Posts Tagged ‘frontera’

Community Service

August 20, 2009

       A young man in Arizona was convicted last week of littering and sentenced to probation and 300 hours of picking up trash.  His petty misdemeanor – littering on national wildlife lands, also known as leaving water bottles for immigrants passing through the most lethal section of the borderlands. [New York Times]

          While officials at Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge allow some groups to maintain water tanks at specific aid stations within the refuge, they stated that the plastic bottles left by Walt Staton of the group No More Deaths endangered wildlife and was unsightly. [New York Times]

          This latest border incident highlights the sad paradox of our nation’s current border enforcement.  Through lawsuits like this which target humanitarian aid to rerouted immigrants and the lack of apprehended drug runners and human traffickers, the modern motto of la policia de la frontera seems to be that if we can’t catch the few criminals crossing the border then at least we can nab a lot of others.  Although the California Border Patrol just nixed its long-running quota system which incentivized agents to catch as many border-crossers as possible rather than focusing on the dangerous criminals, this philosophy still holds credence. 

          A similar lawsuit a few years ago involved another humanitarian aid being sued for illegally transporting an immigrant in critical condition to the local hospital.  Until comprehensive immigration reform is passed (an act which Obama has now hinted might be delayed until next year), these acts of compassion for will be criminalized and more and more border-crossers will die as they turn to more desperate measures.  The ever-lengthening serpentine border wall grows by the month, only serving to channel immigrants to the Scylla and Charybdis of human traffickers or Arizona’s arid desert.

          There is more than a little irony in the fact that Walt Staton was sentenced with community service for his past service to the human community. Until comprehensive immigration reform is seriously discussed, littering will continue to trump human lives.

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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]

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.

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.

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.


Grijalva’s Visit to the Proposed Border Wall Site

August 21, 2008

Nat Stone recently published a short documentary detailing Representative Grijalva’s visit to Eloisa Tamez, one of the many private landowners in the line of the proposed border wall.  While Grijalva’s visit is meaningful and important, it is sad that it should be unique and noteworthy.  The majority of those who voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006 which called for a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico and then for the REAL ID Act which undoes our nation’s checks and balances by allowing the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security the authority to waive any and all laws obstructing immediate construction of a border wall – sadly, few of those lawmakers ever made the trip to the border region to see the impact it would have on these communities and, since we are all “tied up in an inescapable network of mutuality,” our entire nation. 

Please research this pressing issue.  Please contact those in the position to immediately change this sad comment on our nation.

The Border Wall Film

August 19, 2008

Although this borderlands documentary was initially slated to be aired by Bill Moyers of PBS, Wayne Ewing’s documentary “The Border Wall” will now be screened at the Starz Denver Film Festival this November.  Please visit the site, watch the trailer, and support like projects which serve to dispel myths about the borderlands, a border wall, and our neighbors to the South.

United States and Spain Square off on Amnesty

June 12, 2008

Visiting Spain with Rotary International, I was struck by the diametrically different way this country was constructed. In the United States, the basic premise is that if corporations and businesses succeed, then people will likewise be successful. As a result, corporations and big businesses get tax breaks with the idea that it will then trickle down to the general populace. Spain’s laws, however, are organized with a dipolar paradigm, that if people are satisfied then businesses will do well.

I traveled Spain with minimum insurance, knowing full well that if I were sick I would be treated for free because of their socialized health-care system. When asked about their country’s healthcare system and the resulting 50% taxes, every single Spaniard I met voiced the fact that this was the only fair way to do healthcare. Rich businessmen and down-and-out vagrants all said that it was only right to make sure everybody got their basic needs met, irregardless of their income.

Spanish legislation has taken this one step further by providing basic human rights and opportunities to all immigrants, whatever their legal status. Deportation doesn’t exist in Spain; instead, the emphasis is on integration. No country in the world has run more legalization programs than this European Union nation. Just a decade ago, a mere 2% of Spaniards were immigrants. That number has risen to nearly 10%. (New York Times, June 10, 2008)

The marvel is that Spain not only attracts immigrants but also provides for them and their family’s assimilation. Immigrants are provided free health insurance, and in the six legalization programs since 1985, all working immigrants were eligible to become legalized citizens. And the education system has been revamped to integrate these new immigrant families into Spanish society, even though two of the top five sending countries – Romania and Morocco – do not speak Castellano Spanish. ((New York Times, June 10, 2008)

Perhaps even more telling is the government’s rationale for these legalization programs. In the United States, Reagan was decried for his Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 because it provided amnesty to millions of extralegal working citizens. Syndicates and the general populace criticized Reagan by stating that amnesty only encourages more illegal immigration, although this has less to do with amnesty programs and more to do with overly restrictive quotas and demoralizing lottery systems. Spain’s reasons for their six legalization programs were, in part, to ensure that lawbreaking employers were not given a competitive edge. However, the major reason espoused by all government officials is social rather than economic. Jesús Caldera, who was labor minister during one of these legalization programs, stated in the New York Times yesterday that, “If you practice exclusion, you risk the future of your country. You risk terrorism, violence.”

From here in rural Minnesota, there is little I can do to actively oppose the border wall in la frontera, a border wall initially proposed to stop illegal immigration. But I can work to change public opinion, the prevailing nativist rhetoric, and ultimately the antiquated and criminalizing laws which produce illegal immigrants rather than facilitate legal migration. We all can.

Leaving Borders

June 9, 2008

In Irun, the small town on the Spanish border with Spain, there has long been a border culture. During their revolutions and civil wars, residents of both countries traversed the imaginary line separating these two lands. A complex culture of smuggling developed, as in most border towns. People, goods, drugs- the rules of supply and demand are never bound by borders, however much governments might like to believe. While in Irun, I was told a story of a man who crossed and recrossed the border every day on his bicycle. The border patrol agents checked and rechecked this man, suspecting that he was transporting some contraband. Never once in the twenty years did they realize he was riding to France on an old bike and returning with a brand new model.

These sort of trickster stories, and the border culture they exhibit, have been made irrelevant by the erasure of borders in the European Union. America’s border with Mexico, though, must be creating hundreds of thousands of tricksters with the increasing militarization of la frontera and the constantly impending border wall now scheduled in Hidalgo County for July.

Driving out of the Rio Grande Valley on either 77 or 83, the only two evacuation routes, one encounters a military checkpoint complete with automatic weapons, drug-sniffing dogs, patrol cars, and heaps of bureaucracy. As I wait in line, my car packed to the hilt with all my earthly possessions, I contemplate that this is one of the many signs that the Rio Grande Valley is considered outside the mainlaind United States. Brownsville, the poorest city in the United States, is left below this second border in a no-man’s land, left to fend for itself. In fact, the talk of the town last week was that the United States Border Patrol was going to be checking the residency status of individuals during hurricane evacuations (Brownsville Herald) . That its citizenry must be questioned and searched before entering the rest of the continental U.S. is a stunning assumption of criminality. When it is my turn with the Border Patrol agents, I am waved along because of my white skin and American accent.

Tacitus once wrote in his Annals, “Once we suffered from our vices; today we suffer from our laws.” Indeed, unjust laws create criminals out of upstanding individuals, and in no area of legislation is this more true than immigration. Extralegal immigrants, many of whom came to the United States legally, are punished by our current law primarily for doing precisely the actions for which we praise our citizenry. The motivation of the majority of immigrants is religious freedom, economic opportunity, family safety, education, freedom of speech, liberty – how can an antiquated quota system cause some to be punished for acting on these principles and others to be praised?

As I drive north, farther and farther away from the Rio Grande Valley I’ve called home for the past two years, I pass the fertile hills of Kansas and the wide expanses of open grazing in Oklahoma and the lush fields of Iowa. I look at these natural wonders and think of how blessed I am to live in this land, and how attractive this must be to people receiving less than 8x the income we enjoy in our prosperous nation. I look at this massive farmland and know that extralegal immigrants know this land far better than I will ever understand; without them, many of these fields would lie fallow, so many of our meals would remain uncooked, so many houses would never be built, so many ideas never imparted, so many languages never added to the multiplicity of cultures here in the United States. Driving through the natural beauty along Highway 35, it is easy to see that natural law and constructed law clash when it comes to the issue of immigration in these United States. If we will only take a good look at our country and realize just how blessed we are, we would be more understanding of people desirous of migrating here. If we would only appreciate the perspectives and culture and language and talents that immigrants always bring, we would see extralegal and legal immigrants as the assets they are. If Spanish were not viewed as a language subservient to English, then perhaps we could learn from the Spanish immigration system as well as from Mexican and Latin-American immigrants themselves. As I leave the border region where the “rights” and “wrongs” of immigration laws are as muddy as the Rio Bravo and as I head north to study immigration law at the University of Minnesota this coming fall, I realize that I will never leave the border because the border is not a place on a map but a place in people’s hearts. In telling stories about the good people of la frontera and in studying the laws of immigration, I hope to turn the borders of American hearts into E.U. borders instead of the walled border in California and Arizona.