Monday, July 1, 2019

At the Border of Our Humanity

At its best, peacemaking integrates heart, head, and hands. As MPT's June border team leaves Tijuana and ponders next steps, it is worth reflecting on the importance of these three aspects of peace team work.

First, the heart . . .

One would need to have a heart of stone to stand outside the port of entry at El Chaparral where so many are fleeing for their lives and the lives of their families and not feel the horror and hope born of desperation that hangs in the early morning air. A montage of images - some minuscule in detail but enormous in meaning - lodge in the heart, painting a picture of a system that is utterly broken by design.

An exhausted mother, babe in arms, with two toddlers in tow waiting for a number to be called that day . . . or not. An educator fleeing Cameroon describing politically-motivated atrocities back home as well as the hunger and dead bodies he encountered as he made the dangerous trek through the jungle of the treacherous Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama. A woman in the final days of pregnancy boarding a bus that will take her into the bowels of the U.S. immigration system while her partner is left behind. A pink backpack, a handful of tattered documents, numbers written on tiny slips of paper.

Bearing witness to this manufactured crisis tears at the heart, but to stop there would be an exercise in sentimentality and solipsism. A large part of the work of MPT is to observe and monitor what is happening on the ground and then engage in ongoing study and social analysis so that subsequent teams can come to the work with a richer context.

What the team observed at the border is, in great part, a result of war, poverty, racism, and imperialism. If we fail to get down to the root causes of the conditions that drive immigration, human rights observers will be standing at borders forever.

How can one bear witness, for example, to the many Salvadorans fleeing north without understanding the context of U.S. complicity and direct involvement in a bloody civil war and campaign of terror waged against the poor of that country, many of whom were tortured and killed by men trained on U.S. soil at the School of the Americas  (renamed WHINSEC) with U.S. tax dollars?

When President Trump demonizes migrants across the board as menacing gang members, he fails to mention the fact that Central American gangs originated in Los Angeles where Salvadoran families fled to escape horrific violence fueled, to a great extent, by our own country's policies of standing with the privileged and powerful.

While the overwhelming majority of Salvadoran asylum seekers are fleeing violence, including gang violence, there are deeper questions that beg to be asked.

For example, wouldn't it make sense to address the personal and collective trauma resulting from poverty, war, and displacement and explore its relationship to violence? Why do the media cover gruesome acts of criminality but turn a deaf ear to the violence of poverty that so often gives rise to street violence? What needs to happen so that youth, not only in El Salvador but around the world, have authentic options and hope for the future?

These are the kinds of questions that must be asked as part of peace team work.

It is crucial that team members learn about the histories and cultures of those with whom we stand in order to understand the structural violence that leads so many people to the border in the first place. It is also important to recognize that the situation at the border is fluid, reflecting political, economic, and social realities that are ever changing.

For example, since February when MPT was last in Tijuana, there has been a demographic change at El Chaparral. During the winter, the team observed a small group of Cameroonians waiting each morning for their numbers to be called; today their numbers have swelled dramatically. Frustrated, they report that they have been kept waiting for months, claiming that the process is racist and corrupt.

It is worth noting that the illegal "metering" system that is currently in place was instituted during the Obama administration in response to an influx of Haitians who had arrived at the border. The team listened deeply to Cameroonians who believe that race is a major factor in their being kept in Tijuana longer than other asylum seekers.

Many of them complained to MPT that their numbers are being passed over by a process that favors asylum seekers from Central America and Mexico. One man from Cameroon, pointing to a brown-skinned family waiting in line to board the bus, told the team that the metering system is racist in favor of "white" people like "them," serving as a reminder that systems of oppression always rely on a strategy of divide-and-conquer, something the team witnessed in Tijuana.

It became obvious to the Summer Team that we need to learn much more about the situation in Cameroon in order to have a better grasp of what is happening on the U.S - Mexico border before sending our next team.

Once this team returns home, its members will continue to read, study, and keep up updated on all aspects of the immigration process as part of the follow-up work.

Questions need to be asked, for example, about the relationship between harsh immigration policies and white supremacy. About immigrants are being exploited as a money-making mechanism for the private prison industry. About an election cycle during which immigrants will be objectified as dangerous scapegoats by some candidates and used as self-serving sound bytes for others.

There are also the issues of squalid migrant detention centers, the Migrant Protection Protocols (or what some call the Migrant Persecution Protocols), and ongoing ICE arrests  (MPT's home base, Michigan, has the second highest arrest rate in the country) that team members will respond to in ways that each of us will discern when we arrive home.

MPT's summer team is committed to studying these various aspects of the complex and cruel immigration system and more as team members prepare talks and presentations . . . which leads to the final aspect of the summer team's peace work - action!

As it's been said, "to know and not to do is not to know." The team takes being at the border seriously. We return to Roanoke, Los Angeles, Northern California, and Michigan to share what we learned with our communities, connect with organizations and activists working on immigration and human rights advocacy, and meet with our elected officials to report on what we witnessed and documented. Of course, the work will also involve recruiting and preparing future teams to return to the U.S. - Mexico border.

MPT's primary focus is creating a just world grounded in active nonviolence through the practice of peaceful presence, unarmed civilian accompaniment, observation/documentation, and placing our bodies in front of those who would harm others (interpositioning).  We bring our hearts, heads, and hands to the work.

The violence of the present moment - so much of it rooted in poverty, racism, and militarism - demands peacemakers committed to opening our hearts and using our minds and getting our hands in the dirt. Nothing less will do if we hope to tear down the walls in our world that keep us from becoming fully human.

Here is a link to a comprehensive report that was researched during the time MPT was in Tijuana.

Hope and Anguish

Enclave Caracol  

 An older gentleman with difficulty walking due to diabetes comes down the stairs after a visit with a volunteer in the medical clinic. One of our team members stationed at the door comments that she sees that he got some new shoes. He says” Yes! and they are beautiful!”

Food Not Bombs volunteers create wonderful welcoming aromas in the kitchen next to the entry/exit for Al Otro Lado’s legal workshop. They serve  meals four evenings a week. On Friday afternoon as our Peace Team members provide security near the clinic door, we ask "what's cooking? it smells wonderful!." They tell us it's lemon balm tincture and explain it's use in promoting calmness and easing stress. 

A young mother sits in the hallway, rocking her infant daughter, looking a bit worried. A volunteer with beginner Spanish skills says “ah...bonita!” and gestures toward the two of them.   The mother’s face lights up with a beautiful broad smile.

A childcare volunteer follows a toddler as she walks towards the stairway. The little girl hides her face behind the metal railing just cleaned by another Al Otro Lado volunteer…a game of peekaboo begins. 

Mural at Al Otro Lado:
 “The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life forms.Love flowers best in openness and freedom.” - Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

El Chaparral Port of Entry

As names are called, a young boy with his family stands behind the metal barriers. His eyes are intensely focused on the list manager, his hands are clasped together at his chin.  Although one of the names in his family is called, and several move forward in hope, the list managers say there is only space for one person. The next day the boy and two family members are called. They leave other family members behind for another day.

A woman appearing to be near full-term in her pregnancy is called. A man steps forward with her and they line up behind the others who have been called. Within a minute the man leaves. He is not allowed to cross with her. She must go alone. Volunteers who know her say she is not well.

After hearing her name, a young woman moves into the line of those called. She stands against the barred fencing, looking outward to those who are watching and waiting for their day. A few moments later, as a man calls out to her, she turns away, burying her head between the bars, sobbing.

Two volunteers arrive with a cart containing a large pot of hot liquid, cups, a frying pan and a painted sign. They park the cart near people waiting in the line. The board is placed at the top of the cart. It says ”Avena Gratis.”  As one volunteer holds the pan filled with cups, the other fills the cups with the hot beverage. The drinks are offered to all who are waiting.

After his family members names were not called, even though list organizers had promised the day before that they would be, a young Cameroonian man and his friend express deep disappointment.  They tell a few white American human rights observers in the area that the system is not fair. They point to their skin and tell us the system is clearly racist and urge us to do something about it.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Behind Walls of Separation

El Chaparral has changed again since MPT was last here. No longer are the government agencies attempting to maintain a facade of an autonomous asylum seekers self-managed list. Now, the red canopy and the list managers sit inside the National Institution of Migration / Border Police parking area, behind huge metal posts set side by side - a fence that mirrors the Border wall itself, hiding and blocking the recording of illegal numbers and the entire process. 

The assertion that the list managers as asylum seekers are in authority and control the list wears thin when they are seen sitting behind a fence that isolates one asylum seeker from another creating a cold and impersonal shield of separation. People's lives are neatly arranged in illusionary ink, reduced to slips of paper and handed through the inhumane barrier. The stories of the migrants have been muted - the human voice can barely pass through this metal barrier. 

The entire sidewalk is roped off. Asylum seekers must stand a great distance away, held back by yet another metal barrier where a list manager tells them when to advance down the sidewalk to release their precious documents through the metal barrier. They wait, poised to see if the papers will prove their right to ask for asylum or to see if  they will be told that they don't have the proper documents. How can an asylum seeker believe that there is anything other than an orchestrated dance of cruelty and corruption behind this metal veil that denigrates U.S. and international law and the right to seek asylum? 

Upon return this summer, tensions are rising. MPT has observed the escalation of indignation by those holding the tiny illegal numbers for weeks and sometimes months. They angrily challenge the system demanding answers to why their number has not been called - questioning why they have been bypassed while others are allowed entry. A team member observed an asylum seeker look a Grupos Beta humanitarian agent in the eye saying, "I know what's going on - I heard with my own ears someone with a number lower than me say, 'Cuanto me cobra?' ('How much will it cost me?').

A team member listened to this exchange, witnessing the agent respond stoically to the accusations that were bravely asserted by this man and two women. They stood directly in the driveway entrance on the Mexican side of the border - yards away from where "the chosen" line up to board the vans that drive them less than half a kilometer away to Ped East Point of Entry. There they disembark only to be shuffled in a line - grandmothers, babies, and pregnant women. Then they are turned over to the custody of ICE on the U.S. side and loaded and transported by U.S. vans a mere 200 feet from where they were boarded at El Chaparral in the first place. 

Meanwhile, out in the center divide stand the Africans of Cameroon, Togo and Yemen, along with the Haitians and Jamaicans, visibly segregated from the lighter-skinned asylum seekers. They all stand waiting to be called. Team members observed seven numbers called today which should mean 70 people cross, but instead only 14 are transported to Al Otro Lado (the other side). The questions hang in the air.  Why? And again Who goes? Who stays and who is making a profit? We observe, we listen and meticulously document to find the answers.

There are other things to consider as well like: Who gets to have an audience? Who is turned away? Which documents are accepted and why aren’t others? Our team members witness the dire reality of this manufactured crisis that squeezes out the last remnants of civility. It is a world gone mad with waiting and fearful desperation mired in exhaustion. Team members know that there will be more trauma for these families, the seekers of asylum, before relief is found if at all. 

Today the Summer Meta Peace Team saw there was a UN representative taking photos of the people waiting in an illegal line for illegal numbers - their lives illegally held in limbo by a number on a piece of paper.  Meta Peace Team holds a peaceful and loving presence in the wake of chaos.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

A System Designed to Make Life Hard

Since arriving at the border this summer, MPT has heard disturbing information and seen questionable actions that indicate that the process of asylum-seeking operates neither fairly nor squarely. The process has become more complicated, secretive and corrupt.

Most readers of this blog already know about the illegal “metering” system. Instead of being welcomed into the US as international law states, an asylum seeker is given a number on a tiny piece of paper. Because that number will not be called for weeks or months, people have to find a place to stay until that number is reached.  There is no way to tell exactly when the number will be called.  Anywhere from 0 to 100 names may be called on any day, so asylum seekers must pack up their families and all of their possessions and get themselves to the border at 7 AM (sometimes requiring several hours of travel). They do this for several days in a row in order to be there when their number is called.  If they miss the call, they must start over again by getting a new number and the wait continues.

Today 60 new arrivals received their numbers while only 30 names of asylum seekers were called, and of those 30 names, a total of 15 people actually passed through to the US where their first stop will be detention centers for several weeks.  One team member expressed to an English-speaking asylum seeker who was standing next to her that she was concerned that so many people were missing their call. The woman explained that many of those who were not there at this time had paid to get lower numbers and had passed through at an earlier date.  

The difference between the numbers that were distributed today and the numbers of the asylum seekers who were able to enter the U.S. represents 3240 individuals. That shows how many people are left waiting “in limbo,” stuck at the border, trying to find life’s basic needs: food, clothing, shelter. This life is hard. We hear that. We see that. We sense that. This life is hard. And the system seems designed to make it that way.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Border Report - Context and Orientation

Monday was MPT's first full day in Tijuana. The team spent the day connecting with partners to discuss the work ahead, meeting with friends from the Unified U.S. Deported Veterans, and visiting Las Playas de Tijuana where the border wall reaches out into the ocean like a long finger pointing toward freedom and a world without walls.

Throughout the week, the team will be posting short reports on what we are witnessing and doing at the border. Upon return, team members will offer more detailed accounts of the situation on the ground.These daily posts are offered as brief snapshots of what is happening here.

The day began with the news that  Mexico was sending 15, 000 troops to the northern U.S.- Mexico border in response to pressure from the Trump administration. This was followed by reports that a migrant father and his 23-month-old daughter drowned a migrant father and his 23-month-old daughter drowned while attempting to cross the Rio Grande. These realities, along with the ongoing rash of stories detailing the horrid conditions in U.S. immigration detention facilities and the ongoing manufactured humanitarian crisis at the border, provide some of the context for the work of MPT's June Border Team.

After orienting ourselves and being brought up to date on the situation at the border and beyond for those seeking asylum, the team visited the office of the Unified Deported U.S. Veterans and Veterans for Peace Tijuana. These veterans, who are dealing with the trauma of war, detention, and deportation, have been waging a mighty struggle to return home to their families and friends in the U.S. As Hector, one of the deported vets, says: "If I died tonight, my ashes could be returned to the States where I would be given a full military funeral, yet while I'm alive I can't return to the only home I know . . .  I'm an American."

Although the injustice of being deported after having served in the military has been devastating for each veteran, collectively they have built a strong and loving community here in Tijuana where, in addition to their advocacy work, they offer support to newly-deported vets and direct aid to migrants living in Tijuana's shelters.

When MPT was here in February, the team was invited by the veterans to place a peace team at a march they were co-sponsoring with a local Muslim group.

This team plans on accompanying the vets later in the week as they offer humanitarian relief to migrants. Individual team members are also arranging meetings with their elected officials back home in order to raise the issue of justice for these deported vets and offer an eye witness report of what is happening on the U.S. - Mexico border..

After leaving the vets' office, the team went to Las Playas de Tijuana where the wall that separates Tijuana from San Diego stretches out into the ocean. This is where Friendship Park is located, the site where the deported vets organize weekly bi-national church services.This is also the site where Pat Nixon famously stated that she wished the barbed wire fence that separates the people of two such friendly nations would be cut down.

This area, which once provided a space for families on both sides of the border to connect with one another, is now highly restricted and monitored by U.S. Border Patrol. Today Friendship Park is open for only a few hours on weekends to ten people at a time, a far cry from the vision of unity articulated by the former First Lady.

Despite draconian policies to keep people separated, the wall has become a place of resistance and hope.This is where deported veterans have painted their names onto the iron slats of the wall and where the ugliness of separation has been transformed into a beautiful statement of shared humanity through art and gardens and creative expressions of solidarity. 

The team's last visit of the day to the  Tijuana's Border Angels office and migrant shelter that hug the beach at Las Playas. MPT learned that earlier in the afternoon, ten Mexican soldiers conducted a raid on the shelter, arresting two men. The team wonders if this raid has anything to do with the day's news about Mexican troops being sent to the U.S. - Mexico border. The team will keep in touch with Border Angels and post updates.

Early tomorrow morning the team will report to  El Chaparral at the U.S. point of entry (POE) to provide human rights monitoring and a peaceful presence.This is where those seeking asylum line up early in the morning in order to be placed on a waiting list as part of a "metering" process that is in violation of international and U.S. law.

Others, having waited weeks or even months after being placed on the list, also gather at El Chaparral in the hope that their numbers will be called that day. Those whose names are announced will then board a bus that will take them on a hellish journey that begins with being held in the hielera (ice box) for processing. From there, these asylum seekers will step into an uncertain future that may include family separation, detention, and being sent back to Mexico.


Al Otro Lado Border Rights Project:

Refugee Blockade: The Trump Administration's Obstruction of Asylum Claims at the Border (Human Rights First Fact Sheet)

Monday, June 24, 2019

MPT at the Border - Summer Team

MPT Summer Border Team is off to a great start having arrived in Tijuana in time for orientation with our partner organization. We see great need for our compassionate presence. Asylum seekers face a very difficult, complicated  - even horrendous - process at all levels, and many of the potential outcomes are devastating. Over and over again arbitrary decisions are made such as: the time pending between presenting themselves and having their claims heard, the documentation process and whether or not family members are going to be separated. Much of what we heard at orientation helped us better understand the process and fueled our desire to work for human dignity and freedom. Our work begins today.

Monday, March 25, 2019

When our team arrived in Tijuana, we could not know what we would experience in the days ahead.  Would the border be open or closed?  Would we need to use our violence de-escalation methods to help protect migrants?  How could we be most helpful to the most vulnerable persons at the border?  We discovered that while Tijuana can be a very dangerous place, our day to day experience was, on the surface, quite ordinary.  Tijuana is like many cities of its size.  And fairly safe if you are traveling in a group, have reliable shelter, have access to money and transportation, and know who to approach for help.  We had those advantages, most do not.  Through our orientation with Al Otro Lado and our first-hand experience at El Chaparral and Al Otro Lado, we became aware of the obstacles to even reaching the port of entry and we began to feel apprehensive for these ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.   In our work with Al Otro Lado, we came to learn the importance and power of being a friendly presence, a link to trustworthy assistance, and witnesses to the ways the asylum process, at one of the world's busiest points of entry, is not accessible, is not equitable, and is not just for the vast majority of men, women, and children who seek to make their claims for asylum. 

Sunday February 17:  Friendship Bi-national Park, La Playa

We had an opportunity to view the artwork, community garden, and sculptures that community members had created on and along the wall.  It was remarkable to see this symbol of bi-national friendship, the expressions of love, humanity, and interconnection throughout Friendship Park now a challenge and resistance to the rusted iron barrier that scars the sandy outcropping into the ocean there.  Constructed in 1971 during the Nixon administration, the park was originally a symbol of cross-national friendship.  And in fact, the park only had a short barbed wire fence until 1994, when residents of both countries could easily meet on the border under the supervision of US border patrol.  Even after September 11, 2001, it was possible to meet and pass things across the fence.  That changed in 2009, when the Department of Homeland Security closed down the park and constructed a second parallel fence and later a third 20 foot wall of bars was built that stands today.  Friendship Park reopened in 2012 with the mesh fence that only allows people to touch fingers with loved ones on the other side. (“Friendship Park,” Wikipedia).  We gathered at a little coffee place near the beach run by Border Angels, the café is a fundraiser and educational center for the human rights group that advocates for and educates people about the dangers faced by migrants as they cross the desert, dropping off water along migrant routes and educating about the history of US/ Mexico border policy as well as providing legal advice.  One of the café staff shared with our group their experiences along the border and their efforts to continue their work despite border patrol interference with their humanitarian work.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Our previous day’s orientation gave us context for what the travelers could face, but could not prepare us for understanding the confusing and changing numbers process and distinguishing newcomers from more seasoned migrants and the different immigration authorities and police always present in the plaza.  Picture an ordinary transportation plaza, where taxis idle for incoming train or bus passengers. No buses or trains here, just people walking along the pedway between the old and new point of entry or migrants who hope to cross in the near future.  The most confusing part on this first day was figuring out the numbers process as it unfolded in real time and figuring out when and how we could help.  We looked for subtle signs that people may be confused or we approached male members of family groups to find out if they had heard about Al Otro Lado and their services yet.  Other members of our team with stronger Spanish skills observed and documented the numbers process and the various efforts to obstruct the process.  At some undetermined point, we would begin to hear voices from a megaphone calling out names.  And then quickly, volunteers would hurry to the sidewalk to help those boarding the buses quickly shift their warmest layer to be next to their skin or to add a warm donated layer close to their bodies.    

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Our second day, we felt like “old hands” at El Chaparrel.  We could now identify the police standing along the concrete wall in the sunshine and the Grupos Beta overseeing the numbers process.  We were also more confident greeting people and introducing ourselves before asking them about the flier.  There were fewer migrants on the plaza that day, one of coldest during the week.  We could feel the cold radiate from the concrete and it reminded us of the cold these migrants would face, with fewer layers than ours, in the detention cells.  It was not unusual for the procedures to change without notice.  Later that morning we discouraged away from the sidewalk and had greater difficulty connecting with migrants to help them into warm clothing before they boarded buses.  

Friday, February 22, 2019

This was my final day directing migrants to the Al Otro Lado entrance.  I had an opportunity to assist several families and individuals and I had the opportunity to meet and learn more about the San Diego community who are part of the larger network to provide services and assistance to asylum seekers in the region.  One of the volunteers was from the San  Diego based Rapid Response Network, which helps migrants with transportation and housing once they cross the border into the United States.  Throughout the week, we were happy to discover that a Meta Peace Team presence in Tijuana would be an important complement to an array of humanitarian groups assisting on either side of the border.