Thursday, January 3, 2013

A Wall Runs Through It

From Green Valley, Arizona, it’s a mere 41 miles to Nogales, the town straddling the US-Mexican border.  On the American side, it's Nogales, Arizona; en el otro lado, Nogales, Sonora.

Shura Wallin picked me up at my hotel and drove me directly south on US 19, turning off to drive a couple miles east to the Mariposa port of entry for commercial traffic, rather than the main DeConcini port.

She’s one of two founders of the Green Valley / Sahuarita Samaritans, started in 2005, an offshoot the Tucson Samaritans, which was founded in 2002 by people who had earlier been involved in the Sanctuary movement. 

After parking in a privately run lot near the border, we walked past the US and then Mexico customs stations, entering Mexico on foot rather than by car to avoid the three-hour lines of cars waiting to enter the US. 

“Shura! Hi, Shura! Buenos dias,” yelled the men walking along the lines, peddling snacks and souvenirs to the waiting drivers. She greeted them by name and hugged some of them.  One man thanked her for the jackets she had brought for his sons the week before.  "They have nothing," she told me.

Because she comes every Tuesday with a car full of people to visit El Comedor, the soup kitchen for deportees, everyone here knows her.  She also brings clothing, blankets, and other gear needed by the guests at El Comedor, a ministry of the Kino Border Initiative.

We walked up the side of the highway around a hill and then crossed the lanes, all six almost empty.

There on the other side, tucked into the hillside, stood a modest white one-story building--El Comedor--next to another small  business.  

The door was a section of chain-link fence, and inside I saw five rows of tables lined with chairs on both sides and set with baskets of bread.  No one was there yet because it was not yet 9 am.

Shura was welcomed by several women working in the small kitchen over steaming pots, some of whom are Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist.

Soon people filed in and were seated at the tables, women at one and men at the others.

To be fed,  persons have to show a white slip of paper identifying them as deported within the last two weeks.  Buses from the Border Patrol drop off deportees on the Mexican side of the DeConcini port of entry, and some of those who had been dumped there during the night had already found their way to El Comedor.

"Women, children, men are deported in the middle of the night," Shura told me. "Most have no idea of where they are, no money, no place to stay.  During the day Nogales is a safe place to be; however, at night the situation changes from safe to dangerous in the snap of a finger."

(What would it take to persuade our government to take deportees over during daylight hours?)

Fr. Ricardo Machuca Hernandez gave a prayer of thanks and blessing before everyone ate.  

Shura was busy talking with the women, hugging some and advising others, giving each one her undivided attention.

"I can't really help them," she told me. "Some will try to cross again and will be injured or worse.  What I can do is be kind."

At first I sat quietly at the side, self-conscious and not wanting to be in the way.  Then, however, I realized I should be greeting and talking with people as Shura was--as Jesus would do.

I walked to the nearest table of men and asked, "De donde estan?"  (Where are you from?), assuming Spanish was their first language.

They answered me in English: "From Phoenix." "From California--Indio.  Do you know where that is?" "From the Bay Area."

No accent at all--these guys had been in the US twenty years and more.

"Why were you deported?" I asked, completely puzzled.

"I'm CIMT," said a young man, maybe 22 or so.  "Crime Involving Moral Turpitude."

"What??" I asked.  The only context I could imagine for something that bad was incest.

Wikipedia told me that in US immigration law, moral turpitude is "conduct that is considered contrary to community standards of justice, honesty or good morals."

The US government further defines it on the Department of State website with a huge list of crimes in alphabetical order ranging from fraud to kidnapping, lewdness, manslaughter, murder, mayhem, pandering, prostitution, and rape.

"I showed a fake ID," the kid said.  

He spoke perfect English--could have been raised on my block in Santa Monica.  I noticed he was well-dressed, as was the man across the table from Indio, a father in his forties wearing a nicely trimmed light blue sweater.

They and another man had been detained since last March, April and May awaiting hearings; their appeals had been denied a day or two ago, and they had been left at the DeConcini port at 3 am.

"They said we could appeal," explained the older man, but since it took him nine months just to get his hearing, he decided to accept deportation and go to Mexico to work with lawyers on that side of the border.  

Neither of them planned to try to reenter illegally, but others at the table had plans to try to cross the desert in the freezing temperatures, dodging bandits and Border Guards.

As we were leaving, I said hello to a ragged man of about thirty sitting on a bench with tears in his eyes and one foot heavily swaddled in a clean white bandage.

"How did you hurt your foot?" I asked.

"Train," he said.  He'd been riding a train north and had only traveled a few miles before being injured.  His foot had not been run over by the train, just crushed somehow.  I didn't ask.

"Where are you from?"  When he said California, I asked where again.

"The Valley," he said.  

"Oh, Fresno? Bakersfield?" I concluded.

"No, the San Fernando Valley," he said.  "Pacoima."

"That's a few miles from where I work!" I replied. "I teach in Northridge at California State University."

"Oh, CSUN?" he responded.  "My two sisters graduated from there and are teachers."

I was flabbergasted.  This bedraggled, injured Mexican deportee was in fact a Californian who knew all about my world.

The two others I'd spoken with were also de facto Americans who had been deported on the slimmest of "crimes"--mainly the crime of not being born here. 

I gave him my business card, saying, "Call me if you get back to LA."

Shura and I left, walking on to the office of Grupo Beta, a Mexican government entity founded in 1991 to help migrants.  It's motto is "Vocacion, Humanismo, Lealtad" (vocation, humanism, loyalty).

There showers and toilets are available to new deportees, and bus tickets will be given to help a Mexican return to his or her home state, such as Chiapas.

There we met some of the people who had just eaten at El Comedor, waiting for a bus or other transportation.

We passed a cemetery gaily decorated with plastic flowers--but deportees who sleep there will be arrested and sent to jail.  There was also a tienda selling snacks, drinks, one-pound packets of peanuts, and tall canes of sugar for one dollar each.

Up on a nearby hill stood five or six tall, modern apartment buildings--one orange, one tan, one dark green.  Some of the Sisters of the Eucharist, who work at El Comedor, live there.

Smaller hillsides nearby were occupied by a colorful collection of haphazard homes and shacks.

As we walked back toward the border and our parking place, a man caught up to us and began chatting in English, for practice, to keep his familiarity with the language sharp.

He said he was from "the Bay area," specifically Berkeley, where both Shura and I had lived for many years.  

"I have to get back to take care of my daughter--she's three years old," he said.  

"Oh, was she born in Alta Bates Hospital?" Shura asked.  

"Yes!" he said.  We all laughed to find that three random humans in Nogales all knew Berkeley so well.

On the surface, he was a Mexican and deportee, while we were American women spending a few hours in Mexico.  

But just beneath the surface lay a web of connections--the fourth time that morning that apparent strangers and deportees had turned out to be neighbors from places where I have lived.

See also:

Peg Bowden's blog La Frontera: The Border

"US Policies Separate Families, Kill the Sick, and Create Havoc on the Mexican Border," May 30, 2012

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