‘Shared Experiences, Changed Lives’

Personal reflections about U.S.-Mexico border trip

A group of S.C. United Methodist clergy and laity journeyed to the U.S.-Mexico border April 28-May 2 for an educational trip designed to open their eyes to immigration reform and immigrants.

Called “Shared Experiences, Changed Lives,” the trip was sponsored by the S.C. Conference Rapid Response and Refugee and Immigrant Ministries Team and was led by Borderlinks, a nonprofit that focuses on cross-border relationship-building, immigration, community formation and social justice. The Rev. Richard Reams and the Rev. Keith Ray organized the trip for the S.C Conference.

The team visited migrant shelters and ministries that provide food and water to migrants, observed mass trials and more. They also explored the work of the Colibri Center for Human Rights, an organization that works to identify human remains on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Here are some reflections by team members on what they experienced:

Rev. Ryan Spurrier

As I struggle to make sense of my experiences along the Arizona/Mexico border, there’s a sentence that lingers: “If there are moral compromises, then I’m OK with it.”

This sentence was spoken by Ryan Moore, a federal public defender for the District of Arizona. Moore came of age religiously in the 1980s as his church, Southside Presbyterian, took the lead in providing sanctuary to refugees from Central America who were denied asylum by our federal government. Formed by that experience, he became a public defender to protect the vulnerable, but he now feels his hands are tied by Operation Streamline in which there are no trials to be fought—only plea deals to be accepted—and no avenues to argue against what he considers an encroachment upon due process.

Instead, when working with Operation Streamline clients, he feels powerless, only able to give compassion as they are quickly processed and imprisoned. Should he quit on principle and become a public defender farther from the border? Should he stay and at least offer compassion while protecting the vulnerable in his other trials? These questions haunt him, but at least for now, he is staying to do what he can: “If there are moral compromises, then I’m OK with it.”

Although not everyone we met said these words, moral compromises are as rampant along the border as illegal entries. Take for the example the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer who takes no joy in deporting those who have come only to support starving families and who finds his job most fulfilling when freeing undocumented persons from abusive smugglers. But his hands are tied. He cannot focus solely on the dangerous drug running and gun running organizations because border crossings and drug and gun smuggling have become so intertwined that there is no way to tell the difference in the desert.

At the border, everywhere you turn there is another layer of complexity and compromise, pointing to the one thing that everyone on the border—whether activists or public defenders or ICE agents—agrees: the system is broken; reform is needed.

And the second most-agreed-upon truth of the border, acknowledged by everyone we met, is that the overwhelming majority of those crossing our border without proper documentation are good, hard-working people who only want to feed their families. But as long as it is a crime to cross the border, these otherwise honest people will willingly become criminals to keep their families back home from suffering, even if they must suffer in the process; 150-250 of them will die in the desert this year.

What do we do? After being on the border, I have no choice but to call for what so many of the people I met on the border call for: federal immigration reform allowing honest people who can find work in the United States to enter our country legally through official ports of entry so they will no longer have to fear of the desert or abuse from smugglers. This would simultaneously cut into the revenue of drug cartels engaged in people smuggling and allow ICE to focus solely on those entering our country for purposes of organized crime.

But what do we do in the meantime, as partisan gridlock stalls reform while undocumented persons keep showing up on our doorsteps hungry and thirsty, strangers in need of clothing and other necessities of life? Somehow, I just can’t shake Jesus’ call to feed them, welcome them and give them clothing and other humanitarian aid (see Matthew 25:31-46).

But also, in the midst of the compromised and compromising situation that is the U.S./Mexico border, made worse by our polarized political climate, we must pray as the Franciscans: “Lord, bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts” as we learn to live alongside our undocumented neighbors.

Rev. Richard Reams

It would be impossible to capture the entirety of our trip in an article; please know that up front. But the things we experienced deserve to be shared; the stories we heard and the lives we encountered deserve an attempt.

This attempt will be framed around three words: see, think, act; three words that live in a beautifully challenging cycle; three words that should frame the mindset of our ministries. See; think; act (repeat).

This is the framework for learning at BorderLinks and the unspoken foundation behind our inaugural C.E. Trip to the Border. Our delegation included five clergy from S.C. (Megan Augustine, Andrew Wolfe, Ryan Spurrier, Keith Ray and Richard Reams), one clergy from Florida and three from Northern Illinois. We were also joined for a few days by a professor and top political advisor from South Korea doing research on border politics.

Our conference should be proud to know that this was the first United Methodist trip of its kind and has garnered attention from across the country! Other conferences, caucuses and boards have expressed an interested in replicating this trip on a regular basis so that more clergy and laity alike can see things they would never see at home, think about them in guided community discussions and act in every way possible based on what they have learned.

We spent the Tuesday morning walking a trail in the desert to see belongings that had been left and the places three people had died (two adults and one teenager). Nothing can quite prepare you for seeing a person’s belongings decaying in the desert or the places where they perished. But perhaps the most uncomfortable moment of that day: we all could see the houses of a gated community in the distance when we stood in front of the two crosses, forever reminding us where they died. Or to think at night they could have seen the lights of hope coming from the houses; were they too afraid or too exhausted to go any further?

We will never know because their voice was lost to the desert. As we prayed the Lord’s Prayer, one phrase will never be heard the same way again “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

I saw those images in the desert, and I’ve been thinking about them ever since. One of the poems read that morning contained this line: “The wind driven dust erased their names but we will never forget…our voice cries out in the desert.” A day has not gone by where that last line has not echoed in my head: a voice cries out in the wilderness. Only this time the voice is the collective voice of those who have died because of our inhumane immigration policy and the wilderness is in our backyard. The lingering question is still: how will my actions change? What can I change with my actions?

See, think, act.

We saw a wall built to keep people out. We also saw how our economic policies have closed factories and put countless households out of work. But we saw a wall built to make sure those same people couldn’t follow their jobs north. We saw the place a 17-year-old young man was shot 17 times for allegedly throwing rocks at border patrol. What we saw was where the boy stood and the untold feet and yards away the agent was; we saw the discrepancies in our country’s story and the pain that still exists in that community. We saw the pain on the faces of families separated by deportation and Operation Streamline. We saw more in five days than I could have hoped for in a lifetime.

I hope to have more detailed information and pictures available on the concourse at Annual Conference. It will be located at the Immigration and Rapid Response Team’s Table. If you would like a member from this trip to do a presentation for your church, UMW or small group, we would be more than happy to if it is possible.

These questions must be asked constantly to stay attuned to God at work in the world: what are we seeing in the world around us, especially at it relates to our immigrant brothers and sisters? Are we using our God-given ability to think and reason together about a complex world, and refrain from parroting media byte sound clips? And most importantly, do we have the courage to act?

John Fife, founder of the Sanctuary movement and one of our speakers, leaves us with a great challenge. He says, “All of Hebrew Scripture is about Exodus. In the Torah, we’re told to love our neighbors one time…once…we told 36 times to love the alien among us. 36 times! He knew that was going to be harder for us to handle.”

Hard should never be an excuse to not love someone. A lack of knowledge should never be an excuse for apathy. None of us can keep our eyes closed forever.

Rev. Megan Augustine

I went on the continuing education experience at the U.S.-Mexico border not knowing what to expect. I only knew three phrases in Spanish (“hello,” “I am allergic to oranges” and “thank you very much”). I literally couldn’t even find a bathroom in case of emergency, so I have to admit I was a bit nervous about crossing borders of language and culture, not to mention that million-dollar-per-mile fence across the desert.

I wasn’t sure what I could even contribute to our group, or what I could give to the people we would meet along the way. But I went anyway. And just like any other cross-cultural experience I’ve had over the years, I received so much more than I could ever give.

One of the most poignant parts of our trip to the border was when we stopped by a governmental assistance program called Groupo Beta in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. We stood alongside many migrants recently deported from the United States. But their stories weren’t even remotely comparable to the headlines on our news. These weren’t the stories of drug or human trafficking. These weren’t people trying to steal our jobs or ruin our economy. These were ordinary people, just like you and me, who desperately wanted to be reunited with their families.

One told us that he had been in the United States since he was 8 years old; he was now 58 and longed to be reunited with his mother, seven children, and twelve grandchildren who live in the state of Oregon. We then met a young couple that had been living outside of Chicago. After being in the U.S. for more than a decade, they had to return to Mexico to help his ailing mother. Now the U.S. government would not allow them to return, and their local government officials asked that they surrender their parental rights to their two young daughters still in Chicago. They refused and were desperately trying to reconnect with their elementary-aged children.

Another man who had been living in Phoenix for longer than I’d been alive kept repeating over and over, “I just want to be with my kids. I just want to be with my kids.” He shared with us that he was never even given a reason for being taken away from his family. Many of us have grieved over the separation from family members before, but I know that I simply cannot fathom what it would be like to know I likely would never see my family again, especially when they are just a few miles across a national border.

Last week, there was a news headline shared throughout social media that said U.S. immigration reform is to blame for the lime shortage in the United States right now. People were outraged that there weren’t enough limes for their fancy cocktails or guacamole. As Americans, we’ve made the issues of immigration reform into a laughing matter.

My time at the border helped me see that we as Christians also aren’t taking the issue of immigration as seriously as we should. If we really are one body with many members, we cannot be divided. Not by language, not by culture, not by oppressive laws or the world’s most expensive fence. We have to know that the vocabulary we use, the choices we make and the items we purchase have not only led to the plight of our neighbors to the south but also impact them every day.

More than anything, meeting those whose lives have been immensely impacted by harsh immigration reform reminds me that the headlines we see do not compare to the intimate reality faced by millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We must work together to revitalize this situation, not further demoralize it.

After all, no human being is illegal in the eyes of God. Neither should we regard one another in that way.

Rev. Keith Ray

As clergy, we know what it’s like to be with those who die. We are called to the hospital room, to the home, to the nursing facility. And we hold the hands of those who pass from this life to the next.

Perhaps that’s why the thought of dying alone is particularly haunting to us. Between 1990 and 1999, the average number of remains discovered in the desert was 12 per year. Now that number averages 163 every year. Since 2001, more than 2,100 remains have been discovered in the desert and many remain unidentified. As our guide told us as we walked through the desert, “If your shoes fall apart (something that often happens), you’re dead. If you run out of water, you’re dead. If you begin to feel the effects of heat exhaustion, you’re dead.”

And so they die. Alone. Each year. And in a matter of days, the brutality of the desert destroys the remains to the point of not being able to recognize those who die.

Why the dramatic increase of deaths in the harsh desert? During the Clinton presidency, a decision was made to enforce the U.S.-Mexico border by creating a so-called “funneling effect” by closing off typical patterns of migration that were followed through safer and more populated areas. New policies of border security pushed would-be migrants into more remote areas of the desert. The theory was that this funneling would stop migrants from coming if they were forced to journey through the harsh desert. The policy shift toward increasing militarization of the border did nothing to address the root causes of migration and persons continued to risk the dangerous journey.

The Colibri Center for Human Rights works to identify human remains on the U.S.-Mexico border through comprehensive forensic research and reliable data on missing persons. The executive director of Colibri, Robin Reineke, spoke to our group about her organization’s work of matching remains with information received from families who are missing loved ones. As we learned about this work, I was reminded of the care with which we as clergy deal with the bodies of those entrusted to us at the time of death and burial. It is a holy task to preside over the remains of someone’s loved one. And the work of Colibri reminds us of the thing that binds us all together on both sides of the border: we are human. We are made in the image of God. And it is simply unacceptable to accept the annual death of our sisters and brothers in the desert.

But the focus of the work of Colibri and others is one of hope. Through awareness and education, there is the belief that we will not be able to accept so passively the loss of our sisters and brothers who are migrating in search of a better life. Indeed, I am reminded of the words of Oscar Romero, martyr of El Salvador, who said, “How beautiful will be the day when a new society, instead of selfishly hoarding and keeping, apportions, shares, divides up, and all rejoice because we all feel we are children of the same God!”

The work of the Colibri Center for Human Rights is opening our eyes to the policies of our own government that lead to death. Let us learn from the dead as they speak through their remains of a better way, a holy way, a way that honors our common humanity.

Elizabeth Murray

Operation Streamline is a court process in Arizona and Texas that funnels immigrants through our legal system that have been caught trying to cross the border for at least the second time. Roughly 70 people are sentenced in about 90 minutes every day, five days a week.

The U.S. government creates a plea bargain for the migrants. If the people so choose to accept the bargain, they will plead guilty to a misdemeanor offense of illegal reentry into the U.S. with time of 30 to 180 days in a detention center, before being formally deported. If they choose not to plead guilty to the misdemeanor, they will charge with a felony and will go through a formal court proceeding. Each person receives about 30 minutes to an hour with an immigration lawyer pro bono.

In April, as we sat in the Tucson courtroom, people from either Mexico or Central America walked in one by one with their hands and feet bound in iron chains. I heard the clank, clank of their chains as they walk up to face the judge. As I sat there watching them walk in front of the judge and hearing their names called, I couldn’t help but think of the families they left behind and the pain they endured to come to the United States. But I also couldn’t help to see similarity in the wrongful arrest of Christ before he was crucified.

As a Christian, I am convicted by how these human beings are treated in our courts in the Southwest. Where can we see Christ in the people we meet daily, even those who we deem as illegal? Is that you, Jesus? Reveal yourself to me.

Rev. Andrew Wolfe

I was apprehensive about meeting with Special Agent in Charge Fernando Boullia because we had spent the majority of time in Arizona/Mexico speaking with people who were adversely affected from the U.S. immigration policy, many of whom were directly negatively impacted from the action of border agents and officials. One could easily argue that Agent Boullia has benefited from the U.S. immigration policy.

Boullia works for the office of homeland security and leads teams whose goal it is to stop drug trafficking by arresting and prosecuting those who break the drug laws of the United States. This is done through formal checkpoints, through the desert reconnaissance and even by unmanned drones. His agency also seeks to stop the flow of human trafficking from Mexico into the U.S., with a particular emphasis in arresting so-called coyotes, a slang term for those who traffic humans across borders. He is also tasked with arresting and deporting undocumented individuals who are caught crossing the border.

I was amazed at the wealth of information Boullia had to offer. He gave a detailed outline of the issues of drug and human trafficking, and shared his own distain for the U.S. immigration system and its failures. He also showed remarkable compassion for the many individuals and families who cross simply to make a better life for themselves. He spoke with conviction when he shared about his experiences of having to handcuff, shackle and deport mothers, fathers and children.

Perhaps most importantly, he gave insight into the challenges facing immigration reform. He believes comprehensive immigration reform has not been passed because many industries depend on below-minimum-wage workers in order to maximize profit and to keep costs low. For example, an undocumented worker who picks green beans may be paid $4.50 per hour in cash. If legal status was available for this person, then they would be required to be paid the federal minimum wage.

Here are a couple of typical stories from individuals attempting to cross to border to secure an economically viable future for their families:

1) An undocumented worker crosses the border and finds work harvesting lettuce in New Mexico. He is paid $5 per house and works 80 hours per week during the harvest. He lives with a number of other individuals who also work on the farm. He makes in one day what he could make for a similar job in Mexico, and he sends the majority of the money home. Outcome: Higher profit for the farm owner, less expensive food for American consumers, low wages for worker, no job protection and very limited access to legal system in abuse happens.

2) A husband and wife have lived in the U.S. for 10 years and the husband’s father became very ill and died. The family traveled to Nogoles, Mexico, to attend the funeral, leaving their two teenaged sons in the care of a couple of friends. In attempting to re-enter the U.S., both husband and wife are picked up by border patrol on two occasions. Outcome: Both husband and wife are charged with a felony but accept a plea deal for a misdemeanor and spend 30 days behind bars at a private prison in Arizona. During the trial, the mother is encouraged to give up the birthrights to her children so they can stay in the United States. Furthermore, it will cost taxpayers $10,000 before they are formally deported again. Private prisons and attorneys profit. The undocumented family and U.S. taxpayers bear the weight and cost of our immigration system.

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