From May 19 to 27 I was in Arizona and Nogales, Mexico to try to grasp what is happening to migrants since the U.S built a wall along parts of the border. The delegation of 17 U.S. citizens was led by School of the Americas Watch founder Fa. Roy Bourgeois. We were hosted by BorderLinks in Tucson, AZ which is part of a network of organizations working together to provide humanitarian aid to migrants and to change U.S. immigration policies that both criminalize the migrants and militarize our 2000 mile long border with Mexico. Within the network we met with Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, No More Deaths, the Kino Border Initiative, Casa Mariposa and Hogar de Esperanza y Paz (HEPAC) in Nogales, Mexico. The people’s stories below are from some of the migrants I met.
I want to tell you the stories, and the history, and the pain. I want you to know how many dollars we are spending to make the migrants – from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador into criminals or enemy non-combatants (my term). I want to communicate how much human misery we are creating by our so-called immigration policies and practices.
Our border with Mexico is 2,000 miles long. The wall and or or fence extends between 580 and 700 miles of it. The rest is either patrolled by Border Patrol agents or by electronics and drones. It is a war zone, and the migrants crossing it are the enemy.
In the early 1990’s the U.S. established a policy to “solve the immigration problem” by “prevention through detention and voluntary removal”, whereby detained “illegals” were simply dropped on the Mexican side of the border. Then we passed NAFTA and put up the wall – never saying the two were connected. As migrants fled the consequences of NAFTA, our immigration policy became a “consequence delivery system,” i.e. “you will pay dearly for trying to enter the U.S. NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) was a knife to the heart of Mexico, and to stop the flood of migrants who had lost their means of survival – growing corn – the U.S. put up a wall. (More on the effects of NAFTA to follow.)
The wall is 20 feet high, made of metal two by fours spaced a few inches apart so the Border Patrol can see if anyone is attempting to approach it from the other side. At its base on the U.S. side, it is piled with rocks, in order to assure injury if someone climbed over and jumped down. It is also equipped with surveillance cameras . In Arizona there are large gaps in the wall, precisely where it is the most dangerous to attempt to cross – the Sonora desert. The wall designers either assumed no one would try to cross into the desert, or hoped they would cross there and die in the attempt.
Pepe is 19. He was just deported yesterday, so I met him on the Mexican side of Nogales at the “comedor”, the dining room run by volunteers with Kino and No More Deaths. He is there to have the hot meal supplied twice a day for the first three days after deportation. After that, he must have made a plan for where to go next, and make room for the unending flow of new deportees. With worry on his face and in his voice, he said, “I was in the desert for a month. I had paid $3000 (to a coyote who usually promises safe passage within three days). I saw a lot of people die. I suffered a lot. People were falling down in front of me. I won’t do it again. I suffered too much.”
Also in the comedor were about 8 women who were caught trying to get back to their U.S.- born children. They had thought it would be easy to cross, as it had been before. Now, if they try again and are caught in the Tucson area, they will be charged with a felony and be tried by Operation Streamline. They will receive a prison sentence and possibly never see their children again.
Operation Streamline is a special procedure is for people who were deported, crossed again and were caught a second time, which constitutes a felony. We observed the process in the U.S. District Court in Tucson on May 21st. 62 men and 4 women filed into the room in shackles, with chains joining their cuffed hands to their cuffed feet and also between their feet, so they could not take a normal step. So right away we should see them as criminals. They are seated in the other half of the courtroom from where we are, and some are in the jury box, because there is not enough space. They are without exception brown-skinned. Some are from Guatemala, some from Honduras and El Salvador, and most from Mexico. Their lawyers tell the judge the names of the 6-8 prisoners they are each representing. That makes for about 8-9 lawyers. The first batch of migrants, the only 4 women, are brought before the judge. The judge asks each one a series of questions.
Do you understand the charges against you?, translated into Spanish through earphones supplied by the court. Each one answers, ”Yes, sir.” Do you know you can remain silent? Translated. “Yes sir.” If you have no money for an attorney, one can be appointed for you. If you plead “guilty” the maximum sentence can be 6 months in jail and $5,000 fine plus a $10 court fee. Do you understand? “Yes sir.” You have the right to call your own witnesses and to have a trial by jury. If you give up these rights by pleading guilty, do you do so voluntarily? “Yes sir”. The court will dismiss the felony charge for entering the country illegally after having been deported if you plead guilty to a misdemeanor. How do you plead? “Guilty.” The sentences are read : For woman number one- 150 days, for woman number 2- 30 days, for woman number 3 – 30 days, for woman number 4 – 60 days. Do you agree to your sentence? “Yes sir.”
I I made note of the date each woman had entered the U.S. “unauthorized”. They had been in ICE jails (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) from 3 to 7 days each. Now they would enter our regular, privatized prison system. The 4 were lead out of the courtroom, right past where we were sitting, so we could see their faces. Stoic. It was 2:04 p.m. The whole procedure for the women took less than half an hour. Next the men were led forward in batches of 7, and the judge went through the same routine with each batch, with the same outcome – except that a few men asked the judge’s forgiveness for entering the country illegally. One of the Honduran men had been in ICE detention since May 7th–- 14 days. The sentences for this batch of men ranged from 105 days to 180 days. Three men asked the judge if they could be incarcerated in the state of California because they have family there. The judge agreed. A touch of humanity.
By the 5th batch of men I began to feel distracted. I thought about eating ice cream instead of sitting here. Then I thought about how four days ago I had been hiking with friends in the beautiful, dry and rocky mountains of northern Arizona while these men were struggling through the desert, parched and tired, hoping for some money to feed their families or to reunite with children and spouses, and getting arrested instead. I forgot about the ice cream.
Last batch – Once again a man said to the judge, “Forgive me for entering your country illegally.” He was not begging for a lighter sentence. He meant it. I wish he could hear us say, “Forgive us for ruining your life.”
P.S. Prison sentences given out by Operation Streamline are to be carried out in U.S. jails. Most of the time these are for-profit jails under the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) or GEO Group (which was Wackenhut). CCA houses 60% of all migrant detainees and they reserve 80% of their beds for migrants. As you might imagine, these entities lobby for strict immigration detention policies. CCA gets $3,438 a month per detainee. Our tax dollars are the source for that fee. Interestingly, CCA and GEO don’t pay taxes.