Posts Tagged ‘Lebanon’

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.

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The Remaking of America, Saturday by Saturday

October 4, 2008

The glaring sun almost makes a Minnesota October afternoon seem warm.  It is one of the last Saturdays when the swings will be alive with children, one of the last weekends when the community barbeque pits never entirely cool, one of the last weekends men can drink beer straddling a cooler and talking college football.  We are a bunch of strangers picnicking.

It is the first annual Iraqi refugee picnic here in Rochester.  There are 4 million Iraqis displaced, half within their ravaged nation and the other half wandering about the world.  The United States has agreed to receive 6,000.

Twenty are gathered here at Soldier’s Field Veteran Memorial Park.  One came after Desert Storm and is proud of her long-standing status in America. The others came two months ago, two weeks ago.  They are trying to understand why everyone here is in their house by 9:00, so unlike Amman, so unlike home.  They are trying to get used to hamburgers and tikka, kosher pickles and their pickled artichokes, ketchup and kebabs, chocolate cake and hummus.  They are also getting used to each other.

In Rochester, Minnesota, the women wearing designer hijabs are laughing as they help make a chicken dinner with Iraqi Christians and American Catholics. Back in Iraq, the women wearing the trendy hijabs wouldn’t associate with the girls wearing all black garb, and would certainly not associate with anyone who followed the Jew named Jesus.  Here, as they struggle to learn English and acquire their first American jobs, they are all banded together as so many immigrants before.

One is a professional upholsterer hoping to get a job as a concierge.  Another was the first-place winner of the national Lebanon competition for mosaic washbowls who can’t speak English and is eager to do anything to make that first American dollar.  Some have lived for the past few years in Jordan, waiting for their opportunity to come to the U.S., others just left a country changed beyond recognition.  All are amazed at the rural America so unlike the movies. Each of them is intrigued by the fact that American high-school teachers seem to care, that classes are easier but more fun here, that the buses are new and the lawns are bigger.  This is America, immigrants coming to it thinking they’ve discovered something new and little realizing that they are making it new every day.