At the Border of Our Humanity
At its best, peacemaking integrates heart, head, and hands. As MPT's June border team leaves Tijuana and ponders next steps, it is worth reflecting on the importance of these three aspects of peace team work. First, the heart . . .
One would need to have a heart of stone to stand outside the port of entry at El Chaparral where so many are fleeing for their lives and the lives of their families and not feel the horror and hope born of desperation that hangs in the early morning air. A montage of images - some minuscule in detail but enormous in meaning - lodge in the heart, painting a picture of a system that is utterly broken by design. An exhausted mother, babe in arms, with two toddlers in tow waiting for a number to be called that day . . . or not. An educator fleeing Cameroon describing politically-motivated atrocities back home as well as the hunger and dead bodies he encountered as he made the dangerous trek through the jungle of the treacherous Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama. A woman in the final days of pregnancy boarding a bus that will take her into the bowels of the U.S. immigration system while her partner is left behind. A pink backpack, a handful of tattered documents, numbers written on tiny slips of paper. Bearing witness to this manufactured crisis tears at the heart, but to stop there would be an exercise in sentimentality and solipsism. A large part of the work of MPT is to observe and monitor what is happening on the ground and then engage in ongoing study and social analysis so that subsequent teams can come to the work with a richer context. What the team observed at the border is, in great part, a result of war, poverty, racism, and imperialism. If we fail to get down to the root causes of the conditions that drive immigration, human rights observers will be standing at borders forever. How can one bear witness, for example, to the many Salvadorans fleeing north without understanding the context of U.S. complicity and direct involvement in a bloody civil war and campaign of terror waged against the poor of that country, many of whom were tortured and killed by men trained on U.S. soil at the School of the Americas (renamed WHINSEC) with U.S. tax dollars?
When President Trump demonizes migrants across the board as menacing gang members, he fails to mention the fact that Central American gangs originated in Los Angeles where Salvadoran families fled to escape horrific violence fueled, to a great extent, by our own country's policies of standing with the privileged and powerful. While the overwhelming majority of Salvadoran asylum seekers are fleeing violence, including gang violence, there are deeper questions that beg to be asked. For example, wouldn't it make sense to address the personal and collective trauma resulting from poverty, war, and displacement and explore its relationship to violence? Why do the media cover gruesome acts of criminality but turn a deaf ear to the violence of poverty that so often gives rise to street violence? What needs to happen so that youth, not only in El Salvador but around the world, have authentic options and hope for the future? These are the kinds of questions that must be asked as part of peace team work. It is crucial that team members learn about the histories and cultures of those with whom we stand in order to understand the structural violence that leads so many people to the border in the first place. It is also important to recognize that the situation at the border is fluid, reflecting political, economic, and social realities that are ever changing. For example, since February when MPT was last in Tijuana, there has been a demographic change at El Chaparral. During the winter, the team observed a small group of Cameroonians waiting each morning for their numbers to be called; today their numbers have swelled dramatically. Frustrated, they report that they have been kept waiting for months, claiming that the process is racist and corrupt. It is worth noting that the illegal "metering" system that is currently in place was instituted during the Obama administration in response to an influx of Haitians who had arrived at the border. The team listened deeply to Cameroonians who believe that race is a major factor in their being kept in Tijuana longer than other asylum seekers. Many of them complained to MPT that their numbers are being passed over by a process that favors asylum seekers from Central America and Mexico. One man from Cameroon, pointing to a brown-skinned family waiting in line to board the bus, told the team that the metering system is racist in favor of "white" people like "them," serving as a reminder that systems of oppression always rely on a strategy of divide-and-conquer, something the team witnessed in Tijuana. It became obvious to the Summer Team that we need to learn much more about the situation in Cameroon in order to have a better grasp of what is happening on the U.S - Mexico border before sending our next team.
Once this team returns home, its members will continue to read, study, and keep up updated on all aspects of the immigration process as part of the follow-up work. Questions need to be asked, for example, about the relationship between harsh immigration policies and white supremacy. About immigrants are being exploited as a money-making mechanism for the private prison industry. About an election cycle during which immigrants will be objectified as dangerous scapegoats by some candidates and used as self-serving sound bytes for others. There are also the issues of squalid migrant detention centers, the Migrant Protection Protocols (or what some call the Migrant Persecution Protocols), and ongoing ICE arrests (MPT's home base, Michigan, has the second highest arrest rate in the country) that team members will respond to in ways that each of us will discern when we arrive home. MPT's summer team is committed to studying these various aspects of the complex and cruel immigration system and more as team members prepare talks and presentations . . . which leads to the final aspect of the summer team's peace work - action! As it's been said, "to know and not to do is not to know." The team takes being at the border seriously. We return to Roanoke, Los Angeles, Northern California, and Michigan to share what we learned with our communities, connect with organizations and activists working on immigration and human rights advocacy, and meet with our elected officials to report on what we witnessed and documented. Of course, the work will also involve recruiting and preparing future teams to return to the U.S. - Mexico border. MPT's primary focus is creating a just world grounded in active nonviolence through the practice of peaceful presence, unarmed civilian accompaniment, observation/documentation, and placing our bodies in front of those who would harm others (interpositioning). We bring our hearts, heads, and hands to the work. The violence of the present moment - so much of it rooted in poverty, racism, and militarism - demands peacemakers committed to opening our hearts and using our minds and getting our hands in the dirt. Nothing less will do if we hope to tear down the walls in our world that keep us from becoming fully human.
Here is a link to a comprehensive report that was researched during the time MPT was in Tijuana. https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/2019/09/23/immigration-crisis-migrants-us-mexico-border/2022670001/