Posts Tagged ‘el paso’

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]

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VOICES

February 3, 2009

At a time when immigrants are being scapegoated by some as a partial reason for the economic crisis, this Thursday, immigrants are being given a voice in Rochester, Minnesota. VOICES (Valuing Our Immigrants Contributions to Economic Success) is a community-wide initiative to open dialogue in the community. Started by the Diversity Council through a Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation grant, VOICES began by posing questions to focus groups through 10 of the most common languages here: Khmer, Spanish, Bosnian, Vietnamese, the languages of India, Somalia, Arabic, Lao, Hmong and English.(Valdez, Christina. The Post-Bulletin)

This Thursday from 6-8:30 at the Heintz Center the community will come together to discuss the contributions immigrants have on the local economy and community. Often talked about in a passive voice, this VOICES town hall meeting is a unique opportunity for immigrants to tell their side of the story. I hope all of Rochester is listening Thursday evening. ((Valdez, Christina. The Post-Bulletin)

Another intriguing initiative to give publicity to a seldom-explored area of the country is the International League of Conservation Photographers’ Borderlands RAVE Blog. This project’s purpose is to compile photos of the precious yet fragile border environment which is being profoundly impacted by our lack of comprehensive immigration reform and our construction of a devastating border wall. One look at a close-up of an ocelot or a panoramic of the desert sands instantly brings the inefficacy of a border wall into painful focus.

However, while a border wall continues solidifying a divide through El Paso and Juarez and other similar sister cities along our 2,000 mile southern border, some faith-based organizations are seeking to bridge the divide and speak to the real underlying issues. The Kino Initiative is a collaboration of six Roman Catholic organizations from Mexico and the United States providing aid and other services to deported immigrants. In Nogales, Mexico, the Kino Initiative has made a start by providing deported people with food, clothing, shelter, and health care. Having seen firsthand the bottleneck effect of immigrants in border towns such as Nogales, the Kino Initiative is speaking to a deep need. As Mexican nationals are often merely dropped across the border, regardless of where their home state may be, towns along la frontera become Casablanca to so many, places where they are extremely vulnerable, without community, and largely without hope. The Diocese of Tucson and Archdiocese of Hermosillo in the Mexican state of Sonora; Jesuit organizations from California and Mexico; Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist, a religious congregation in Colima, Mexico, and the Jesuit Refugee Service U.S.A. are all seeking to affect these immediate needs, while bearing daily witness to the necessity for comprehensive immigration reform and across-the-aisle, across-the-river negotiations that engage both sending and receiving countries in real migration solutions that stress human dignity.(Associated Press)

While the border wall continues marring our southern border for want of real change, programs like the Kino Initiative and VOICES are engaging Americans in the pressing civil rights issue of this century. May this only be the beginning.

Students Experience Flawed Immigration System

January 25, 2009

On Friday, the Minnesota Daily ran an article about America’s flawed immigration system.  While it uses words like “illegal alien,” the thrust of the article is focused on the harsh realities of an immigration system which criminalizes children and families and which detains men and women for extended periods of time.  It was truly an honor to partner with groups like Las Americas and Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services and Texas Civil Rights Project; please support them in their ongoing efforts to represent our nation’s most vulnerable community.

U students experience flawed immigration system


BY Alex Robinson
PUBLISHED: 01/22/2009

As immigration issues continue to frequent court rooms, political speeches and circles of public debate, about 70 first-year law students helped illegal immigrants work their way through the legal process during their winter break.

The law students, who were all members of the Asylum Law Project spent about a week scattered across the country volunteering with nonprofit legal aid organizations that specialize in assisting illegal immigrants.

The students filed briefs, met with clients and helped lawyers fight through their heavy caseloads.

Asylum Law Project President Jordan Shepherd volunteered in border town El Paso, Texas and said it was an invaluable experience.

“I was finally able to get my hands dirty in law,” Shepherd said. “It was a lot of people’s first opportunity to get actual legal experience.”

While the students enjoyed their first taste of legal work, they also witnessed glaring problems with the current immigration system.

“There are difficult things that lie ahead for [immigrants],” Shepherd said. “Immigration courts have their hands full.”

Problems in border town

First-year law student Matthew Webster also volunteered in El Paso and said that he met with many detainees who were being held in detention for unreasonably long time periods.

Webster said he met a man from Mexico who had been held at the immigration detention center for about 14 months and the man still did not know where he was going to be sent. He also said there were children detained in El Paso; the youngest he saw was only six months old.

“Most of the rhetoric focuses on crimes or laws but too often we forget these are people,” Webster said.

There are three centers that detain children in El Paso, and combined they can hold about 160 children, said Adriana Salcedo , a lawyer who worked with the law students in El Paso. In the summer they’re completely full.

Salcedo’s organization, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, located in El Paso, turns away clients every week because case loads are too heavy.

Illegal immigrants are not appointed an attorney because they are not U.S. citizens, Salcedo said.

If they cannot afford a lawyer and they are not lucky enough to get representation from a nonprofit organization, they are forced to explore their legal options on their own.

Salcedo said some detained illegal immigrants simply choose deportation instead trying to work through the legal system.

“They do not know what their legal rights are and they don’t recognize they have some sort of immigration relief,” Salcedo said.

Border fence controversy

University student Webster marched 125 miles along the Texas border last March to protest the 670-mile border fence which is currently under construction and is projected to cost about $1.6 billion.

Only days after Webster returned from his volunteer trip with the Asylum Law Project this January, the Texas Border Coalition asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its case, which claims the fence violates a variety of state and local laws.

Proponents of the border fence argue that it will reduce crime and drug trafficking by illegal immigrants, and many politicians voted in favor of it in the Senate in 2006, including President Barack Obama, Sen. John McCain and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

However, Chad Foster , chairman of TBC and mayor of Eagle Pass, Texas — another border town — said the fence is a waste of resources and will only slow much needed immigration reform. The fence is currently under construction in Eagle Pass.

According to Foster, border security and illegal immigration are not a border town problem, but rather a national problem.

“If you want to clean up undocumented immigrants you have to start within the Beltway because they are serving the Department of Homeland Security coffee,” Foster said.

Increasing the amount of border patrol and implementing more new technology to guard the border would be far more effective than a border fence, Foster said.

Foster said he has good relationships with some politicians in Mexico, and working with his neighbors to the south is far more productive than trying to fence them off and lock them out.

But proponents of the fence have given Foster plenty of heat for his stance on border security.

“I’ve been called a narcotraficante ,” he said. “People ask me if I’m an American.”

Children caught up in an Unresponsive Laws

January 12, 2009

Stepping through the door of this nondescript building which houses young immigrant children awaiting their court dates, I am struck by its diametrically different feel. Whereas the purpose of adult detention centers (euphemistically called “processing centers”) is to keep those inside from getting out, the intent of these children’s homes is to protect children and keep people from getting in. Some of these children are government informants against human traffickers, and others owe thousands of dollars to smugglers who exploited them and their families. Additionally, these children are the most vulnerable people within our borders today – it is good to see the government realize that and do their best to ensure their safety.

Only 5 children were present at the Lutheran Social Services (LSS) children’s home when we arrived at 10:00. These children were going through picture dictionaries, the staff offering them one-on-one assistance as they try to teach some basic literacy during their short stays (averaging 36 days). The other children were on a tour of the Immigration Court in the El Paso Federal Building downtown. LSS makes it a point to introduce the kids to the court room and Judge Hough, so they’re not terrified when they are called to respond to the government’s pleadings against them.

Most of these 5-12 year-old kids leave LSS after 36 days, usually because they are reunified with some family or sponsor. Some are deported prior to that, however. All these kids are placed in temporary foster homes, where they are welcomed into loving Spanish-speaking homes. The foster parents even go so far as to stop serving the traditional Chihuahua fare of tortillas de harina for corn tortillas.

Even after kids are reunified, however, they can still be deported. It is hard to think of children like this being sent back to Guatemala or El Salvador. It is even harder to think of them coming up by themselves, with an aunt, with a younger brother.

LSS does a good job by these kids, and they are excitedly awaiting the time in a few weeks when they can finally move into a bigger facility. There are no signs on the outside of this small building, but they do manage to evaluate children’s academic levels and send progress reports home. The children don’t seem to mind the cramped quarters at all. When we say Adios to the children at LSS, all of us wish them this in its truest sense.

Since children were banned from being detained with adults and their care was transferred from DHS (which contains ICE, the department which has enthusiastically raided workplaces, patrolled streets, and hunted immigrants down the last few years) to human services, these children’s care has improved tremendously. Rather than the drab walls of a prison cell, they are allowed to decorate the walls with their schoolwork and drawings. Instead of waiting impatiently, educational services have been provided to these children so that their detainment time isn’t totally wasted.

After visiting LSS on Friday, Sister Phyllis then took us to Canutillo to visit the Southwest Key children’s home there. This facility got its name because it attempts to be a key in the Southwest to a better life for immigrant children. The Canutillo establishment is much bigger, with capacity for 94, and their children are from 13-17. One of the saddest days in the home is an 18th birthday; on that day, the child is transferred from this warm welcoming environment to the adult detention center down the road.

Since Reno v. Flores established some basic guidelines for the detainment of children (such as their right not just to liberty but also custody), facilities like Southwest Keys have risen to the challenge to nurture the lives of these children for as long as they’re in the United States. The site offers English literacy and math classes, but it also offers some highly-popular vocational classes. I have never seen a cake decorated as nice as the penguin cake the kids decorated just last month, and the murals on every wall in the building showcase that these kids have true talent.

Additionally, this facility has on-site counselors and social workers, to ensure that all their needs are met. Some children come in with chemical dependency, or horror stories from their home country or their long journey north. The staff was incredible at welcoming the children and helping them begin to heal. Looking at them, I am reminded of my own high-school students. Only a paper distinguishes these kids from any others.

Louie, the executive director, finished our tour by reminding us that with the increased militarization of the US border policy, along with the violence of the escalating drug wars in Latin America, more and more kids are stranded in Juarez without access to such facilities as LSS and Southwest Keys. My heart goes out, realizing that a half-mile away kids are wandering the streets wondering about their family back home (if they have any) and hoping for a new life just on the other side of the river. I pray they may find a home somewhere.

From where I stand, I can see wall ending

January 12, 2009

Judy Ackerman and me at Rio Bosque

Judy Ackerman and me at Rio Bosque

This morning I was picked up in front of the Gardner Hotel in El Paso by the only person who has engaged in civil disobedience against the border wall. Texas, once a center of the Chicano movement, the site of the Alice student walkouts and state-wide protests against segregated schools, hasn’t seen such civil disobedience in a long time. For an issue as appalling to border residents as the Secure Fence Act of 2006, however, it’s been a long coming.

Judy Ackerman was fifteen minutes early, waiting for me on Franklin Avenue in an unassuming sedan. We talked the 15 minutes to the Rio Bosque Wildlife Refuge, but I can’t remember much of what was said. I do remember the way the border wall seemed to extend forever, farther still than the Rocky Mountains or the Sierra Madre, both of which end in this bi-national border community of almost 2 million. For years there has been a wire fence snaking along the Rio Grande, but lawmakers unfamiliar with the history of El Paso del Norte deemed it fit to separate Texas from the river and Mexico from its neighbor.

As we bounced and jounced toward Rio Bosque along the potholes containing some road, Judy seemed surprised that Diewitz workers were not already at work this Friday morning. Sadly, their work has progressed rapidly since Mrs. Ackerman first delayed the excavation on December 17. The wall now bounds most of the park, although many more miles are planned. In parts, it completely obscures the beautiful dun-brown mountains.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the enormity of the sadness that border fence evinces, Judy instead told me about an old cottonwood tree. “This border wall has really brought the community together. Take that old tree there,” she said, pointing proudly to a cottonwood with a perfect crown and brown leaves still holding onto its branches. “The Border Patrol came through and chopped down two others just like that, because they extend in part onto their service roads. John Souse stopped them just in time. He quickly mobilized the local activists, and pretty soon the media was calling the Border Patrol wanting to interview them about their part in the killing of the last great cottonwood. By that time, the Border Patrol changed their tune and denied ever having entertained such an idea.” Ah, behold the power of people.

Few other trees in this Rio Bosque wildlife refuge, or in the El Paso area in general, are native originals. About eleven years ago, Souse graded this land and rerouted the Rio Grande to recreate its once wild trajectory. It was this capriciousness which earned the river its Mexican name, “Rio Bravo.” Now, cottonwoods and the invasive salt cedar fill the refuge, providing ample habitat for a variety of animals and birds.

As John Souse drove Judy and I through the small refuge (the only of its kind for miles and miles), I was astounded at the number of hawks. Harrier hawks sat atop cottonwoods, flicking their striped tail and looking too heavy to balance on so tenuous a perch. Cooper’s hawks cut through the morning air, chasing each other in the joy of it all. Harris hawks and red-tailed hawks flew over the duck pond, artfully weaving and dipping like stunt pilots.

The duck ponds highlight one of the major problems posed by the border wall. With a border wall cutting the refuge off from the Rio Grande, the animals have no way to access the river. Ducks have been reported to fly into the mesh wiring of the fence as well. Additionally, with no access to the river, Rio Bosque has to fight for its water rights. Since it is not a “money-making” enterprise such as agriculture or industry, the refuge only receives water in the off-season – November through January. The new well which was installed to pump groundwater into the canal and pond just fell into the ground on account of the contractor’s poor craftsmanship. Without this water, particularly during the stifling dry months, Rio Bosque would dry up and leave this valley without a treasure trove of nature.

“When I was standing in front of the bulldozer, I kept remembering what the ACLU told me – ‘Don’t ask if you are arrested; ask if you are free to leave.’ So, as the Texas Rangers, local police, DHS agents, and county sheriffs bickered about whose jurisdiction my civil disobedience fell under, that was all I could think to say. ‘Am I free to leave?’” Judy laughed, “Their response was always, ‘Yes, please! We’ve been waiting all day.’”

Judy’s military training prepared her well for keeping cool in such a hot situation. She executed civil disobedience in near perfect fashion, contacting authorities before and remained calm, cool, and collected during the demonstration. Judy had been well advised of the consequences of her action, and show she exhibited no fear. More importantly, she showed no anger toward the individuals on site. “I wasn’t mad at them,” she reminded me more than once. “I was protesting the idea of this wall.”

While she remembers all the authorities being civil and respectfully during the civil disobedience, sadly some spectators across the canal yelled out taunts and jibes at the officials. Judy remembers the Texas Ranger getting particularly peeved at that. “She’s not risking anything, but she keeps yelling at us and trying to get you [Judy] into deeper trouble.” Thankfully, Judy and her composure ruled the day, and it was clear that this was about more than an “Us vs. Them” scenario.

I walked down to the river, marveling at its relative freedom. I have seen where this river empties into the Gulf, broad and flowing at Boca Chica. Here, a few good strokes would get me across to Ciudad Juarez. Upstream, it is dammed and controlled meticulously. Farms and industries sap its strength as well, using as much as 99% of its water before it reaches the Gulf of Mexico. Climbing back up the steep riverbank, the border wall comes into sharp focus again. Franklin Mountain barely shows its peak above the wall, and the free-roaming tumbleweed country of this old Wild West Town seems all but a memory in the shadow of these steel girders. Would John Dillinger know the Gardner Hotel and downtown El Paso today? Would Marilyn Monroe recognize the Kentucky Club in a Juarez robbed of most its customers? Will anyone remember the time before this wall?

Looking back east, I can make out where the wall ends. That sight still gives me hope. Perhaps we’ll see our folly before it’s too late and this history is already written. I thank God that the history written by man is never penned in permanent ink.

Border Wall on Rio Bosque

Border Wall on Rio Bosque

El Paso Times Article

January 9, 2009

Here’s a local write-up of Day 3 of our Asylum Law Project trip to El Paso.

“Help for immigrants: Minnesota law students lend hand”

By Darren Meritz / El Paso Times

Posted: 01/08/2009 12:00:00 AM MST


University of Minnesota law students Cortney Jones, left, and John Kevinge wrote appellate briefs for pending immigration cases at the Diocesan Migrant and Refrugee Services at 2400 E. Yandell Wednesday. Three groups of students will come to El Paso in a univeristy program that is in its 15th year. (Rudy Gutierrez/El Paso Times)

EL PASO — Immigrants escaping persecution and trying to find a better life in the United States are getting help in El Paso this week from out-of-state law students.

First-year University of Minnesota law students are spending time in El Paso to learn more about immigration law and to lend a hand to immigrant advocacy organizations such as Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services and Texas Rural Legal Aid.

It’s the program’s 15th year.

About 11 students — the first of three groups coming to El Paso — are here this week participating in the University of Minnesota’s Asylum Law Project. The project is effort to give students an opportunity to work with immigrants and people seeking asylum who look for help from local immigrant advocacy groups.

“Just as a nation, we’re somewhat distanced with what’s going on in the world, especially when it comes to human-rights abuses,” said Raymundo Elí Rojas, executive director of Las Americas.

“I think with programs like this, if the students were not already aware of the plight of people persecuted in their home country, I hope by the end of the week they become aware of what’s going on.”

Students in the Asylum Law Project at Minnesota Law said that immigrants face a slew of obstacles before they can freely set foot in the United States.

“They’re in such a tough spot,” said Matthew Webster, a vice president with the Asylum Law Project. “They’re largely a voiceless population and don’t have a lot of the protections that we take for granted.”

Law student Ashley Engels said she spoke with a woman who had to wait 12 years before she could apply for legal residency.

Engels also worked on a case in which a juvenile had to wait 18 months in detention before he could apply.

“A lot of times, the people at detention centers get hopeless and say, ‘I just want to be sent back,’ ” she said.

“It’s crazy how long it takes,” Engels said. “A lot of them have really good cases, but I don’t think they realize.”

Darren Meritz may be reached at dmeritz@elpasotimes.com; 546-6127.


How do you Communicate your Love for a Foreign Land?

January 7, 2009

This past Monday was the deadline for braceros to file for money owed them from the government of Mexico. During the Bracero Program, Mexico was given money for each bracero, but few received this money when they repatriated.  Between 1942-46, 250,000 braceros invested money into this automatic deduction program.  The Border Farmworkers Center/Centro de Trabajadores Fronterizos in El Paso participated in the Bracero Program, helping to register some 100,000 Mexican farmworkers eligible for the program. Eight years ago, six migrant farmworkers sued Wells Fargo, the US and Mexican government in a US federal district court.  While not admitting they did anything wrong, the Mexican government set up a $14.5 million fund to reimbures qualified braceros with up to $3,500. (El Paso Times)

As evidenced by El Paso’s commitment to registering braceros, they are a largely an immigrant-friendly city.  The Mexican Consulate in El Paso vaccinated over 600 Mexican immigrants in 2008.  Additionally, the Consulate has offered a free clinic to many immigrants afraid to go hospitals for fear of being reported.

Other groups in El Paso also reach out to a community too often voiceless and without rights.  Casa Anunciacion, an immigrant safe house which houses and feeds immigrants as they seek to integrate into American life, look for a job, try to relocate a spouse, or any other host of reasons that causes someone to endure hardships in order to migrate to a new land.  The house is a haven for women affected by spousal abuse, who have to wait upwards of a year before receiving relief thru VAWA (Violence Against Women Act).  It’s also a haven for teen mothers, or unacompanied children, or new arrivals, or recently jobless immigrants.  (Latin American Herald Tribune)

It is strange for me to live on the border again.  It feels like home in some ways, full of the life generated by so much diversity and interchange between such large nations.  It feels like a return to form to be working with immigrants one step over the Rio Grande and one step towards citizenship. I’m flooded with memories of  Brownsville, of the tight-knit immigrant communities all along la frontera, of the machismo but also the deep faith, of the fascination with futbol and the foreignness of the downtown markets.

It is also weird for me to return with people unacquainted with la vida en la frontera.  I vaguely remember when my ears perked up at hearing Spanish in the grocery store or when Mexican license plates were second nature. I recall when I thought border life was boring, that nothing was going on because I couldn’t read about much of it in the paper or online. Still, it frustrates me that I cannot fluently communicate my appreciation for the border to a group of Minnesota students, many of whom have traveled the world and are surely bound for great things.  I feel an ambassador of the border, and perhaps I am, but I don’t know if I have been able to make them passionate for it as I am.

Maybe it is a slow process.  Maybe my law-school friends see it in the faces of detained children anxiously awaiting the outcome of their asylum application. Maybe they recognize the grave injustice in a quota system that makes immigrants wait a decade to come legally to the United States.  Perhaps they see the dusty mesquite mountains in a new light after working with an asylum applicant who has been moved from New York to Houston, from Minnesota to El Paso, from Arizona to Harlingen.  Maybe they will read stories about immigrants differently now that they can associate names with faces instead of numbers.  Maybe…

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.

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.