A Very Brief Primer on U.S.-Mexican History

In the early 1800s, U.S.Americans started settling into a territory of Mexico known as Texas.  Alarmed by the fact that the immigration rate was so high that U.S. settlers were starting to outnumber Mexicans, Mexico closed the territory to further legal immigration.  But U.S. settlers continued to pour in illegally.  Rather than attempting to learn the language and culture of the country to which they had immigrated, U.S.American immigrants in Texas declared independence from Mexico in 1836.  (One has to wonder what the Mexicans whose families had already been living in Texas thought about that.)

In 1845, the Republic of Texas was annexed as the 28th state, and President Polk was eyeing Mexico’s territories west of TX, all the way to the Pacific Ocean.  The annexation of Texas, which Mexico continued to think of as a rebellious territory, caused Mexico to break diplomatic ties with the U.S., but it did not declare war.  Polk needed Mexico to be the first to engage in hostilities so that he could frame his expansionist intentions as defensive.  He sent Gen. Zachary Taylor to Texas to push its southern boundary from the Nueces river (the border that Mexico recognized) 150 miles southward to the Rio Grande (the border that the U.S. wanted).  The ploy worked; in April of 1846, a Mexican detachment attacked a U.S. patrol in the disputed area, killing 16 U.S. solders.  The U.S.-Mexican War was on.


On Borders

It was a family tradition when I was growing up that almost every summer we would pack the car and drive from San Francisco where we lived, to Yosemite National Park, then Lake Tahoe, then Reno. The city of Lake Tahoe is bisected by the border between California and Nevada. The first time I saw the Cali/Nevada border, I was disappointed and confused over the lack of a big black line, as I had seen on the map. Instead, there was only a small sign on an otherwise normal looking street. As an adult, I can now see that one direction has casinos and the other only the cheesey tourist shops, but as a kid I would look down the road in one direction and then the other, and it would pretty much all look the same to me. If the little sign were not there pointing it out, I would not have known that there was a border at all. But since there was a sign, I would hop one step to the left and say I was in California, and hop one step to the right and say I was in Nevada.   Looking back on it I see now that my child brain was trying to understand what a “border” actually meant. Yet try as hard as I might, I could not feel a real difference in the land.


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.

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.

Border Trip: Sunday, Nov. 8th

Part 3 of a series of posts devoted to a trip to the U.S./Mexico border. Photos can be found here.

Sunday, November 8th. Spent the morning attending service at the UU Church of Tucson and speaking with volunteers at No More Deaths (NMD) afterwards. The people there were a mixture of NMD activists who know of the church through the partnership and/or congregants who got involved with NMD as the church did. When I asked how it is that UUCT chose to sponsor No More Deaths, everyone agreed that while the exact organization wasn’t decided upon until relatively recently (when Walt Staton brought it to the congregation), the church had known for years that it wanted a social justice ministry around which to coalesce and was pretty sure that it would be around immigration and the Border. As congregant Helen O’Brian put it, “When you live in Tucson, people turn up in your backyard who need water.” On this particular day, the congregation just happened to be assembling food and first aid packs. People had donated items such as sports drinks, socks, aspirin and then children and adult members put them together into 123 packs that will be taken to the desert. It was clear that support for No More Deaths came from the entire congregation. As we talked about the need for volunteers, a vision emerged of UU service groups coming from all over the country to volunteer in the desert the way that we do in New Orleans. I haven’t even started our Border trip yet and already I’m thinking of coming back for more.

After the meeting, Helen and her daughter were kind enough to give me a ride over to Borderlinks, the organization that will be facilitating our journey. I am the first to arrive. Our small group from All Souls DC initially had a problem. There were not enough of us to meet the required minimum number of sojourners. However, a group from the Presbyterian Church of Canada were in the same boat so we decided to join forces. The American Unitarian contingent consists of Rev. Louise Green, Jeff, Ron, and myself. The Canadian Presbyterian contingent consists of Stephen, who serves the Presbyterian Church, Mary, Joan, Christine, and Greg. Gary, a researcher from the University of Arizona who is studying religious experiential learning trips, fills us out to ten. When everyone eventually arrives, we are given a brief orientation to both Borderlinks and the trip. We learn how Borderlinks was born out of the Sanctuary movement, a religious movement in the 1980s offering refuge to immigrants fleeing political turmoil and violence in El Salvador and Guatemala. (No More Deaths was also born of the Sanctuary movement.) It exists to facilitate experiential learning through immersion trips to the Border, so that we can better understand the complex issues and bring that new-found understanding back to our communities. Historically associated with the Presbyterian church, Borderlinks is now ecumenical/interfaith. It is also bi-national, with offices in the U.S. (Tucson) and the Mexican side of Nogales. For example, our group will have three trip-leaders, two from the U.S. – Tracy and Elsbeth – and one from Mexico – MaryCruz, who is from Nogales and speaks primarily Spanish.

We’ve only spent a couple hours together so far, but already I can tell that what we had originally approached as a compromise – the pooling of Americans and Canadians – is truly a gift. We Americans will be able to see the Border/immigration not only from our own eyes, but through Canadian eyes as well. As fellow religious progressives, we share many views in common, but as the Canadians are in many ways a third party to the U.S./Mexican “dispute,” their perspective can be quite different at times.

By the time everyone assembles and we go through the logistics of how to share cramped communal space, and the brief introduction to Borderlinks history, and some exercises designed to help us get to know both each other and the issues better, it is already quite late. But we can’t miss the Day of the Dead. Dia de Los Muertos is a time to remember and celebrate our ancestors, particularly those who have passed in the last year. A colorful alter is decorated with pictures of the deceased and their favorite foods are laid out. In other parts of the world (particularly Latin America) Dia de Los Muertos was observed last week during All Saints Day and All Souls Day. In fact, last week Taquiena Boston (of the UUA’s Identity-based Ministries) and I had attended a Dia de Los Muertos observance at the National Museum of the American Indian. But in Tucson it is celebrated one week later, today, with a parade – the Alls Souls Procession. Started by a local artist who had lost her father, the community puts together a parade to remember and celebrate those who have passed from us. In this U.S. town close to but not on the Border, the festivities are obviously syncretic. The sound of bagpipes mingles with more traditionally Mexican images of skeletons. I think of how I lost my mother in May. Unfortunately, I think her Chinese sensibilities would not have approved of all the carrying-on, but for me and our group, the atmosphere was intoxicating. At its climax, a giant urn was hoisted up via a crane and set on fire. Trip-leader Elsbeth explains to us that it contains pieces of paper bearing the names of the deceased – names that were written by people in the crowd. While done on a fantastical scale, the ritual is similar to what we’ve done at All Souls DC, similar to what the Chinese do to honor the dead, similar I’m sure to the rituals of so many cultures. Our group stood lost in the crowd and watched the giant urn glow in the night sky, and I felt like all the ancestors in world must have been there watching affectionately too, even Mom.

Border Trip: Saturday, Nov. 7th

Part 2 of a series of posts devoted to a trip to the U.S./Mexico border.

Saturday, November 7th. It’s the eve of our Border trip. I am flying into Tucson a day early in order to attend service at the UU Church of Tucson and speak with some of the people there who run No More Deaths. Ever since I first heard of the arrest of Walt Staton for leaving bottles of water in the desert, I have been enamored with the organization and its volunteers. It is one of many reasons why I wanted make this journey to the Border. Regardless of one’s feelings about undocumented immigration, the idea that someone could be arrested for humanitarian aid is unfathomable.

But that is tomorrow. Today on the eve, I am excited and also a little apprehensive. It’s not that I think anything will go wrong per se. It’s just that I’ve invested a lot personally into this trip, and I’m worried that it may not be what I expect… although I’m not even sure what it is that I expect. Already I have realized a disconnect between my perspective and the realities of the Border. Being the daughter of non-Euro immigrants myself, I had been approaching the trip as an opportunity to explore identity – the “border” identity of someone who lives in more than one culture. Growing up in California, I have felt some affinity with Mexican-Americans – we are both often overlooked as the national discussion on race focuses on black and white. And when we are noticed, it is often as “foreign invaders.” As a kid and even a few times as an adult I have been told to “go back to where you came from.” I thought this put me in the position to better empathize with people whom our country is rounding up and deporting. That may still be the case. However, in reflections with our group in preparation for the trip, I’m also aware that there are many differences between the experiences of the migrants who cross the Mexico/U.S. border and my Chinese middle-class family.

For one thing, the border is right there, an artificial boundary between two nations sharing the same continent. Mexican immigrants can travel back and forth between their county of origin and their adopted country. In contrast, my parents had only their memories to compare to their new homeland, and I can count on two hands the total number of visits I’ve made to Taiwan and China – a divide so wide that it was another world to me. I’ve been proud to hail from California, a “border state” with a large Mexican-American population. But now I realize that San Francisco is a world away from the border compared to Los Angeles, which is a world away compared to San Diego, which is a world away compared to San Ysidro. I do not know what it’s like to physically live on the Border. How different it must be to see every day the difference in wealth. How could one not wonder why?

Second, while my parents lacked money when they first arrived in the U.S. and some my earliest memories are of Mom calculating how much food we could afford, we were never truly poor nor really desperate. Education is a kind of wealth and my parents had the security of knowing that there would be better days ahead. Of course, I have always known that my family is middle-class while the people who brave the desert are driven, not just by a desire for a better life for their families but often by a dire need. It’s just that, it’s one thing to know this difference intellectually and another to know it experientially. This point was made clear to me while our group read a poem about crossing the desert at night.

I love the desert. To me it is a place of calm and stark yet delicate beauty. Yes, water is scarce and life is fragile, but that only makes more real the sense of being alive. Some of my most spiritual, mystical experiences have been in the desert – watching the lizards sunbathe, staring up at night skies creamy with stars. The quiet. The promise of being in the desert again was yet another enticement for me to make this trip. But I have always been in the desert as a tourist, with plenty of water, and food, access to shade in the day and to warm clothing and shelter at night. A car never far away, and with the security of knowing that I could call for help. Reading the poem, “La Ruta de Mujeres,” by Rev. Delle McCormick, which talked of furtive crossings at night, snakes and coyotes, rape and death… I was reminded of how dangerous and terrifying the desert actually can be. Again, I knew this intellectually – why else would it be necessary for the volunteers of No More Deaths to place water bottles in the desert? Why else is the death count so high? But there was a disconnect between the facts that I have learned and even repeated to others in arguing for more compassionate immigration policies, and my own middle-class sheltered experiences. It was a humbling realization.

And so here I sit on the eve of the trip, excited and yet apprehensive. Did I remember to pack my passport and proof of insurance? Check. Digital camera and cell phone charger? Check. I had been (and still am) excited to blog about our experiences and share them with you. Only a few days ago did it occur to me that we might not have internet access for much of the trip. Another disconnect. Oh well. No matter what I am here to learn and grow. I can already tell that it will be more than I imagined.

Border Trip: Pilgrimage

Part 1 of a series of posts devoted to a trip to the U.S./Mexico border.

A few months back I spied a notice in my congregation’s weekly bulletin about a trip to the Border being organized by Rev. Louise Green, our social justice minister here at All Souls, DC. It said that participants would be going to part of the border between Mexico and the U.S., with the possibility of also visiting Native American nations in the area. The trip, organized by Border Links, would feature immersion experiential learning and we would be expected to reflect and write on our experiences. I knew immediately that I had to go. But I also felt tremendously guilty at the idea of going. Both for the same reason.

Some of you may remember my post about bitter experiences with the health care system as my mom was taken by cancer. With Mom’s passing, the thought of taking a week to go anywhere other than San Francisco where my family is seemed incredibly selfish. But on the other hand, with Mom’s passing, I have been thinking more than ever about the journeys that she and Dad took from China to the U.S. – the many obstacles they had to overcome to get here, some recounted on this blog and others not. I’ve been thinking about what it means to be Chinese American – to be both Chinese and American and yet not fully either in the views of many.

Does one cross a border? Or does one straddle it? Or does one go back and forth?

Both the Border Links website and Louise in our group discussions leading up to the trip have asked us why we are interested in going. Fair question. Complicated answers. I am going to better understand my neighbors – their perspectives, their stories, their roots – but I am also going to better understand myself. I am going with the assumption that although our families come from different countries, different cultures and different circumstances, there will be at least as much that we have in common in the immigrant family experience as there will be differences. I also expect that there will be surprises, perspectives that I assume we share in common but are not the case. In any case, the process will be informative.

If you are interested, I invite you to stay tuned. The All Souls DC trip to the Border will take place Nov 8th – 14th and I plan to be blogging about it before, during, and after our pilgrimage.

While You Weren’t Looking…

Back on April Fools Day, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it was waiving nearly three dozen laws and regulations in order to extend the wall it’s been building along our border with Mexico. The federal, state and local laws that were bypassed include legislation that protect the environment and our health, sacred Native American lands, and the rights of property owners. As a result, a remarkably broad coalition has formed of people who oppose this enormous waste of money and trampling of legal process, from the expected environmentalists to cattle ranchers to mayors of many border towns in the U.S. Despite that, the issue has gotten little attention in the rest of the country. To read more about the Border Wall and the environmental havoc it is wreaking, check out this blog post from NoTexasBorderWall.com.

I am thinking about the fact that the DHS announcement was made on April Fools Day because another announcement with wide-ranging environmental impacts was recently made on Election Day. While the nation’s attention was almost unanimously focused elsewhere, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced that on Dec 19th, more than 50,000 acres of land within close proximity to three National Parks in Utah will be auctioned off for oil and gas drilling rights. The three national parks affected are Arches (home of the iconic and aptly named “Delicate Arch”), Canyonlands, and Dinosaur.

The top National Park Service official in Utah, Cordell Roy, says that his department wasn’t even notified before this announcement was made. Needless to say, the National Park Service objects to what some are calling a Bush administration “fire sale” for the oil and gas industries. While the BLM claims that this is simply business as usual and is surprised by the protest, conservation groups say that never before has the BLM “bunched drilling parcels on the fence lines of national parks.” And keep in mind that while the high price of gasoline may tempt us to consider putting part of our national heritage at risk, the Energy Information Administration says that Utah has only 2.5 percent of the country’s known natural gas reserves and less than 1 percent of its known oil reserves. Drilling around our national parks will not decrease oil prices.

Perhaps it was just a coincidence that this announcement was made on the afternoon of Election Day. But with the bustle of the winter holiday season getting into full swing, we might want to keep our eyes and ears open for additional holiday surprises.

Building the Border Wall Hurts Us All

On the grounds of “protecting national security,” the U.S. government wants to build a wall on the 2,000 mile border between the U.S. and Mexico, with estimated costs ranging between one and eight billion dollars. (For perspective, the first 11 miles of the wall near San Diego cost $42 million – that’s $3.8 million per mile.) The government is building this wall despite evidence that tells us that the Canadian border is far more susceptible to anti-U.S. terrorist activity than the Mexican border. (Yet the U.S. is not building a wall along the Canadian border). Also, where it has already been built, the wall is woefully ineffective at keeping people out, delaying crossing by a matter of minutes. Instead, the wall has made human smuggling a lucrative business.

The Bush administration wants to complete another 670 miles of this wall across the environmentally sensitive Southwest by the end of this year. On April 1st the Dept of Homeland Security announced that it would be waiving almost three dozen federal, state and local laws and regulations in order to accomplish this goal. DHS has the power to do this because Congress passed the REAL ID Act in 2005, which amongst other things gave the Department of Homeland Security the ability to waive all legal requirements, as necessary, in order to expedite the construction of border walls.

Unfortunately, this was not a cruel April Fools joke. In addition to the exorbitant costs for something that isn’t effective, these waivers have other quite serious repercussions. First, in the name of security, they bypass the very laws designed to ensure our safety, including the Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. This means for example that DHS can build its wall without monitoring the impact that it will have on the Rio Grande. (If there are no negative health impacts, then why the need to bypass the laws?)

Second, by bypassing laws that protect land ownership/use, DHS can force the rightful owners to sell the needed land. This includes the forced selling of First-Nation-owned, sacred, ancestral lands, violating the the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Third, it means that wildlife refuges that took years to create by painstakingly purchasing contiguous segments will be cut in half, bypassing laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act. The wall designed to segregate humans will also keep endangered species such as the ocelot from hunting and mating. It’s no wonder that the wall is opposed by a broad coalition of mayors, land-owners and environmental activists.

Our Seventh Principle, the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part, tells us that what we seek to do to one group also affects everything else including ourselves. As the examples above show, building a 2,000 mile wall across a continent hurts the most vulnerable people and animals on both sides of the border. We need a more holistic approach than building walls to reinforce boundaries that nature does not recognize. Looking at the economic forces that drive immigration and recognizing the need for equitable economic development would be a start.

Friends, if you are outraged by this latest abuse of power in the name of “security,” please do not let another abuse pass without resistance. Raise awareness. I’ve had a few people tell me that they didn’t even know about it. Tell your friends. Write letters to the editor. Blog. Make your voice heard.