Migrant Trail Walk #2

Sunday, May 24, 2009

It is 85 degrees at 10:30 AM when I land at the Tucson airport. I take the city bus (with a transfer) to Southside Presbyterian Church, our place of orientation. The countryside is stark and barren as our plane approached Tucson from the north and east. I don’t expect much different from the south and the west, the area where we’ll walk. I’ve started reading Dan Berrigan’s Exodus: Let My People Go on the flight down. Moses and his people spent some time in the wilderness, too so it might serve as a helpful companion on this journey.

My first sight of Southside Presbyterian Church is the group of homeless folk who partially obscure the sign. Without the sign, one might not suspect the building behind it serves as a church. When I arrive at the back door just before noon, I am told that they are showing a documentary about immigrant issues in the church library. It is a movie about organizing sweatshop workers in the clothing industry in LA. After the movie, I have 5 hours before orientation so I ask where I can get something to eat nearby. I’m told a good Mexican restaurant is “about 5 blocks away”; in reality it is closer to 10 blocks and the noonday sun is intense. After walking to and from the restaurant, I discover the church is locked so I try to find a spot in the shade and sit on an empty milk crate for a little more than an hour before the students from the Newman Center of U of AZ arrive to prepare our supper.

What a relief to sit in a metal folding chair in the moderately air conditioned Fellowship Hall. When one of the Walk organizers arrives, I’m told I can sleep in the library tonight. There I discover a recliner/rocker in the corner and I camp out there. After reading and napping, it is suppertime and many of the fellow walkers have arrived.

After a supper of beans, rice, enchiladas, salad and fruit, we are directed next door to the “Kiva”, the worship space/sanctuary – a rustic but esthetically beautiful building with an impressive open beam ceiling. The benches (in place of pews) are attractive but hard and no one knows how to turn on the air conditioning. At orientation we are introduced to the sponsoring groups and some of their members. They include Mennonite Central Committee, Pax Christi, American Friends Service Committee, Border Links, No More Deaths, and a Franciscan Peace and Justice group. The main sponsor, Derechos Hermanos (a Human Rights Coalition) shows a brief PowerPoint about the militarization of the US/Mexico border. Kat Rodriguez says it is best described as “when the military acts like police and the police act like the military”. She goes on to describe the “Southern Boarder strategy” where the plan is to shut down all urban crossing points (through the construction of walls and fences) which channel migrants attempting to cross the border (without documents) into remote and physically challenging desert areas. The official sanctioning of “death in the desert” is seen by proponents as one of the “deterrents” promoted by this policy – hoping it will discourage others from undergoing the risky crossing.

Kat shows us a photo she took a couple of years ago of pallet upon pallet of metal sections of military runway which was left over from the Vietnam War. So much of this metal has been used to create this border wall that it is reported that after all the Vietnam era runway was used, some of the wall now being built is from the detritus of the Gulf War. Talk about militarizing the border! We are told some of the same corporations who are building this wall are also some of the same corporate contractors doing the separation barrier installation between Israel and the Occupied West Bank of Palestine.

The Border Patrol has become a law unto itself. Unlike local or state law enforcement, there isn’t an accountability structure in place for them. When Border Patrol officers are accused of inappropriate deadly force, sexual harassment and racial profiling, there is little recourse – and those committing such human rights violations are often just transferred to another section.

Under the Real ID Act, passed in the fearful years following 9-11, the new Secretary of Homeland Affairs is authorized to waive any laws he/she feels necessary to “protect our borders”. Michael Chertoff, Bush’s Secretary of Homeland Security, waived Clean Air, EPA, and other environmental laws (32 in all) ostensibly to “protect us” from our neighbor and #2 trading partner, Mexico.

We were educated about present practices that undocumented immigrants face here in the US. Many who are caught and detained presently agree to “VR”, voluntary return, which serves like a “catch and release” program where one is returned to Mexico (even if they might be from another Latin American country) without draconian legal penalties. We are told the numbers are so great and the legal system so overburdened, between 1,000 and 1,500 persons are “voluntary returnees” every day in Tucson alone.

Because of the border walls and the funneling of undocumented people into the remote areas, it’s estimated that 52% of those crossing now come through the desert and wilderness areas of Arizona. Local hospitals have become overwhelmed and are not reimbursed by the federal government who has created the crisis.

The latest plan designed to try to squelch this “illegal migration” is called Operation Streamline”. It is a pernicious and draconian attempt to harshly criminalize any undocumented person crossing by permanently labeling anyone caught and processed under this provision as being forever banned from entering the US under any circumstances. It doesn’t matter if your children (or spouse) are US citizens. Under this process one will be refused any legal visas or other legal papers anytime in the future. Many of these proceeding are occurring en masse where 50-70 undocumented people are processed at one time and then permanently deported. Of course, when people are desperate, they will still attempt to return but must always live in the shadows. As one man told a Derechos Humanos worker, “If I could get a job and feed my family in Mexico, I would never risk this [life-threatening] crossing.”

We talked about the logistics and expectations for the Walk. We are told to select a “pee buddy” to make sure no one is left behind “when nature calls” but also to monitor that one’s partner is drinking enough to pee regularly –because if you aren’t peeing, you aren’t hydrated enough.

The air mattress I borrowed from my neighbor wasn’t terribly helpful for sleep on Sunday night at the church. After two hours of tossing and turning, I get up and sleep in the reclining chair until 5AM when one of the church volunteers burst in to inform us that he is our wake-up call. We were aware that the church hosts a breakfast for the homeless at 7:30 AM and set up begins about 6 but this guy thought he’d start our day off on his schedule!

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