agriculture’s exploitation of unauthorized workers (purportedly some 75% of the workforce by some estimates). (“Farms and Immigrants.” New York Times).

As I scan the cucumbers, corn, sugar, beets, potatoes, onions, asparagus, garlic, peppers, and tomatoes, I think of the migrant families making the drive to Minnesota and other states in the Midwest right now.  I look forward to learning from them and advocating for them, starting next week.

What does May Day mean in 2009?

April 27, 2009

As May Day 2009 fast approaches, it is important to look back at the original celebration and what it did and did not do.  On May 1, 2006, millions of immigrant workers left their jobs for an hour or a whole day to bring home the message that they are an integral part of American society.  In cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Houston, Tucson, and Portland, May 1 was an important day of immigrant empowerment and a powerful symbol of solidarity.  However, that same year, the immigration legislation failed to pass Congress and the Secure Fence Act was enacted.

For nonviolence to be an effective tool, it cannot be only a negative force.  It must be constructive as well. As Dr. King wrote, “True peace is not merely the absence of some negative force — tension, confusion or war; it is the presence of some positive force — justice, good will and brotherhood” (“Nonviolence and Racial Justice“).  For nonviolence to change hearts and minds, it must not only protest injustice but also present solutions.  Unlike the May Day celebrations of 2006, as well as the ones being planned for this year in countless cities across the United States, a much smaller but more determined group of people are actively engaged in a nonviolence which highlights the injustices inherent in our current immigration system but which also positively provide for real needs.

Founded in 2004 by Catholic bishop Gerald Kikanas, Presbyterian minister John Fife, and several leaders of the local Tucson Jewish community, No More Deaths has been dealing with the negative human effects resulting from Operation Gatekeeper.  The increased militarization of the border through deportation, detention, armed forces, and border wall construction have merely rerouted desperate human migration through the most dangerous portions of the desert.  The Pima County Medical Examiner’s office, for example, has reported 84 deaths annually between 2000 and 2005, up from 14 in the ’90s.  No More Deaths attempts to save border-crossing families by leaving out water in the desert and tending to the medical needs of injured crossers. [Wikipedia] According to their website, 50 individuals have died  attempting to enter Arizona.

No More Deaths operates under some basic faith-based principles:

  • Recognize that the current Militarized Border Enforcement Strategy is a failed policy
  • Address the status of undocumented persons currently living in the US
  • Make family unity and reunification the cornerstone of the US immigration system
  • Allow workers and their families to enter the US to live and work in a safe, legal, orderly, and humane manner through an Employment-Focused immigration program
  • Recognize that root causes of migration lie in environmental, economic, and trade inequities[4]

While No More Deaths meets the needs of immgirants, they are forbidden to aid them in crossing, but in times of dire emergency they are instructed to call an on-call medical expert and, if need be, transport the seriously injured immigrant to the local hospital.  On July 9, 2005, however, two No More Deaths volunteers were arrested by the Border Patrol for transporting three border-crossers to a nearby hospital.  Daniel Strauss and Shanti Sellz were accused transporting and conspiring to transport undocumented immigrants, both felonies under US law. If convicted, they would have faced 15 years in prison and/or $500,000 in fines.  After more than a year, Judge Collins dismissed the charges in September 2006, stating that these two volunteers had followed pre-approved protocol and that further litigation would violate their Due Process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. [Wikipedia]


Currently, Dan Millis is appealing to the 9th Circuit to contest the Arizona ruling that he and other volunteers had littered by placing water jugs for migrants in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.  Despite the five milk crates of trash the volunteers had picked up, they were issued citations by the US Fish & Wildlife Service officers.  Two days before, Millis had found the body of a 14-year-old girl who had died of exposure. As Dan Millis has said, ““We pick up trash, distribute food and water, and administer first aid to people who desperately need it. We are not criminals.” [Guntzel, Jeff Severens. Utne Reader]

As communities prepare for May Day 2009, it is important to stress real issues and practical solutions.  Obama has pledged that comprehensive immigration reform is on the table for 2009.  The DREAM Act is still a potentiality, as is the Border Security and Responsbility Act [HR 2076] sponsored by Rep. Grijalva last week.  Immigrants from Rochester to Brownsville need more than a token march or a one-day protest – campaign for real change by advocating locally and nationally for meaningful reform for immigrants.

High Time for Social Uplift

February 24, 2009

If a local law enforcement agency incarcerated 81 innocent people for every 19 criminals it caught, we would say it was violating civil rights and was wildly inept. When that same jurisdiction continued to hold those innocent 81, sometimes for a year, the media would run an expose and the public would be crying out for resignations.

This scenario is currently being played out through America’s immigration strategy of massive deportation over the last 15 years. Last week the Pew Hispanic Center revealed that Latinos make up 40% of those sentences in federal courts in 2008 while comprising only 13% of the adult population. It went on to state that Latinos are 1/3 of federal prison inmates as of 2007. With our prisons facing massive overcrowding and public defender’s offices around the nation facing debilitating budget cuts, one would assume that this prison population was all dangerous felons, but in fact, 81% of them did nothing more than cross an imaginary line in a desert or overstay a student visa. (“Enforcement Gone Bad. New York Times)


Earlier this month, the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute published findings that while the Department of Homeland Security’s budget went from $9 million in 2003 to $218 million last year, it ceased to arrest the undocumented felons and “terrorists” it was charged with capturing and instead shifted its focus to families, workers, children, women – none of whom had a previous record or anything besides an overstayed visa or lack of documentation. Of the 72,000 arrested through February 2008, 73% had no criminal record. (“Enforcement Gone Bad. New York Times)


As Homeland Security USA continues to run on ABC, the reality is that since 2006, DHS has shifted its focus to more “easily apprehended” targets. The raids on factories like Postville, Iowa, and on homes netted few criminals but a myriad of working families. Catchy names like “Operation Return to Sender” fail to mask the fact that while there were more than ½ million immigrants with removal orders in 2006, ICE raids honed in on families and workers rather than criminals and terrorists. According to the Migration Policy Institute’s report, internal directives in 2006 set quotas for operatives in the National Fugitive Operations Program but disbanded the standard that 75% of apprehended individuals be criminals. Fugitives with criminal records dropped to 9% of those captured, while immigrants without deportation orders increased to account for 40%. The 2006 directive sent by acting director John P. Torres raised each team’s goal to 1,000 a year, from 125. (Bernstein, Nina. “Target of Immigrant Raids Shifted”)

An author of the report, Yale Law Professor Michael Wishnie stated that random arrests of extralegal immigrants in such residential raids was “dramatically different from how ICE has sold this program to Congress,” not to mention the civil and human rights issues it raises where ICE agents enter private homes without consent and/or warrants. From New Haven to Brownsville, from Maricopa County to San Diego County, ICE abused its power by passing legislation in one form and then enforcing it in a completely different format. As she reviews the agency, Janet Napolitano must take this into account, realizing that our resources must be spent on legalizing our workforce and apprehending our criminals, and never the twain shall meet. (Bernstein, Nina. “Target of Immigrant Raids Shifted”)


DHS recently released statistics of the last decade’s deportations, and of the 2.2 million immigrants deported from 1997-2007, 108,000 of them were parents of legal American citizens. If these immigrants even had two children [a low estimate], then more than 200,000 children were affected. And if they took their children with them when they were removed, then essentially the United States was deporting two legal citizens for every undocumented one. Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies, Mark Krikorian, revealed a calloused, nativist sentiment when he responded, “Should those parents get off the hook just because their kids are put in a difficult position? Children often suffer because of the mistakes of their parents.” Mr. Krikorian seems to have a firm grasp on the Old Testament principle that Yahweh will punish “the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” [Exodus 34:7], though he seems to have stopped his reading of the Torah just before 2 Chronicles 25:4 which repeals this vengeful promise [“Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sins.”] (Falcone, Michael. New York Times). Children are not acceptable collateral damage.

In the spirit of reform under the new administration, one would hope that high on Attorney General Eric Holder’s agenda would be reversing Mukasey’s January ruling that immigrants lack the Constitutional rights to effective representation as secured by the Due Process Clause and the 5th and 14th Amendments. Mukasey’s eleventh-hour statement overruled a twenty-year standard. Because immigration cases are civil cases rather than criminal, there is no requirement for representation [a single day in immigration court drives home the fact that this default to pro se representation is manifestly unfair for the majority of immigrants who cannot speak English yet]. (“Deportation and Due Process. New York Times)

In 2009, the United States stands as a country in an economic depression which is poring vast amounts of money into detaining its workforce, deporting its own citizens, and constructing a 700-mile during peacetime. As Dr. King warned, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” It’s high time we renounced our declaration of war against the 12 million extralegal people within our borders and instead moved towards a nonpartisan, comprehensive immigration reform which affirms the humanity of all.

February 11- Brownsville City Commissioner’s Public Hearing

February 11, 2009

Letter to Brownsville City Commissioners a few hours before February 11’s Public Hearing concerning construction of a “temporary fence” through Brownsville.

Esteemed Commissioners,

I am writing because tonight’s public hearing of the City of Brownsville poses a vital opportunity for you and the “City on the Border by the Sea” to make a statement that walls are no way to secure our nation or remedy a broken immigration system.

I am writing because Obama has only been in office for a few months, and the new Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano is currently evaluating Chertoff’s past efforts and making new plans.

I am writing because la frontera is not just a place but a symbol to the rest of the nation and the world that community exists, that people can cooperate and live peacefully on both sides of the border.

I am writing because in a time of economic crisis it would be criminal to pour more government, state, and local money into a wall that will only exacerbate a situation that needs concerted, bipartisan reform.  I am writing because, should Brownsville cave, El Paso’s appeal to the Supreme Court could be seriously undermined

I am writing because our neighbor Hidalgo County has spent $10-12 million per mile on their levee-border wall compromise, and we all know that such a drain on financial resources at this time would seriously compromise our community.

I am writing because walls divide, walls preclude cooperation, walls are antiquated in a time of globalization, walls have never worked historically, and walls send a message of contention and isolation rather than cooperation and community.

I am writing because tonight, each and every one of you will have a part to play in history.  I am writing because Esther 4:14 was written for today – “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?”

Respectfully,
Matthew Webster

[http://borderwallinthenews.blogspot.com/2009/02/new-brownsville-dhs-contract-no.html]

El Paso del Mundo

January 6, 2009
Las Americas Asylum Law Project

Las Americas Asylum Law Project

El Paso is closer to Los Angeles than Houston, closer to three other state capitals than its own, 12 hours from Brownsville, Texas.  It is part New Mexico, part Tejano, part Mexico, part Wild West, all frontera.  With a population of 700,000 and separated from a 1.5 million city by a tiny rivulet called the Rio Grande, El Paso melds with Juarez in culture, language, music, food, and la gente.

11 University of Minnesota Law School students arrived in El Paso, Texas, on Sunday, January 4. We came as part of the Asylum Law Project to volunteer with nonprofit groups such as Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project, and Las Americas Advocacy Center.  We came to volunteer, but as always, we assuredly will gain more than we give.

Our first day in El Paso, we attended immigration court and saw the inside of a client interview room.  The immigration court was informal, the judge joking about Burn after Reading and giving informal history lessons about Ellis Island.  The hardest cases were the pro-se ones, where we had to watch a 19-year-old boy with oversized clothes sit silently in front of the judge as he was told he had to wait for the LA judge to reopen his case.  Beside him, a Korean man was whispering prayer upon prayer, eyes closed.  Inside the interview room, the circle chairs and the square table were stainless steel.  A woman from El Salvador had been transported from San Francisco to Los Angeles to Arizona to Houston to El Paso.  Her son was watching her younger children and attending Stanford, and this meeting was to gather some last-minute details so that she could apply for a change of venue.  The steel room was empty and echoed, her small voice enunciated each word of Spanish thoughtfully and deliberately.

That same day, we were told by numerous attorneys and well-meaning citizens not to venture across the bridge to Juarez.  Granted there were more than 1,600 murders in Juarez in 2008 and a group of hueros would generally attract a lot of attention; however, it is that same sort of terror that has depressed the economy on both sides of the river and has lent credence to the drug dealers and thugs like the Zetas.  It is that same fear that led Congress to pass the Secure Fence Act of 2006, the same fear that drives Bill O’Reilly’s ratings, the same fear that enables shows like ABC’s “Homeland Security USA” to exist.  As we crossed the El Paso del Norte Bridge and were greeted by the smell of tacos al pastor and the sight of cheap meds and fast surgeries, none of us felt threatened.  Even as we walked by the federales with their automatic rifles and teenage faces, it was impossible to see much of a difference between one side of the river and the other.  We watched Texas beat Ohio State for the Fiesta Bowl as we sat in the Yankees bar, across the centro from the Kentucky Bar where Marilyn Monroe bought drinks for everyone the day she divorced Arthur Miller.  Both sides of this river are hopelessly interconnected.

We are staying in the Gardner Hotel/El Paso International Hostel, a hotel from the 1920s that has hosted John Dillinger and Cormac McCarthy. An old PacBell phone booth stands sentry at the doorway, and an old-time telephone switchboard stands next to the check-in booth.  With its high ceilings and transoms, old charm and new faces daily, many languages and few rules, this hostel is as good a metaphor for El Paso and Juarez as one can imagine.

Tonight we visited Casa Anunciacion, an immigrant safe house.  Dreamed up by 5 Christian men more than 30 years ago, this organization operates in the historically most impoverished portion of El Paso.  It serves as a home for immigrants, whether for one night or for 8 months.  Families, abused women, single teens, mothers and babies, fathers – the house is full to the brim with immigrants seeking shelter and a change.  This particular night Juan Carlos cooked dinner for all 55 tenants and all 11 of us.  We sat next to immigrants from Guatemala and Sinaloa, El Salvador and Lebanon, Juarez, and Honduras.  After dinner, I washed dishes alongside Federico as everyone worked together to clean the facilities.  Although the house was raided by ICE several years ago, it still continues to offer hope to many seeking a better job and life.

The border towns of El Paso and Juarez serve as a microcosm of worldwide immigration patterns.  When goods are freely transportable in a globalizing world, it only stands to reason that people will desire to move freely legally or not.  Border lines are human conventions, and as one looks at the picnic cloth of stars between the Sierra Madre and Rocky Mountains that is El Paso/Juarez at night, it is impossible to see where one ends and the other begins.  Perhaps that would just be a perfunctory exercise anyway.

Christmas in a Divided Bethlehem

December 29, 2008

On Monday, December 15, Palestinian children gathered around a Christmas tree next to the Church of the Nativity.  Just days before Christmas, these men, women, and children gathered in Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  Though the Christmas tree was a 32-foot high cypress rather than a pine, and though the carols were in another tongue, surely few other Christmas celebrations were as authentic and true to the source on that Monday evening. (Israel News Agency)

Wall in Jesus Hometown

Wall in Jesus' Hometown

This little town of Bethlehem is as divided now as it was some 2000 years ago when Jesus was born in a manger bed.  Back then there were zealots and Samaritans, Pharisees and Sadducees, Romans and Greeks; today there are Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Sunnis and Shiites and Christians.  Mayor Victor Batarseh spoke at the lighting of the Bethlehem Christmas tree, hoping that “…the star that led the three wise men to Bethlehem will lead the great powers and brighten their way toward genuine peace.” Closer to home, a wall is being built between North and Mesoamerica as I write this, cutting through the heart of El Paso, Brownsville, and San Diego.  Around the world, walls are being built between nations even as globalization frees up fungible goods.  We are fast approaching a time when goods can travel across national boundaries but people cannot leave their homes, when products possess more rights than people and exports are more respected than immigrants. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw it coming when he said our science “…made of this world a neighborhood and yet…we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood.

It is abundantly clear this Christmas that the modern concept of nation-states, barely more than a hundred years old, creates refugees, suppresses the movement of people, and too often aids in genocide.  From the 1915 Armenian genocide in Turkey to the Holocaust in Europe to the more recent massacres in Darfur and Somalia, nation states have served as walls insulating totalitarian governments and stifling the cries of suffering people.  Refugees, once able to flee persecution by simple migration, now must jump through elaborate hoops and campaign their merits to successfully emigrate to a safe country where they are too frequently welcomed with xenophobia and nativism, even in this Nativity season.

While it is fruitless and perhaps not even desirable to speak of abolishing nation-states, this holiday season must remind us that division, wherever it occurs, makes us somehow less than we truly are. As Dr. King believed “…whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”

On December 27, Israel bombed the Gaza strip, killing at least 205 Palestinians.  In protest of the air strike, the Christmas tree in Bethlehem was doused, though it normally remains lit until the Orthodox Nativity celebrations in January. (Middle East Times)

In this holiday season of Ramadan, Hannukah, Christmas, and the Chinese New Year, Colossians 3:11 rings truer than ever –
Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” May we realize the truth in Dr. King’s words, that we are all “tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”  A wall, be it in Bethlehem or Brownsville or in human hearts, denies that very unity all children of God share, the same unity Christ came to preach 2000 years ago.  Let us not forget.