In our Critical Issues class today, we got to listen to two environmental activists who support borderlands ecosystems. First, we heard Sergio Avila from the Sky Island Alliance talk about the importance of nature to people and the economy. Second, we listed to Dan Millis from the Sierra Club Borderlands Campaign talk about the destruction that Border Patrol has caused to the environment around the United States-Mexico border.
In the first talk, Sergio talked about the environment surrounding the borderlands. We learned that the borderlands are very diverse, with four different climates represented. He showed us pictures of jaguars, ocelots, bobcats, and mountain lions-all found in Arizona! Unfortunately, they may not all continue to live here. The Real ID act passed in 2005 allows the Department of Homeland Security to disregard 36 federal laws in order to build the border wall, including the Safe Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. I had no idea that the government could violate its own laws. These environmental laws were made and passed for a reason and I find it shocking that they are being disregarded.
Animals do not care about international borders-they care about where to find food and water. In the picture, you see three deer stopped by the wall, unable to go to places their predecessors had traveled to for thousands of years. Sergio talked about the problems the wall poses for migratory patterns.
Dan Millis talked about using large predators as an indicator of the health of an ecosystem. If an area is healthy, it will be have enough food (small animals) for large predators. This is why the jaguar population of Southern Arizona is of such interest to environmentalists, and I assume why both Dan and Sergio spent time talking about the big cats.
Dan pointed out that Arizona might be the U.S. state most affected by the border wall—though Arizona has only 19% of the entire U.S.-Mexico border length, roughly 50% of the wall is here. Dan showed us pictures of Otay Mountain Wilderness Area where Border Patrol had made destroyed habitat in order to make roads and walls. How can we ruin the resources of our own country while claiming to protect it?
To conclude this blog post, I would like to leave you all with one comment: not a single terrorist has been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, but how many animals, trees, and birds have died because of it? Don’t we have the obligation to protect those who have no voice?
The following piece is a reflection on our group’s trip to visit Operation Streamline, a mass court proceeding that takes place daily in Tucson in which roughly 70 undocumented migrants at once are sentenced to the misdemeanor of Illegal Entry. These people, most of whom were apprehended by the Border Patrol during their journey through the Sonoran desert, are jailed for 30-180 days and then deported.
The first place they will take you is to a Border Patrol detention. Males and females will be separated into different cells. You will be given crackers and juice and zero tolerance. Maybe you have been walking for days, perhaps you have been traveling for months and this is just the beginning of another very long day. Long days are to be expected when months of legal process are crunched into a twelve hours in a mass trial like the one you are about to endure.
From detention, you will be transported to the Marshall service. You will be permitted to bring only one set of clothes. Everything else will be left behind: backpack, cell phone, contact information, identification, medication. They might pretend that losing your ID was a mistake – at least, that is what their PR reps will say, but either way they will try to make you nameless, nobody, now.
Forget the bail hearing. Forget the pre-trial hearing. Actually, forget about the court trial altogether. Today you will have three hours to meet with the public defender you are sharing with five other people, nine to noon to get the whole lowdown. You see, you’ve been charged with a felony. A misdemeanor and a felony, actually, a two-for-one deal in this seventy-for-one trial, but the good news, you’ll see, is that there’s a plea: they’ll drop the felony, drop the court fee, if you plead guilty to the crime of Illegal Entry.
Here’s the deal: you’re a Repeat Offender with a Criminal Record of a previous illegal entry and deportation. You’ve been here before, they sent you back, and they’re not happy to see you again. Illegal Entry is a misdemeanor, but Illegal Reentry After Deportation is serious business felony charges and now that you mention it, what else is on your record? A DUI in your file could get you ten years today; theft or arson or trafficking or murder or sexual assault or crimes of violence or an Aggravated Felony of any kind and you’re looking at twenty. So you see, you’ll really want to be accepting that guilty plea.
The deal they will give you is this: They will drop any fines and the felony charge, give you a mere 30 to 180 days, if you plea guilty to the misdemeanor and waive the right to appeal your case and to have a court trial. If you want to measure your time in days instead of years, you don’t have much of a choice. Either way, you are more than likely to be deported at the end.
You will be seated on a long wooden bench in a wide courtroom with seventy other migrants. The room will be large, off-white, windowless, and echoey, so the sound of clanking handcuffs never completely fades. There will be wide-open double-doors through which are pouring the visitors who have come to watch the show – observers of your humiliation, witnesses to the throngs of brown bodies on trial. There is another door on the other side of the room.
The first thing the judge will do is take attendance.
And on and on. Seventy numbers, seventy names, seventy men (and maybe a woman or two). Everyone is present.
Next, the judge will give you a chance to change your plea, to speak to your lawyer, to do any desperate, last-minute things you might wish to do before the main act begins. You will be advised that this charge will be always on your record, you will be told about the years in prison you will serve if you are ever caught again. You will be read your rights. And now that that is all out of the way, it’s time to get down to it.
This is how the script goes:
The judge will now call to the bench eight of the lawyers and eight of you. The lawyers will be addressed first: Are the clients pleading voluntarily? Do they understand the charges against them, their rights, their penalties?
“Yes, your honor.”
The felony is dismissed, no fine imposed, and the defendants will receive credit for time served. Having confirmed the the illegality of their presence, the judge will deal the sentences: 75 days for this man, 30 for that one, and 180 for him over there. Clank, clank. The men are led away through the door on the side of the room. The script restarts. Eight more names, eight more lawyers.
“Is any of you being forced to plead guilty today?”
The imposing height of the mountains and the saguaro form the backdrop of Tucson in my mind, in the same way that the mostly flat corn and soybean fields surround the Indiana town where I go to school, and the steep gorges and tree-covered hills are the foundation for my memories of home, in upstate New York. Last week, as we drove south to Ambos Nogales, and then west towards Altar, Sonora, I saw the mesquite and palo verde dotted landscape through North-eastern eyes – the dry soil and steeply ridged mountains appeared inhospitable. From my view within the air-conditioned van, a multiple day walk through this landscape seemed like an incredible feat, and inherently dangerous even without the added effects of a highly militarized border.
It seemed odd then, to arrive by van to CAMYN, a shelter and comedor for migrants in Altar, Sonora, and jump right into conversations with men and a few women who were either just about to, or had just been deported from, their trek through the desert to cross the US – Mexico border. As we ate dinner together, maps on the wall reinforced the dangers of the desert – “¡NO VAYA UD!” one urged, “¡NO HAY SUFICIENTE AGUA! ¡NO VALE LA PENA!” (Don’t go! There isn’t enough water! It’s not worth it!) The map is created by Humane Borders, and showed a map of southern Arizona superimposed with the distances of 1 to 3 days walking, and the sites of migrant deaths between 2000 and 2012. A version can be seen below, and the maps are available online, a pdf of the Nogales Sector can be found here: http://humaneborders.org/news/documents/nogales_poster_20120429_download.pdf)
Your group should cross the border, to see what it is like, a hondureño suggested, when he found out we were learning about the borderlands and immigration, Do you think you could do it?
My citizenship ensures that I don’t have to. Though we shared a meal and stories with each other, the reality was that the next day we left Altar, Sonora for the United States, crossing through the designated border crossing in Nogales, Sonora, with all the proper authorizations and documents. We were back in Tucson before the sun set. That is not the journey available to the men and women we talked to – to the many men and women who pass through Altar on their way north. In the face of such disjointed opportunities, Good luck, seems only to reflect the glaring differences, and yet I heard myself voice the phrase as I grasped for ways to honor our brief connection.
I’m told that Altar has grown incredibly in the past ten years, as Border Patrol has cracked down on nearby Nogales, and other population centers. Altar is directly south of Sasabe, and from there, many face the deserts of southern Arizona, with a much less rosy-eyed view than Thoreau. As we walked around Altar with the Padre from CAMYN, I was struck by the commodification of the crossing experience. There were many stores anticipating the needs of migrants: camouflage backpacks and hoodies, lighters, blankets, necklaces with saints, sneakers and insoles. There were even handmade shoe covers, made out of jean material and a swath of carpet, to cover tracks in the desert.
The Padre told us that before Altar’s sudden growth, there was only one pharmacy in Altar; now there are more than ten. The owner told us that energy boosters are the most popular (caffeine drinks, chocolate, energy powders), as are sanitary pads (a cheap alternative to the insoles: they prevent blisters and absorb sweat). She recently started selling water in black jugs – so that they wouldn’t reflect the moonlight. Before the plastic was black, people improvised with black garbage bag. And yet that change from clear to black plastic means that someone is directly profiting from the needs of clandestine border crossings.
As a group of BSP students plan to go camping this weekend, two hours southwest of Tucson, I am reminded of how resource rich we are, as we plan for a night in the desert with a propane stove, sleeping bags and pads, tents, and gallons and gallons of water. I grew up surrounded by catalogs from companies whose sole income came from the commodification of wilderness experiences, with page after page of sleeping bags, hiking boots, backpacks, lightweight tents, headlamps, cooking stoves, Camelbaks. Like any technology, the products seemed to be continually pushing for the lightest, strongest, smallest version, each with an additional cost.
And yet the recreational industry catering to the middle-upper class doesn’t seem to benefit off of the same overt inequalities as the border industry. This seems most apparent to me in the militarization of the border, and the subsequent millions of dollars that are funneled into weapon and military companies through the purchase of ATV’s, horses, remote cameras (on ground and in drones), ground sensors, pepper ball guns, tasers, and on and on. During our visit to the Border Patrol station in Nogales, Arizona, a map of southern Arizona was pointed out to our group. Like the Humane Borders map at CAMYN, the physical terrain was overlaid with the amount of time to apprehend someone who crossed the border before they could easily avoid detection, ranging from seconds to minutes in cities to hours to days in the desert. The map reflected the initial intent of Operation Gatekeeper in the 1990’s: to seal off cities, that the terrain of the desert and mountains would form a natural deterrent.
Henry David Thoreau, a fellow north-easterner wrote, “My Spirits infallibly rise in proportion to the outward dreariness. Give me the ocean, the desert, or the wilderness! In the desert, pure air and solitude compensate for want of moisture and fertility.” (Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”)
I wonder if Thoreau ever made it out to the desert of southern Arizona.
And I wonder, as we go out this coming weekend and go on hikes, as we sit around a campfire and look at the stars, as we spend the near-freezing night in tents and sleeping bags, who else will be in the desert with us, staring at the same stars.
It has been a busy two weeks for the new BSP group. We have been getting to know our host families, each other, Tucson, and more recently, a remarkable woman named Rosalva. Rosalva was invited by Jeff and Katie to speak with us during our first Critical Issues in the Borderlandsclass. She is a woman on fire. Rosalva is a mother of three, and still finds the time to be very involved with numerous community organizations. She exerts herself with confidence, laughs happily and sincerely, and brings warmth to those she speaks with. For me, “warmth” could be turned up a notch. It was more like fire. She has a way of passing her passion and excitement on to others as she speaks with them.
During our time together, Rosalva educated us on many policies and programs that have affected the Tucson community in recent years.
But Rosalva also spoke a lot about fear. She reminded us about how fear can be used as a tool of manipulation… but also how it can be paired up with education as a tool of empowerment
When Rosalva first arrived to Arizona, she was driven by the fear of not knowing what could happen “a estar detenida.”
As a person who has never had to live a day in fear of being detained or deported, of losing a job, home, or family, I cannot say that I understand the extent of the fear that Rosalva was talking to us about. However, I can remember many instances in which I felt the apprehension of losing people I loved who lived this fear out daily.
And while Rosalva was talking to us, I found my mind slipping away, remembering a cool summer Sunday night years ago. I was sitting in a back row of my church, consumed by the fact that nearly half of our congregation was missing on such a beautiful night. I had heard rumors about the raids going on, but never thought it would get to this point. I couldn’t imagine that the raid of the migra at our local Wal-mart would bring my community to be overtaken by a fear so great that some of our most devoted congregants would not leave their homes to make it to Sunday service. My heart was heavy with sadness and worry that night. It was at this moment that I realized how quickly the life of an undocumented immigrant could be turned upside down. It was then that this truth was personalized for me. And I felt utterly helpless to do anything about it.
But I was not helpless. And contrary to what I believed at this moment, my community was not helpless either.
Because as Rosalva shared with us, fear did not debilitate her. It was her driving force. Yes, there were many policies (Proposition 200 and 300, E-Verify, Operation Streamline, HB 2008, SB 1070, etc.) that brought fear to the undocumented immigrant community.Yes, these laws also brought unnecessary fear to many others, who, upon hearing about the “immigration issues” that brought on these policies, mistakenly learned that immigrants were to be distrusted and seen as a problem.
But Rosalva’s fear brought her to realize that she could access power through educating herself. So she took English classes, learned more about the political and social systems of the US, learned about what her rights were. She was empowered by this new knowledge and found that it brought her a new sense of self-confidence.
Rosalva explained to our class that being an undocumented immigrant can be debilitating to a person’s sense of self-worth. Many are made to feel as if they are not smart enough for not knowing enough English. Rosalva reminds them that it is silly for anyone to expect that of them. Do all Americans know perfect Spanish? No. Both are at the same level. No one should be made to feel lesser than another because they grew up in a different environment, because their needs are different, because one has one set of papers and the other doesn’t.
So now, more than a decade later, she is busy motivating others who are in the same situation she was once in to also learnas much as they can for themselves and for their communities and to take confidence in their knowledge. Rosalva knows that an educated and organized community is a powerful force.
As for me, I was also motivated by Rosalva to push forward despite the doubts and fears that I have. I know that I will be challenged in ways I can’t imagine this semester. I know that I will have many uncomfortable moments and unpleasant feelings during this trip. It will not always feel like I am on an adventure, and that is okay. I am excited about the things that are going on in this city and in the ways that I will be able to be involved. I am ready to grow, build new relationships, and learn from the communities I become a part of here. And I will be intentional about remembering my own community back home, appreciating the organizations and individuals who make it their focus to educate each other on these issues of immigration, and looking for a place of best fit for me when I return home.