Reflection on My Trip to the Border
In October the Pacific Southwest District Board of Trustees spent our retreat in Tucson, Arizona. The focus of our retreat was to experience the border by visiting the city of Nogales, Mexico. We also witnessed Operation Streamline: ”a Bush Administration program implemented in 2005 ordering federal criminal charges for every person who crosses the border illegally.”
The following is a reflection I wrote shortly after returning.
Our trip began on Friday with a stop at the Federal Courthouse in Tucson where Operation Streamline is in effect. This process is designed to move as many people through the system as possible in the least amount of time possible. Seventy people are processed each day in about an hour. On the day we were there, there were only sixty-one and it took about forty minutes. At one thirty, they opened the doors into a large cavernous courtroom with half a dozen rows of deep brown benches in three sections from left to right. As we entered, my eyes swept the room and I registered a large group of people. I noticed mostly men, in dirty t-shirts, jeans and boots with short black hair and brown skin. I inhaled unwashed clothes and body odor. I hesitated, and then spurred from behind, I walked to the far right as directed by the Border Patrol agent, leaving the center section of benches empty. A buffer between us and them. Only twenty people are allowed to observe each day.
The judge, his voice was deep and somber, addressed the court. He explained the process and began the proceedings. Several times the translation equipment failed and the judge had to repeat himself, sometimes more than once. He was infinitely patient with the equipment and the people. The judge called the defendants up by name, 10 at a time, and instructed them to stand at a microphone, their lawyer standing behind them.
I looked to my left as the back row stood and noticed, first with shock and then with disbelief that they were shackled; hands together, chained to their waist and their feet connected by chain allowing for a only a moderate to small step. I sat stunned, and when the stun wore off, I was deeply ashamed that my country would do this in my name. They shuffled forwards up the aisle and through the small wooden gate that separated the gallery from the rest of the courtroom. Filing along the row of microphones they stopped, heads hung, eyes down cast. It appeared that they had been seated on the bench in order by lawyer, so there was no shuffling about – only minimal movement as each lawyer rose and stood behind their client.
The judge turned and spoke to each person in turn. He addressed each of them by the honorific, Mr. or Ms. He was respectful and even-handed. When he finished sentencing the group, they were instructed by Border Patrol agents to move through the small wooden gate on the side of the courthouse directly in front of where we were seated. As they came towards us, a few looked up and some made eye contact, many remained down cast and solemn. The shame was palpable, theirs and ours. It hung about the room like the thick black smoke of tires on fire.
We watched that process six times in forty minutes: stand and shuffle to the front, listen to the judge, plead, listen to the judge, and shuffle out. Each group of 10 human beings shackled and ashamed.
When it was all over, we were preparing to leave and the judge stopped us to talk. He asked us who we were and why we were there. We asked him why they were shackled and he explained that sheer number requires that they remain shackled in the courtroom for safety. He shook his head and told us that most of the people he sees in this courtroom are simple, humble people. He told us that the vast majority cannot or will not make eye contact. He told us that most have never been called Mr. or Ms., and he does what little he can to humanize the process. I believed this judge, maybe because I wanted to, maybe because I had to–the process is so painfully humiliating and disrespectful. I asked him how much the state of Arizona spends on prisons each year for detention and incarceration of migrants. Twenty million dollars a month is spent to incarcerate 7500 people. The cost for this process with lawyers, court staff, Border Patrol agents, and the judge–well it’s a lot, for the lawyers alone it runs about $2.6 million per day–that’s five days a week all year long (minus holidays). That’s half a billion dollars a year to try, sentence, and deport non-violent human beings from the United States. A good friend once told me–if you want to know why something is happening, follow the money. In this case the money goes mostly to lawyers and to private prisons.
We left the courthouse and met with the defense lawyers who told us more about the process and the people. We were told that most of the people coming across the border have the equivalent of a third grade education. Most are non-violent and only serving time because they have tried to cross before and now with their second attempt, it is a felony. A defense attorney talked to us about the costs, both financial and human, and were frustrated by a process that seems impossible to stop. As she spoke, the lawyer leaned forward, intense and engaging, and she threw her hands into the air with a sigh of resignation and defeat. She described the holding tank at the David Military Base, designed for less than half of what in now holds in human cargo. There is no food provided and water is available only in gallon jugs to be shared by all. There are no beds and the floor is concrete. No one in holding has access to medications, regardless of what the medication may be. We were told that some of those picked up for trafficking marijuana are forced by cartels to carry backpack full of pot over the border and told that their family would be harmed.
And this was just the first day of our adventure. I am grateful for the opportunity to have gone on this retreat with the District Board. When the guide from BorderLinks asked why we were there, I said I wanted to take the facts and figures, the book knowledge and theoretical discussions, and make them real. That happened, and what I experienced was worst than I had ever imaged–and what I imagined was pretty extreme. I have a new, deepened and living conviction that we have a moral responsibility to our neighbors, ourselves and to all living beings to choose a different of kind of future than where we are currently headed. We must regain our humanity if we are to change our course. Occupy Wall Street understands that. It is a movement about moral outrage, not policies or politics. It is about making the choice to live together, being responsible for one another, caring for all as we care for ourselves. How can anyone not support that? For me, that is what it means to stand on the side of love.
Change is possible, change is inevitable, change brings hope and possibility.