Reflections on the Tucson Border Trip
By Molly Brostrom
This past August, I joined the Epworth Tucson trip as a way to see and feel the border crisis. It’s too easy to be desensitized to the crises constantly splayed across the front pages of newspapers and I hoped that faces and stories would make me less numb to the human tragedy happening around us. Here’s a little bit of what I saw and felt.
At the respite center for families who have been released by Border Patrol (families who have a forwarding address where they can wait for asylum hearings), I saw children arrive scared or cautious, sitting quietly on cots while their parents filled out paperwork. But once shown the play area with toys and balls, smiles emerged and bodies relaxed, and they played heartily - I felt grateful for children’s resiliency. I saw a mother fall soundly asleep on a couch under bright lights, with children playing around her - I could only imagine her exhaustion and relief. I wonder where these families are now and what will happen to them.
In the desert, we joined volunteers for Humane Borders who spend hours each week inspecting and refilling 50 water stations that have been placed in areas of the desert where the most migrant bodies have been found. I felt the brutal heat of the desert, the thick thorny vegetation, the two-inch thorn that drove through my sneaker into my foot - and thought about the desperation that would lead one to try and cross this dangerous landscape on foot.
There was also beauty in the desert: cacti blooming; bright green wild grasses (it was monsoon season - who knew they have monsoons in Tucson?); and the brilliantly blue water tanks adorned with stickers of the Virgin of Guadalupe (to try and counter the rumors of tainted water spread by Coyotes who want to control the illegal migration).
I also witnessed the generosity and compassion of the Humane Border volunteers who painstakingly care for the water tanks each week. And I learned how they have begun delivering the water that remains in their truck’s huge cistern at the end of the inspection day (hundreds of gallons) to the Mexican police station just on the other side of the border, in a town without water and limited resources (apparently despite the Cartel’s control of the town). The Mexican police station has a unit that tries to keep migrants from harm on their side of the border; Humane Borders supports them with the water and sometimes other resources. It was such a smart, logical, cooperative solution...and gave me hope in the power of individuals to transcend the political noise and acrimony.
One day, we visited the U.S. District Court in Tucson where people who were caught illegally crossing the border are processed in groups of up to 70 as part of Operation Streamline. (“Since 2005, instead of routing non-violent individuals caught crossing the border into civil deportation proceedings, Operation Streamline forces undocumented migrants through the federal criminal justice system and into U.S. prisons. In the Tucson Operation Streamline proceedings, migrants are offered a plea agreement by which the court drops the felony re-entry charge in exchange for the entrant agreeing to serve a prison term for the misdemeanor charge of illegal entry. Migrants are usually encouraged by their lawyers to simply plead guilty and accept the plea agreement in order to remain incarcerated for the shortest amount of time as possible. Almost all agree to this, and thus receive prison sentences of one to six months. However, this leaves them with a criminal record and a bar to future legal immigration.” https://derechoshumanosaz.net/coalition-work/end-streamline-coalition/).
I felt shock and horror seeing the young people, mostly men, shuffling in and out of the courtroom in three-point shackles. And frustration at the insanity of our immigration policies. Really America? This is our answer to the migration crisis? Shuffling people in and out of our prison system...Operation Streamline is ineffective as a deterrent, and costs about $100 million in Tucson alone. It does, however, benefit the private prison industry.
And yet what also sticks with me from the courtroom is the gentle and respectful voice of the judge who patiently made sure that each migrant understood the process; and the kind gestures of each migrant’s public defender; and the volunteers who attend each hearing to bear witness and support to the migrants.
The Tucson trip left me with sadness for the masses of our fellow human beings trying desperately to come to our country, and almost all being turned away. And frustration at our country’s policies and our inability to change them (except to focus on the 2020 election). It was interesting to hear activists in Tucson note that arrests are pointless with this Administration that has no conscience.
But I also left heartened by the large community of kind and committed people who see each migrant as a precious human being and do what they can. It fed my hope in the power of human kindness and connection.