Protagonists of the Story

When I visited women in an immigrant detention center on Friday, what struck me the most is how detention takes away even the smallest of acts of agency and freedom, ones we take for granted. As the weather gets colder here in Tucson, I can turn up the heat. I can put on an extra jacket. When I am hungry I can choose what to cook and eat. I can decide when to go outside, when to exercise, when to rest. I can turn the lights off in my room whenever I choose. None of those options exist for immigrant detainees. The system of detention acts on them and it is that force, not their own choices, that seem to matter.

I visited detention the morning after President Obama’s announcement of administrative relief. Another seemingly external force changing the system in which immigrants seem trapped. This time a benevolent force, a change that although far from ideal, will lead to a better life for approximately 4 million people. But the decision still seems to have been made by a force acting from above. In the same way that management in a detention center could suddenly decide to turn the heat up so that detainees would be more comfortable or serve pozole and tostadas for lunch. Such decisions from authority perpetuate the idea that undocumented migrants have little agency in their own lives.

And yet.

In reality it was not that Obama acted to sweepingly change circumstances for four million individuals, leaving them only to respond. It was those very immigrants, and many who will not benefit from relief, who worked and organized and fought and pressured so that this action might come about. It is those very immigrants who have been living their own agency and freedom for years and decades, even when the system does not recognize them. Immigrants who are protagonists of their own story, not subjects of another narrative.

No matter what the cut off requirements are for administrative relief, every day there are new protagonists. After my Friday morning in the detention center, I spent Friday afternoon welcoming in a Guatemalan mother and her daughter who had recently crossed the border and been released by ICE to fight their immigration case. When the daughter was three years old, the mother had left Guatemala to live in New York to make a better life for her family. Ten years later, she returned to Guatemala to bring her daughter with her.

The mother will not be eligible for relief, even though she has an eight year old US citizen child in New York, because she has not been continuously in the country for the past five years. She will not be eligible for relief because she decided to act radically and courageously to reunite her family after ten years.

Many people are wondering how exactly to respond to President Obama’s announcement. We should recognize the significance of the moment. But we should respond by acting as we should already have been: accompanying our immigrant brothers and sisters in their journeys, as actors in their own destiny. Because we acknowledge the significance of our country’s laws and system but we also recognize that we are part of a larger drama and living toward a much more important destiny.

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Protagonistas de su historia

Cuando fui a visitar a unas mujeres en un centro de detención para inmigrantes este viernes, lo que más me llamó la atención es como el hecho de ser detenido les roba de aún los momentos sencillos de tomar decisiones y acciones, decisiones que damos por hecho. Ahora que está haciendo frío aquí en Tucson, puedo prender la calefacción. Me pongo otra chamarra. Cuando tengo hambre, decido que voy a cocinar y comer. Decido cuando salir afuera, cuando hacer ejercicios, cuando descansar. Puedo apagar las luces de mi cuarto cuando quiero. Ninguna de estas opciones existen para inmigrantes en detención. El sistema de detención toma las decisiones y es esta fuerza, no su propia voluntad, que parece importar.

Estuve en el centro de detención la mañana después del anuncio del Presidente Obama sobre su acción ejecutiva. Otra fuerza que parecía externa cambiando un sistema en lo cual los inmigrantes parecen ser atrapados. Esta vez una fuerza benévola, un cambio que (a pesar de ser lejos de lo ideal) puede mejorar las vidas de 4 millones de personas. Pero de todos modos una acción de autoridad. Como si los encargados del centro de detención de repente decidieran subir la calefacción a una temperatura más cómoda o dar pozole y tostadas a la hora de la comida. Estas decisiones desde arriba no muestran la agencia de los mismos migrantes.

Sin embargo.

Lo importante no era que Obama actuó para cambiar las circunstancias para cuatro millones de personas, dejándolos solo la opción de responder. Fueron esos mismos inmigrantes, mucho de los cuáles no beneficiarán de la acción, que trabajaron y se organizaron y lucharon y presionaron para que se diera esta acción. Son estos mismos inmigrantes que han estado viviendo su propia libertad por años y décadas, aún cuando el sistema no los reconoce. Inmigrantes que son los protagonistas de sus propias historias, no los sujetos de otras narrativas.

Sin importar los requisitos por la acción deferida, cada día hay nuevos protagonistas. Después de pasar la mañana el viernes en un centro de detención, pasé la tarde dando la bienvenida a una mamá guatemalteca y su hija que hace unos días cruzaron la frontera y ahora ICE las había dejado en libertad para pelear su caso migratorio. Cuando la hija tenía tres años, su mamá la había dejado en Guatemala para ir a Nueva York y ayudarle a salir adelante. Diez años después, se regresó a Guatemala para traerla con ella.

La mamá no calificará por los permisos temporales, aunque tiene un hijo de ocho años que nació en EU, porque no ha vivido continuamente en el país por los últimos cinco años. No calificará porque decidió actuar de una forma valiente para reunir a su familia después de diez años de separación.

Muchas personas se preguntan cómo responder al anuncio del Presidente Obama. Hay que reconocer la importancia del momento. Nuestra respuesta tiene que ser como debíamos haber estado actuando antes: acompañando a nuestros hermanos migrantes en sus caminos, como actores en su propio destino. Porque reconocemos la importancia de las leyes del país pero también nos damos cuenta que somos parte de una drama mucho más grande y vivimos hacía un destino mucho más importante.

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Changing Roles

In the daily discussion of rights and abuses just before breakfast at the comedor of the Kino Border Initiative, one man began to share about the unreasonableness of his two years in detention, the many abuses he felt he had suffered in the court process, and the ultimate injustice of his trial. He expressed his anger at the process and his intention to fight for his rights. A friend, who works for Kino, leaned over to me and said “I would like you to talk with him and hear the details of his case.”

Before, in the months where I lived full time at Kino, I would have listened to him compassionately, heard him out in his anger and frustration, sought to understand how he felt and what he was dealing with, even though I knew I had no expertise and could do nothing substantial to help. I still have very little expertise. But now my situation and my work are different. Now, when I sat with him I looked over his stacks of paperwork, gathered information and considered what I have learned in the past three months about due process and border litigation to give him an idea, though not official legal advice, of what his very limited options were.

Just as if I had met him three years ago, I still could do nothing for him. But now an expectation, a hope, weighed on me. The thought that given my work on the ACLU’s Border Litigation Project I would somehow be able to transcend the limitations of the system and show him a path to justice. Even if I were a lawyer, because of resource limitations (which I understand) and the nuances of the US court system (which I cannot yet grasp), in most cases when migrants’ rights are violated suing is simply not a viable option.

From my years of journeying and accompanying migrants, I know the feeling of powerlessness. Migrants at the border, on their way north, in their communities after deportation and return, and even undocumented in the US often share with me their helpless desperation when faced with poverty, legal challenges, separation from their families, and fear. I join them in their helplessness.

But now the tone of many conversations is different. For the migrants, it is no longer enough to say that I hope and work toward a future in which our system is more just. People plead for answers and justice in the shorter term. People suffer daily in inhumane detention conditions, immigration officials coerce migrants into signing documents they don’t understand, hospitals deport individuals without informed consent under the pretense of finding them better care, and Border Patrol continues to use excessive force, even killing innocent individuals. We are faced by what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the fierce urgency of now.” The pressure of that urgency should make us feel uncomfortable. It should also spur us to action.

It is a new role, in which I cannot forget the old one. I and we cannot forget to sit and listen and patiently be with people in their suffering. Otherwise the urgency is meaningless.

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Cambiando de rol

En la platica diaria de derechos humanos y violaciones de esos derechos antes del desayuno en el comedor de la Iniciativa Kino para la Frontera, un migrante compartió su experiencia de una detención injustamente prolongada a dos años, los abusos que había sufrido en el proceso en la corte y la injusticia de su juicio. Expresó su coraje con el proceso y su intención de pelear por sus derechos. Una amiga, quien trabaja por Kino, se acercó y me pidió “¿Podrías hablar con él y escuchar los detalles de su caso?”

Antes, en los meses cuando vivía tiempo completo en Kino, le hubiera escuchado con compasión, hubiera escuchado todo lo que tenía que decir sobre su enojo y frustración y hubiera tratado de entender cómo se sentía con lo que enfrentaba, aunque no pude hacer nada para ayudar. Ahora tampoco tengo experiencia para poder ayudar. Pero mis circunstancias y mi trabajo son diferentes. Esa vez, me senté con él para revisar todos sus documentos y papeles, recogiendo información y tomando en cuenta lo que he aprendido en los últimos tres meses de debido proceso y litigio en la frontera para darle una idea, pero no consejos legales, de sus opciones.

Como si le hubiera conocido hace tres años, todavía no pude hacer nada. Pero ahora siento la carga de una expectativa, una esperanza. La idea que, por mi trabajo con el Proyecto de Litigio en la Frontera de la ACLU, podría superar las limitaciones del sistema y mostrarle un camino a la justicia. Aún si fuera una abogada, por la falta de recursos (lo cual entiendo) y las particularidades del sistema judicial en los EU (las cuales todavía desconozco), en muchos casos de violaciones de los derechos de los migrantes, no es posible poner una demanda.

Por mis años de acompañar a migrantes,  conozco la impotencia. Migrantes en la frontera, viajando al norte, en sus comunidades después de retorno o deportación y aún los indocumentados en EU suelen compartir su desesperación frente a su pobreza, sus retos legales, la separación de su familia y su miedo. Yo también me desespero.

Pero ahora las conversaciones son diferentes. Por los migrantes, ya no basta con decir que espero trabajar hacía un futuro en lo cual el sistema sea más justo. Las personas exigen respuestas y justicia y los exigen ahora. Migrantes sufren diario las condiciones inhumanas de los centros de detención, migración obliga a personas a firmar documentos que no entienden, hospitales deportan a pacientes sin su consentimiento bajo el pretexto de ayudarles a encontrar mejor cuidado y la Patrulla Fronteriza sigue usando fuerzo excesivo, hasta matar a personas inocentes. Enfrentamos lo que Martin Luther King Jr. nombra “la urgencia intensa de ahora.” La presión de esta urgencia nos hace sentir incómodos. También nos debe motivar a la acción.

Pero en mi nuevo rol, no me puedo olvidar de mi manera de ser de antes. No hay que olvidar de sentarme, sentarnos, escuchar y acompañar con paciencia a la gente que sufre. Si no hacemos eso, la urgencia no tiene sentido.

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Learning Again to Listen

It is tempting at points to think I have some wisdom to offer. That I have learned from my experience with migrants and should be teaching others.

It is humbling to realize that there are still many times when I must just listen and learn. Such as this past week, when I was at a hearing with the US Human Rights Network as part of the UN review of compliance with the Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. For hours I heard from people who had suffered a range of abuses at the hands of the police, Border Patrol, and immigration agents. I heard abuses that made my heart break. I had nothing to say, no perspectives to offer, no real role. I was just there to listen and witness their testimony. It was their time to speak, not mine.

And then on a day tour as a part of the event, I heard from organizations in southern Arizona and Nogales working to support individuals, mostly migrants, and defend their rights. Some of the organizations I was already familiar with, others were new to me. I heard of inspirational work. I heard of truly grassroots action that is already bearing fruit. I also heard rhetoric and calls to action that occasionally made me uncomfortable in my pragmatic understanding of how systems work. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if I agreed.

But that was ok. It was ok to listen and not be sure what to do. It was ok to appreciate yet not always agree.

One of the errors of many policy makers and non-profits and many people concentrated in Washington, DC is to arrive with a plan. Arrive and tell people what they should do and how they should do it. It is tempting for me to do the same here in Arizona. But others, like the founders of Casa Chirilagua, arrive with listening ears. They listen to what their neighbors need and what their neighbors are trying to do. And from there reflect on what could be done. They reflect on where they might fit in the puzzle.

That is the challenge at the moment to living in Tucson. Humbly recognizing that I do not yet have a place to speak. That I am just a Georgetown grad who knows little about the years of struggle for justice in this town. But that someday I hope to have a role in it.

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Aprendiendo de nuevo a escuchar

De veces existe la tentación de creer que tengo alguna sabiduría a ofrecer. Que he aprendido de mis experiencias con migrantes y debo estar enseñando a los demás.

A pesar de mi orgullo, me doy cuenta que todavía hay muchos momentos en los cuales debo solo escuchar y aprender. Por ejemplo, la semana pasada estuve en una audiencia con la Red Estadounidense de Derechos Humanos como parte de la revisión por parte de las Naciones Unidas de los Estados Unidos y su cumplimiento con el Convenio por la Eliminación de la Discriminación Racial. Por horas escuché a personas que habían sufrido varios abusos por parte de la policía, la Patrulla Fronteriza y los agentes de inmigración. No tuve nada que decir, ninguna perspectiva a ofrecer, ningún papel. Estaba allá para escuchar y ser testigo de su testimonio. Era su momento para hablar, no el mío.

Y luego en un día de recorrido como parte del evento, escuché a individuos de muchas organizaciones en el sur de Arizona y en Nogales que compartieron el trabajo que hacen para apoyar a otras personas, la mayoría migrantes, y defender sus derechos. Ya había conocido algunas de las organizaciones pero otras no. Escuché de trabajo impresionante. Escuché de acciones de base que realmente están teniendo fruta en las comunidades. También escuché argumentos y llamadas a acción que me hicieron sentir incomoda en mi manera muy pragmática de entender los sistemas en el país. A veces no sabía si estaba de acuerdo.

Pero estuvo bien. Estuvo bien escuchar y no saber qué hacer. Estuvo bien valorar pero no siempre estar de acuerdo.

Un error común de muchas políticas y ONGs y personas (muchos concentrados en Washington) es de llegar con un plan. Llegar y decir a la gente qué deben hacer y como lo deben hacer. Para mí, existe una tentación de hacer lo mismo aquí en Arizona. Pero otros, como los que fundaron Casa Chirilagua, llegan listos a escuchar. Escuchan a lo que sus vecinos necesitan y lo que ya están tratando de hacer. Y de allá reflexionan en lo que se podría hacer. Consideran su rol en el tejido de la comunidad.

Eso es el reto ahora que estoy empezando a instalarme en Tucson. El desafío de reconocer humildemente que todavía no es tiempo de hablar. Que solo soy recién graduada de Georgetown y conozco muy poquito de los años de lucha para justicia en esta ciudad. Pero algún día espero tener un rol aquí.

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From the Bus Station

“The United States is wonderful” said one woman after I helped get her oriented to what buses she would take from Tucson to Florida, gave food and snacks to her and her 8 and 9 year old sons, and helped her find sweaters and a blanket to stay warm through the inevitably extreme air conditioning of the buses. In that moment, I thought about the towns passing laws to keep people like her out and the protesters angrily blocking buses full of unaccompanied minors or mothers and their children. When I saw a look of joy and relief on her face at the welcome we were giving her, I hoped that she would remain naïve to what people were saying about her and that she not encounter people who would give her a very different reception.

Because she happens to be a part of the most politicized immigration issue of the year: the surge in unaccompanied women and children detained on the southern border. I met her and other women and children in similar situations at the Greyhound bus station in Tucson. There, I and other volunteers received the Central Americans once they are released from detention. We supported them as they go to reunite with their families across the US and fight their immigration case in Florida, California, New Jersey, and many other destinations. We offered them food, clothing, and explanations of their bus route. A representative of the Guatemalan consulate was on hand to explain the immigration process, how to find a lawyer, and when they needed to appear in court.

Being at the bus station was strangely similar to my time at the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, just south of the US/Mexico border, where I supported recently deported migrants. The women and children came in weary from days with little rest in the always-lit and far too air-conditioned detention centers. They came hungry from inadequate food both over the course of their journey and in their time in US custody. Much like the recently-deported migrants, they arrived disoriented and confused about their next steps. And, like in Nogales, they were surprised to be received and supported by people from the US.

Being at the Greyhound station reminded me how my time at Kino was a moment where I temporarily set aside my hope to work on structural change and was challenged to simply and lovingly welcome whoever came through the door. The current situation presents me and my fellow Americans with the same challenge. We should absolutely advocate for humane and pragmatic policy. But no matter how politically active we are, on a personal level this present reality should remind us to welcome and love.  Many individuals and organizations have adopted this tone of response to the current situation. Yet many of us will never directly encounter individuals caught up in this political firestorm. Ultimately, whether it is Central Americans caught up in the current issue or our immigrant neighbor or someone we see in the store, welcoming and loving our neighbor is something we can all do. 

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