Sold Out

Voice of voiceless statue

In a matter of weeks, all the dinner tables were sold out. At $50 a plate.

Who would pay such an exorbitant price for a dollop of pinto beans, rice, and a tortilla?

Or spend their Saturday night witnessing reenactments at the border that make you feel uncomfortable?

And who would delay their family vacation in Colorado so they could attend?

Yet, these were the people who came to Annunciation House’s annual Voice of the Voiceless fundraiser recently.

We were there to support Ruben Garcia’s calling – a calling he has been passionately following for more than 41 years.

We were there because all of us have been touched in some way by the migrant poor at our door. Whether it’s through personal encounters at the dozens of hospitality centers set up throughout the Borderland community or through personally witnessing the harsh conditions under which many have been held after their arrival, such as the fenced-in outdoor areas under the port of entry bridge.

For us, eating this simple plate of food is more than symbolic. It is an act of solidarity with our brothers and sisters. It is a statement that we will not sell out. Our integrity, our values, our care for one another in our common humanity – these are not for sale.

Good Samaritans like Teresa Todd, who was the winner of this year’s Voice of the Voiceless Border Witness award, have proven that. BTW, she is the one, along with her entire family, who delayed their vacation so they could personally attend our dinner.

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Teresa Todd, second from left, with our border volunteers

I was thrilled to discover Teresa was this year’s recipient. I had recently read a New York Times article about how this single mother, a well-respected elected official and county attorney of Jeff Davis County, was being prosecuted for helping three El Salvadoran migrants who had flagged her down on a Texas road one night.  The three siblings hadn’t eaten for days. The young men’s 18-year-old sister, Esmeralda, was lying on the ground in pain, unable to walk. Her muscle tissue was being eaten up.

Teresa told us that as a mother, as a Christian, as a woman whose parents raised her to care for those in need, she did the right thing. Thinking of her own teenage sons, she helped the three young people into her car and made some calls to local officials for help. Instead of assistance, Teresa was taken into custody by Border Patrol and accused of “harboring aliens.”

Now she is facing federal charges.

Teresa saved the life of Esmeralda that night. And she told us she would do it again.

No matter the current political climate.

She didn’t sell out her values. She acted with courage and compassion. And she kept her moral character and integrity intact.

Unfortunately, we as a nation are not.

As Ruben told us that night, “…the relentless and insidiousness process of dehumanizing human beings is threatening the core of our being.”

That is why Ruben chose this year’s fundraiser’s theme, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident,’ as a reminder.

“What is being done to refugees stands in stark contradiction of the fundamental principles and values that brought the United States into existence,” he told us.

Time and again we have heard the word ‘crisis’ used to justify practices that violate the very character of a nation that has been 243 years in the making. The real crisis on the border is a crisis of character and morality.”              Ruben Garcia

Neither Ruben nor Teresa are alone in believing this. Many others are expressing or thinking similar beliefs about our moral compass.

This was evidenced by the numerous out-of-state donors listed in our program this year. Sponsors from North Dakota to Maryland, from Alabama to Indiana.

I thank God for people like Teresa Todd and people across the country who have stepped up to volunteer or financially support those who are suffering in our name.

And I pray for all of us, as a country, that we do not “sell out.” That we stop finding ways to justify or ignore cruel and inhumane treatment of others because our business is thriving or our economy is doing well.

When we do so, then we have sold our integrity for greed. We have lost our moral compass. compass true north

And we cannot continue to claim that immigration is about observing the law when we as a country ignore the law when it isn’t convenient or doesn’t match our current agenda.

This was so evident when articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were read at the VoV dinner. The United Nations General Assembly declared these fundamental human rights in December 1948 as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations.

We, as the United States of America, are in defiance of articles such as Article 14, the right to seek asylum; Article 16, the protection of the family; and, most especially, Article 5, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Voice of Voiceless 2019
Lady Liberty holds a different message these days

 

I believe our country is at a crossroads.

We are still evolving into the real truth of the words of our forefathers: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all [persons] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights – that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Let us declare that these truths are not for sale.

Article 5: https://youtu.be/jL6IH1AesW4

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The Best I Can Do

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It was such a precious thing.

To have a little 4-year-old, previously a stranger to me, trust me with her knotted tresses. Trust me enough to allow me to secure her between my knees as I sat down and attempted to untangle her long, wavy locks.

Lint and other particles from her weeks-long journey from Honduras had nested in Yoselin’s curls and refused to disentangle themselves.

It felt like a nearly impossible task. Especially with only a thin comb as my tool.

She never made a sound. Never winced. Yoselin stood quietly, patiently, while her 7-year-old sister and her appreciative father watched.

I finally threw my hands up.comb

“It’s the best I can do. Es la mejor que puedo hacer.

I gave a pleading look to her dad and twisted a hair band around her tresses, securing any loose ends. Even after I pulled her hair back into a ponytail, Yoselin didn’t budge. She remained perched between my legs, unmovable. I gave her a little nudge.

“I need to get up,” I gently said. Necesito levantarme.

Reluctantly she moved away and I went off to prepare lunch so she and her family could eat before they boarded the bus to Tennessee in a few hours.

It felt like such a small thing. And yet very precious.

I didn’t know the next time this child would receive such a gentle, loving touch. Her innocence and complete vulnerability and trust at my hands made me want to cry.

Sometimes it’s not just children who are innocent and vulnerable and trusting in our hands.

I’ve become familiar with so many suffering people who have come here completely vulnerable and trusting in a country known as the greatest defender of human rights and democracy.

Like my guy in detention “Mathias.” He was shocked when, after explaining to U.S. Customs and Border Protection his reason for seeking international asylum, they handcuffed and confined him in a detention facility.

I’ve been visiting Mathias for months. I’ve gotten to know him and care about him. Even took the morning off to attend his court hearing, as his main support system and concerned friend. But he lost his case. It doesn’t appear he has much chance for appeal. His health has been deteriorating since he arrived at the El Paso detention facility. Yet El Paso has one of the better facilities.

If he doesn’t appeal, he will soon be transferred to another facility as he awaits deportation. And his situation could get much worse.

My fear is he’ll be transferred to a private facility in Sierra Blanca, Texas, where African immigrants, in particular, are being abused and beaten, according to a recent report by immigrant and civil rights groups. This is not surprising, based on what we hear from other volunteers and immigration attorneys.

It deeply disturbs me – what’s happening in our country. Both behind closed doors and overtly.sierra blanca detention

I’m aware that sometimes I can’t get all the knots out, no matter how hard I try. I can’t prevent the pain someone is experiencing.

Sometimes the best I can offer is to simply walk alongside them in their anxiety. Their fear. Their suffering.

And not have any answers. Not be able to explain why a country known throughout the world for supporting and defending human rights would treat others inhumanely.

It doesn’t seem like enough. What I do.

But I know that kindness does matter. A caring heart matters. And an educated, intelligent response to abusive authority matters, too.

Your response matters.

Let’s all do the best we can do. It’s the only way positive changes can happen.

caringhearts

A Boy from a “Shithole Country”

 

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You may have a reaction to this vulgar term. Maybe you’re tired of hearing it already.

I get it.

But please stick with me. I have a story to tell. And it matters that you read this.

My new friend – I’ll call him Mathias – sleeps on a mattress so thin, he feels the cold steel of the springs underneath him. A bullet lodged into his left side presses into him, aggravated by the hard coils of his assigned bed. He tries to sleep only on his right, but even then, the pain barely diminishes. The bullet, put there long ago by police who were supposed to protect him.

Mathias is a 25-year-old asylum seeker from one of those African countries.

He’s not a criminal. Yet, he is a prisoner.

He’s one of the detainees I visit weekly at the El Paso Detention facility.

We’ve never hugged. I’ve not been able to touch his shoulder or squeeze his hand in support. Even though I’ve longed to.

I speak to Mathias from the other side of a glass. With a phone to my ear, my body hunched forward, as if straining will help me hear his words more clearly, I listen. To stories of hardship and trauma I’ve never known.

Stories of the challenges of living in confinement.

Stories of hope.

Because Mathias does have hope. Despite all he’s experienced.

He hopes in a country that values liberty, justice, and the dignity and right to life. He hopes in a court system that will do the right thing.

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I wish I could share that hope.

Mathias was just a boy, away at school, when his entire family, threatened by corrupt police, fled the country.

It’s been years since he’s seen his mother.

He smiles when I come to see him, asks how my week was, if I’ve heard from my son, who’s only a year older than he is.

I think of Mathias’s mother, holed up in a refugee camp in Kenya. She didn’t get to say goodbye.

Mathias tried to live a “normal” life without his family. Continue school, then hold down a job, save money. But the police threatened him. He had to flee. By that time, crossing the border wasn’t easy. He couldn’t join his family in the camp. He had to get help.

His story of how he made it all the way to the El Paso port of entry is more than admirable. It’s an amazing story of the human spirit. Of faith, hope, trust.

He trusts in the promises of a free and democratic society.

Still. In spite of his shock that, after pouring out his story to Border Customs, they handcuffed him and tossed him in detention to await his fate.

And he’s not unusual.

More weary asylum seekers have been arriving at our ports of entry, fleeing violence from places as far as Cameroon, Ethiopia, the Congo, as well as from El Salvador and Guatemala. Countries that are not on the U.S. list of favorable places to migrate from.

Whether our president used those exact words or not to describe these countries is not the point. The real concern is his intention.

And ours.

Words like “refugee,” “asylum seeker,” and “immigrant” have become associated with something evil. Or, at least, something undesirable.asylum

Yet international law supports asylum seekers. International law says a Government is prohibited from returning someone to their country if they will be subjected to torture or persecution or death. But a recent report compiled by human rights organizations at the border documents cases where we have not been following that law.

It shows that more punitive and inhumane deterrence practices are being implemented towards asylum seekers under this administration. More human rights violations are being recorded.

Surprisingly, the report also shows, El Paso courts have one of the highest denial rates for asylum seekers. It’s a sad reality that makes no sense.

Yet, the outcome of a case is determined by the judge assigned rather than the severity of the asylum seeker’s life-threatening situation and the credibility of their supporting documentation.

I may be going against the grain here, but I am actually praying that Mathias wins his asylum case and remains in the U.S.

I am praying that more and more of these violations come to light. And that they matter to people like you.

And I pray that one day winning an asylum case will not be a rare occurrence in many of our courts.

It’s worthwhile noting that National Right to Life Day is January 22. The right to life, the dignity of a life, extends to all human beings, not just the unborn. Not just those who were lucky enough to be born in the United States.

For me, Mathias – and thousands others like him – is the voiceless little one who needs me to stand up and say, you are a child of God. You have a right to live.

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When Migrants Return: Sorrow Multiplied

I’m sharing this post from Fr. Bill, a Columban priest from our mission in El Paso who is now visiting El Salvador, where he witnesses daily the very situations that are forcing people to leave their homes. This particular post describes the disheartening situation of people being deported back to the very life-threatening situations they risked fleeing.

When Migrants Return: Sorrow Multiplied.

The Risk of Juarez

Late afternoon on Friday, I’m spending my last day in February in one of the poorest sections of Juarez, Mexico. I have come to stay with three Franciscan sisters who live and work here so that I could learn more about them, their ministry, and why they would choose to live in such a place. They invited me, so I said yes, answering the call of both my inquisitive writer and compassionate heart. I know that this section of Mexico is not the safest –(I can hear the snorting and huge exhalation of carbon dioxide from some people reading this)–but many people live their lives in this kind of environment, the sisters among them.

Sisters Josefina and Carol have lived here five years, arriving in 2009, at the height of the drug cartel violence. Thousands of innocent people were being killed, victims of random shootings or mistaken identity (although this still happens but not to the degree it once did). While many people fled Mexico at that time, transporting their belongings across the bridge into El Paso, the sisters headed in the opposite direction carting furniture and other possessions to their new home. People were shocked. Why were the sisters moving into such a dangerous place? To understand, you’d have to know who these women are.

street outside the sisters’ door

They took up residence in a parish house in the second poorest colonia in all of Juarez. The neighborhood’s dirt roads are rocky and full of potholes. Many homes are crumbling stone facades. Graffiti plasters walls and storefronts and even the church building next door to where the sisters live. Signs of the gangs who live here.

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I asked Sr. Carol if she had any fears about coming here. She did. But she knew this was where she was called to be. The sisters have established a presence here. They walk the dusty streets visiting homes, bringing Eucharist, support, and God’s love. Through generous donations of people back in the United States, the sisters distribute food to 60 of the neediest of the needy families every month: portions of beans, rice, sugar, and oil. They march in demonstrations for justice and peace, in solidarity with the families who have lost their sons and daughters to the violence of the drug cartels.

Sr. Arlene, the third sister who lives here, works at the human rights center associated with the parish. Initially started as social outreach 12 years ago, as the violence escalated, along with the torture, it was clear the center needed to focus on human rights abuses. Since the police are the ones doing the torturing, acquiring forced confessions on fabricated charges, working theses cases can be tricky, to say the least. In 2011 the federal police raided the center, busting doors and removing files. They claimed they were chasing drug dealers.

When I first arrived here last night, Sr. Carol handed me a scrapbook she’d put together of photos and newspaper articles of their years here. The first page I turned to displayed a newspaper photo of a young man lying on the street, his face and chest splattered with blood — the sisters’ introduction to Juarez. I read the numbers of those who have been executed, the thousands of “forced disappearances.” So many innocent people tortured, killed, gone. From university students at a party at the wrong place and the wrong time, to mothers shot down in front of government buildings while protesting the wrongful and violent deaths of their sons. In 2012, 60,000 deaths were attributed to drug-related violence in Mexico.

It’s hard to fathom the intense grief of this country of mourning parents. As I read these cases, I feel my own mother’s heart. And yet I don’t let myself feel it too much. At least not in this moment here in the sisters’ house, sitting in their bright pink kitchen. But their statue of St. Francis greeting me at the doorway tells me that I will allow myself to feel this. He reminds me that only in taking the risk of opening my heart to feel will I truly connect with life. And with the God within.

St. Francis greets everyone entering the sisters' home
St. Francis greets everyone entering the sisters’ home

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The Precious Price Women Pay

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Here on the border I often hear stories and come across things that are painful for my heart to take in. Especially when they involve women and children.

Recently I learned a new term: “rape tree.” Pictures of these disgusting spectacles, displaying women’s undergarments hanging from their branches, popped onto my computer screen as soon as I googled the topic of sexual violence against migrant females crossing the border.

I’d chosen the topic for an article I’m writing for Las Americas—the nonprofit immigration advocacy center where I’m volunteering—because I’d heard that many women are raped during their journey across the U.S./Mexico border. I wanted to learn more.

Right off I discovered some alarming statistics: between 80 and 90 percent of women and girls crossing into the U.S. from Mexico are raped. Usually the very smugglers, or coyotes, the women have hired to take them across are the perpetrators. Sometimes the rapists are drug cartel members. Often the coyotes are affiliated with the cartel. Sometimes they are one and the same person.
Image of a rape tree found on the U.S./Mexico border

Image of a rape tree found on the U.S./Mexico border

Evidence of this violent crime committed against women has been cropping up through these “rape trees” — a name given to the tree that marks the spot where the crime has occurred. The tree is not only a sign of the perpetrator’s conquest, but serves as a warning to others of the price that must be paid. And this is happening on U.S. soil as well as in Mexico.

Even more disturbing—sometimes the undergarments do not belong to adult women but to young girls. A social worker I’ve met here confirmed this, saying she’s come across cases of 11-year-old girls who have been raped on their trek across the border. I suspect, based on what I’ve been hearing, that some are even younger.young victimsAnd coyotes and cartel members are not the only ones who pose a threat to these vulnerable women. There have been some news reports of occasional documented incidents of Border Patrol agents and deportation officials sexually assaulting undocumented women. Once captured, frightened women can be intimated and pressured into sex for their freedom. If they are sent to detention facilities, that can create yet another venue for sexual abuse, especially if the facility is privately run with minimal oversight.

Websites for watchdog groups such as the Human Rights Watch have reported numerous complaints of abuse from detention facilities around the country, including in Texas, Florida, New York, California, and Washington State. But human rights violations against undocumented immigrant women go virtually unheeded. Whether the rapes occur in the Mexican desert or on U.S. soil doesn’t seem to matter. Few women will report these crimes. The women often remain silent out of fear—fear of repercussions, fear of being sent back—as well as out of shame, ignorance of their rights, cultural beliefs, and their inability to speak English.

Rape has become so prevalent among undocumented females crossing the border that some are calling it “the price of admission.” Women are forewarned, especially if they will be traveling from Central America, that they can expect to be sexually abused along the way. In at least some communities women are advised to start taking birth control pills before they begin their journey.

Still the women come.

They leave behind their country, culture, family, even their own children, to risk such violent crimes and even death. Why? Could it be that these women’s lives of poverty, abuse, or violence have become unbearable? Could it be that facing such risks to come here is preferable to a life of hopelessness? Preferable to a life where one is unable to meet the minimal needs of one’s children?

These are questions that need to be considered when arguing for or against immigration reform. Because if rape and death do not stop these women, why would the threat of more security at the border? Designating more money for additional agents and fencing won’t solve the problem. Immigration is a complex issue, and no single answer will resolve it.