Latest Tweets:

Saturday, March 9- Day 6

image

Our final ASB trip post comes to you from Jenna and Erin!  What an incredible journey we’ve had over the past week….

We spent the morning of our last day in Tucson finishing up the pro bono project from Friday.  In the afternoon, our large group broke off into smaller groups and explored the city.  Some of us met with Lea Marquez Peterson, the President and CEO of the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, to hear her views on federal immigration reform.  She explained that the Hispanic Chamber’s primary goal is to support business and is often apolitical, which frustrates advocates on both the right and left.  She explained the importance of Mexican tourists on the Arizona state economy and the need for a system that allows consumers from Mexico to enter the U.S. and spend money here.

Meanwhile, some participants visited the Tucson Museum of Art and viewed a desert-themed exhibit, which was particularly interesting after spending a few hours out in the real desert early this week with CBP.  Another group attended a local street fair, stopping to watch some Japanese drummers play music.  We all met up that evening to attend an art show at a local gallery called Raices Taller.  Cesar, one of the people who we had met earlier in the week, and whose personal story touched so many of us, had his artwork on display.  Cesar’s art reflected his journey across the desert in order to flee persecution in his home country.  The other artists’ work also related to immigration – paintings of immigrants portrayed as space aliens with green skin and antennas highlighted the problem with the term “illegal alien,” which is used in the federal immigration statute to refer to non-citizens in certain circumstances.  We ended the day with a lovely dinner at a classy Mexican restaurant, thanks to a recommendation by Paulina. We ate pollo en mole negro, pastel de morron amarillo and other fancy combinations - it was delicious! 

Without a doubt, our group considers the First Annual Immigration Alternative Spring Break a success.  While many of us were feeling conflicted and somewhat drained after a long and eye-opening day with CBP on Thursday, most of the group expressed feeling inspired and uplifted by Saturday evening.  Before heading out to Tucson last Sunday, our group had articulated goals for the trip.  First and foremost, we wanted to see firsthand how immigration issues were affecting communities on the Arizona/Mexico border.  And we wanted to be able to understand the implications of the events taking place on the border through the eyes of all interested parties.  While most of us knew that our experiences in Tucson and Nogales would be drastically different than seeing immigration issues play out in DC, we can now confirm that there is no substitute for standing under the 30-foot border fence or for driving (much less walking) through the rough and rocky desert terrain.  And there is certainly no substitute for hearing from both a Guatemalan citizen who crossed the desert nine times to flee persecution in his home country, and Tucson Sector Border Patrol agents who have lost some of their closest friends and most respected mentors in drug interdiction operations while trying to protect our borders.  As Cesar told us at Casa Mariposa, there are two sides to every coin.  This week, we can absolutely say that we saw those two sides and so much more. 

During our final reflection, our group discussed whether there is any middle ground in all of this and what changes we would like to see implemented on the border and within our immigration system as a whole.  Some of our recommendations included additional training and Spanish-language requirements for CBP officers.  Ideally, the officers should be trained to recognize a potential asylum claim so they are not placing victims of persecution into expedited removal; and accordingly, the officers must, at the very least, be proficient in Spanish.  We also discussed finding alternatives to detention, or at least to detention centers run by private corporations that have a financial incentive to fill as many beds as possible.  Our discussions over the past week have really forced us to confront the issues head-on, and we learned a ton from one another.  I, for one, think a middle ground can exist… now it’s just up to us to find it and make it happen!

Friday, March 8 - Day 5

Hola from Binta and Carly!! After the past few days of meetings with non-profit organizations, community activists, and border patrol, we welcomed the opportunity to start doing work that would allow us to have a direct impact on the community. Also, we were happy for the extra sleep and being able to start the day at 10 am after some very early days previously. The fact that the office where we had to report for work was so close to Borderlinks was an added bonus – we didn’t have to go hours without access to bathrooms. YAAAYYYY!!!! Now that that’s out of the way, here’s what we actually did on Friday (Day 5).

Our morning started at Derechos Humanos with a presentation from Kat Rodriguez. We learned about the work that the organization conducts in Arizona and across the United States. We have been so impressed with the passion and drive of the great folks at Derechos Humanos. They are truly dedicated to helping the migrants who risk everything to cross the deserts of Arizona. Far too many migrants leave their families in Mexico or Central America and then simply go missing. Derechos Humans is dedicated to helping the family members and friends of these individuals to find their loved ones. Many of us were shocked and deeply saddened to learn that last year alone the remains of approximately 179 people were found in the Arizona desert. Past years have seen numbers in the high 200s. There is no saying how many others may have perished, whose remains were never found. Derechos Humanos works closely with the local office of the medical examiner to help loved ones identify the remains of those found in the desert.

Of course, the happier scenario is when family members and friends find that their loved ones are still living and were detained by CBP, but then they face the almost impossible task of navigating the immigration and criminal systems of the United States. Derechos Humanos helps them find their detained loved ones, determining if they are still in detention, were deported to parts of Mexico or Central America far from their home towns, or if they are facing criminal charges in Operation Streamline or other court systems. Community volunteers from Derechos Humanos, called promotoras regularly talk to family members and friends to try and explain the possible scenarios their loved ones face, but often struggle themselves to understand the extremely complicated US immigration and criminal systems. 

We heard from Doralina Skidmore (Doralina Law, www.doralina.com). Ms. Skidmore spoke about the interconnection between criminal and immigration law, and the negative consequences that result from the criminalization of immigration offenses. Additionally, she discussed the fact that there is a lack of information and general misinformation regarding many immigration policies and processes. Most notably, the families and friends of detained and missing migrants and immigrants do not know how to help and where to get information. She explained that this is where our group would be able to make an impact. Our assignment would help friends, families, and promoturas have a better understanding of basic criminal and “crimimmigration” processes. We were excited to put our legal background and skills to use for such a great cause.

Our assignment was to create two handouts and a presentation that would be shared with friends and families of detained and missing migrants and immigrants as well as the promoturas who assist these third parties. The information will equip the individuals with the tools needed to avoid being taken advantage of and misled by notarios (notary publics). While notarios in Latin America and many other countries can provide legal advice, this is not the case in the US. Undocumented individuals sometimes receive bad legal advice from notarios who unlawfully practice law in US.

The first handout focuses on the criminal aspects of a migrant or immigrant’s detention. This handout provides information about criminal bail bonds and immigration/ICE detainers. This handout details the process for paying criminal bonds, what happens post-bond payment (release or ICE custody), the execution of ICE detainers, and being released from ICE detention after paying the ICE bond, if eligible.

The second handout provides information to third parties on how to locate their friends or family members who have been apprehended. It describes the outcomes that could have resulted – e.g., Voluntary Return/Departure, Expedited Removal, conviction under Operation Streamline, Mexican Interior Repatriation Program, etc. – as well as the consequences of each of these possible outcomes.

Being overachieving law students, we decided to create a third handout that provides families and friends information about visiting hours and the contact information to the detention centers in Eloy and Florence. Once family members and friends locate their detained loved ones (an extremely difficult task by itself), then they have to figure when and how they can get in contact with their loved ones. We were very surprised and frustrated to find that much of the visitation information provided on the websites of the various detention facilities was inaccurate or out-of-date. We called each facility, and found that the people we talked to were very helpful in at least trying to explain their complicated procedures. The visitation policies varied widely – some required detainees to apply for their family members and friends to be added to a pre-approved list. Some only allowed visitation on the weekends; others only allowed visitation a couple hours a week during the middle of the day. 

Finally, our Prezi presentation summarizes the content from the three handouts in a visually appealing format and provides promoturas with comprehensive information to share with migrants and immigrants. For example, it provides suggestions of information that families and friends should bring to the attention of an attorney or immigration official that could help the detainee’s case.

This project has been a great capstone to many of our experiences this week – bringing together so much of what we’ve learned about CBP’s work, detention, and the humanitarian side of helping those who risk so much to come to the United States to be reunited with family or in search of a better life. We were thrilled to use our skills in a way that will hopefully prove useful in the future.

We ended the day with a little taste of the local Tucson social scene. We enjoyed a delicious Mexican dinner at Penca, which just opened last week. The food was WONDERFUL and the ambiance was very cool – lots of reclaimed wood, exposed brick, and old metal work. We cleaned them out of their chips and salsa (literally) and enjoyed tacos, chiles rellenos, horchata, and cocktails. Some were more adventurous, munching on tacos de cabeza (head) and bone marrow. We then headed over to what has become our favorite local ice cream shop, the Hub. Yes, we feel like we’ve been here long enough to have a favorite – maybe it is just the fact that this was the third trip to the Hub this week. What can we say, this group really likes to eat. Some of us turned in early, but others stayed out for more drinks and some Spanish karaoke, charming the locals with their own renditions of such classics as  Livin’ La Vida Loca and La Camisa Negra. 

Our time in Tucson is coming to an end, but we all agree that it has been a truly eye-opening experience. We have had the opportunity to see, hear, and touch the issues at the border first-hand and hope we can use this experience to work for a better future.

image

Thursday, March 7-Day 4

Heather and Beverley here to tell you about yesterday!  The day was another full day for us, and one which left many of us feeling conflicted and with a new perspective that we hadn’t seen before.  We started the day off at the Tucson Headquarters of the United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP).  We met with some personnel there, where they gave us a basic introduction to CBP and we asked a few questions.  From there, we split into three different vehicles, each with two Border Patrol agents and four people from our group.

Within CBP, the Office of Air and Marines (OAM) provides air support for the agents.  OAM in Tucson is located near the CBP Headquarters on the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, which is where we headed first in the CBP vehicles.  At OAM, we got to see some of the planes they use at the border.  Specifically, we saw a Black Hawk helicopter and got to go inside it and see the technology they use when they are picking people up at the border.  We also saw some other helicopters and a jet that they use.  They told us that the drug organizations based in Mexico thatthey are trying to stop are very well-funded and have a lot of resources, including planes that they use to bring drugs into the United States.  Countering the drug and human smuggling organizations became a common theme that we heard a lot about throughout the rest of the day.image

After OAM, we headed out with the CBP agents to the border.  It is about an hour and a half drive from Tucson to the border, so we had a lot of time in our vehicles to talk with the CBP agents.  After hearing from many migrants and groups advocating for migrants in the past few days, hearing from Border Patrol was definitely a different perspective.  They told us stories of people throwing rocks at them and fearing for their safety.  They also told us how they had seen immigrants who had been severely abused by smugglers, and even pushed off the top of the border fence which, at its tallest, is 30 feet high.

Once we got close to the border, we drove along a road that CBP agents would typically use to survey the area during their shifts.  The terrain was different than some of us expected-very hilly, with shrubs and trees and rocks.  It was definitely not the flat desert with cacti that some of us not from the area thought the border was like.  It illustrated better the difficulty that both immigrants and border patrol agents have trying to accomplish their objectives.

We also stopped and looked at a few different sections of the border fence.  Some areas are very tall and thick, while others look easier to get over.  However, the CBP agents told us about other technology that they use to keep an eye on those areas that the fence isn’t the strongest.  One of the agents specified that the fence is not a solution to the problem of immigrants crossing over into the U.S. outside of designated ports of entry, but just buys the Border Patrol agents time to do their job and be able to interdict the people.  In addition to the fence, they also have cameras and a variety of vehicles (including horses) designed to aid the agents in finding and catching people crossing the border.

After looking at the border, we then drove to a checkpoint about 30 miles into the U.S. from the border.  At the checkpoint, we watched a trained canine check out the cars coming through.  The canine was trained to be able to sniff out everything from the smallest bit of drugs to a person hidden in the trunk.  We also observed other equipment they have to inspect cars, including an x-ray machine in a truck that can spot things or people hidden in cars.

After hearing many negative stories about Border Patrol over the past few days, it was very interesting meeting actual agents and hearing them talk about their experiences and thoughts.  Most of us really liked the agents we met and felt that they were really trying to do what they believe is right.  It put a human face on the agency that we don’t always see.  It was also interesting to see the real challenges that the rough terrain causes for everyone at the border.

We concluded the day with a brief community meeting involving members of the organization Derechos Humanos, before heading to a vigil. The vigil brought together religious, non-religious, and other individuals to sing and pray for those who have lost their lives or gone missing while attempting to cross the border. 

The difference between driving around with CPB and praying with the community was stark. We had spent all day humanizing CPB officers and seeing border control issues from their perspective, and in the evening we were confronted with the missing, the dead, and the pain of families and communities who have been left behind. 

Immigration has costs: to the officers whose safety may be at risk in upholding the law; to the men, women, and children who face unbelievable dangers in trying to enter the United States; and to the communities who deal with a continuing cycle of loss, disappointment, and in some cases shame.

Only a handful of people were at the vigil, but for me it highlighted the mighty power of a few. Sometimes managing immigration concerns feels like an insurmountable obstacle, but all you can do is a little bit at a time. If you can speak up, speak. If you can pray, pray. If you can sing, raise your voice. The six other people at the vigil did just that, and reminded me that there is always something you can do, even if it is small.

"Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy." Proverbs 31:8

Wednesday, March 6 - Day 3

Kelly and Husna reporting today! We felt that in our activities and experiences today, the idea of a “fighting spirit” was an underlying theme (we will explain more as we conclude).

We started off the morning by hearing a presentation form Maurice “Mo” Goldman, a Tucson immigration attorney from the firm Goldman & Goldman, PC. Mo practiced immigration law in NY for 5 years before moving to Arizona, where he is now a partner in a practice alongside his mother.

 Mo gave a general overview of immigration law and practice, touching on both immigrant and nonimmigrant visas as well as offering anecdotes from his own practice. One story involved a brother and sister born in Iran, whose parents received asylum in Germany where they lived before coming to the US when the brother and sister were children. Mo described how they were both arrested by Immigration officials while at the Tucson airport (as the young woman was attempting to fly to choir camp!) and his experience and strategies in representing them. He also shared a story of a young man brought to the US from Bangladesh when he was a child, and his run ins with Immigration which somehow increased, even after he married a US citizen! Mo talked quite a bit about DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and shared that at some point in an immigration case, the legal work can be superseded by advocacy work (for e.g., calling in favors to politicians). Mo is well-known in the legal community for his work with DREAM-ers.

 After Mo’s presentation (and a delicious lunch at Borderlinks!), we walked downtown to the District Court (and soaked up the sun while our friends in DC all had a snow day!) There, we watched proceedings of Operation Streamline, a program that facilitates mass federal criminal prosecution and imprisonment of all unlawful border crossers.  Streamline was established by DHS in 2005 and post 9/11 was initially billed to Congress as an anti-terrorism measure as concerns over securing our borders were paramount. Streamline as it operates today started in 3 Texas border cities, before being established in Tucson in 2008.  

 Before we got  to the courthouse, our Borderlinks guide Madelaine prepared us for what we would see in the courtroom – around 70-80 men, chained at the feet, waist, and hands. However, before entering the courtroom, our group chatted with a former US marshal working at the courthouse who told us that today we would only see 30-40 men. He wasn’t sure about why this was the case in recent weeks, but suggested it could be due to the sequester. However, in a later discussion with two public defenders, they said the decreasing number of defendants in a Streamline proceeding started before the sequester.

Magistrate Judge Bruce MacDonald gave the typical reading of a defendant’s rights before he accepts a plea, but the startling difference we observed was that, unlike any other type of court proceeding we had all personally seen, he was giving this not to an individual but first to a large group of 41, and then small groups of 5 men at a time. Kelly noticed in particular that with each group of 5 men, they started to learn how to go through the motions of echoing yeses and nos in response to the judge.

Most of the defendants said they were from Mexico, and 4 were from Guatemala. The earliest crossed the border two and a half weeks ago and the most recent crossed this past Monday. The men were all dressed in the clothes in which they had crossed the border, and as the public defenders shared with us later, likely none of them had the opportunity to shower since they were apprehended by Border Patrol and placed in a station holding cell. Nicole T noticed that there were containers of Purell on every table, and that each attorney and the marshals made a point of washing their hands after briefly touching the defendants. Visually, one of the most striking  and upsetting things was seeing the men in chains. The noise the chains made was deceptively light, as it sounded more like bracelets jingling. That light sound was incredibly misleading, however, as we could see the men shuffling as walking was certainly a struggle, and other basic movements seemed to be an ordeal (for instance, one defendant trying to shake his lawyer’s hand and another who had a coughing fit and tried to sip water).

After watching the proceedings, we sat down with two public defenders that have both worked on these cases. We heard from the public defenders that some of the defendants from Guatemala and parts of Mexico don’t competently speak Spanish (instead speaking an indigenous language). These defendants are some of the few that the defense attorneys are able to “pull” out of the assembly line. They can approach the prosecutors and get the charges to be dismissed, because no interpreter is available to translate proceedings in their language. Others who can be pulled out include those with no education. When talking to the public defenders, we also learned that in these types of proceedings, attorneys don’t have much time to talk to their clients, and heard anecdotes about two lawyers who would go to Streamline proceedings in Texas, and line up their clients in two groups of 50 and lecture at them. We also learned that many of the lawyers representing the clients are not all public defenders (because there aren’t enough to cover the tens of thousands of individuals that go through the system every year) but private criminal lawyers who are paid $125 an hour by the government.                        

Going back to the theme of “fighting spirit,” this was something the public defenders talked about which we found very inspiring. One of the defenders said that they think it’s that spirit which drove them through law school and into the work they do, which can be thankless and frustrating at times. They also acknowledged that in their positions the fighting spirit couldn’t always mean changing the assembly line nature of Operation Streamline and due process concerns inherent in such a system. The fighting spirit for them now means fighting for each individual and more importantly, seeing that person as an individual with compelling reasons that led them to migrate, and not as part of an assembly line.

We also thought that Mo earlier in the day showed his fighting spirit for the work he does in his compassion and clear affection for his clients. Lastly, we felt that the defendants in the Operation Streamline proceeding showed their fighting spirit when, despite being chained and pushed to their limits in terms of physical and mental exhaustion, they were able to answer the judge’s questions, clearly, respectfully and with heads held high.  

University of Miami Law Students Skip Spring Break, Helping Undocumented Youth With Status

What we’re reading:  a story about another Immigration Alternative Spring Break!

Tuesday, March 5 - Day 2

image

Paulina and Nicole here to update you on our second day in Tucson!

Our first visit of the day was to Casa Mariposa here in Tucson. Every year, Casa Mariposa welcomes hundreds of immigrants recently released from detention into their home, where they are provided with food, a bed to sleep in, and emotional support. If people are unable to afford a bus ticket after they are dropped off at the station, the bus employees call Casa Mariposa volunteers, who then pick up the recently released men and women. People stay at the home ranging from a few days up to a couple of months.

As today’s focus was on detention facilities, we began with a discussion of the state of our current detention system and possible detention alternatives with two of Casa Mariposa’s volunteers, Paula and Rachel. They shared with our group some interesting ideas about possibly eliminating the detention system altogether, given the current negative effects it has on our communities. These effects include people not wanting to call the police in emergency situations for fear of being deported and the separation of children with their parents.

            For a lot of us in this group, hearing from one of the recently released men currently staying at Casa Mariposa was very emotionally charged. Cesar had previously entered the United States on eight other occasions. As a journalist writing about the conditions of his home country, he faced persecution from his government. The fear he and his family felt was so great that his wife eventually decided to leave him, and to this day he does not know what has become of her.

             Hearing about Cesar’s experience crossing the desert and how he felt while in the detention facilities was especially difficult. Personally, I have had some exposure to stories about desert crossings just from outside reading and documentaries I have seen but I felt entirely different hearing it firsthand. While a lot of us in the room were teary-eyed, I was unable to control my tears as he described leaning down to look at a body, only to see a face covered in flies and to realize that the person was dead. He went on to describe how it was not uncommon for body parts of the dead to be found in the desert, haven been eaten away at by animals. He also talked about the brutality of the coyotes and drug cartel leaders who had desert-crossers at their mercy; many were given the option of paying the leaders thousands of dollars or being tortured to death, in a way that Cesar described as a “Mayan sacrifice.” Cesar did not fare much better while in detention; overcrowded, cold cells and subpar food were among the many obstacles he faced. He also felt that the detention officers did not treat the detainees with much dignity. He mentioned how he once tried to ask an officer a question and the officer merely turned his back to him and walked away as if he were not even there.

Despite everything Cesar endured, he remained incredibly optimistic about his future. I know I was not alone in feeling moved by the various ways Cesar has chosen to express himself. We were fortunate enough to see a number of his sketches that were inspired by his time in detention and landscapes of his home country. Additionally, Cesar had photographed much of his experience and the images he shared with us included those body parts in the desert and community organizations in Mexico that handed out food to migrants. These photographs were to be used in the book he is currently writing about his experiences, titled “Dos Caras de la Misma Moneda” or “Two Sides of the Same Coin.”

            After Casa Mariposa, the group headed to Florence, Arizona. Florence is home to four detention centers: Service Processing Center (SPC), Pinal County Jail (PCJ), Central Arizona Detention Center (CADC), and Florence Correctional Center (FCC). Earlier this week another group had attempted to tour the Service Processing Center, one of the detention centers in Florence. Because they were denied entry, our group today decided to view the outside of the facilities from our Borderlinks van instead.

Our guide for this short tour was Cindy, a social worker with the Florence Project. The Florence Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization providing free legal services to men, women, and unaccompanied children detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Arizona. Although the federal government assists indigent criminal defendants and civil litigants through public defenders and legal aid attorneys, it does not provide attorneys for people in immigration removal proceedings. As a result, an estimated 86 percent of immigrant detainees go unrepresented due to poverty. The Florence Project strives to address this inequity through direct service, partnerships with the community, and advocacy and outreach efforts (http://www.firrp.org/).

Speaking with Cindy was an awesome experience. She gave us a great perspective on the current state of the Arizona prison system as it relates to immigration, and in particular, the discussion about prison systems as a corporate business. Two of the detention centers, CADC and FCC, are owned by the Corrections Corporation of America. Essentially they function as a hotel – the more beds they fill the more money they make. As one can see, turning the prison system into a huge money making scheme has its moral hazard – detaining more immigrants, for longer periods of time, yields higher profits for its owners. This system causes damage to the surrounding community – families are torn apart, people are less likely to call the police for fear of being detained, and the community lives in fear.

Although we didn’t get to see the inside of the detention centers, seeing the outside and surrounding land was definitely daunting. In particular, Cindy noted that PCJ had no space for outdoor recreation. She said that there is a certain time of day where the sunlight came through a window and the detainees would take turns standing in the sunlight – their only source of sunlight for their time at PCJ. There had also been reports of detainees being served inadequate amounts of food and, at times, inedible, expired food. Not surprisingly, PCJ was found to be one of the ten worst immigration prisons in the US by the Detention Watch Network. The full report can be found here. 

For dinner, we broke bread with Marco, an asylum-seeker who, after seven years in the Arizona detention system, was finally released in April of 2012. Over the meal prepared by him, Marco told us about his experiences when he was detained, denied relief, and finally released on bail. Much of what he told us had deep religious meaning to him – contrary to what most may think, Marco found his faith grow stronger through detention. Marco fielded a lot of questions from our group about what freedom meant to him. Lightheartedly he responded, “McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Coca Cola…” However, given that he had eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for breakfast every day for the last two years, his response didn’t seem like much of a joke. Marco got emotional while holding his plate, explaining to us that even something as simple as eating off a plate meant so much to him as he had not been able to do so in detention.  Much like Cesar, he remained positive about his future. He hoped to find any type of work, but in the meantime was just enjoying his freedom; recently he crossed some things off of his bucket list, including trips to D.C. and N.Y.

As part of the Borderlinks program, each evening the group meets with our group leader, Madelaine to talk about our experiences during the day. After dinner, we came together to reflect on today. Madelaine instructed us to draw, either in pictures or words, some things we were feeling about our experience in Tucson so far. Some wrote poems, while others drew character and artistic renditions of scenes we encountered throughout the day. One participant in the trip drew a picture that represented the blocking of emotions through a wall she had built up over years – the experiences with Cesar, Cindy, Rachel, and Paula reminded her that showing emotion can be a healing and transcendent process.

Monday, March 4 - Day 1

image

Hey Friends,

Reshma and Nicole C. here to report on our first full day with Borderlinks.  It was a jam-packed day with a lot of amazing experiences; it’s hard to imagine how the next few days will even compare.

After a healthy breakfast, we set out for Nogales at around 8:15 am.  We first met with the General Manager of Denticon to learn more about the maquiladoras (manufacturing plants usually created under the Border Industrialization or NAFTA program) that provide much of the employment opportunities on the Mexican side of Nogales.  The General Manager told us a bit about the work they do at Denticon, which employs about 88 men and women and produces dental equipment that is shipped to various dentists in the states, including dentures, retainers, and false teeth.  We were given a tour of the plant, shown how the products are crafted, and introduced to some longtime employees who seemed to take genuine pride in their work.  The General Manager seemed very proud of the employment opportunities and benefits that his company provides.  He spoke out against the unionization movements in Nogales, citing the recent arrest of a teacher’s union organizer for corrupt practices, and alleging that unionization creates more problems for local industry than it solves.

We next headed over to Grupos Beta Nogales, one of 17 federally funded agencies scattered along the northern border with the U.S. and southern border with Guatemala.  Some of the individuals staying there, most of whom had just been arrested crossing the border and returned to Mexico, agreed to speak with us in small groups and share their stories.  One of the boys we spoke with was only 17 years old and had tried several times to cross the border.  Each time, he had been arrested in placed in detention centers for anywhere from three days to a week or more, before being released in Nogales.  It was clear that outside of his experience migrating from the Oaxaca region, working odd jobs to make a living, and trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, he was just another 17-year-old kid who wanted to find a girlfriend and watch action movies with his friends.  The youngest in his family with five older sisters, he wanted to come to the States to obtain higher education and pursue a career in Business Administration or a related field.  His reluctance to speak in detail about getting caught crossing the border spoke volumes.  Another woman spoke about her desire to be reunited with her 8-year old, U.S. citizen daughter who was living with relatives in Florida to obtain a better education, and an 18-year-old who had been detained in Florence, Arizona during his first journey across the border described his siblings and interest in veterinary school.

Grupos Beta operates a free medical clinic that is open three hours a day and offers basic services to immigrants.  The nurse in charge, Norma, said the most common ailment she treated was severe blisters.  Meanwhile, a dejected-looking man soaked his feet, which were covered in cuts and lesions, in water.  Two student volunteers from Tucson provided Norma with support.  Together, the three told us about migrants who were released by U.S. border patrol agencies immediately following surgical procedures with no chance at being able to pay for follow-up care, or while suffering from pneumonia.  She highlighted her slogan, “Faith, Care, Service,” as her number-one message to our readers back home.  

Next, we drove over to a colonia (neighborhood) to have lunch at the home of a maquila worker, driving past the Technological Institute of Nogales, College of Civil Engineering, and other area schools that were just ending their day.  The students seemed upbeat and happy as they waited for their buses or walked home.  We passed lines of day laborers waiting for work near the highway.

We arrived at Johanna’s home with empty stomachs, which was a good thing because she fed us heaps of delicious authentic Mexican food, including chile rellenos with homemade salsa, queso fresco with corn and peppers, hot homemade tortillas, rice with corn, and beans.  Johanna and her dog Charlie were incredibly warm and welcoming.  After we had filled our bellies, Johanna proceeded to tell us the story of her struggle to promote worker’s rights.  She was so passionate about helping her companeros and unionizing to protect workers’ rights.  She spoke particularly about the struggles of pregnant women who were employed by the maquiladoras and forced to keep up with the same hours (typically 12-hour shifts) and quotas as the others, denied healthcare, and afforded little break time or vacation.  We began to realize gradually how expansive the unemployment problem is, and how resultant salary depreciation is touching the lives of everyone in the Nogales community.  Johanna had struggled at her previous job to unionize the workers and encourage them to voice to their concerns about working conditions, pay, and benefits, but had failed to get them to stand up to their employers after seven years and some failed negotiations.  After being “blacklisted” or “burned” by area employers for her involvement in advocating for workers, she went unemployed for some time before finding work again by a random stroke of luck.  At her next employer, she worked her way up, was named one of the company’s top workers, and offered a permanent contract that finally allowed her to organize and inform the workers without fear of losing her job.  Johanna, along with lawyers and other community members, negotiated for fixed salaries on a merit-based scale, three hours per month leave to visit a doctor, several days’ paternity leave, larger work spaces, and more, changing the lives of hundreds of maquilladera workers and setting a courageous example.  She also continues to organize workshops to pass on her self-learned knowledge about employer obligations under Mexican employment law, and concepts such as minimum benefits, wrongful termination, etc.  The pamphlets she showed us, designed to teach workers about their rights and obligations, seemed to be a simple yet highly effective teaching tool.

Although we could have listened to Johanna for hours, it was time to head over to HEPAC (Hogar de Esperanza y Paz= the Home of Hope and Peace), a partner of Borderlinks in Tucson that offers adult education classes to over 250 people, a food security program that feeds about 120 children daily, and family education on nutrition and gardening, and serves as a home base for a Women’s Cooperative business venture.  There, Jeanette offered a stirring presentation that provided a broad overview of the issues facing the Nogales community, including unemployment, depressed wages and high cost of living, an enormous wealth gap, squatting and difficulty of acquiring property rights, lack of access to water, electricity, health services and basic nutrition, extreme weather conditions, border violence, domestic violence and sexual abuse.  Scott Nicholson of United Ministries was kind enough to translate on her behalf.  We were moved by her stories about Jose Antonio, an unarmed teenager across the border, who was shot and killed a few months ago by Border Patrol agents, and Antonia, whose face is featured on the pendant that HEPAC’s Women’s Cooperative sells to raise money to keep the operation going.  It was clear that HEPAC makes a huge difference within the community in providing vulnerable children with a safe place to go when their parents are at work, and empowering people to stand up to border violence and adopt a “culture of peace.”  Jeanette drew much of her ideas regarding effective education from the philosophy of Pablo Freire.

Lastly, after waiting 90 minutes in a queue of cars to return to Arizona, our group toured the border wall, pictured in our below post.  Many of us were struck by the stark separation between Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora.  Having spent the day in Mexico, we were well aware that we had much in common with the individuals we met hoping to cross the border in search of a better life.  This blunt boundary between the two territories seemed at odds with our experience in Sonora and reminded us that much work remains to be done in the field of immigration law.

We drew some diverse perspectives today from a maquilladora manager, migrants, social workers, and a maquilla worker, and we look forward to supplementing these perspectives with those of detainees, other community organizations, lawyers, and U.S. Customs & Border Protection in the days to come.