Land of Hard Edges: Serving the Front Lines of the Border (Tucson: Peer Publishing, August 2014)
In her account of working with recently deported migrants just south of the Arizona/Sonora border, Peg Bowden has given us ample room for discernment – of a national avocation of hospitality for our country. She provides the context for an alternative to the reign of fear in the engagement with the other, and a chance to welcome the stranger as the one who comes – the God with us, Jesus of the end of time. Peg was shocked into awareness of a need to “do something humane” by the shootings at a Safeway in Tucson on January 8, 2011. Almost immediately she resolved to volunteer, a day a week for a year, with the Green Valley Samaritans, who cross the border from Arizona into Mexico every Tuesday to serve meals, share medical supplies, and offer simple sympathy, with people who have been deported from the United States. On the day I went with them (March 2014) the Samaritans greeted a roomful of men, mostly, with a few women and a couple of boys, who were finding their feet again after the disorienting experience of deportation. We stood at the back or sides of the dining room, after being welcomed by the nuns who run the place, waiting to serve, observing, as the benches at the tables filled with refugees. A group of young Mennonites from Canada received a lecture on the realities of the border, including an interpretation of the politics. Other Mennonites, from Brazil and France deployed through the Mennonite Central Committee office in Mexico City, were on hand. Also on hand were lawyers, young women, interviewing the recently deported about their experiences at the hands of border officials (both sides). We formed a line to pass plates of rice and beans to those at the tables – but first! There was a game of sorts, led by one of the sisters, encouraging people to create simple paper ‘vests’ representing their humanity – their identity, their connection to home and family. Then we formed a line from the kitchen and passed out food – among us was a filmmaker, a lawyer, who had just completed a documentary on the border. The Green Valley Samaritans were mostly retired, over age 70 in many cases, with a cheerful way of being helpful. What could be a dire situation was lightened by the indomitable cheer and endless passion of leaders who come here, see the big picture in small things, and see the people too, each individual one. This is the world, the reality, which Peg witnessed to in her book.
Doing something – her response to the events of January 2011 – was parallel to what some friends of mine did in Oakland after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. You could stay home and watch Channel 2 News as Dennis and Elaine, the anchors, became more frazzled through the long day of news reports, or like Doug and Mary Ellen you could walk down to the Red Cross and offer your help. The practical, healthful response to catastrophe also reminds me of the reconnaissance flights into occupied France that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry describes in Flight to Arras, a small effort, maybe fruitless, but better toss a cup of water into the fire than stand aside and watch the world burn.
In a series of episodic chapters Peg takes us through a year at el comedor, “the dining room” in Nogales, Sonora, beginning in winter, in January, when the nights are prohibitively cold and deaths in the desert come from exposure, cold, lack of water and food, exhaustion: this combination. In the summer there is hypothermia, heat and sun. All year temperatures can vary forty degrees from the cold of dawn to the heat of mid-afternoon.
Samaritans tell those who want to brave it that the journey across the desert is several days at best, not two as the coyotes (human smugglers) say. Still, at the dining area that is el comedor, there are people who have tried. Some of them may have been quickly caught and returned. Others have been caught up in Operation Streamline, in the Federal special procedures court in Tucson, a judicial process which takes only a few minutes to arraign, accept guilty pleas, and sentence as felons (some of) those who have been caught more than once entering the United States “not through an authorized point of entry”. They are detained – jailed in privately run jails – then deported. Central American migrants fare worse – they are not welcome in Mexico either.
All this goes on – has gone on – since U.S. immigration enforcement became more intense in 1994. All this goes on, along with the summer surge in migrant refugees – women and children – that bulged so large in popular consciousness in the June and July of 2014. Casa Mariposa, a small community of volunteers, was first to meet that crisis in person, in persons suddenly in large numbers dropped at the Tucson Greyhound station in the middle of the night, from a handful to dozens a night without warning. In August, other volunteers and community relief agencies took in hand this acute problem.
Those who do not make it across the desert are mourned in a weekly vigil at el Tiradito, a folk shrine in the barrio of Tucson. Franciscan brother and Redemptorist priest, activist and pacifist, atheist and faithful believer, together remember the thousands who have died in the fifteen years since they began this vigil. And they check in with each other: who has been to the border this week? How many have died? And they check the statistics, of mortality in this Federal fiscal year.
The problems continue because the underlying causes continue. People come north because they need to – to escape violence or desperate poverty in the south, to get some work, or to reunite with family, seek a new life, up north.
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When disaster strikes, natural or human, some people react by going forward. In 1989 the Loma Prieta earthquake prompted Oakland residents Doug and Mary Ellen to walk down to their local Red Cross office to volunteer. On September 11, 2001, former firefighter Steve dug his old gear out of the back of his closet in Brooklyn and headed to downtown Manhattan. And after the shooting in Tucson, January 8, 2011, Peg responded by setting out to “do something humane”. She resolves to go every week for a year, with the Green Valley Samaritans, offering her experience as a registered nurse, her compassion and her insight as a human being, to the newly deported refugees of “el comedor” (the “dining area”). There on the south side of the border, displaced and disoriented people found comfort, company, food, and good cheer – and some timely information – as they found their feet again after a traumatic experience. Mexican or Central American, mostly men, some women and children, they had crossed the desert in hopes of finding their families, a job, a new life, free of the desperate poverty and impending violence that they had left behind. At some point, however, they were stopped – no papers – and sent back, south.
Out of the system, they found their way to el comedor. Here the spirituality of migration meets a theology of hospitality, an enacted belief in compassion. Volunteers, many elders among them, along with young people and assorted religious men and women, greet them; give them a change to be human again, not deportee but person.
John Leech (an Episcopal priest of the diocese of Olympia sojourning on the Arizona border)