Commentary: Remember the people behind the policies
Esther was on staff of the Southwest Conference of the United Church of Christ when I arrived there in 2008. She was the daughter of a Mexican diplomat who had been stationed in Phoenix for over 20 years. Her father was sent to serve in that position when she was just a baby. When I met her, she was in her early 20s and was helping organize our church camps and youth ministries.
Shortly after I arrived, her father died. She lost her status and was threatened with deportation. She didn’t speak Spanish. She had no family in Mexico. She had lived in the U.S. for practically her whole life. She had no options. Because of her father’s position with the government, she was a high profile immigrant without status. She couldn’t hide.
She was also in a partnered lesbian relationship. Going back to Mexico without home, language, and family would only have been exacerbated by that relationship. She did the only thing that made sense to her: she fled to Canada, where she remains to this day.
In the eight years I spent in the Southwest, I met family after family with similar stories and circumstances. Having lived in Missouri for all of my life until 2008, I was aware of and sensitive to the danger that recently emigrating to the U.S. could mean for good people. But I really had no personal knowledge or experience of that pain and what it did in the lives of good people.
There weren’t many days after my move to the Southwest when I failed to come face to face with that pain.
The first time I worshiped at Good Shepherd UCC in Sahuarita, Ariz., I heard the pastor Randy Mayer speak these words: “We are a church on the border called to serve the immigrant.” I sat next to the Rev. Delle McCormick, at the time the executive director of an immigrant relief organization. Sitting with her was an undocumented 17-year-old from Guatemala who spoke no English and was within days of delivering her first child. She survived her trek from her homeland to her hopeland, but barely.
Before the week was over, Rev. McCormick would call to report that the Guatemalan teenager had been taken to an area hospital, delivered her child – and was detained by Border Patrol and dropped back over the border, far away from home with a child days old and with no money or shelter.
I’ve sat in a courtroom for hours and watched a little known policy called Operation Streamline destroy the lives of scores of people and their families.
About every half hour, a group of a dozen or more immigrants and refugees, chained together and wearing bright orange jumpsuits, were marched in to sit in the front of the courtroom before a judge. They were accompanied by one or two pro bono attorneys they may have met less than an hour ago and with whom they may have had about ten minutes’ time to prepare for what was about to happen.
One by one, the judge would read a name on a list that was just handed to him. He would ask that person to stand, read their crime (essentially crossing the border illegally) and ask them if they were guilty of that crime. Since most of them did not speak or understand English, they would turn to their attorney who would nod and tell them to say yes. They would say “yes,” and in so doing plead guilty to a felony conviction. That they had wives and children waiting for them who knows where is irrelevant. Later that day they would be dropped somewhere, anywhere, across the border, often without the family they were leaving behind knowing where – and because they had pleaded guilty (wittingly or not) to the felony, they were now prohibited from crossing the border legally again. Ever.
I sat with pastors who buried immigrants who had been warehoused and died in Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Tent Villages: outdoor cells where detainees were kept in 115+ degree summer heat with little water or shade.
I have walked miles of a wall, on both sides of the border, that separates families and restricts what have been millennia of natural migratory patterns of animals who now have no idea what to do. The wall is a disgrace, as are the drones that fly over U.S. soil (the United States allows our government to spy on its own citizens with drones within 100 miles of the border).
I’ve walked the migrant trails that refugees and immigrants use to try and find their hope. Peppered with torn and tattered clothes, empty gallon milk jugs, and a variety of personal items left behind from backpacks to jewelry to photos and so much more. The worst is walking by a bush with a bra hanging from it: a sign that a trophy is being hung by someone who raped the woman who once wore it.
Those who walk these trails daily find dead bodies or bodies badly beaten by an unrelenting sun in an unforgiving ecosystem. These saints and unsung heroes are among the most humanitarian beings on the planet. They rescue people and save lives and provide temporary solace, comfort, and compassion before those whom they discover are handed over to Border Patrol.
I will never again be unaware of the effects of our policies on people who see America as their hope.
Not too long ago, I walked out my door and met a woman in a hijab with two children struggling to carry a broken and discarded piece of furniture up the street to their home. I helped them with the furniture and learned they were refugees from Syria. Dad was not helping them because he was home recovering from the torture he endured at the hands of Syrian rebel forces.
On a trip to the Middle East, I stood outside tents that had become homes to some 250 Syrian refugee families, just a kilometer from the Syrian border in Jordan. Inside those tents were doctors, lawyers, teachers. One father told me, that although his family was living in these deplorable conditions on the $20 of relief that the U.N. was able to collect, and about a six mile walk through desert heat to the nearest grocery store – that tent was the first place his child was able to sleep at night and not be afraid. I held babies in my arms, sat with children in the tent that served as their classroom, drank coffee with some of the men from the camp and listened to their stories. Not one of them, not the fathers nor the mothers nor the children nor the babies, struck me as a terrorist.
I walk away from these encounters with a heart warmed by the hospitality of strangers. And I wonder why the richest nation on earth is being asked to hate and fear them rather than return their hospitality.
The Rev. John C. Dorhauer is the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ.