Blog Archives

Out Here on Our Own

alone Girl on mountain

The press has gone.

Photographers no longer shadow us down the hallways as we tend to our guests. No more wanna-be volunteers show up at our door unannounced after having driven for hours from places like Denver or Phoenix. No more “angry moms” spend their mornings preparing breakfast and lunch for our migrant families as a positive response to their outrage.

Not anymore.

Gone are the headlines about crying toddlers torn from the arms of their mothers and fathers. Gone are the news reports about abuses at detention centers.

Our lives are back to normal. Whatever “normal” is these days.

For those of us on the border, it may feel like we’re on our own again. It may seem as though people don’t care.

But I know that’s not true. I know you are listening, dear reader. I know that you do care. Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this.

So, I’d like to make you aware.  Better inform you about the “norm” for so many who do feel as if no one cares. About the maltreatment asylum seekers face, especially when they hail from African countries. About the abuses that occur. About the loneliness and isolation.

Once you know, my hope is that you will not forget. And that you will take some small, positive action from where you are. Make a difference in at least one other lonely or abused person’s life that will add to the growing wave of merciful acts done in the name of humanity.

So that others will know they are not alone.

As you may know, I have been visiting asylum seekers detained at the ICE El Paso Processing Center through a nonprofit called CIVIC. CIVIC stands for Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, and Jan, our local program administrator, has done a super job of connecting volunteer visitors with lonely people holed up in these prisons.dont_forget_me

Some detainees have not had a visitor in over a year. They wait for Jan to connect them with an available volunteer. They feel so alone. Forgotten. Powerless.

Until last month when African asylum seekers at our detention facility became empowered.

They risked creating and signing a petition against the El Paso DHS ICE Field Office for “improperly and impartially” denying their parole and treating them unfairly. They claim they escaped persecution in their home countries and came here for safety, only to be persecuted at the hands of ICE officers and detention guards.

The majority of them have been in ICE custody for more than a year.  They all arrived legally as asylum seekers at one of our EP ports of entry and had positive credible fear interviews, yet they remain in “immigration proceedings.” Proceedings that seem to have no end to them.

They have a right to parole through the Damus decision. And they have watched as parole is granted to Latin American detainees, especially to Cubans, awaiting their hearing, while their parole is unjustifiably denied.

At an alarming number.

A little background on the Damus decision. A teacher from Haiti, Ansly Damus has been confined in Ohio for more than a year-and-a-half. He fled his homeland fearing violence and political persecution and asked for asylum. An immigration judge granted him asylum not just once, but twice. But the government appealed those decisions and Damus remains locked up indefinitely even though he poses no threat and is eligible for parole. The judge has ruled that ICE violated its own procedures by not granting Damus release under what’s known as humanitarian parole.

That’s what our African detainees are petitioning for. Humanitarian parole.

On a personal note, I’ve been seeing my young Ethiopian friend, whom I call Mathias, for nearly nine months now. He’s been locked up for over a year. His birthday is coming up in early October. He’s told me he doesn’t want to spend another birthday behind these walls. Celebrate another year of his young life on hold.hands-tied

It feels like such a small thing. To visit someone only once a week or a few times a month. It never feels like enough.  And then he sends a letter saying how I make him strong and comfort him, how he is happy to have someone “on the outside” who cares. He says it’s not easy to be in detention, but he is “learning about life” and learning that there are “good-hearted people in this world like CIVIC.”

He is learning…and so am I.

I am learning that sometimes it feels like our hands are tied. That it feels like we are alone to face the wall or the tempest before us. But we are not.

Sometimes God shows up as the person accompanying us. Or the one accompanied.

Don’t forget this. Be the one who cares.

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.NOTE: I am creating a new blog – same theme, different look. I hope to link it to this one, and I hope you will continue to follow me on this journey.

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Checkpoint on Pain

new mexico welcome

Last week I drove up to Albuquerque for my annual CAC Living School symposium. That means I had to pass through a Border Patrol checkpoint.

Driving regularly on southwest Texas or New Mexico highways, I’ve gotten used to it.

I know the routine.

I slow down to a crawl until I’m face to face with a Border Patrol agent.  I roll down my window. He sees my white face, asks if I’m a U.S. citizen. I say yes. He answers, “Have a nice day.” I drive off. He never asks for my I.D. Never checks my car for smuggled goods, or people for that matter.

There’s no doubt it’s racial profiling. But that’s the way it is.

Border Patrol checkpoint

Usually it’s pretty quick. Even when the cars ahead of me are not driven by Anglos. They have to show their I.D.s or documentation, of course. Often the agent looks in the car. But there’s no hesitation.

Not this time.

This time a few cars were lined up ahead of me. The agent was slowly thumbing through the pages in his hand, as the driver waited. He looked over each one carefully, then returned to the first page and started the process over again, as if he wasn’t quite satisfied.

This agent seemed to not want to accept the documents he was holding were legitimate. Or else he wanted to make the brown-skinned driver squirm.

While waiting, the woman in the car in front of me jumped out and opened her back hatch. She pulled out a suitcase and removed what looked like two passports. The woman was Hispanic.

Finally, after fingering through the pages a few more times, the agent let the first car go. Then the second car drove up. He poked his head down, asked a few questions and let the driver go.

Then it was the Hispanic woman’s turn. She handed over two passports, for herself and her passenger. One was blue like a U.S. passport, the other dark green. The color of a Mexican passport.Mexican passport

The agent flipped open the U.S. passport, then put it aside. When he opened the other passport, he hesitated. He looked at it, looked at her, looked at it again. Then he just held it between his fingers, waiting.

By now I could feel myself growing angry.

“C’mon, buddy! Either it’s legitimate or it’s not!” I shouted in my car with the windows still closed.

He stood there for a few moments more. Not doing anything. Not asking any questions. Just holding the passport. Then he handed them both back to the woman.

Next it was my turn.

“U.S. citizen, ma’am?” With a downturned mouth, he demanded rather than asked the question.

“Yes.”

“Anybody traveling with you?”

“No.”

“You’re free to go,” he scowled. Forget the “have a nice day.”

The negativity coming through the open window was palpable.

Clearly, this man was in pain. But it upset me, how he was projecting that pain onto others, especially people of darker complexions.

He could do a lot of damage with the power and the position he had.

The thing is, none of us escapes pain in our lives. We all have places of wounding and brokenness. Oblivious to this brokenness, we inflict our pain onto others.

Right now, in our country, it feels as though we are experiencing this at a magnified level…this projection of pain onto others.

We’re having a hard time looking within ourselves. Letting ourselves feel the extent of our sadness, our hurt, our grief, our need for healing, our failure to be responsible for one another. We don’t want to feel it.

And what we won’t acknowledge and take responsibility for, we are bound to repeat. Without self-awareness, we can numb ourselves to the atrocities committed against others.

In fact, this is something we’re trying to address at the Living School. The unacknowledged painful effects of racism and white privilege. I’d say it’s causing a reaction in us.

For me, being a writer, I naturally want to write about what I witness. I pay attention to the pain and suffering I see in those I accompany at the border. In the encounters I have with others.

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It shows me how we are not separate at all. It shows me how I feel the same fears, hide out in the same ways, and want to close off my heart to those who have hurt me. Just like most of us do.

But in writing about it and letting myself feel it, maybe I can become more aware. Soften the pain. Create my own checkpoint for the ways I block off the borders of my heart. And not repeat this very human pattern of inflicting pain.

Virginia Is for Lovers

Virginia Jennifers home June 2018

View from my friends Jennifer & Rob’s yard

I love Virginia. I was so thrilled to be back visiting my former home that I pretty much wandered around with a continuous smile.

First there was the effects of all that spring rain. Virginia’s mountains and hillsides glowed with a vibrant green carpet. Trees and vegetation along the roadsides were so full, they seemed to reach out to embrace me.

I treasured hikes and gatherings with dear friends. Enjoyed surprise encounters with old friends at a special wedding. Spent time with Davis – always a treat – and got to see the wonderful adults some of his high school friends have become.

Virginia has given me so many precious memories and such special heart connections, who wouldn’t smile?

Even crossing the state line and seeing the familiar “Virginia is for lovers” slogan got me.

Virginia is for lovers

But I can’t say my entire trip was filled with goodness and happy thoughts.

Back home at the border things were heating up. Even before I left El Paso, we were seeing cases of asylum seekers being jailed and their children taken from them. In the week that followed my departure, a difficult and painful situation had deteriorated from bad to worse.

Not that I was watching TV news. But between emails from friends and contacts back home, along with snippets of Internet news, I couldn’t ignore what was happening.

Soon, along with the joy of being back in Virginia, I was carrying a heaviness on my heart. It accompanied me into bed at night and awoke with me every morning.

Seeing faces in the news similar to those of the families I accompany, knowing the pain and distortion they were being subjected to, I couldn’t rest easily. After all, I’ve listened to their stories, played with their shy children, prepared and eaten plate after plate of reheated rice and beans with them.

Maybe right about now you’re asking, how does this relate to the title of your blog post?

I admit that finding words to express all I’ve been experiencing these days is challenging.

But I’ll try.

Sunday while hiking in the Gila National Forest, I met a Navy veteran who’d lived in Virginia. When he discovered Virginia had been my home for 30 years, he shared his not-so-positive opinions about the commonwealth.

Far from the “Virginia is for lovers” motto, he saw Virginians as racists still living in the pre-Civil War era, honoring the Confederacy, stuck in time. (I should note he was Caucasian.)

Clearly, his “reality” differed greatly from mine.

Not that there aren’t people who act this way, but this is not the Virginia nor the Virginians I know.

This guy’s stereotype was not indicative of the special place where we raised our son.

Davis learned about love in Virginia. He learned compassion, not judgment. Acceptance, not racial profiling. He learned to meet people where they are and be generous with what he has.

My heart connection with Virginians has created a different reality.

It’s those heart connections – both in Virginia and on the border – that prevent me from lumping people into derogatory categories. Or labeling them “racists,” “animals,” “criminals” who are “infesting” us.

I could not malign and dismiss the people of Virginia any more than I could the families of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras who come to our hospitality houses.

Why? Because living on the cusp of what’s happening at the U.S.-Mexico border, I’ve experienced a different “reality.” Thankfully, a reality many of my Virginia friends wanted to hear about. And I’m so grateful for their listening open, loving hearts.

“Do you know what hurts so very much? It’s love. Love is the strongest force in the world, and when it is blocked that means pain. There are two things we can do when this happens. We can kill that love so that it stops hurting. But then of course part of us dies, too. Or we can ask God to open up another route for that love to travel.” 
― Corrie ten BoomThe Hiding Place: The Triumphant True Story of Corrie Ten Boom

I agree that love IS the strongest force in the world. Love can turn things – and people – around.

And something else about love.

Love is strong and fierce in defense of those it loves. Love is not cowardly. It takes risks. Lovers do not sit quietly by while those they love are maligned.

My Guatemalan Muse

Painting of a Guatemalan mother and child by Diego Sisay that hangs above my writing desk

I don’t intend to be silent in support of people I have come to love.

I make no apologies for the pain and anger I feel in my heart when I see a video of a Guatemalan mother, reunited with her 5-year-old son at the airport, sobbing into him as she tells him in Spanish that she loves him.

The pain that we have been inflicting on these children is a violent act. It is anything but love. It goes against the grain of what love is.

It goes against who I am.

This is not a time for silence or inertia. It’s a time for lovers – lovers in the true sense of the word – to speak up.

Contradictions in Costa Rica

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A trip up the canal along Tortugero National Park

I experienced paradise for nearly two weeks. Every morning in Costa Rica I’d wake up happy.

And that’s despite getting up much earlier than usual.

The cacophony of birds greeting the dawn just wouldn’t let me sleep. Nor would the howler monkeys. With their loud calls seemingly so close to my window, I felt as though someone had planted my bed smack in the middle of the jungle.

But I’d jump up, no matter the hour, excited and eager to get out there and see what amazing colors and species of bird, animal, and plant I’d find today.

Costa Rica defines abundance.

For such a small country – it accounts for only 0.03 percent of the earth’s surface – Costa Rica has nearly 6 percent of the world’s biodiversity. An overabundance in my book. I couldn’t even keep up with the numbers. Something like 600 species of birds – more than the United States and Canada combined – at least 150 species of frogs, over 500 species of trees.

Every day was an adventure in joyful exploration. An encounter with tremendous beauty.

Daily, I found myself expressing gratitude for this incredible earth we’ve been placed on.

But everything wasn’t perfect. Neither in Costa Rica nor elsewhere on the planet.

While on vacation I wasn’t watching the news, but I couldn’t get away from what was happening at the U.S.-Mexico border. I continued to view emails and messages from friends and reliable news sources.

So, I was aware that the caravan of Central Americans had been denied entry to the U.S., with the claim that Border Patrol had reached its capacity and was unable to accept and process the asylum seekers, most of whom were mothers and children. I knew, too, that this was a charade. The caravan had been anticipated. It had been in the news for days. There was no reason, other than political, as to why Border agents weren’t prepared to receive them.

Meanwhile, back in El Paso, my fellow volunteers were helping an unusually high number of migrants. Texts and emails were coming through, rapidly and daily, for more volunteers, as ICE delivered more than 400 asylum seekers to our “hospitality houses” during the week I was gone.

It was such a contradiction. One border outside Tijuana unable to process a little more than 100 people who had been expected to arrive while another port of entry was taking in an unexpected 100 or more a day.

I couldn’t help but think about it. I imagine a hard stone wall, filled with anger, fear, and prejudice, stacked up against some people’s hearts, to keep from feeling their humanity towards immigrants. It is this wall, I suspect, that keeps us from feeling the pain and outrage over our government’s practice of now separating children – as young as 2 years old – from their mothers at the border. Mothers who have fled their country in order to save their children. Now suffering even greater heartbreak.

It felt like such a contradiction within myself, too.

One minute I was telling a co-traveler how Costa Rica makes my heart happy, and the next, I was explaining to another how the tragic and troubling situation at the border hurts my heart.

And both were true.

I don’t pretend to understand why there is such pain in an abundant universe.

This is the world we live in: one that can be both paradise and prison, both filled with immeasurable joy and immense sorrow.

And my faith lives in the midst of these seemingly contradictory experiences and emotions.

When I ask my inner being, what am I to do, I hear that my task is simply to learn to love. Love those in sorrow and pain, and love those who wound and hurt them because of their own pain and ignorance. Learn to hold all of this suffering and let my heart feel and expand in the process. Which really isn’t that simple, is it?

But this is what connects me to the One who has created such inexpressible beauty in nature and such vulnerable hearts capable of unimaginable pain.

It may seem contradictory, but both are gifts – treasures hidden in plain sight.

The Miraculous Mole Maker

MexicoMainlandOaxacaFoodMoles

It’s Friday night. And I’m indulging in chicken smothered in a spicy chocolate sauce while a Fandango dancer clicks her heels on a small wooden block in the middle of the room.

I can’t say I’m a big fan of mole. It’s not something I would order in a Mexican restaurant. Not something that leaves me with a healthy feeling in my stomach.

And the Fandango dancing is basically one enthusiastic woman and two instrumentalists.

But I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

I’m surrounded by good friends, lots of like-minded folks who want to support a good cause, and an awareness of what is possible when one person takes positive action.

Tonight, that would be my friend Cristina.

She totally planned and organized this evening’s fundraiser to rebuild a migrant center in Oaxaca. A safe haven for refugees passing through Mexico that was severely damaged by the recent earthquake. She’s volunteered there, as have others here tonight, and she wanted to help. She’s made all the food for the evening, from the Mexican hot chocolate, to the cheese and bean quesadillas, to her famous mole. She even found the Fandango dancers.

Earlier in the day, Cristina, who lives in Juarez, crossed the bridge to begin preparing. Arms loaded with Mexican chocolate, fresh Oaxaca cheese, freshly made tortillas, and gallons of milk, she wanted this to be an authentic Oaxacan meal.

Yet she had no idea how many people would show up. How many plates to prepare.

There she stands in the kitchen all night long – her smile bright, her energy unlimited, as she loads up plate after plate.

No sign of slowing down from the cancer that has invaded her body. She says nothing about it, speaks only of God’s goodness. Her face shines.

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To me, Cristina is “full of the Spirit.” She sees what is needed and responds. And she does it with grace.

Like the center she opened for abused and traumatized teens in Anapra. Through games and dance and art, she teaches them body, mind, and spirit practices to help them heal.

Like the volunteering she does at the clinic for disabled children where she patiently teaches children who can’t speak how to mouth letters.

 

Cristina has chosen to fully live. No matter what is attacking her body.

And she reminds me of the good that one person can do.

I see so much of that. So much good in humanity. Not just in Cristina.

It’s true, we all know the tragedy one person can inflict. We’ve seen it again this week in Las Vegas. But I see so much more out of that tragedy. I see the people who responded with goodness. Those who risked their own lives to rescue others. Those who lined up and waited 8 hours to give blood. Those who responded to the “Go Fund Me” site set up for the victims. Another example of an event planned without knowing how many would respond. Who could have anticipated that they’d raised $1M in 7 hours?

Time and again I witness the good in humanity.

And it’s worth repeating. Miracles can happen through the actions of one person. It’s amazing.

I may even become a fan of mole.

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Where Have All the People Gone?

common-humanity

Fear. Uncertainty. Sadness. Deep Concern.

These are just some of the feelings I and many others have been experiencing lately.

Yesterday ICE conducted immigration raids in Las Cruces, New Mexico, the town right next to El Paso. We’ve heard such raids will be happening here next.

At the Nazareth migrant and refugee hospitality center, our numbers have dropped dramatically over the past few weeks. ICE brought us only seven people yesterday. This afternoon we closed down for the rest of the weekend. Where have all the people gone?

Although I can only speculate as to what’s happening, I can tell you for certain that it’s not because the violence has decreased in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Are those who are presenting themselves to Border Patrol at the bridge asking for asylum being turned away? If so, it’s a certain death sentence for many if they return to their country.

Or are they possibly being sent directly to detention facilities?

Hoping to get some answers, I attended a meeting of the Borderland Immigration Council last night. Instead, my eyes were opened to the increase in blatant cases of denial of fundamental human rights and dignity that is happening right here in El Paso.

Family separation. Due process violations. Unaccountable and arbitrary denial of attorneys’ requests for migrants’ stays of removal. Even for a person with the most urgent humanitarian claims.

In some cases, mothers have even been separated from their children and put in detention. That’s not something I’d heard of happening before.

Yet, sadly, it is.

One woman who had been separated from her five-year-old daughter suffered so much stress, she gave up her case for asylum after being detained for five months with no contact with her daughter. The child had been placed in foster care, and at some point, grown so distraught, she had stopped eating. As a mother, that’s heartbreaking to me.

A Mexican woman who had been beaten and tortured by her boyfriend in her country and then threatened by the Mexican government for exposing their ineptness in helping her, came to the U.S. seeking asylum. Instead she was thrown in detention and treated like a criminal. “I was living in hell there, and I came to another hell here,” she said in an interview.

Case after case I heard of people being treated inhumanely.

It seems we have turned immigrants into “the other.” Criminals. Job stealers. Leeches.

Easily labeled as “bad.” “Wrong.”

Even worse, we have made them disposable, invisible, valueless.

And allowed ourselves to believe that their lives don’t matter. Or somehow matter less than ours.

Compassionate leadership. American values. Humane treatment of other human beings. Wise and thoughtful decision-making.

This is what I seek from my elected officials. And if not, then they need to be held accountable. No matter what their political affiliation.jimmy-carter

Creating greater division among people based on politics, religion, race, country of origin, even differences of opinion, will not heal us. It will not make America great again.

Nabbing undocumented people who have no criminal record and are positively contributing to our society will not make us safer or richer. It will only instill greater fear in our society.

It already has.

As people on this planet we share a common humanity. A oneness with the divine Creator. Knowing that divine spark lives in each of us enables me to have faith in what is possible.

And to hope that the people will come back. Both those who seek safe refuge and those who allow themselves to “see” the other.

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