People have been crossing the border and ending up in Tucson for years. Once, before the Gadsden Purchase, there was no border. This area was part of Mexico. Then for a long time, it was very casual, with people going back and forth for business and family visits and thinking little of it.
There came a time when people fleeing violence in the South began to arrive here seeking shelter. The wheels of bureaucracy turned slowly, slowly, as these political refugees petitioned for asylum. For some, the ones from Nicaragua and some of the ones from El Salvador, their politics were not right. Along the border, a system of sanctuary churches quietly called itself into being. It was an interfaith effort, involving Catholics, Presbyterians, and Unitarian Universalists that I know of, and the memory of this forms the oldest layer of organizing around illegal border crossing in this area. When I visited the Unitarian Universalist Church here in Tucson, I saw the oddly placed sign outside the minister’s office and heard the story that it covered the hole the FBI had made when they broke in and went through the files to find out where the political refugees were being hidden.
Now, people fleeing economic catastrophe South of here have been coming, and continue to come. When there is no other way to make sure the children have food, people cross in all the various ways available to them. Another layer of organization has emerged with this new wave of economic refugees. Keeping people from dying in the desert has become an important focus of activity. In the communities where people come to live among friends and family, the focus is on keeping a low profile, avoiding detection, and knowing what rights undocumented people have. Once someone becomes part of the deportation system, there are those who help with access to legal services, visitation during detention, and keeping track of the person’s possessions so they can be returned later. The only thing positive I can see about all this is that the Hispanic communities where people live and the humanitarian communities of mostly anglos are starting to come together.
And yet, the Tucson area is the largest source of deportations in the country. I went to the “Operation Streamline” special courtroom this afternoon and watched about forty deportations be processed in a very short time. These were people who had been picked up for a second, third, or fourth time for being in the country without papers, a felony, and they had worked with the prosecutor and the public defender to reach agreement on plea deals to serve some time in jail and then be deported. The judge was attentive and responded kindly to the few questions that came forward. Still, it was chilling. I wondered if the people involved really understood what was happening and what their options had been or still were. I wondered what they had gone through in detention. And it was very sad to see people’s lives being so deeply affected for what I still can’t understand as a serious crime.
I’m getting ready to leave this adventure in Tucson and return to my other world. I have seen a lot and felt a lot of different ways. And I have come to believe that crossing borders is actually what life is about. Every day is an opportunity to exchange a smile or a word across a border of race or ethnicity, class or nationality. I come away from this experience determined to cross the borders in my own life as well as to work for justice in the complicated arena of economically motivated migration outside the framework of our laws. I would encourage others to consider doing this as well.
This blog post, by Rev. Mary Wellemeyer, is third of a series on her trip to see how Unitarian Universalists can help the situation at the Arizona-Mexico border.