I recently spent time crossing between the border towns of Douglas, Arizona, U.S.A. and Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico with a group of 11 other YAVs, our site coordinators, and leaders of an organization called Frontera de Cristo. During this week, we were continuously welcomed into homes, resource centers, bible studies, and churches as we struggled to learn what life is like for those on the other side of the border. All throughout this week, we carried with us the privilege that will forever keep us from fully understanding – the privilege of being able to cross smoothly through the port of entry over and over and over again – the privilege of being U.S. citizens.
Now, I invite you to struggle with me, as I try to figure out how, as a white privileged woman, I can share the stories of those I met and what I experienced without shifting into the all-too-easy white savior. I don’t claim to be an expert or to fully understand the complexities and nuances that affect our Southwestern border and all those that come into contact with it, but I do know that as a U.S. citizen, as much as I don’t want to believe it, this is my border. My wall. My responsibility.And I think it’s probably yours too.
It’s time we own this.
What I witnessed in the ways our immigration system is implemented each day simultaneously shatters my heart and enrages me. However, out of my experience at the border also come stories of love, gratitude, faithfulness, and hope. I hope that these things will stick with you as we begin examining the ways in which we as U.S. citizens are implicated in this.
On our first full day, we were invited to dinner at a migrant resource center called C.A.M.E., where we heard about the work that they do in helping migrants and asylum-seekers in all stages of the process. C.A.M.E. provides warmth through a place to sleep, the filling food they offer, and the kind people that work there non-stop each day. Over the simple act of sharing a meal, our YAV group each heard stories of those that were staying at the shelter. Spread out around the dinner tables, some listened to migrants who had spent twenty years working in the U.S. to only be suddenly deported. Others heard the stories of a group of trans women that had experienced terrible violence in their home countries and were traveling together to seek asylum in the U.S. I listened to a pregnant women from Honduras who was traveling with her teenage daughter and hoping to be granted asylum so that she might join her family in Georgia.
Through a few tears and a brave smile, this women, who shall remain anonymous, shared with myself and a couple others in our group the details of her journey and her hopes for the coming months. She described the unstable nature of her home country and the intense poverty they could not escape, and how, to her, this was her only option. She was leaving behind two young children, who were staying with her mother, and though this seems unthinkable to someone of my privilege, she had to do something to create a better life for her family. All she wants is a steady job that will earn enough for a small house for herself and her children.
Part of the beauty in this interaction was the lack of Spanish speaking skills of myself and the other YAVs at my table. After many Spanish classes, I can keep a conversation going (all in present tense, of course), but I don’t have the knowledge to fully converse on a subject of this magnitude. However, this meant instead of talking, we listened, and I think that is incredibly important as we strive to do liberation work in solidarity with those that are directly affected.
Our new friend was continually patient with us as we tried our best to understand. At the end of the night, we thanked her for her courage and for sharing her story with us. We wished her the best as she went to the port of entry the next day to request asylum. I walked away grateful for hearing her personal journey but also thinking that I’d never see her again.
As often happens, I was wrong. The next evening as we crossed the border to join a weekly prayer vigil, I heard someone say my name. I’d vaguely noticed people sitting along the wall, but we were running late and I was digging through my bag for my passport. When I heard my name, I looked up, and there was our friend from the night before. Immediately, a rush of embarrassment flooded through me, and even writing this now, I feel it again. It was in this moment that I felt the weight of my privilege crash down on me in a way that it never has before. As we were being waved through the port, I barely made out an “hola, ¿como estás?” I immediately regretted not getting out of line and actually acknowledging her and her daughter. I felt ashamed that I was too caught up in my own life to notice her, and I felt furious that I was able to cross so easily yet she could not.
As we continued on with our evening, I could think of nothing else except our friends sitting by the wall, not being allowed to set foot on U.S. property, meaning that they couldn’t get close enough to request asylum. I also couldn’t stop thinking about the ways in which I had just been personally a part of perpetuating our broken and oppressive immigration system.
Later on that night, a few of us went back to the border crossing to see if our two friends were still there; they were. The two asylum-seekers, one 8-months pregnant with bronchitis, were made to wait in the cold for almost 24 hours since the processing office was “full.” We were told 8 asylum-seekers a day are let in at the Douglas/Agua Prieta port of entry, but in reality, we saw that maybe 1 or 2 were actually allowed to begin the long process of requesting asylum, many of which are eventually denied.
We brought blankets and hot tea and sat with them as they waited, unwilling to leave in fear of losing their place in line. Because there was nothing we could do or say that would solve the problem in this moment, they only thing we could do was show up. To be present and to show our solidarity. We tried to use our privilege for something good by asking the border patrol officers that sat on the other side of the fence why they were having to wait so long. We sat as witnesses to the injustice being done to human beings each and every day along that wall. The border patrol agents did indeed have their heater turned towards our friends, but I kept asking myself, where is the humanity in this situation? Why are they made to seemingly “prove how much they want this” by waiting hours in the cold? Why is this our system?
After an hour or so, when it seemed like they might want to try to get some sleep, we got up, said goodbye and good luck, and resumed our normal lives. Our outsider status was never more apparent to me as we left. We can never fully understand what it feels like to have to leave your family and your home because it’s too dangerous or unstable and flee in search of something better – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. I probably will never find out if our friends seeking asylum will be able to reunite with their family in Georgia, but I now have a better grasp of the system and know that they are a long way from the life she dreamed of. Their story is just beginning.
The courage, determination, and unfailing hope our friend shared with us as she waited to seek asylum in the U.S. will remain with me always and sparked my acknowledgment of my role in the issues affecting our Southwestern border.
After all, this is my border. My wall. My responsibility. And yours, too.
Moving forward, I’m asking myself these questions: What does it mean to be a responsible U.S. citizen? How does our faith inform our response to social issues?
For, I have called you by name. You are mine.
This is my story of being called out by name to no longer ignore my responsibility. I believe that we called to do the work of God not just with our hands but with our voices.
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