Posts Tagged ‘Rev. Mary Wellemeyer’

Deport All the Criminals

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It sounds reasonable, right? We should deport people who are here illegally if they are involved in criminal activity. But what about Valente and Manuel Valenzuela?
A couple weeks ago, I showed up in downtown Denver at the invitation of some local human rights organizers to be part of a witness outside the courthouse during the deportation hearing for Valente Valenzuela. But when I got there, in the company of Columbine UU Church member and longtime activist Maureen Flanigan, it turned out that at the last minute the hearing had been postponed.
A small number of us demonstrated anyway. We stood with a big sign protesting the deportation of veterans and a poster-sized photo of Valente as a young man, taken during the Tet offensive in Vietnam. There, in the photo, was a young man full of grief and fear, ready to lay down his life for his country—the United States of America—but hoping he wouldn’t have to.
It’s true, Valente and Manuel had both been involved in stuff when they got back from the war. Drugs and alcohol. Both of them were convicted of crimes. But then they went on to live decent lives—working, raising families, the whole nine yards. Today, they are of the older generation. Grandfathers. They still look good in their Marine uniforms.
They are also really, really angry and fighting, once again, though in a different way. They were both put into the deportation process because of those old convictions. According to a law passed in 1997, we need to deport all the criminals. So here they are. This hearing was only the latest in a series stretching back for over two years.
They are not alone. There is even an organization of banished veterans, some in this country and some already deported. There’s something wrong with this picture. Why are we doing this? And what’s up with the scheduling and postponing of hearings? Maybe we’re thinking it over. An organizer who follows this case, Jennifer Piper of the American Friends Service Committee, expressed cautious optimism about the meaning of the postponement. Maybe we don’t actually want to do this.  And maybe we can stop.

Post by Rev. Mary Wellemeyer, Interim Minister of Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church in Littleton, Colorado

Post by Rev. Mary Wellemeyer, Interim Minister of Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church in Littleton, Colorado

It sounds reasonable, right? We should deport people who are here illegally if they are involved in criminal activity. But what about Valente and Manuel Valenzuela?

A couple weeks ago, I showed up in downtown Denver at the invitation of some local human rights organizers to be part of a witness outside the courthouse during the deportation hearing for Valente Valenzuela. But when I got there, in the company of Columbine UU Church member and longtime activist Maureen Flanigan, it turned out that at the last minute the hearing had been postponed.

A small number of us demonstrated anyway. We stood with a big sign protesting the deportation of veterans and a poster-sized photo of Valente as a young man, taken during the Tet offensive in Vietnam. There, in the photo, was a young man full of grief and fear, ready to lay down his life for his country—the United States of America—but hoping he wouldn’t have to.

It’s true, Valente and Manuel had both been involved in stuff when they got back from the war. Drugs and alcohol. Both of them were convicted of crimes. But then they went on to live decent lives—working, raising families, the whole nine yards. Today, they are of the older generation. Grandfathers. They still look good in their Marine uniforms.

Valente, Maureen, and Manuel outside the deportation hearing. (Credit: Rev. Mary Wellemeyer)

Valente, Maureen, and Manuel outside the deportation hearing. (Credit: Rev. Mary Wellemeyer)

They are also really, really angry and fighting, once again, though in a different way. They were both put into the deportation process because of those old convictions. According to a law passed in 1997, we need to deport all the criminals. So here they are. This hearing was only the latest in a series stretching back for over two years.

They are not alone. There is even an organization of banished veterans, some in this country and some already deported. There’s something wrong with this picture. Why are we doing this? And what’s up with the scheduling and postponing of hearings? Maybe we’re thinking it over. An organizer who follows this case, Jennifer Piper of the American Friends Service Committee, expressed cautious optimism about the meaning of the postponement. Maybe we don’t actually want to do this. And maybe we can stop.

Rev. Mary Wellemeyer: Day 3 – Crossing Borders

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Post by Rev. Mary Wellemeyer, Interim Minister of Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church in Littleton, Colorado

Post by Rev. Mary Wellemeyer, Interim Minister of Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church in Littleton, Colorado

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.

A water tank at the Borderlinks office like the water tanks placed in the desert by the humanitarian group to help migrants during their trek.

A water tank at the Borderlinks office like the water tanks placed in the desert by the humanitarian group to help migrants during their trek.

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.

Rev. Mary Wellemeyer: Day 2-The Desert and The Wall

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Post by Rev. Mary Wellemeyer, Interim Minister of Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church in Littleton, Colorado

Rev. Mary Wellemeyer

This blog post, by Rev. Mary Wellemeyer, Interim Minister of Columbine UU Church in Littleton, Colorado, is part of a series on her trip to see how Unitarian Universalists can help the situation at the Arizona-Mexico border.

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Today I joined with a community college group for a very quick tour of a few important aspects of the border experience just South of Tucson.  Our first stop was in Green Valley at the home of one of the founders of the Samaritans, a group that walks the desert trails to provide humanitarian assistance to people who are walking from the border towards Tucson. The people they help are undocumented, and the basis for the help is that it is never illegal to keep people from dying, even though it is definitely illegal to provide help in making their way into the country.  So they walk a fine line, with jugs of water, socks, shoes, and first aid supplies in their packs.

Tucson Trip Day 2 001

Signs that migrants had been waiting in the underbrush.

Walking where migrants have been walking, where migrants might be concealing themselves nearby, this is a very moving experience, even though we were not out very long. Even on this late October day, it was warm out there. The gentle warmth was a reminder that up in the hills at this time of year, the temperature drops into the 40′s.  Even though it was not particularly hilly or rough, the land was a bosque, studded with cactus and prickly shrub-like trees.  Migrants travel at night to reduce the chance of detection, and I kept thinking of how it would be to dodge through that stickery underbrush.

The spot we were touring was carefully selected—it had been near a pick-up spot, so there were signs that people had been waiting there.  Not recently, but the signs were clear: items of clothing, backpacks, water bottles, strewn by the side of the trail.  I thought of the people who had walked at least two days to reach that spot from the border—of their determination to keep going no matter what, of their desperation to find some way to survive by taking this tremendous risk, of their hope that things would get better.

The border fence in Nogales.

The border fence in Nogales.

We got back in the bus and rode to Nogales.  A border runs through it.  We stayed on the Arizona side and looked at the wall.  It used to be a solid metal wall with lots of art painted on it.  This summer, they built a new, improved, wall of metal posts just far enough apart that you can sort of see through it.  The perception of one town with a fence down the middle is even clearer—we could see Nogales, Sonora, right there, going about its business.  We chatted with a young Border Patrol agent who told us about the tunnel they had filled in just under where we were standing.  We had lunch in the park and heard the story of someone who had crossed illegally twice and decided to return for good.

I have no idea what we Unitarian Universalists should be doing to help ease this situation.  I do know that we need to inform ourselves about the whole complicated situation, get to know people who are involved, and work together to find our part in putting together a solution.

Rev. Mary Wellemeyer: Getting Started in Tucson

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Post by Rev. Mary Wellemeyer, Interim Minister of Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church in Littleton, Colorado

Post by Rev. Mary Wellemeyer, Interim Minister of Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church in Littleton, Colorado

Today is the first day of my three-day visit to Tucson to find out more about how Unitarian Universalists might be able to help around what happens to people who cross the United States-Mexico border and end up in the United States without proper documents.

I can’t say enough about the kind hospitality at Borderlinks, whose mission is to help people understand the border here. Five years ago, I spent a week with them, mostly on a trip in which we visited the little town of Altar, where a small border crossing was at that time a focal point for informal crossings at dispersed locations, then in Mexico, to a shelter where people planning to cross could find a meal and a place to sleep and a shower. They also received a talking-to about just how dangerous the crossing could be. We went to Nogales, Mexico, and stayed with families in the colonias, visited a maquiladora factory, and went shopping for groceries (not to buy, but to see quality, selection, and price). We met people in Nogales who were working with individuals who had been returned across the border, saw the wall from the Mexico side, and experienced the crossing through the high-security checkpoint at Nogales. Very different from Altar. We camped out in the desert and walked some of the paths used by migrants. I learned a lot. Then I went back to New Hampshire, where most undocumented people have other kinds of stories. Even though I had a different contact with border crossing, it made me more sensitive to the struggles of people without papers.

Now that I am in the Denver area, I wanted to come back and see what has changed, to reconnect, and to make some new connections. When I contacted Borderlinks, I got a quick reply and lots of suggestions about how to make those connections, as well as an invitation to take a day trip (tomorrow) to hit the high (low?) spots of the border crossing experience, just the thing for finding out what has changed. I suspect the amazing Arizona desert will be the same. What they tell me in Denver is that this would be the likely area for people who have been deported from there to cross when they try to return.

Borderlinks staff: Susanna McKibben, Executive Director Fernanda Morillon, Elsbeth Pollack, Nancy Cordova, and Development Director Scott Nicholson

Borderlinks staff: Susanna McKibben, Executive Director Fernanda Morillon, Elsbeth Pollack, Nancy Cordova, and Development Director Scott Nicholson


If you want to understand why we are having the Social Action General Assembly in Arizona next summer, I say there is no better beginning than to be part of a delegation with Borderlinks. Then you can go home with open eyes and see what was right there all along, the better to become part of the solution.

To organize a trip for your group to the Arizona border, you should be in touch with Borderlinks, www.borderlinks.org, 620 South 6th Avenue, Tucson AZ, 85701-2302.

Their phone number is 520-628-8263.