On The Border

February 09, 2020
Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 5:14-16

I have been back from New Mexico and Texas, from the borderlands, for two weeks. Thank you for your prayers and support as I traveled. Your care and concern accompanied me. It was a wonderful trip and yet it is sometimes difficult to know how to talk meaningfully about my experience there. The lectionary passage for the day from Isaiah gives me a framework.

Shout for all you are worth,
Raise your voice like a trumpet!
Proclaim to the people their faults.
Tell the house of Leah and Rachel and Jacob their sins!

Well, okay then. Let’s get started.

  1. People fleeing danger, people seeking a better life, are arrested and jailed.
  2. Court rooms are crowded with border crossers in shackles.
  3. Private, for profit prisons are making money off the illegal imprisonment of asylum seekers.
  4. Parents and children are being separated, sent to separate cages.
  5. Corporations are getting rich off the incarceration system: building prisons, building walls, making prison clothing, forging iron chains …
  6. Courthouses are more often home to injustice than the justice system they purport to house. False justice is handed down to black and brown people who are seen as less than human.

This is a short list, just a beginning.

It sounds contemporary but actually these sins could be “trumpeted” with very little adjustment in every century of this country’s history. These “faults” are not new. Never-ending media makes us more aware of the current situation but these sins have been ever before us. We are taught that this country was founded on freedom but another reading might be that this country was founded on greed and fear of the “other,” and white supremacy.

While these sins are not new, these sins are particularly galling since they are so contrary to the stories we tell ourselves and teach our children in school. But the truth is that children have always been torn from their parents.

Indigenous children were separated from their families, taken to schools where their culture and language was stripped from them. Families were torn apart in Africa by enslavers. And when enslaved Africans arrived in this country and began creating their own families, amidst the horrors of slavery and rape and unspeakable violence, children were put in chains and sold away from their parents. In the 20th century, Japanese families, citizens, were taken from their homes and land and imprisoned until the “war” was over.

Making profit off people in chains has been part of the story of this country for hundreds of years. The truth is – this country would never have gotten so wealthy if it weren’t for slavery, free labor for so many generations. The truth is – slavery, chains and prisons continue to morph into new forms to keep African Americans and now brown people in servitude. Profit (with an f) is made off the backs of black and brown people – even as black and brown people are some of the most important prophets (with a ph) in this country.

It is a sinful story that many white people would rather forget, ignore, deny. It is a sinful story we want to refute, making sure that we are not part of it. “I never owned slaves. I never asked for anyone to be put in chains. I never knew this history. I am not a racist.”

Yet, when we try to deny and ignore and forget these sins, they get replayed over and over in the next generation: with black people, indigenous people, Chinese people, Irish people, Italian people, Japanese people, and brown people.

One of the things I learned in the borderlands was how blind I have been, perhaps willfully so. It is painful and embarrassing. I like to think that now I have a new understanding of these sins, that I will stop denying, ignoring, forgetting. The prophet Isaiah calls out his people and he calls out me. Here Isaiah speaks for God:

They seek me daily,
They long to know my ways,
Like a nation that wants to act with integrity
And not ignore the Law of its God.
They ask me for laws that are just,
They long for God to draw near.
Yet they say, ‘Why should we fast
If you never see it?
Why do penance
If you never notice?’

It is possible that what I learned at the border I could have learned at any retreat center in the country.

I consider it a great privilege that I landed at the Holy Cross Franciscan Retreat Center just outside Las Cruces, New Mexico, with this particular group of people, gathered by Faith in Action. This spot, in the middle of a pecan orchard, with a view of the Organ Mountains, with large cactus next to a labyrinth, was an incubator for the gathering. We were African American, Latinx and white, clergy, community organizers people of faith. We were older and younger, queer and cis, from California and New Hampshire and 15 states in between. The leadership reflected this diversity. Each leader led with knowledge and a vulnerability that gave them true authority. This inspired all of us to bring our real selves to the gathering.

We started by learning about the context of the immigration crisis, the history of the border region. The crisis did not start with the election of the current president. There are plenty of historical dates to point to. One recent marker is the passage of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, that took effect in early 1994 under President Bill Clinton. By October of that same year, “Operation Gatekeeper” began with the militarization of the southern border to keep out the Mexican people migrating north for work – because with NAFTA they lost their jobs.

In over 25 years, the “operations” have changed names and the agencies enforcing the laws have changed names but the situation at the border has not improved. Two weeks ago during the peace lamp lighting I spoke about “Operation Streamline.” This is a court procedure used in courts near the border where 6-8 people at a time are brought – in shackles – before a judge. In about 5 minutes they are all asked a series of questions to which they are expected to answer yes or no. Then they are returned to detention to await the next part of the proceeding in a week or two. Then the next group of 6-8 people is brought forward.

The southern border of the United States has about 650 miles of wall and fence and barriers; these are not contiguous.

We learned that the “wall” is not protection so much as a weapon, that drives people further and further into the desert, away from water and towns and into the most desolate parts of the land. Where there are no border patrol agents, private citizen militia take the law into their own hands, with their own guns and their own vehicles, chasing down migrants to turn over to the government border patrol. And there are other private citizens who respond by leaving water and food in the desert for desperate migrants. The current administration has made it a point to have the second group of private citizens arrested and charged with unlawful entry (on government land) and abandoning property (water jugs and food packets.)  A judge in Arizona ruled this week that four volunteers who were arrested for leaving food and water in the desert in order to save lives were following their religious beliefs and were not guilty of breaking the law.

In the hands of the current president and his cronies one of the priorities (besides “the wall”) seems to be changing policies frequently so as to confuse and disrupt. A year ago, the administration decided too many people were coming into the country asking for asylum. Thus began the Migrant Protection Protocols; people must stay in Mexico to ask for asylum. It is not illegal to request asylum but we currently have a policy that acts as if it is illegal to flee life-threatening danger in your home country and come to the US to ask for safe haven. We heard from Maria who said that of all the dangers she fled in her home country of Guatemala, all the horrors she endured coming to the border, the worst was arriving and being held in detention in the US. (She arrived before the Migrant Protection Protocols were put in place.)

We learned that changing policies means changing language. Helping people in need is part of our faith; now it is an arrestable offense. Crossing the border without papers used to be a civil offense. Now it is a criminal charge. The new term is “crimmigration” – criminalizing immigration.

It is not just the volunteers in the desert; many people of faith are trying to do what they can to respond to this crisis. We visited a small United Methodist church in Las Cruces that opens itself as a shelter for those being released from detention while they await their asylum cases. With one shower, a kitchen the size of our church kitchen and a fellowship hall less than 1/2 the size of ours, they served 10,000 meals and hosted 1900 people as they were released from detention in 2018. Then the Migrant Protection Protocols were put into place and people were no longer allowed into the country. The volunteers no longer had work to do in the US. Their job was done. But these faithful people know what the government does not; the border does not stop compassion. Now the church shelter, 40 miles from the border, is the gathering place for volunteers to carpool as they drive to the border. They cross into Juarez where they help migrants who wait to be accepted in the US immigration system. The volunteers bring food and clothes, diapers and medicines, as well as companionship to people waiting in cold and dangerous conditions on the streets in Juarez.

Part of the painful learning on this border trip took place during the debriefings after intense encounters, at the wall and the courthouse, after hearing stories from women who live in fear of Border Patrol, even in their own homes. As we talked about our responses to the injustices we witnessed, we heard anew the injustices that some of those in the group grew up with, continue to live with every day in their home communities. I will never forget the African American pastor who spoke about her 13 year old daughter being picked up by the police, handcuffed and assaulted. She wondered aloud why there was no “rapid response network” for her to call. People responding to the immigration crisis have created rapid response phone lines for people to call when ICE is near or knocking on their doors. There is a parallel crisis in the African American community with militarized policing, racialized policing.  It is a crisis as old as this country. Where is the rapid response hotline for that?

I had been aware, superficially, that there is tension between immigrants and African Americans. It is an open secret. One of the tools of white supremacy is creating tension, conflict, distrust – and even a hierarchy, between groups that are oppressed. If the black people and immigrants keep fighting each other maybe they won’t notice that their oppressor is the white supremacist system. White people don’t have to worry about this; it doesn’t concern us.

This is a lie that white supremacy perpetuates. The violent oppression should, and does, concern all of us. That was painfully and honestly made plain in the midst of our group: African American, Latinx and white, all people of good faith. As a white person, it was hard to know how to respond to this truth. Guilt? Shame? Pleading ignorance was not an option. Listening deeply seemed a possibility. Telling the truth now seems obvious.

We did see glimmers of hope. Holy Cross Retreat Center, where our group was based, is home to five religious brothers who live in community. They offered the Center as a sanctuary to a mother and her child. Father Tom said, “We have never had a child running around, living with us here before. It was exciting.” The small family moved on and the brothers currently have a single man living in sanctuary with them.

We met Susan, who has opened her home to Maria and her teenage son, Carlos, while they wait for a ruling on their asylum claim. Susan is a fierce advocate and is trying to find a new home for Maria and Carlos, a home where their asylum claim is more likely to be granted than by the courts in New Mexico.

Johana, Allex, Stevie and Abraham are on staff at New Mexico CAFE, Communidades en Accion y de Fe, Communities in Action and Faith. These courageous, young leaders look like superheroes and they sort of are.

They reach out and organize people that many disregard and ignore. They are empowering documented and undocumented immigrants to demand their rights, help them live with dignity and find community.

There is a wonderful art museum in El Paso that features art of the borderlands and from borderlands artists.(It also has a large European art collection.) It is at once political, beautiful and challenging.

One thing this trip did not do was give us an opportunity to be of service, to be put to work. Too often white people think we have the answers, the great white savior complex, though we may not understand the situation or take time to get to know the people who are already hard at work responding to the crisis. For me, this trip was another step in learning, in understanding history and context, in understanding white supremacy. Yes, I witnessed horrors of the immigration system, the giant profit-making detention centers and temples to injustice that are the courts. And I was a witness to the beauty and resiliency of people at the border, as well the resiliency and creativity of people who live with racism every day across this country.

At the end of Isaiah 58 there is a description, a prescription, a blessing, a response to injustice any time. May it be our prayer as we continue to find ways to love our neighbors, across the street, at the border and around the world.

If you give yourself to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your shadows will become like noon.
YHWH will always guide you,
giving relief in desert places.
God will give strength to your bones
and you will be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water
whose waters never run dry.
You will rebuild the ancient ruins
and build upon age-old foundations.
You will be called Repairer of the Breach,
Restorer of Ruined Neighborhoods. Amen.