Eighteen billion dollars. That’s how much the U.S. invests every year toward customs and border protection. It’s an intimidating number, and while recognizing the work these programs do in protecting our country from foreign threats, it’s also an industry responsible for the separation of thousands of families and countless lives lost simply because they wanted a better life for themselves and their loved ones. On Wednesday, we took a break from listening to the stories of undocumented immigrants to visit those living out our call to welcome the stranger and fight for the least of us.
We began our day at Annunciation House, an organization that began in 1976 when a group of young adults reading Scripture together were inspired to find a way to live out the Gospel message as they understood it. Over 40 years later, tens of thousands of refugees have walked through their doors for food, clothing, shelter, and other assistance, living alongside volunteers in a building completely sustained by donations. Based on their situation, ranging from individuals
who were just released from ICE custody to those who must spend a few months in the U.S. every year to collect their Social Security benefits, refugees live in Annunciation House or its two partner houses, Casa Vides and the Nazareth House, for days or months at a time.
We then visited Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services (DMRS) to learn about the legal complexities within the American immigration process. Ninety percent of the services DMRS provide are free, primarily limiting any expenses to paperwork processing fees. Immigration court is unique in that the US government is not required to provide the defendant with a lawyer if they are unable to afford one. As a result, solidarity with undocumented immigrants is critical, as individuals have a 75% higher chance of winning asylum in the U.S. when they have legal representation present. At the end of the presentation, the lawyer challenged us to check where our representatives across all levels of government stand on these issues, especially as the current administration continues to discuss plans for immigration reform.
Later that evening, we met with a missionary doctor who works in Juarez. Pastora Rose Mary had described her earlier in the week as a “modern day Mother Teresa,” and, just from the small talk I had made with her in the minutes before she gave her presentation, I could already tell how perfectly fitting the description was. Her gentle but strong presence filled the room as she talked about her work in what she calls “social medicine,” or medical care with an emphasis on serving the most marginalized. I was blown away by her dedication to fighting for her patients, going as far as searching for doctors in the U.S. after her patients were turned away by those in Juarez. She empowers her own community to take charge of their own health, from providing education, to organizing local races to encourage people to exercise, to informing her patients about their legal rights to seek emergency medical care. After her patients ask about how to repay her, all she asks is for them to pass on the kindness, and called on us to do the same, remembering the marginalized regardless what line of work we pursue.
We concluded our day with a bilingual Lenten service with the Cristo Rey community. Pastora’s sermon could not be timelier, reminding us how Jesus understands the poor, as poverty was his life from his birth in a manger to his crucifixion. She read James 2, emphasizing how from our faith comes action, to fight for love and justice for the marginalized. Additionally, she asked us to remember to extend the same kindness and forgiveness that we try to give our neighbors to ourselves as well. Wednesday also marked the twentieth anniversary of Pastora’s ordination. After we sang her a beautiful rendition of “Feliz Ordination,” she reflected on her journey with Cristo Rey, the work already done and left to do, not just within the walls of her church, but with the community at large, across any and all borders that try to divide us.
It has been a difficult week, emotionally and physically. It is easy to be left feeling powerless against an eighteen billion dollar industry, realizing how we’ve only heard a handful of heartbreaking stories of the pain the system has inflicted and acknowledging that there are millions of narratives like it. While there is still a monumental amount of work left to do to bring upon drastic reforms within the system at large, it is a privilege to meet these incredible people fighting to bring upon change in their own small ways. May we likewise find the courage to reflect upon our own lives and our roles in these systems, the strength to hold these stories close, and the wisdom to draw on them to as we figure out where to go from here.
“Oh God, to those who hunger, give bread. And to those who have bread, give the hunger for justice.” ~ Latin American prayer
It sounds like music when you first walk in, like windchimes. Then you see the chains wrapped around the people in jumpsuits. The headphones around their necks -- meant to help them understand what is going on, in their native language -- remind you of muzzles, or choke collars. It’s overwhelming. I knew that court would hurt, but I didn’t expect to be affected this much.
As part of our immersion trip, we got the opportunity on Tuesday to see what district court is like. To be honest, I was excited: I had never been to court before, and I wanted to see that side of the immigration process. We had to be up grossly early because it was about a 40 minute drive to Las Cruces and court was at 8:30. So the morning started out pretty normally: not wanting to wake up, rushing to get dressed and eat breakfast, and then piling into the van to head to Las Cruces.
It was actually a very peaceful drive with the sun rising over the mountains and everyone off in their own, silent little world. We were even making jokes throughout our wait for court to start and as we walked up to the courtroom doors. But walking in took our laughter away immediately. All you saw was row after row of handcuffed inmates; there were four completely full rows in total. As we walked in and were sitting on the back bench, I saw some of them turn back towards us, as if to say “Oh great, more people get to see me in handcuffs.” I can only imagine how uncomfortable they must have been.
I kept a count of the cases we saw, in the order that we saw them, and I made note (as much as I could, but I definitely missed some) of when someone was born in the 1990s:
1 meth charge
6 entering the US without inspection
6 entering without inspection
6 entering without inspection
5 entering without inspection
7 criminal reentry after removal (a felony)
7 criminal reentry after removal
2 violations of supervised release
1 “alien” transportation charge
1 meth charge
1 meth charge
7 for tolling of grand jury presentment
3 for tolling of grand jury presentment
10 for entering without inspection (pled guilty)
1 meth charge
25 reentry after removal (pled guilty)
1 drug trafficking charge (meth mixture) (pled guilty)
1 child exploitation charge
1 entering without inspection
3 born in 1990
4 born in 1991
3 born in 1992
2 born in 1993
2 born in 1994
2 born in 1995
3 born in 1996
1 born in 1997
5 born in 1998
1 born in 1999
It’s troubling, because I want to keep a record of what I saw but information beyond birth year and crime could endanger and expose the people that we saw. Even keeping count of what happened is dehumanizing to those that we saw. They aren’t individual names or faces or even people anymore: they’re a number, a statistic. But it was also important to me to keep this record.
From my count though, about 79% of the cases that we saw were immigration based. Only the people charged with an immigration offense were called up in groups, usually of 6. To most every question you heard a chorus of “Si, senor” or “No, senor,” one by one, over and over and over. There was even a group of 3 siblings, all being processed for entering without inspection (entering between official border crossing & inspection points). It was mentioned though that the two dockets of cases that we saw were unusually full, which is both reassuring and infuriating. They don’t get to be seen as individual people this way; when they stated their names and dates of birth, we quickly forgot them. They were just “the group of border-crossers.”
Funnily enough (if you can even describe it as such), really the only violent crime that we heard about today was the child exploitation case, committed by a United States citizen. And while we had barely any information on the people being processed for immigration crimes (besides criminal history), we all knew the things that made the exploitation inmate an “upstanding citizen.” And as Shelly pointed out, the chains of the inmate in that case were noticeably looser than those of the other inmates.
Afterwards, we were able to talk to the judge that had been presiding. One of the facts that troubled me greatly while we were talking to him was when he was explaining about people who are deported to their home country. When it’s somewhere other than Mexico, the people being deported have to wait in the detention centers until enough people are gathered that will be deported to that same country. Enough to fill a 727, I believe the judge said.
It makes my blood boil: not only are these people being criminalized and treated like trash for trying to come here -- likely for a better life or better opportunities -- they’re stuck in limbo for weeks or even months in detention centers because the government wants to save on time and effort. They’re not wanted and yet forced to remain -- in jail essentially -- knowing all the while that they will soon be forced back into the difficulties they were trying to escape. But hey, at least justice was served...