Climate Change Update

A lot has happened this past month on climate change. The Kerry-Boxer Bill (Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act of 2009) was voted out of the Environment and Public Works committee. Senators Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman started a tri-partisan “dual track” of negotiations on a climate bill, working with the White House to craft legislation that would be likely to get the necessary 60 votes. President Obama agreed to attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, which many of us and our allies have been and announced that he will negotiate to reduce US global warming emissions “in the range of 17%” by 2020. We need stronger climate action to really protect our planet and prevent further climate catastrophes from happening.

With the start of the United Nations Climate Change Conference next Monday, December 7th, we’ll all have to keep tuned to the direction the climate talks go. A number of UUs will be in Copenhagen and may contribute to this blog while they are there. In other news, information on the Dial Down Climate Change campaign should be on the Climate Change pages of the UUA website soon and the Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth website has information about other ways of getting involved.

UUs Support CIW for Justice in the Tomato Fields

by Rev. Allison Farnum of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Ft. Myers, FL

Unitarian Universalist congregations all along in Florida have been picketing with the CIW at Publix Supermarkets, delivering letters to the Publix managers that ask for Publix to come to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ table to talk about the tomatoes they buy. Documented cases of slavery have occurred in the fields of two large Florida tomato growers, 6Ls and Pacific. Publix continues to buy from both growers. Publix cites a policy that states they do not get involved in labor issues between those from whom they purchase and their employees. Since when is slavery a labor dispute?

Folks in our southwest Florida cluster congregations share that, when speaking with Publix employees, the managers themselves are disappointed that the corporate level will not cooperate. Even Publix employees on the front lines expect better of this corporation (the 4th largest privately-owned company in the United States, recently reported in Forbes Magazine) that claims it cares about its local community. As far as I can tell, Publix officials turning their backs on slavery in Florida tomato fields is far from caring.

Money talks. As Publix buys from growers that condone slavery in their fields, this giant supermarket chain is participating in a harvest of shame. This Sunday people of faith from Florida, Unitarian Universalists and all kinds, will gather in Lakeland, FL, home of the corporate headquarters, to send prayers of courage and caring to Publix. We will make our presence known as allies and supporters of the tomato pickers and stand on the side of love.

World AIDS Day 2009

This year for World AIDS Day, our friends at Advocates for Youth, the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and SIECUS have organized a petition campaign and blog-a-thon on the Amplify website.

From now through December 6th, you can sign the online petition asking President Obama to create an Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief that provide the best and most comprehensive services and information to young people worldwide. Our country’s HIV/AIDS policy must respect the inherent worth and dignity of those who receive our support by giving them the resources they need to lead whole and healthy lives.

Sign the petition, and check out the blog-a-thon today!

There are many ways that you can commemorate World AIDS Day, including learning more about HIV/AIDS issues in your area and around the world. Unitarian Universalists across the United States and Canada are powerful advocates and educators with the UU Global AIDS Coalition. Here in Washington, D.C. there will be a march and rally tomorrow, Tuesday, Dec. 1 at 12:00pm, starting at the White House and ending at 2:00pm at the Wilson Building. RSVP and find more details on Facebook. There will also be a vigil at Dupont Circle at 5:30 pm.

Find out what’s happening in your own community for World AIDS Day here.

STOP STUPAK! National Day of Action

If you have heard about the Stupak Amendment, which would ban coverage of abortion services for millions of women under health care reform, you might be wondering what else you can do to keep such sweeping restrictions on reproductive health and abortion coverage out of a final health care reform bill. (To learn more, see my blog post from November 12th)
Here’s what you can do:
For those of you within easy traveling distance, please join Rev. Meg Riley, UUA Director of Advocacy and Witness, and I for the National Day of Action in Washington, D.C. on December 2nd. There will be lobby training and a briefing starting at 9:30 AM, a mid-day rally on Capitol Hill, and lobby visits throughout the afternoon. We are coordinating our actions with our friends and colleagues of many faiths from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), and if you would like to participate in a lobby visit or would like more information about the day’s activities, please contact Ellen Battistelli at RCRC (ebattistelli [at] rcrc [dot] org).
If you’re too far away to come to Washington, D.C, please sign the online petition. We will be delivering the signatures on December 2nd, so we need as many as possible!
December 3rd is National Senate Call-In Day. Call 202-224-3121 and ask for your Senator by name. Please take a few minutes to call both of your Senators. Here’s a sample call script:

“I’m calling as your constituent and a Unitarian Universalist religious person. I believe strongly that all people have the right to comprehensive, high quality health care and that women should be able to make reproductive health decisions based on their own values. Please oppose any amendments to health care reform legislation that would limit a woman’s right to purchase private or public health insurance offering comprehensive reproductive health care, including abortion care. Thank you.”

You can find more information and talking points in the RCRC toolkit or at the Planned Parenthood Action Center. I hope to see you on Capitol Hill on December 2nd. Please call me with any questions 202-393-2255 x12 or email obusch@uua.org.

Border Trip: Wednesday, Nov 11th

Part 6 of a series of posts devoted to a trip to the U.S./Mexico border. This post was finished on the 13th.  Photos can be found here.

Wednesday, November 11th. I rise early wanting to catch the view of Nogales from our hilltop. Casa de la Misericorida (House of Mercy) is actually a group of buildings sitting atop one of the many hills dotting Nogales. It is a community center offering a variety of services to residents, among the most important of which is the Children’s Food Security program. Assessing the needs of the community, they realized that in many families, the lunch served at the Casa is the only real meal the child will get that day. Next to the playground is a garden where fresh vegetables are grown. A row of composting toilets provides fertilizer for the garden. (I was fine with the composting toilets but the showers that yielded only a trickle of lukewarm water left much to be desired.)

After breakfast, is a session called the “Market basket survey.” The exercise is designed to show us how much buying power a Mexican worker at a maquiladora (border factory) has as compared to an American worker making minimum wage by showing how many hours a Mexican worker would have to work to pay for a dozen eggs (for example) versus how many hours a U.S. worker would have to work to afford the same. Here where our little group hit a bit of a snag. A couple members object to some of the items on the list. One member essentially says that if one is poor, one shouldn’t be buying corn flakes and coca cola. It is a statement laden with judgment, as if to suggest that the family is poor because it’s making poor buying decisions. As if to imply that we know better than the families do what they should and should not be buying. Reacting to the statements, other members of the group display frustration and the tension in the room is high for a few moments. But the situation does not last. Everyone in the room knows that everyone is here with the best of intentions. And regardless of what the particular items are on the list, the bottom line is that it takes much longer for a Mexican worker to afford the item than a U.S. worker. As is often the case, those who make less money actually pay more for basic essentials such as food. Not just a higher percentage of one’s income, but literally more money for the same or comparable items. (If you would like to try a version of the market-basket survey, this website has a great one: )

With the market basket survey behind us, we head over to the border wall again, this time Nogales style. A couple of activist artists – Guadalupe Serrano and Diego Taddei – are waiting to explain the murals that they have erected on the Mexican side of the wall. It is illegal to do so on the U.S. side. Two huge photo-collages greet us as we exit the van, both of them are composed of many small photos that the artists have taken of Nogales residents and migrants. One is most obviously of bare feet (the artists’) walking in the desert. Next to their murals is artwork by a different artist who has since passed away. Guadalupe and Diego explain that the colorful images borrow from Aztec and Mayan symbolism and Mexican Catholic “milagros” (miracles). Done as a triptych, the first piece is of life in Nogales, with a mixture of American tourists and Nogales residents. Most notable is the image of someone carrying their dead loved one back from the Sonoran desert. The images also convey the back-n-forth commerce that happens on the border, with one character carrying back a washing-machine. The second piece is of the crossing of the desert and images of death are dominant. But there are also images of Mexican culture, being brought by migrants into the U.S. – music and religion… The third piece is of migrants who have made into the U.S., living in the shadows and in fear of INS. I get the sense that the artist was warning would-be migrants that “the American Dream” isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. The murals are vibrant and inspiring, and despite the pervasive presence of the wall, there is a sense of optimism.

While we are at the wall, trip-leader Tracy recognizes someone approaching us. He is a migrant who had been brutally attacked, needing serious surgery to reconstruct his shattered face. People back in Tucson had helped him obtain the surgery but then he disappeared. It turns out that he had been caught in an ICE raid of a local grocery store and deported. So now he is in Nogales, still with screws in his jaw that need to be removed, but no way to get back to Tucson to finish the procedure.

The next stop is Grupus Beta, an organization run by the Mexican government to provide aid to migrants – both those who have been unsuccessful in crossing into the U.S. and those who are about to attempt to cross. We talk with Mario Garcia, who says that the Mexican government neither encourages nor tries to prevent people from crossing, but it does try to inform people of the real risks. Often times, migrants arrive at Nogales completely unprepared for the desert. They may have come from another region of Mexico or another country and have no experience with desert climates. A disturbing trend is that the number of migrant deaths on the Mexican side of the border has been increasing – people dying while walking in the desert (trying to get around the wall) before they ever reach the border. Mario points out that it isn’t just Mexicans who try to enter the U.S. from Mexico. He has seen people from Brazil, China, Poland, and even Somalia. Some come thinking that it’s a 30 minute walk to Tucson (it’s more like 3 days). Since Grupus Beta is a government-run organization, Mario’s perspective is a bit different than those of others we have spoken with. His attitude seems a little more detached from the suffering of the migrants, and a little more defensive of Mexican policies. (The Mexican government certainly shares blame with the U.S. in what has happened to its citizens.) At one point he asks us what we think of the wall. Before anyone can answer, he says that “people build walls around their property to keep themselves safe, no?” At first I’m not sure what to make of his statement. But then he makes his own feelings clear. Saying that if all Mexicans got up and left the U.S., the U.S. economy would fall apart, he asserts that it’s immigrants who built America. Looking at directly at me as he says this, it is clear that Mario isn’t just speaking about Mexican immigrants. He’s seen enough nationalities come through his office to know that migration is a global phenomenon. I think of Mom and Dad and what they went through to get to the U.S., and am grateful to Mario for recognizing our commonality.

After listening to the official (Mario), we get to spend some time speaking with migrants outside the office waiting for aid. I know that this is the main reason why we are here, to hear first-hand the experiences of the people most affected by the wall. Still, I am uncomfortable just walking up to someone and asking them to share their story. The awkwardness is made even worse by the fact that I don’t speak Spanish. So I stand there a moment, wondering whether I can’t just “take a break” and tune out for a bit, when I hear a conversation already in progress between Jeff and a man whom I’ll call Jose. At the point where I tune in Jose was telling Jeff how he had been mistreated by some Americans and Jeff was asking what he had experienced. Jose responded, “They call me Mexican shit, and they hurt me.” He shows us the numerous scars on his arms, presumably by knife cuts. He tells us that he had been in the Seattle area for years, where he was engaged to marry a Native American woman. However, lack of work had forced him to go looking in the Southwest. When he was picked up in an ICE raid of a convenience store, he had been buying supplies for himself and two others waiting for him in the desert. I imagined two people in the arid heat waiting for someone who would never return. How long do you wait before giving up? But leaving without supplies was not a good option either.

Lunch is at the Casa, a meal of rice and refried beans, a delicious tortilla soup, a shredded chicken dish, and these ubiquitous little snack cakes (kinda like “Little Debbie”). We were supposed to have eaten with the kids, but arriving at 1:30 pm, it’s too late for that.

After lunch, we pile back into the van to visit a maquiladora, or maquila for short. This particular one is named “Curtis” and manufactures electronic circuits. From the parking lot, I snap a photo of the tract housing on the hills opposite us, and note that tract housing in Mexico is just as ugly as tract housing in the U.S. What I did not know at the time was that the houses I was looking at belong to the maquilas, which they then rent to their workers (by automatically deducting the rent from their paychecks). Our guide at Curtis is Rosaria. She shows us the assembly floor and talks about production. At this point, however, it is so warm and my brain is so overwhelmed that I am not taking in very much. I’m just trying to stay focused and attentive enough so as not to be rude. What I get is that Curtis – an American company, originating in the Midwest – is a middle-sized maquila, both in terms of size and worker conditions. According to Rosaria,“Not the best and not the worst.” She talks about how workers at the maquilas are paid better than outside and how generally great the maquilas are. It’s not that I don’t believe her, but I know she’s there to represent the company. My attention waxes again, however, when she’s done with her spiel and starts talking about the wall. “When I was a girl,” she says, “we could walk back and forth across the border. My school was in the U.S. and if I forgot my pass the guard would say, ‘do you think you can get out of school so easily? Get to class!’” We all laugh, but there is sadness in the laughter.

In the late afternoon, we’re given our housing assignments for the night. We will be staying in groups of three with Mexican families who work in the maquilas, getting the opportunity to interact with them in a more sustained and casual environment. I am not vegetarian but seeing as I don’t eat beef or pork, I am assigned, along with Louise and Joan (a member of the Canadian Presbyterian contingent) to the “vegetarian” house. Carolina, our host, lives in a two bedroom dwelling with her husband Emmanuel (who works in a maquila), toddler son, father-in-law (Narciso), and a tiny chihuahua puppy named Muñeca (doll). Narciso has kindly given up his bedroom to us and will be sleeping on the livingroom couch tonight. I am wondering how much the family gets paid to host us and whether they rely on the money.

This Mexican home and surrounding neighborhood reminds me so much of Taiwan when I used to visit family as a child. The laundry hanging from balcony windows. Cooking fuel in a canister connected to a modern-looking stove. A hot-water heater that needs to be turned on before bathing. (Not that we bathed, having been warned beforehand what an expense that would be to our hosts.) A large color tv on a consul and Emmanuel Jr’s toys littering the unfinished, cement floor of the livingroom/diningroom/kitchen. The odd contrast between modern household items and “unfinished infrastructure” is exactly how I remember Taipei 30 years ago. (I do not know what Taipei looks like now but suspect that it’s quite different.)

This is Carolina’s first time hosting (her mother-in-law used to do it) and she seems a little nervous, uncertain. I’m sure it did not help that out of the three of us, only Louise speaks Spanish. What I do remember is that Emmanuel’s work in the maquila had something to do with vacuums, maybe. That Muñeca had cost $150 U.S. and was bought as a playmate for Emmanuel Jr. That Emmanuel Jr.’s cousin lives right next door and the two families often communicate through the two kitchen doors facing each other. And that the family was not “vegetarian” by choice, but rather because they could not afford meat. At some point, Louise and I realize that the refried beans that had been served with our enchiladas were cooked in lard. I take a few more bites, leaving what I hope to be an inconspicuous amount of wasted food. (The heat has made me decidedly unhungry anyway.) Louise, I notice, who is the real vegetarian of the two of us, finishes her plate. For future homestays, Borderlinks probably needs to explain to our host what “vegetarian” means by U.S. standards. Someone might get upset, or even sick. But it is hard to imagine explaining to someone who doesn’t eat meat because she can’t afford it that there are people who not only do not eat it by choice but also might object to even lard. To make the choice to abstain from meat (or any food for that matter) is the privilege of those who have more than enough to eat. And I wonder whether lard might not be cheaper than vegetable oil.

National Faith Call-In Day for Workplace Equality

On Thursday, November 19th, please join people of many faiths across the country in calling for an end to workplace discrimination. The House of Representatives could vote soon on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, also known as ENDA (H.R. 3017/S. 1584). ENDA would protect bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender workers from discrimination based solely on who they are or who they love.

Everyone has the right to work for a living without facing such discrimination. Call your Representative on Thursday, Nov. 19th by dialing 202-224-3121 and asking for them by name. If you don’t know your Represenative’s name, the Capitol Switchboard operators can look it up using your zip code. Here is a sample call script:

I am your constituent, and I am also a Unitarian Universalist. I am calling to ask the Senator/Representative to support and co-sponsor the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 3017). This bill would guarantee basic protections against workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. I support fair employment practices for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans because I respect the inherent worth and dignity of all persons. Thank You.

You can find more information about ENDA on UUA.org. Our multi-faith campaign also includes a sign on letter for clergy and religious leaders at http://goldenruleatwork.org. Check it out, and please take a few minutes on Thursday to call your Representative and raise your voice for workplace equality!

Border Trip: Tuesday, Nov. 10th

Part 5 of a series of posts devoted to a trip to the U.S./Mexico border. This was written on the 10th, but, due to lack of internet access while in Mexico, is being published now. Photos can be found here.

Tuesday, November 10th. We wake to the sound of roosters crowing. In the morning light, I suspect that the floors on which we slept belong to some kind of childrens center – colorful signs are hung here and there. Ricky is there at breakfast and explains that the building is a community center with multiple purposes, one of which is to teach kids catechism.

Our first visit of the morning is to Presbyterian minister Mark Adams, who works for Frontera de Cristo. I am getting a strong impression that the Presbyterians are all over this border/immigration issue. The Frontera de Cristo office is right next to the border crossing, so in the morning light, we get our first view of the wall. At this part of the border, it is a metal fence made from recycled landing strips from the Vietnam and First Gulf wars – a fitting reminder of how our border enforcement policy is essentially a war. Rev. Adams starts off by talking about how at the 100th anniversary of the Presbyterian Church in Latin America, the Latin Presbyterians kicked out the North American Presbyterians, basically saying don’t come back until you can work with us as partners, not tell us what to do like children. Frontera de Cristo and five other Presbyterian bi-national resource centers arose out of the process of building a true partnership. Like CAME and many other organizations, it provides resources to deported migrants – water, food, first aid, a phone call, and ride home. It also documents human rights abuses. In the last three years, they have served over 47,000 persons.

Rev. Adams then shared his own personal journey that got him there. Growing up in the American South, he resented having to learn Spanish in school. As far as he was concerned, if you’re in the U.S., you should be speaking English. All foreigners were suspect but he had a special antipathy for Mexicans. The road to his transformation started with religious reflection. Reading Galatians 3:28, “And there is neither Jew nor Greek…for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” Adams realized that he wasn’t being a very good Christian. Ironically, he now uses every day the Spanish that he resented learning as a child. When asked by someone in our group about the “coyotes,” Rev. Adams responded that it’s easy to pick a group and blame it all on them. “The coyotes not the problem. Border patrol is not the problem. I am the problem,” he said. That is, the policies of our government, which we are supposed to keep accountable, are causing this misery. Amen.

Our next visit is with Café Justo or Just Coffee. (What a great name!) Just Coffee was started by Daniel Cifuentes, with the help of Mark Adams. Realizing that the bulk of migration from his home state in Mexico, Chiapas, was due to people no longer being able to survive on farming, Mr. Cifuentes reasoned that if he could find a way for farmers to be able to support their families again, they would not need to leave their native land. Coffee “coyotes” had driven down the price of coffee from to. Just Coffee cuts out the middle-man and pays the coffee growers . What’s more, by paying farmers within the cooperative a fair price for their coffee, Just Coffee forces the coffee coyotes to offer higher prices too, thus improving lives of all coffee growers, whether they participate in Just Coffee cooperative or not. But even more than that, most of the price we consumers pay for coffee isn’t for the beans but for the roasting. So even when farmers are paid a fair price, as in “fair-trade” coffee, most of the profit still goes to the American company that is processing the beans. By roasting the beans themselves, Just Coffee retains that added value and at the same time creates jobs on the Mexican side of the border.

After making several u-turns along bumpy roads, we finally arrive at the DouglaPrieta cooperative – Jose meets us at the front door of a building with an inspiring mural – Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez, Gandhi, King, and Ceasar Chavez. The cooperative works on teaching carpentry, sewing, and computer skills. Recently, Jose has added permaculture – permanent culture based on sustainable agriculture – to its repertoire. They have purchased their own land just down the road from the current location (which they rent) and are making their own adobe bricks. Adobe (made of mud, straw, and cow manure) is naturally insulating, blocking outside heat in the summer and retaining inside warmth in the winter. Towards the back is a community garden. While there doesn’t appear to be anything growing now, they’ve built a small damn out of old tires to collect water from the wash and use for irrigation. As Jose explains it, there is no culture without agriculture, so sustainable agriculture must be the basis for everything they do. To be honest, through my American eyes what I saw was a weedy, muddy area next to a gully, but Jose could see a thriving small farm, providing fresh vegetables and greenery for the neighborhood, and I have no doubt that he and the rest of the cooperative will make that vision a reality.

Lunch was at DouglaPrieta. I guess you could say it was catered, as it was served by two women who cooked and served the food as a way to make money. But there was none of the frilliness that we generally associate with catering, instead just steamy hot tortillas, rice, beans, and the best chile rellenos I have ever had in my life (and I’ve had a lot of chile rellenos as they are my favorite Mexican dish).

After lunch, we bid adios to Agua Prieta and headed across the border to Arizona. Even though our destination was Nogales, Mexico, it was far faster to take the U.S. highways than to negotiate the mountain roads in Mexico. This is cattle country, and we pass sign after sign for different ranches. One in particular caught my eye as we zipped by – Starr-King Ranch. I would have thought that maybe I read it wrong but Louise saw it too. We wonder if there is any connection between the ranch and Thomas Starr-King, the Unitarian and Universalist minister after whom our seminary in California is named.

Arriving at La Casa de la Misericordia (House of Mercy) at just about sunset, we are relieved to be shown to dorm rooms with real beds. A separate building houses compost toilets and showers. Compared to the poverty of Agua Prieta, the accommodations seem luxurious. Dinner is rice, refried beans… and potato tacos! Yay! Corn tortillas filled with a spiced potato mixture and then fried until crisp. Kind of a Mexican version of an Indian samosa.

All in all, the day left us inspired and feeling empowered. Whereas the visits to Southside in Tucson and CAME focused on providing assistance to migrants – a much needed yet only temporary fix to the flood of migrants crossing the desert -, the visits today focused on potential solutions. Mark Adams set the tone by talking about how the Mexican Presbyterian Church demanded to be respected as partners. Then Just Coffee and DouglaPrieta showed how individuals and small groups are taking initiative to create jobs here in Mexico, thus reducing the need for migration. And especially in the case of Just Coffee, it was obvious how we could help.

Methinks most everyone of us fell asleep in our dorm rooms content. The sound of kids playing and dogs barking gave way to the sound of music and adults singing and then to quiet. (Until the roosters crowed at dawn, of course.)

Border Trip: Monday, Nov. 9th

Part 4 of a series of posts devoted to a trip to the U.S./Mexico border. This was written on the 9th, but, due to lack of internet access while in Mexico, is being published now. Photos can be found here.

Monday, November 9th. Rising early, we visit Southside Presbyterian Church at 7am. Southside played a pivotal role in the Sanctuary movement of the 1980s and is still deeply involved in border immigration issues. It is early for us but the volunteers there have already been hard at work, cooking and laying out food, coffee, milk and pastries for whoever shows up. It’s quite a spread. In addition to normal breakfast items such as cold cereal and pastries (donated from Starbucks), there is a buffet of hot foods. This morning’s fare included salad, rice and beans, pasta and pork chops. Southside Presbyterian does this twice a week, Mondays and Fridays, while other area congregations provide similar meals on other days. The church also provides clothing for those who need it.

We visit their sanctuary, which has been built in the shape of a kiva. The most obvious difference from a normal church is that there is no “front,” – only the center of a circle. The niches of the walls contain kachinas and other native sacred objects, and the light covers are decorated with petroglyphs. This is (Borderlink instructor) Elsbeth’s home church and her face lights up as she describes the congregation’s call to ministry surrounding the border. Outside the kiva is a memorial to those who have died in the desert. The trees are decorated with bandanas found in the desert and small stones are inscribed with the names of the dead.

For a little while, I help serve milk and cereal alongside Jesse, a regular volunteer at the church. We are told it is a light day – only 75 or so show up, as opposed to the usual 200. As the crowd thins, I wander back over to the memorial. One of the guys who has come here for a meal asks me what our little group is about. I explain that we’re here to learn more about border issues. From the looks of him, I suspect he is a veteran. Many of those seeking aid from Southside are. As the conversation unfolds it becomes clear that we do not share the same views about immigration. In his view, Arizona should be even tougher on illegal aliens than it has been – as they take our jobs and present a threat to homeland security. My pointing out that no suspected terrorists have been caught crossing the U.S./Mexico border (unlike the U.S./Canadian border, yet we’re not building a wall up north) does not move him. Nor does my pointing out that people are dying. I point to the pile of stones in front of us, 209 so far in the Sonoran this year. “We think Bush did a good job. What is your opinion on him?” he asks as he made his way to go. “Not so much,” I replied to his turning back. It was a reminder that just because someone comes to Southside for assistance doesn’t mean that the person agrees with Southside’s views, nor should he have to. And a reminder of how complex these issues are.

Afterwards, we speak with Rev. John Fife. Rev. Fife served Southside Presbyterian for 35 years before retiring 4 years ago to work for the Samaritans and No More Deaths. Much of that time was during the 1980s, when Southside became heavily involved in the Sanctuary movement, in response to the extreme need that they saw from people coming to their doors. U.S. policy was supporting repressive dictators in Central America – mainly El Salvador and Guatemala. People fleeing to the U.S. were clearly political refugees but the U.S. would not recognize them as such (despite evidence of torture) because that would require recognizing that we were supporting oppressive governments. The worldview of President Regan did not allow for anything more nuanced than “us” versus “them.” So Rev. Fife, along with Quaker Jim Corbett, recognized that they were required by conscience to take more active measures – helping refugees cross the border safely and providing sanctuary. He explains to us the difference between “civil disobedience” and “civil initiative.” When the government is violating human rights, then it is both the legal right and moral responsibility for citizens to take civil initiative to protect the victims. True then; true today. Rev. Fife thanked the Presbyterian Church of Canada for their part in moving refugees through the U.S. and into Canada at that time, and acknowledged the UU Church of Tucson’s sponsorship of No More Deaths today.

After, we watch documentary on border issues/immigration called, Crossing Arizona. It gave different perspectives, including those of ranchers who are losing thousands of dollars a year due to broken fences, trash clean-up, water left running, cattle being killed for food or accidentally killed when they ingest trash left by migrants. One woman talked of her fear of working her own land in case she ran into trespassing men. My heart went out to the ranchers even as I recognized that migrants are just trying to survive. A particularly interesting point made was that when the U.S. signed trade agreements with European countries, it caused the collapse of local economies that resulted in the mass migration of Irish, Polish, Italians, etc to the U.S. to work as cheap labor. The parallel between that and NAFTA not lost. I had known that it was U.S. economic policy that was causing the current massive immigration of Mexican-Americans. But I did not know that this was just the most recent chapter in our long history of economic refugees. Under NAFTA, U.S. subsidized corn and other crops are sold to Mexico for cheap, forcing Mexican farmers out of business. They could not make enough to support their families, resulting in pressure to migrate to the U.S. for work. NAFTA created a situation where goods move freely across the border but the workforce that creates those goods cannot.

During a brief introduction to the history of the wall, the presenter tells us that the first U.S. law specifically excluding immigrants of a particular origin was the Chinese Exclusion Act. It reminds me of why I’ve felt this issue so personally.

Finally, in the afternoon, we make the three hour drive – first along highway 10 and then 90 – to Agua Prieta, Mexico, a small border town who’s population exploded after NAFTA. The desert is as beautiful as I remember it. Through the van window, the passing landscape of saguaro and opuntia cacti, ocotillo, and yucca reminds me very much of the Mojave desert in California. By the time we get to Agua Prieta, it is after sunset and we cross the border in darkness. Our host for dinner and lodging is a Catholic organization called CAME (pronounced “kah-may”). CAME provides food and shelter, a shower and change of clothes, and even a phone call for migrants, most of whom have recently been caught in the desert and sent back to Aqua Prieta. But the most important service that CAME provides is that its volunteers listen to the stories of the migrants, all of whom have been traumatized by their experiences in the desert, whether running out of water, being violently assaulted, or stumbling across the dead bodies of fellow migrants. After being deported, CAME is usually the first kind experience the migrants get. Its staff of 56 volunteers is run by a sweet-faced, soft-spoken 20-something named Ricky. He explains that many of the volunteers are young adults, called to service by the suffering they have witnessed. Suffering that is increasing. In 2007, CAME served 1,040 people. So far in 2009, it has served 2,500, and the year is not over yet.

Dinner is rice and refried beans, a delicious spicy potato mixture, and of course, steaming hot corn tortillas. Brian (from Canada) and I sit next to Diego and Jose Luis. Diego speaks some English while (Borderlinks trip-leader) Tracy needs to facilitate the conversation between us and Jose Luis. Both of them are from Sinaloa, the same state that (Borderlinks trip-leader) MaryCruz is from. Jose Luis had been caught and “processed” in front of a judge. If he comes back and is caught again within the next 20 years, he will go to jail for 6 months. But he will try again, because there is no other way to put his two children through school. Diego had been picked up by border patrol trying to cross and dumped via bus in Agua Prieta. He has a girlfriend in Dallas and three teen-aged children in Mexico. He’s already made the crossing several times and knows the way by now. No need for “coyotes” (who take you over the border for a price). He tells us that tomorrow he will try again, walking four days in the desert (assuming that he isn’t picked up by Border Patrol), which means that he will be walking on his birthday on Friday. No one should have to walk through the desert on their birthday just for the opportunity to earn a living. Diego has worked as kitchen staff in a Chinese restaurant in Dallas. We joke that he probably cooks better Chinese food than I do. Then I ask him, “You’ll be turning 44. How many more years do you think you will be doing this?” He shrugs off the question with a sad, resigned smile. At that point, Jose Luis asks us a question, “Why does the United States want to keep us out?” The question breaks my heart. Through Tracy, I tell him it’s because the U.S. still sees itself as a white European nation with a few “minorities.” It is afraid of losing that status. Brian and Tracy also talk of economics and other factors. But really, no answer seemed adequate to explain the pain we were causing him and thousands of others.

When Health Reform Hurts

From what I understand of legal and judicial precedent, the Federal government is not supposed to interfere with a woman’’s right to choose when, how and under what circumstances to have or not have a child. This includes the right to a safe and legal abortion as under the conditions of the Roe v. Wade United States Supreme Court decision of 1973.
Late last Saturday night, this right began unraveling in the House of Representatives. When the vote was over, the House had passed a comprehensive health care reform bill that essentially eliminates a woman’’s right to choose abortion. The Stupak-Pitts amendment, which was included in the House bill, makes it illegal for any provider in the proposed health care exchange, the marketplace created for individuals and businesses, or in any public option, to provide abortion coverage.
Women would instead be able to purchase an abortion “rider,” additional coverage for abortion services. Anti-choice groups would have us believe that this is a reasonable compromise, but who would choose to pay extra for a service that they don’’t ever expect to use? Women cannot anticipate unintended or untenable pregnancies. Furthermore, in the five states that have abortion rider requirements already, there is no evidence that such riders have ever been made available. Losing the right to purchase abortion coverage with their own funds puts women at risk. Low and middle income women who will need subsidies to purchase insurance, those who are in the greatest need of comprehensive and high quality health care, are left without options. The lives of women and their families literally hang in the balance.
The decision to have or not have an abortion should remain between a woman and her doctor; this amendment threatens to revoke the right to that decision and violates the very spirit of health care reform. Health care reform isn’t about promoting one ideology over another, it’s about the legal and moral rights of people to receive the comprehensive health care that they need and deserve – and not to be denied coverage of services that are currently covered by most insurance companies.
It’’s extremely difficult for me to be happy about reform that doesn’’t provide access to comprehensive reproductive health care for millions of women – so I’’m not going to be. A health system that doesn’t give us access to care we need is inherently unjust and unacceptable. So I’’m going to believe that it will not be codified. I’’m going to put my faith in the Unitarian Universalists and other champions of reproductive justice out there, and I’’m going to believe in the power of advocacy.
But I need your help. I can’’t do it without you. Please contact your Senators and the White House with a clear message telling them to enact health care reform that does not eliminate services that women already receive, including comprehensive reproductive care, including abortion.

Day of Climate Witness

Having arrived at the capitol building early, I paused in the middle of grass, surrounded by sturdy, welcoming trees. A soft breeze rustled the leaves as I was surprised by the warmth of the sun on that November day. Even in the midst of a busy city, an immense gratitude for the natural world filled me and reminded me of the important work that lies ahead.

Last Thursday, November 5th, was the interfaith Climate Witness, with speakers from various denominations joining together to speak truth to power. Morality and ethics call us to act to curb climate change and alert us to the consequences of not acting. While climate change will impact all of us to some extent, it already is most greatly affecting the poorest peoples. Sea level rise could put entire island nations under water, causing millions of people to become climate refugees. A projected increase in hurricanes and other natural disasters puts more people and ecosystems at risk, as we saw in Hurricane Katrina. Farmland can dry up or be washed away with flooding as a result of changes in rainfall. Part of the injustice of the situation is that these people who are most affected by climate change are not the historical contributors of the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere today. We are asking the U.S. to take a strong leadership role at the Climate Convention in Copenhagen this December to ensure strong and just climate policy for all.

In this global day and age, continuing to emit monstrous quantities of greenhouse gases as a nation hurts all of us. Pollution crosses national boundaries, as does trade. Let’s continue to work together and bring more people into the movement for a global climate that is sustainable for everyone.