Just four days. That’s all I had on my recent trip back to El Paso. Four short days in which I experienced so many emotions. And witnessed more heartbreak.
On the very first night my friend Beth asked if I wanted to go to the detention facility with her. The one for adult undocumented immigrants. She planned to visit a 19-year-old woman from Guatemala named Yennifer.
I didn’t get all the details, but somehow when Yennifer and her mom and younger sister presented themselves to Border Patrol seeking asylum, a misunderstanding ensued. And Yennifer stepped too far into an area where she shouldn’t have gone. Border Patrol arrested her. Got her to admit she had committed a felony by entering this country without documents.
Now she wears an orange jumpsuit. And waits for her fate to be determined. Her mom and sister have moved on to New York. They couldn’t stay in El Paso. After ICE processed their papers, they had to go to their designated relative where they’ll have their court date. But without Yennifer. She remains alone, confined, and scared.
Beth warned me how distraught this young woman has been. I could only imagine. I thought of myself at 19. Certainly not ready emotionally to be separated from my mom in a foreign country. Not to mention being placed in a prison.
Because a detention facility is a prison.
The night Beth and I visit we have to leave everything behind except our licenses. And we hand those over to the guard at the front desk. Then we wait for the heavy locked door to open and the guard to call our names. He escorts us down a narrow hallway lined with small cubicles until we come to the one where we’ll meet Yennifer. Soon a pretty young Latina woman appears on the other side of a glass pane. Her dark hair piled atop her head in a neat bun. She smiles as soon as she sees Beth.
Yennifer sits down and picks up the phone to talk. Just like you see in the movies. I watch her sweet face from behind the glass, so animated as she tells Beth about the spicy food that she can’t eat. (Contrary to what you might think, not all Latinos like spicy food like the Mexicans do.)
At times her expression makes her look so much like a little girl, I want to cry. I try not to think about what’s going to happen. Chances are Yennifer will be deported. Sent home without her mother and sister. I wonder how she’ll get back to Guatemala. What will happen to her while traveling alone? If I were her mother, I don’t know how I’d stand it. Not knowing what will happen to my daughter.
After we leave, Beth tells me what a complete changeover in Yennifer’s spirits we’ve just seen. How the past couple of weeks when she’s visited her,Yennifer’s cried and looked depressed. But this girl’s got faith. The night Border Patrol arrested her— pulled her away from her mother and sister—they put Yennifer in a holding cell. In isolation. Panicked and sobbing, the girl fell to her knees and prayed. Begged God to help her. Within less than an hour, the guard came to get her. Said she didn’t belong in isolation. They’d made a mistake.
Truth is, Yennifer’s situation is not unusual. I saw families separated a lot when I volunteered at the migrant hospitality center.
In fact, a recent study I read on immigration abuse reported that, in addition to experiencing physical abuse, family members that were apprehended together by Border Patrol were systematically separated from each other. Two out of three migrants surveyed who crossed into the U.S. with immediate family members were separated from at least one of those family members by the Border Patrol during the process of detention and deportation.
There’s little I can do to help Yennifer. But I can bring her situation to light. And I can hope that others will care. Care about the immigrant children and youth who are being locked up for indiscriminate amounts of time. Care enough to learn more about the reasons why people are migrating. And care about one beautiful butterfly with deep brown eyes longing to be released from her cage.
Images that have inspired. Words that have settled into my soul. People who have humbled, and reminded, me why I am here.
Always, when I look, I see something more. When I listen, I hear what I missed before.
As I prepare to leave El Paso in a little more than one week — God, I can’t believe I’m saying that — I am looking and listening as deeply and as intently as I ever have. The way forward is still not clear. The lesson of dependence on God, ongoing. If I have shown courage along the way, it’s come from a deeper place that remains a mystery.
But what is clear are the images along the way. And the impressions they have made — indelible on my heart.
Here are some I’d like to share. Images from my nearly 2-mike walk to the Columban Mission Center where I work three days a week, from the Nazareth Hospitality Center, from the house on Grandview, which sits atop a hill offering an impressive view of downtown El Paso and spreading out across Juarez, Mexico. Images from simply paying attention.
In the segundo barrio — the poorest section of El Paso, where homeless men loiter in the mornings and early evenings waiting for the Opportunity Center to open its doors for coffee and a meal, where fast food containers and crushed beer cans collect in gutters, where barred windows and bail bond shops proliferate — the people paint their fences lavender and robin’s egg blue and plant rose bushes and gardens on their tiny plots producing an amazing array of yellows and reds and purples that rise up in defiance of anyone who would call this place poor.
I got a shot right between the eyes yesterday morning. Via my iPad. I needed it, for sure. It’s been three months since I’ve returned from El Paso and I’ve fallen into old patterns. Maintaining my house. Doing errands. Worrying about getting everything done before I leave for my year-long assignment in San Antonio. In other words, focusing on me and my needs.
It’s easy to do. Especially when you have responsibilities and a long “to do list” lurking in the back of your mind as well as on your computer screen. In my case, that list includes packing up and preparing my home to rent while I’m away. Since I live in a log home in the woods surrounded by quiet and natural beauty, it’s a perfect fit for a vacation home. But to put my house in the pool of rental homes with the company I’ve chosen, I had to give it a cute name. “Magical Tree House” seemed appropriate.
I planted my “magical tree house” on a hillside, overlooking the mountains (in fall and winter months) and surrounded by trees that arch over my private road. Although they provide luscious shade in the summer heat, the trees also block much of the sky. Every morning I walk down the end of my road to take in the expanse of rolling meadows and mountains that compose our rural county’s landscape. In El Paso, I simply stepped outside the door where I was staying in the valley area to view a vast blue sky spread out before me. Every morning. Blue sky, sunshine, a seemingly endless horizon that stretches into Mexico and the desert beyond. To say that I’d been feeling the view from my tree house is limited would be an understatement—literally and otherwise.
And that leads back to the wake-up call from my iPad.
In my little tree haven, I’d been feeling distant from life at the border. Not just physically. I mean it’s easy to click on those daily emails I get from various interfaith groups and other organizations about immigration issues, quickly breeze through them and hit delete. In the midst of what I’m handling I can’t possibly be expected to respond. Right?
But the issue keeps tugging at my heart. And I can’t ignore the fact that the news media is now heavily reporting on the massive numbers of unaccompanied migrant children traveling across the U.S./Mexico border — a topic I actually wrote about on my blog back in February when I first became aware that upwards of 60,000 children were expected this year. In fact, I wrote about this topic for Las Americas’ May newsletter, the nonprofit that I’ve continued to write for since returning to Virginia. While living on the border and talking with the religious sisters and the social workers who work with these children, I got a different perspective from that presented by political pundits as to why these children are coming. And, as a mother myself seeing the little ones in the detention centers, I could only think of my own son and how desperate our situation would have to be for me to let him travel alone through such dangerous territory. No mother could make such a decision easily. If at all.
So, wanting to get the perspective from someone on the border whom I trust, I opened my iPad and clicked on the Annunciation House website (www.annunciationhouse.org ) to see if Ruben Garcia, director of this hospitality house in downtown El Paso that’s been taking in refugees and immigrants for 36 years, had anything to say about this phenomenon.
I found a YouTube clip on the home page — one I’d not seen before. The clip, called “A Place at the Table,” was made in 2007, yet it addresses the same issues concerning immigration that we’re failing to address today. You can find it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJ1W8EViVD4&sns=em
The video starts with the sound of a train — a sound oh so familiar to me during those many nights in the house on Gallagher Street when I awoke to freight trains rushing across intersections, their horns blowing through the darkness of my bedroom. My reaction is immediate. I start to cry. Who can say why my heart feels this connection? But it’s there. As clear as the passion evident in Ruben’s voice as he shares the true meaning of Jesus’ gospel message. He reminds me why I’m doing this. He helps clear my vision again. To a certain extent.
Because even though I feel this calling, this longing to follow my heart, I can’t yet see too far ahead. Nor can I see what God is doing in me. It’s true, I am relinquishing my house, yet that doesn’t feel too difficult. Relinquishing my dog — now that’s hard. Even though Cody’s going into the home of good friends who love him and will give him more attention and better care than I ever could, still, when I put my arms around his neck I feel the sadness of how little time I have with him. At 13, Cody’s an old dog. Anything can happen.
And then there’s my only son. I’ll be living further away from him than I ever have. Not that he needs me to be that close. He knows I’ll always be available to him. But still. It’s a strange feeling. Leaving behind the life I’ve known. For who knows what? I’m not completely sure. Nor do I know where it will lead. It’s definitely one of those “jumping-off places.”
Yet I’m not alone in this. Just a little over a week ago I participated in a special farewell ceremony for a like-minded friend about to embark on a six-week discernment retreat. She’d left her job months ago, certain that was no longer where she belonged, but unsure of the way forward. On that Friday evening five females gathered with her for a “liturgy for leaping” ceremony, as she called it, before she went off to listen to where Spirit was calling her next. Each of the women there, myself included, had experienced her own leaping-off point into the unknown. Together we acknowledged the courage, the fear, and the sacredness of “the leaps of faith we take in our lives,” and yet how necessary these leaps are for each of us to be who we truly are.
For me, this excerpt from “Praise What Comes,” a poem by Jeanne Lohmann, particularly expresses why we leap:
At the end there may be no answers
and only a few very simple questions: did I love,
finish my task in the world? Learn at least one
of the many names of God?
At the intersections,
the boundaries where one life began and another
ended, the jumping-off places between fear and
possibility, at the ragged edges of pain,
did I catch the smallest glimpse of the holy?
I hope my vision continues to expand. Beyond any anxious thoughts of what I’m letting go of and what I might find. Beyond the comfort of my tree house. Into glimpses of the holy in everyone and everything that leaps onto my path.