Learning from the Borderlands

This past week I had the privilege of traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border as part of a border delegation through the Young Adult Volunteer program of the Presbyterian Church USA. Though I had lived on the border for a year and know this particular area quite well, I did not know exactly how this trip would turn out.

I would be coming at it from a new lens, as someone who now works against immigrant detention, deportation and the mass incarceration of individuals. I saw many things during the trip, and was able to make more connections between our U.S. immigration policies and the impact it has on mass incarceration, immigrant detention and deportation. While in Mexico and continuing into Tucson, I was able to see different views and perspectives on our immigration policies and the affects it has on our country. Some of these perspectives made sense to me; while others went completely against many of the things I have learned and seen since living on the border and working at Grassroots Leadership.

While in Mexico we visited the Centro de Atención por Migrantes en Exodus (CAME), a shelter that gives aid to migrants who have been recently deported from the U.S. and to those who are looking to cross into the U.S. While in the past CAME has been filled to bursting with people who have been deported from the U.S., these days it has very few people staying there. This is partly due to agreements between the Tucson Sector of the Border Patrol and the Mexican state of Sonora’s immigration sector to send people only to the cities of Nogales and San Luis Colorado.

This causes many issues because people are often sent to places they are unfamiliar with, and has also caused the populations of those two towns to skyrocket. This has put many migrants, who are already vulnerable, into a greater likelihood of falling into the hands of criminal organizations or being taken advantage of by people in those towns. It is just another way as to how U.S. policy does not think of the impacts these decisions have, and the dangers it can create. It has also given CAME new purpose, as the majority of their residents are now Central Americans who are in the process of receiving humanitarian visas for being victims of crimes of either a government official or criminal organization while being in Mexico. Instead of detaining these individuals, Mexico allows them to stay at a shelter, look for work, and be part of a community while their visa is processed.

We also had the opportunity to meet with a Border Patrol agent while on the border. This was a chance to hear their perspective on the border, and ask questions about their policy, work, and views on the border. These are always the most challenging moments for me due to having opposing views to Border Patrol and knowing that oftentimes the party line they share with us is oftentimes not the full story. This agent was kind to us, but definitely stuck to the party line and would not give us too much information.

As many of you may know, huge numbers of Haitians are at the U.S.-Mexico border asking for asylum following the devastation of cholera, and natural disasters such as Hurricane Matthew. However, this agent told us that they had not seen any Haitians at the border. When I pressed him to see whether other stations had witnessed these numbers, he told us that not much information was shared between the different stations of the Border Patrol. He also said, when asked about the wall between our two countries and it’s effectiveness, that regardless of the height of the wall, people would find ways over or around the wall no matter what it’s height was. While I appreciated this honesty from him, it made me wonder why agents did not inform superiors of their opinions or press for different strategies that did not put the lives of many people in danger.

After our time at the border, we headed up to Tucson Arizona. While there we were taken to observe “Operation Streamline,” a federal program that quickly sentences 50 to 70 individuals at a time who have crossed the border without documentation. It’s a more than 10 year-old program whose history is documented in Indefensible, a book released by Grassroots Leadership and Justice Strategies earlier this year.

During our time observing at the court, we saw about 60 men and women sentenced to between 30 and 180 days in prison for crossing the border without using a valid point of entry. While our friendly Border Patrol agent had told us that most people they detain are back in their country of origin within a few days, Operation Streamline showed us otherwise. Here we saw a farce of the vaunted American justice system, with each person getting at most 30 minutes with a lawyer who had to explain what they had done, what the consequences were, and what their fate would be. It was also where we saw the entry point into the giant, for-profit shadow prison system for immigrants that allows massive corporations to profit off of the jailing of poor, vulnerable communities. These federal segregated prisons for immigrants, all of which are for-profit, were in the news this summer when the Department of Justice announced they would phase out the use of private prisons in the Bureau of Prisons. It’s unknown what will happen to that decision in the incoming Trump administration.

We also had the chance to speak with the judge who presided over Operation Streamline that day and ask him questions. Looking exhausted, he answered each of our questions, and pushed us to think about why these practices were in place. Though I appreciated him taking time out to speak to us, he was quick to express how it was voters like us who put this system into place, and how it was only here because it was popular. When we told him that many of us had been too young to vote those particular politicians into office who approved of these strategies, he told us that it was up to us to change them and vote to make a change. We told him that we would, but that it was challenging to fight against the millions of dollars that corporations like CCA, now CoreCivic, and GEO Group, which are both private prison companies, use to lobby for stronger immigration control and punishments so that they are able to continue making a profit off of innocent people.

There were many other things that happened during our border delegation trip that I could speak about. There are things that are both positive and negative, and many more things that I learned. The most important thing that stuck out to me, however, was the resilience of the people who live and work in the Borderlands, and the way they continue to fight for change and hope. They often have militarized police, discriminatory immigration laws, and multi-million dollar corporations against them, but they continue to stand strong against the systems that are trying to oppress vulnerable migrant communities while also making a profit off of them. Seeing this resilience gave me hope for a better future, but also motivation to continue my own work both at Grassroots Leadership and in my personal life.

Being able to once again witness the injustice, the pain, the incarceration, and the brokenness off our system pushed me to fight alongside these communities, to support them in anyway I can, in hopes of changing our system and creating a world where we do not rely on walls and cages to keep people away, but instead welcome them as the humans that they are.