Three airports, two complementary beverages, and a quick sprint to catch a connecting flight later, we were in Arizona ready to take on the semester. Our first stop was the Florence Detention Center where our host showed off what could be described as the poster-child governmental institution for detention. He made sure to show us the nice soccer field that was there and how the place goes above and beyond the standards that the government sets. It is important to state that these are not inmates because they did not commit a criminal act. We then made our way to the Florence Refugee Project where the director filled us in on the legal details of our nation’s immigration system and told us about the free legal services they offer to those who are fighting their case for asylum. While the detention center said that the FDC and FRP had good relations, it was easy to see that they did not see eye to eye on a lot of things.
Friday started early as we headed to Nogales. We were led by the director of the organization HEPAC. Before going to HEPAC we stopped on the US side where we saw the fence for the first time. It is hard to describe such a structure to anyone who hasn’t stood next to it or have seen it stretch into the distance only to never end. We made our way into Mexico and stopped at Groupo Beta, an organization that helps the most recently deported migrants. We listened to stories from some men and then shared a prayer with them at the end which was really nice. We then went up to HEPAC where we ate with some of the children. After a short presentation about the organization which aids the financially disenfranchised, we made a stop at the local dump where we talked to some families that were living in the trash and have children or have been themselves involved with HEPAC. For supper, we were invited to some houses that were about the size of most of our living rooms. The food was great and the conversations or playing with children was even greater. We ended the night at a vigil for a young man, Jose Antonio, who was shot through the fence after allegedly throwing rocks over the wall. We all had rather heavy hearts on our way out of Mexico.
Saturday we made our way to Douglas/Agua Prieta where we were to spend the week with Frontera de Cristo. We arrived at the office where we were introduced to Mark Adams (pastor/Frontera de Cristo leader), Josias Casanova (group leader for the week), and Jack Knox (one of the drivers for the week). We talked about our hopes fears and expectations individually and were given a quick overview of what we would be experiencing throughout the week. We drove up to the fence and stopped at a set of flood gates to talk a little bit about what these migrants were facing. We then took a quick hike up a hill where we could see the sun set behind the mountains. It was absolutely breath taking; from the light purples where the sun was disappearing behind the hills, to the deep blues of the sky behind our backs, to the almost bright colors that the desert emitted in this magical time. We then went and settled into the community center in Agua Prieta. Little did we know the cold we were about to experience that night.
Sunday started out with breakfast in the morning at the Community Center in Agua Prieta where we were staying. Mark Adams then came and led us in a Bible study over a passage in the Gospel of Mark. After the Bible study we were given a short break to clean up and get ready for church. We attended Mark’s church, Lily of the Valley or in Spanish El Lirio de los Valles. This is a Spanish speaking Presbyterian church. We were welcomed in with open arms as if we were already family. It was hard to understand and gain meaning from the Spanish service but the songs were pretty. We sang two songs in front of the congregation and they loved it. It was really interesting and different to here Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow sung in Spanish. The church ladies made us a delicious lunch of enchiladas with mole sauce. After relaxing in the warm sunshine in La Plaza (a park), we returned to church in the afternoon to attend another Bible study. After a mix up over dinner plans we ate out together at a Mexican restaurant and got the experience of reading the menu in Spanish.
Monday I learned just how privileged I am financially in the United States. People in Mexico move closer to the border to try to make more money. One of the better paying jobs is working in factories, or maquilas. Maquila workers make anywhere from 65-91 pesos a day ($5-$6) which barely gives them enough to spend on the essentials. We were given a set amount of money and told that we had to go buy enough food for dinner that night, as well as breakfast and lunch the following day. This was an eye opening project just to realize how much certain items cost. Buying food for a family of nine on a maquila salary has to be done strategically but we ended up have money to spare at the end to spend on snacks.
Welcome to what was possibly one of the longest days of our trip so far. This was also a day filled with fluctuating emotions. It started out with an early breakfast that we cooked for ourselves from the food we bought the previous day. After cleaning up the kitchen we departed for a day in the desert. We drove into the desert through thorns and over bumps on the most uneven dirt road I have ever been on. We were all bouncing around in the van. Once the van parked we got out and walked a short ways to where CRREDA had their water barrels. CRREDA refilled the water barrels for the migrants that pass through there. We had our maquila salary packed lunches in that spot around a low sprawled out tree. After our bellies were satisfied we started our walking journey through the desert towards the border. It was hot, rocky and thorns surrounded us. There were gullies that we climbed in and out of and shrubs that we jumped over.
Once we were at the wall we had an amazing encounter with two border patrol agents on the US side. These agents were friendly and willing to answer our questions. It was very encouraging to see that they had feelings and cared about people despite their reputation and their job. While sitting at the wall we also had a Bible reflection over mark 5: 1-14. In this passage it mentions the desert more than once and so we talked about all of our new meanings of the desert now that we were in the middle of one.
After hiking back to the vans through the desert we crossed into the US and visited the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Here we watched a presentation of the organizations they support as well as receiving instructions on how the vigil would work. We then left the Sisters and went to a public walking path along the border and participated in a vigil. The vigil consisted of many white crosses with names of people who died in the desert crossing the border. We made a procession along the sidewalk and each announced a name on the crosses we were holding. We were right along the street that leads into Mexico so there were many cars passing us. After announcing and setting every cross along the street we formed a prayer circle and meditated over the lives that have been lost. This was a painful realization for me to see how many lives just in that small area of Agua Prieta had been lost.
Wednesday was a day full of emotions. Our day started off visiting Café Justo. This organization works to keep the profit of coffee sales in the hands of the farmers who grow the coffee beans. It was such a great experience to walk into a business and just sit down with the staff and share the word of the Lord. This rarely happens in companies in the US. Not only are the farmers benefiting from this company but they are also working to solve the root problem of migration which is a poor economy. Before lunch we made a quick stop at the Migrant Resource Center. This is a place which gives clothes and a meal to migrants who have just been deported to Mexico. They also help them make connections on where they are going next. In the afternoon we went to visit the Border Patrol Station in Douglas AZ. While we were there, they showed us a couple of videos in which they called the migrants “aliens, clutter, and undocumented.” They also talked a lot about their way of approaching the issue. In the early 2000’s they had more money available and were spending a lot on new technology and man power when they could have used that money elsewhere. Recently as the excess money has diminished, they are in a risk based approach. Now they focus on surveillance and information and the increase in man power has stabilized.
As we neared the end of the week, most everyone was mentally exhausted, but we had not had a physically demanding week up to this point. This all changed Thursday morning when we went to DouglaPrieta Trabaja, which is a community garden as well as educates people about gardening. While we were there we had the opportunity to help out with two projects. Half of the group worked on digging a swell (aka a ditch) while the rest of the group moved 35 lbs. adobe bricks. After eating lunch we worked a little while longer before we headed across the border to talk with Tommy Bassett. Tommy has been all over the place and had a lot of advice for us. The main point of his talk was about who is receiving the profit from our spending. Café Justo is just one example of a company where the money is actually going to the ones who do most of the work. In the evening we spent our time at CAME Migrant Shelter. Here we were challenged to only speak in Spanish while we talked with the migrants staying there who had been deported. Part of our group had a rough time there with stories and things that had been spoken but in the end Love prevailed and the whole group worked to comfort each other.
Friday was supposed to be a less stressful day but while we were at a house in the community we had a brief encounter with the local authority. This was more intense for the group but again in the end God was with us. Despite the craziness we still were able to enjoy our time listening to the family’s story. After that we made our way across the border and said goodbye and had our closing reflections. We safely made it back to Tucson AZ at 8 p.m. We are heading to CASAS in Guatemala City where we will spend nine week in host families and studying Spanish. Mail can be sent to the address below up until March 6.
Apdo.11, Periferico, Zona 11
Ciudad de Guatemala, Guatemala
-Stephan Goertzen, Isaac Driver, Katherine Graber