Whenever I speak about social justice and social action, this question invariably pops up: “But, what can I do?”
This morning, we met Lois Martin, an 84-year old who moved to Tucson 10 or so years ago to work on immigration justice. She is a member of No More Deaths, an initiative of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson. No More Deaths is a humanitarian organization based in southern Arizona working to end death and suffering in the Mexico-U.S. borderlands through civil initiative. Their work focuses on direct aid (such as water drops in the desert), witnessing and responding, cons iousness raising, and promoting humane immigration policy.
Lois is an amazing person. She has traveled extensively through Central America and has served as an election observer in Honduras and Guatemala. She minced no words – the violence people are fleeing in these countries came about and continues because of American support of illegal regimes. For the last century, groups like the United Fruit Farmers and a handful of wealthy landowners have terrorized the compesinos into fleeing for their lives. And the U.S. has used these countries as staging points for immoral acoins in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
She taught us about our government’s goal to criminalize migration and to deter migration through death and imprisonment. She explained how people caught by the border patrol agents (who perform police functions without proper police training) are remitted to the criminal justice system, not the immigration system. Border patrol can hold migrants for 72 hours with no guarantee of even the basic services such as bedding. Claims of asylum are ignored and victims are processed through Operation Streamline, which results in a criminal record and immediate deportation.
Since the hearings take place in federal court, victims are not provided any translators but Spanish. As a result, defendents (who may be members of many indigenous people’s with their own dialects) may have no understanding of what is happening to them.
We then spent the afternoon at the federal courthouse watching close to 100 people led into the courtroom in shackles. Looking confused and frightened, shuffling because of the ankle chains, groups were led before the judge charged either with misdemeanor illegal entry or felony re-entry after removal. Pleading guilty to the former means immediate deportation and a criminal record. All of the latter cases made plea bargains resulting in dropping the felony charge, but serving 30 to 180 days in prison.
Only after the hearing are migrants remitted to immigration services, where claims of asylum may be heard. But, often the only person who may hear the claim is the bus driver taking them to Nogales, or an officer who simply chooses to ignore it.
The futility and inhumanity of this charade of justice was brought home by one man. The judge asked if he had been in her court before. He affirmed her recollection. She told him, “I don’t want to see you here again, because next time it will be a felony.” He replied, “Not anymore…what’s the point?”
What is the point? What can you do? See. Think. Plan. Act. Reflect. And repeat.