Saturday, November 28, 2009

odds and ends

Today I am just posting four(4) relatively unrelated things.

Above, a fellow volunteer does some toe nail work on one of the guests in the office. We call this guest welfare. What is she actually working on? Look below for a close up.
Based on the smile, it seems that things are going well for the toe nail.

2) Below is a border inspired piece of writing:

Reality is clobbered by spirit.
Truth is overthrown by emotion.
The mind is held hostage by the heart.

But. Yet. However.

Spirit is the residue on reality.
Emotion is the manifestation of the perception of truth.
The heart obeys the orders of the mind.

A paradox; alive and well.

Green cuticulous clusters. Silence of noise.

A light on the street—light up my world, light up my nighttime childhood room. Protect me from monsters, protect me from those people who look different than I. Protect me from those myths. Protect me from evil.

Javier, dieciocho de Honduras. "Que Malo?" "Si"

Bricks in a row supporting my body with equally spaced lines—to separate or to hold together.

An open trash can. READY. to be filled, to be emptied. Oh futility.

La gente trabajando. otra vez. otra vez. otra vez.

Cars passing. otra vez. otra vez. otra vez.

Sonrisas. otra vez. otra vez. otra vez.

Oppression. otra vez. otra vez.

The dirty floor needing a clean. again and again and again. que mas. que necesitamos hacer.

A man. me. together in the street. no palabras. no connection of the eye. again and again.

Love on a sunday.
hands together just to cross the silent street.

The utterly futile process of life. its magnitude. each moment is every moment. each breath is every breath. each action is all actions.

3) Every weekday morning at 8:15 we have reflection. We rotate among the volunteers who runs each day's reflection. It ranges from yoga, to poetry, to rollerblading, to music listening.
Below, is the product of a writing reflection on what it is like to live at Annunciation House.

Rice, beans, and whatever.
Food without love is almost never.

Giggles, trickles, sighs and highs.
Sometimes in truth, sometimes in lies.

Always fulfilled, but never satisfied.
You couldn't be, unless you were to hide.

Instead we confront, and brace for the pain.
Sometimes wondering if we are sane.

Put me behind bars, force me to sit—
brothers and sisters, we are worth it.

Everyday I wonder, am I up for my roll.
Everyday I wonder, is it taking a toll.

I could go around the world searching for more.
Or I could stay at this house, and let it come to the door.


If you go to the above link, you will find the Annunciation House video. I just watched it for the first time. I suggest you peep it!

Hasta luego!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

wrapping up, turning in, turning out

I have been thinking that December will be blog free for me. Or at least blog-pressure free.

I was speaking to a women from Boston who has been living and working in Juarez for at least a decade, and I was able to talk out some of my thoughts on connection and isolation, and the balance that should/can/could/may not/may exist between the two.

When you work in a reality so different from your own, or the one that used to be your own, it is very easy to feel isolated. I am not culturally coherent here, but at the same time, as I spend more time here, I become further from acceptance and oneness with the culture of my background. It feels like I become nothing more then a bridge between two fuzzy entities that I try to dually identify with. Which can be hard. But feels important.

There is no way to look at death, rape, poverty, and suffering on the border without at least acknowledging that the US has involvement and has responsibility. The every day work that I do could be considered "band-aid" work, not really changing anything, and more so, a temporary fix to a futile reality. Well, first, I think that the negative connotation of the term "band-aid" is crap. A band-aid is ever so necesarry. We all do use them afterall. In fact, I really admire people who can just do the reactionary (bandaid) work all their lives, because it is so needed, but has little glory, or sense of control involved. It is simply being in the present, and reacting to the realities that swirl through the land like chaos.

Anyway, because the US is involved with the suffering on the border, I feel like my blogging about what is happening here is the only radical (digging to the root) work that I can do. How can I go day in and day out living with people who have been marginalized by systems of my culture, without wondering how I can alter those systems, to take these people out of the conveyer belt to poverty that we mechanised with such care, and carelessness. So, my blog is my answer. It is my personal response, and the only way that I currently know to maybe a change a little, to maybe scrape at the root of the problem.

So, it is holding on and nurturing my connection to my past, that provides me with a hope of changing stuff. It is being the bridge. If I stay here, become isolated, and forget to open my mouth about what is happening, will I be satisfied with the purpose of my being here?

But, the more I connect to my culture and my background, through blogs, letters...the less I am able to be here, and to be fully here in the present.

If I try to connect back, I minimize my ability to remain present here, but if I let myself be fully present here and isolate from my culture, my day's work becomes futile.

It is funny that that sentence above ^ is what I had been getting at this whole time, a ton of writing just to say one obvious sentence.

Well with that in mind, I am back to where I started, December will be blog free, or atleast blog-pressure free. I will let myself isolate a little bit, so that I can absorb all that I have not absorbed before I will drive back home on the 28th of December. Maybe I will post, maybe I won't. I will dedicate my former blog-writing time to sitting with a baby in my arms, or getting greasy gorditas in Juarez, or cleaning our tool room, or staring at the sky in this West-Texas town of El Paso.

But I hope...that the bridge will not be closed. That your thoughts, or my thoughts, on the border won't end.

I also hope...that if you are reading and have a question, that you will ask it (in the comment section). Because most likely it is a question that I have never asked, and one that I would love to explore before I leave.

Here's a piece of writing:

El Paso here we come. Stick my fingers through the fence. Wrap my mind around the arbitrary line that means too much. One inch, weighted down by vast implications. of life and death and racism. of war of greed. A manifestation of fear. One inch, encompassed by the Beech in the woods behind my house. Adios. Cross the border. Green square cap. Green square suit. Black, shiny gun. Black, shiny boots. Death. Power. Wealth. Welcome to 2,000 murders, fueled by us, by there, by the other side, by here, by up and down. Bienvenidos. Calles de Muerto. Gracias Mexico. Adios. Calle de Oro, on our way. Homeward bound.

Here is another:

Super sweeping streaks. A sunset over sand. Millions of tics and tocs, of giggles and groans, of bombs and blasts, of drop, drop, drop. A four leaf clover in the field. The type that absorbed my childhood free time; searching, screaming, kicking, running. For my very own four leaf clover. Silent. Screams of a bird. Power over land. The irony of human dominance punches me blind. the breeching bulge of the swelling contrasts the setting sun on sand. The clover blows in the wind. Gets damaged by the sun. cut by the scythe. resurfaces to stare me in the face. memorizing every bump, shade, and shape of one another. No clover in sight. Not a full entity. Waiting for the orange above to descend upon me. Warmth. Can't forget the clover. Can't remember the clover. How long will the cl(a tree falls)over last with four leaves and all. North. East. West. North.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Relating Religion

In my experience here the most common response to, “Como estas? How are you?” is “Bien, gracias a Dios! Good, thanks to God!”

Commonly, when I say, “Hasta mañana. See you in the morning.” I hear the response, “Si Dios quiere. If God wants.”

God is thanked and acknowledged frequently. Unlike the communities that I have grown up in, God is very much a part of everyday life. As an organization, we hold masses, and say thanks to God before every meal. This culture of religion is so new to me, and I have spent much time contemplating its role, practicality, and relevance to me.

Religion has been woven into the fabric of my El Paso life, and it has come to my attention that whether or not I have faith in a God, religion does exist and it is indeed a major player in the dynamics of society, and therefore, it is my interest to come to terms with it, and define the role it will take in my life.

I remember, the moments on childhood Sundays, dressed in khakis and a collar, sitting on a bench, when I became too bored, too lost in the events, to continue. I would tap a sister to my side and we would sneak out to the magnolia tree behind the church. Swinging, climbing, and running we enjoyed, as we waited until the service was over and the people shuffled out two by two.

Before meals we would sometimes say, “Thank you God for the food we eat, thank you God for the birds that sing, thank you God for everything!”

Those were the relatively subtle manifestations of religion in my childhood.

As I aged, I slowly acquired a knee-jerk reaction to the word God. I certainly felt a distance from religion, and it seemed to me an incredible force that pulled people from reality, and into a world where energy was boundless. Where people could be captivated and directed so quickly and forcefully, either for the good or for the bad. The intensity of captivated energy and passion frightened me. The reaction that one might have when they hear the term “cult” was similar to the reaction that I had when I heard the word God. Words that came to mind were fear, control, power, violence, and even oppression.

Arguably, these words have been a part of religion in history. And it was these parts, and only these parts, that I cared to recognize. Growing up in mainly white and mainly wealthy communities nurtured my ability to see past the simultaneous beauty and relevance of religion.

It was a change of settings that allowed me to see a different side of religion for the first time. I was in Camoapa, a small agricultural town in Nicaragua, when I asked the director of the organization that I was working with about the reasons for its Catholic affiliation. The organization was a center where kids from the community could come for meals, showers, activities, and help with schoolwork. The director explained to me that some of the kids have no parents, no family, and no home. And that God, and the belief that some greater force is looking out for you, is the last option to keep hope in the lives of these children.

This explanation really resonated with me. It illuminated a good purpose for religion that I hadn’t experienced at home. I was able to recognize that at a level, religion can be the sustenance for those who can’t find other sustenance, and the hope for those that cannot find other hope. With this, I felt very appreciative for the religious structures of the world, but simultaneously still felt no desire to take part in those structures.

Despite the realization, my distrust and fear of religion continued as I once again became isolated from its practical purposes. I was unable to put the word God into terms for myself, so that upon hearing it, it could mean something real to me, and not just immediately turn me away from wherever I heard it.

In deciding to come to Annunciation House, I was forced to consider religion. The organization’s religious roots dig deep. Five young people who were seeking to live out the Gospel and serve the poorest of the poor founded the organization. Believe it or not, it was the visiting Mother Teresa who suggested the name Annunciation House to our current director. Biblically, Annunciation was the revelation of Mary that she would conceive Jesus. In all honesty, the connection of that moment to the work of our house, I have yet to fully understand. I have been meaning to ask Teresa.

At home, living in a community of friends and family who in general, have a critical eye on religion, I received many questions regarding religion and the place I would be living. My response generally went something like this, “Well, I think a lot of the religious activities at the house are in place to make it feel more like home to the guests, of which the majority come from Catholic backgrounds. Also, from what I understand it is good religion, about peace and love, and not killing your neighbor.” Now I chuckle as I remember that I was attempting to define ‘good’ religion in my justification for heading south to the border.

As I was waiting in Boston Logan airport (for seven hours) to board my Texas bound plane, I explained to an El Paso native where I was heading and the work that I would be doing. He said to me beneath his clean cowboy hat and gray splattered beard, “you’re doing the Lord’s work.” I smiled, said “Yes,” and gave a stiff nod. To myself I though, “I am doing the work of the people!” This foreboded the role that the notion of God would play in my El Paso life.

Religion came into my world very quickly in many different ways. I experienced masses that the organization held. I noticed God’s name used in colloquial language. I witnessed people’s lives that were dedicating to following God. Two weeks after my arrival, three Somalian guests invited me to church with them. I decided to go. In four hours of service, I saw people get shoved to the floor. I saw screaming, dancing, crying. I saw our guests pull the only money in their possession out of their pockets, and put it into a velvet bag for the church. I was told to scream hallelujah three hundred times while rolling on the floor, running, and dancing. This was just yet another face of religion to which I was exposed.

Experiencing religion on so many scales, with so many different facets, beliefs, and practices makes the word religion seem diluted in its definition. Religion now seems like such an overarching word that ironically almost means nothing; and yet it is what I am writing specifically about.

Religion, in its nature of belief in a relatively intangible force, does create the space for immense amounts of passion, dedication, energy, and faith. It creates the space by opening a fourth dimension where everything is possible and where realities can be created from one’s own faith. The garnering of the products from this fourth dimension—passion, dedication, energy, and faith—can be used to create such goodness, but equally can be used to create such evil. It is religion’s ability to gather force that makes me nervous, because I do not know where that force will go, what it will do.

One question that I have continually wondered since my arrival in El Paso is how would the religiously active change their lifestyles if one day they found out that in fact there was no God? I see people doing such good work. Dedicating their lives to the poorest of the poor. And when asked what keeps them going, they can point to the book, or point to the sky. But it seems so dangerous to me, that someone’s life could be dedicated to the sky, to the book. What would change if God were pulled out of the picture? Would their actions change?

To be honest I think their actions wouldn’t change. I think that, whether acknowledged or not, personal conviction and the strength of the heart is enough for someone to dedicate their life. I notice that credit is often given to God, but not given to the hands and the hearts and the minds of the people on the ground, doing their thing.

Left over from my years of knee-jerk reactions to the word God, I still struggle getting past that reaction, getting past the disconnection that the word God brings to me. Many times I have been reading or listening to something so beautiful and powerful, and then the end of it reveals that it is based on God and the belief in God. In this, I then become isolated from the expressions. Because if it is based on an idea with which I don’t believe, how can it be relevant to me?

Similarly, many of the people involved with Annuncation House say that God is what carries them through the hard parts of the job and that it is God that keeps them dedicated. Hearing that, I wonder, without a belief in God, how can I get through the hard parts? How can I remain personally dedicated?

Finding my ability to do this without a belief in a God brings me back to a ninth grade World Cultures project to design our own religion. Mine was called Induism, derived from the word individual. It was based on the belief in each person’s infinite dignity, love, and goodness. And simply a belief in the inherent goodness of all things. It is the belief and the hope in goodness that is my motivation…the thing that keeps me going.

The big question to me is how to connect the hope in inherent goodness that keeps me going to the hope in God that keeps so many other people going. This is the biggest struggle and the biggest opportunity in my exploration of religion.

A friend asked me if I had attempted to define God on my terms. I began to think that if I could find a way to make the term God practical to my beliefs, then religion would no longer isolate me, but instead include me.

What if the word God could mean to me the inherent goodness of all? If someone were to say, “God bless you!” It would mean to me, “may the inherent goodness of all bless you.” That to me, does not bring up the uneasiness I have with religion, but instead is something relevant and powerful to my world and my beliefs. With this, God, is on practical terms for the life that I feel comfortable living, and can exist without causing isolation. It is finally a personal peace with the existence of religion in this world.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

On the Fence

From El Paso, Texas to the Gulf of Mexico, the Rio Grande runs (not-so-grandly) through deserts and mountains, forming the US-Mexico border. In El Paso, the river bends north and becomes the border between Texas and New Mexico instead. At that point, the US border continues to travel west across land all the way to the pacific.

If you want to go up to the fence, and see Mexico directly on the other side, you have to go to New Mexico where there is not a river at the border. Every year at the fence in New Mexico, a border mass is held in honor of the struggling migrant and of the deaths and injustices that have occurred on the border. This year, I took some pictures.

Above, you can see Mexico on the left of the fence, and the US on the right of the fence. You'll notice that on the Mexican side, the people are crammed against the fence, and on the US side, there is a significant gap between the fence and the people. Seeing this gap, one of the attendees called it, "fucking scandalous." Apparently, last year border patrol put a line a few feet away from the fence where people could not cross, except for during one part of the ceremony, the sign of peace, where you can go to the fence and embrace, with squeezed fingers through cracks, the people on the other side. It was told to me that after communion last year, the bishop from Juárez said on to the US side, "We are further apart than we have ever been, you would think we have a disease or something, I hope that next year we can be fully united once again." This year however, it was far more than a mere few feet of separation.
Some people blamed this gap on the Border Patrol that stood in between the fence and the US crowd. Based on the line that their bodies formed, it appeared the we were not allowed to pass to the fence. Curious, I went up and asked if we could pass and stand at the fence. With a little hesitation, he said yes. So I walked up and stood by the fence, feeling uncomfortable and as if I was neglecting some unspoken rule.
Many flags and balloons hung high on the Mexican side. After the ceremony, the sky became filled with white balloons floating up and up and up.
Above, friends—separated by the fence—take the time to catch up. Despite the umbrellas, it was not raining. It is a new phenomenon to me that in November umbrellas are widely used as sun protection.
When people say it was swarming with Border Patrol, they mean it. These agents are standing about ten feet from the fence, making sure that no one jumps over or climbs through a hole.
These kids seem more interested in the ceremony, than trying to hop the fence.

One interesting dynamic between the Border Patrol at the ceremony and the partakers and bishops of the mass, is that I bet both parties would claim that they were there for the purpose of justice. But justice with different definitions. Perhaps justice to Border Patrol is making sure that a person who commits a crime (such as crossing the fence) gets the punishment that is necessary. Perhaps to the bishops and the guests at the mass justice means creating fairness and equality for all people. The ambiguity of the word justice, considering it's implications, strikes me. One of the big jails in El Paso, where guests from our house have ended up, is located on the not coincidentally named "Justice Street." When seeing the reasons people have been sent there, and the time that they are to spend there, the word justice doesn't particularly come to mind.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Dying to Live

Some days the sala is full, others it is empty. This depends on if the guests could find work that day. Sometimes, guests leave the house to rent a place of their own, and sometimes, they leave to go back to their home country. This depends on if the guest could find work. The general mood of the house also fluctuates with the availability of work. On days when work was abundant, people come home in high spirits and ready to go to bed early. It is days when no work was available that people are on edge, and problems arise. Finding work, one day a week, or two days a week, is the make or break for many guests. It determines if their family in Mexico will have food on the table. It determines how long they have to be separate from their families. A day of work means everything.

This week I will try to document the public policy and economic marginalization involved with the displacement of many native Mexicans—necessitating their migration north. I will highlight how the “workers” category at our house exists because of failed public policy.

Although migration north for work has been a phenomenon since the US acquisition of Mexican land in 1848, the recent waves of migration can be traced back to the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on January 1st, 1994.

This agreement, between Canada, Mexico, and the US, was reached in hopes to strengthen all three economies with more cooperation and a more free market. Essentially, NAFTA lowers tariffs on goods between the three countries, including the complete elimination of tariffs on 21 farm products. This would allow US companies to take advantage of the cheap labor in Mexico, without having to pay as much to get the goods back across the border. Also, without tariffs, it put the economies of all three countries in direct competition with each other, meaning that the Mexican corn farmer, the US corn farmer, and the Canadian corn farmer were all put head to head to see who could make corn the cheapest.

Mexico signed the deal hoping that the increased incentive for foreign investment would help to stabilize their economy. On the morning of January 1st, 2004, when NAFTA went into effect, Mexico woke up to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation declaring war on Mexico and using the date of the implementation of NAFTA as a symbol of the greater than one hundred years of oppression of the indigenous people of Mexico.

This immediate resistance to NAFTA could be traced to two main reasons. First, because the rural population of Mexico realized that the decreased tariffs would put them in competition with the US farmers and the huge US farm subsidies, therefore, putting them out of work. Second, a Ejido land system had existed in which land was constitutionally protected for certain communities to live on and cultivate. This land was the livelihood for many indigenous people. George Bush Sr. had given Salinas, the then-President of Mexico, an ultimatum that if he did not make the ejido land available for sale and for factory use, NAFTA would not be signed by the US. Salinas then amended the Mexican Constitution to allow for the sale of ejidos, leaving the land, and the people of the land, victim to wealthy landowners and government officials.

The declared Zapatista revolution had dramatic effects on an international scale. Hundreds of foreign investors pulled money out of Mexico as fast as they could, fearing the tumultuous state of the country. With money rapidly leaving the country, the value of the peso fell to less than half of its prior value. Concerned with the disastrous state of our southern neighbor, and the effect that could have on us, the US offered Mexico bailout money, but only under the condition that Mexico would cut social, educational, and infrastructural spending.

In the first year of the implementation of NAFTA, Mexico had witnessed the birth of a revolution, the value of the peso cut in half, and their freedom to spend where they wanted infringed by debt and dependence on US bailouts. The early days of NAFTA did not bode well.

Before NAFTA, one half of Mexico’s land was dedicated to corn production, with the help of two and a half million farmers. The implementation of NAFTA changed things. The US gives twice the amount of subsidies to its farmers than Mexico does, and therefore, the US farmers can grow corn for a much lower cost. Also, the US has an agreement that they will buy up any excess corn that the farmers produce. With the extra corn that the US buys, they then sell it in Mexico, flooding the market with cheap corn. These systems make it nearly impossible for Mexican corn farmers to continue, putting millions out of work. By 1996, two years after NAFTA began, 2.3 million Mexicans lost their jobs, the average cost of living rose by 80% while the average salary only rose 30%, and 20,000 small-medium size businesses went out of business. The disastrous effects of NAFTA seem very evident when you look at the numbers.

With a seemingly eternal tremulous economy in Mexico, there is a saying that, “When the US sneezes, Mexico catches Pneumonia.” This has been seen in the recent economic downturn. In the three-month period this year between April and June, the Mexican economy contracted 10.3% while the US economy contracted 1%. Currently 60% of the active working population in Mexico is working in the informal sector, trying to squeeze out a livelihood washing cars, selling papitas and so on. Of every 730,000 people that entered the labor market before 2008, only 80,000 found employment. Hearing these numbers, it is no wonder that since 1994 and the implementation of NAFTA, 500,000 Mexicans migrate to the US annually.

It is a portion of these 500,000 each year that show up at our door, in a state of crisis, looking to earn enough money to keep them and their dependents in Mexico alive. These people are the byproduct of disastrous public policy, and are the real, living example, of what went wrong. It certainly does something to see the numerical effects that NAFTA has on Mexico. But it is when you get looked in the eye and told by someone that he lost his job, his family went hungry, and now he is simply dying to live, that you can really absorb the pain, injustice, and errors of this particular public policy.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

ICE Cracks

All of the meals at Annunciation House are eaten with everyone together, around one large table. Niños primero, and then the rest can grab food too. If you look around the table at any given meal, you will see many very unique stories of how each person arrived at that table. There will be kids laughing, crying, and throwing their food. Mamas will be chasing, and trying to eat themselves. There will be lively talk in Spanish, English, Arabic… somehow all making just one large conversation. But if you continue to look, and pay attention to the patterns of the unique stories, you could realize that as different as the stories are, they mostly all fall into just a few categories. These categories are created by gaps in the social structure and errors in public policy. So it turns out that the guests at Annunciation House are to an extent just one byproduct of public policy, and because of that, they provide a unique view of what went wrong and why it didn’t work.

In this sense, Annunciation House is intimately connected with the actions of our government. Receiving no government funds and having no formal government connections, it is an odd relationship to feel so close to governmental policy via the fact that we are doing their dirty work.

This topic was brought up when the board of directors for Texas ACLU met at Annunciation House. Someone asked what our relationship looked like with immigration and the government. We described it as simply anomalous. Here is a less simple explanation…

To generalize, the major categories that we see at our house are: the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) guests, the workers, the single mothers, the refugees from violence in Juárez, and the social security guests

In the next couple of weeks, I will attempt to go category by category and document how public policy and other factors have left each category of people in crisis.

This week I will document the public policy involved with former ICE detainees who become left with no options.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) could be considered the muscle of immigration law enforcement. ICE manages all of the immigration raids, does investigations, and runs the detention system. If Annunciation House were ever to be raided for providing hospitality, ICE would be the ones to do it. But in fact, our relationship with ICE is unique, because they actually rely on us. Every few days or so, we receive a call from ICE asking us if we can take someone from their detentions. These guests are, for lack of a better term, called ICE guests (despite their warm hearts).

The ICE guests are here essentially because of faults in the detention and processing system. I would identify two groups in this category: Those who are seeking asylum, and those who were picked up by immigration officials without proper documents. ICE’s response to dealing with these people has changed drastically in the last few years. Until 2006, the US government used a system known as catch and release. With that system, when a person was identified by immigration as not having proper papers, they would be picked up, given a court date to appear before a judge, and then released on their own recognizance. According to a 2007 hearing from the congressional subcommittee on Border, Maritime, and Global Counterterrorism, more than 90% of these “illegal aliens”* never showed up to their court date. Because of this, in addition to a desire for deterrence and punishment, the US decided to begin detaining people instead of releasing them, under the Secure Border initiative. The new program is referred to as Catch and Return. The implications of this change are immense. In one year after the change, ICE increased its detention capacity by 7,500 beds. Now, more than 34,000 people are in over 500 US detentions each day, at the cost of $141 dollars per night per person. Despite the increase in beds and funding, ICE’s eyes appear to have been too big for their stomach—they simply cannot achieve the vast task in which they set out to do. ICE has to release detainees against their will for three main reasons. They don’t have enough beds, they can’t afford to detain people with medical needs, and because a Supreme Court ruling, Zadvydas, states that every 90 days the detention of each individual must be reviewed and if it does not appear that the person can be deported to their country, they then must be released.

So typically, people are released to our house for one of those three reasons. The oddity is that even though someone may be released from detention, it doesn’t mean that he/she has legal status. Many of them are still in the middle of immigration processing such as appeals on an asylum case, deportation proceedings, or waiting for work papers.

A few examples to make this clear (names and details have been altered for the sake of confidentiality)...Adam, from Somalia, was released to our house after 13 months in detention. While in detention, he won his asylum case, but then it was appealed. Later, he won the appeals. Now, while he is at our house, he is waiting because his case is being appealed, AGAIN, at the taxpayer’s expense. I find it quite silly that we (The US) are appealing his case twice, even though it was decided originally by the strict guidelines in which we put in place. It is interesting to know that 62% of people that apply for asylum in the US are denied relief. Because technically Adam hasn’t gotten asylum yet, he is left without working papers or identification to travel legally in the US. Therefore, in El Paso, where most shelters require legal status for admittance, he was left with no option but Annunciation House. ICE called us and asked if we would take him in. We said yes.

Javier, from Honduras, worked in a Mexican restaurant in North Carolina. One day, ICE raided the restaurant and picked up him and his friends. He was detained for six days in El Paso, but then released because they were running low on beds. ICE gave him a court date, and released him in hopes that he will show up. Unfortunately, he was released in a city he has never been to with no support network. That is how he ended up with no other option except Annunciation House. ICE called us an asked if we would take him in. We said yes.

Gloria, from El Salvador, was 4 months pregnant when Border Patrol picked her up crossing the border with her husband. They separated her and her husband, detained her for a few days, but then decided that they didn’t want anything to do with the medical needs of a pregnant women. They released her, leaving the medical expenses to the public, and gave her a court date. Most likely, once she has her child, she will be deported. ICE called us and asked us if we would take her in. We said yes.

The act of calling us, and asking for our help, is verification by ICE of our necessity and also of problems with the current system of catch and return. It is ICE admitting, “we need you, because we have cracks that people are falling through.” And this is precisely the reason that they show up at our door asking for help, and not ready to raid.

The ICE guests show up at our house because under the current system people are detained and then displaced upon release with no status to either travel back to where they have a support network, or to get a job for survival. They are left in a limbo, and Annunciation House exists to lift the bar and let them get through without breaking their backs.

This current program isn’t one without economic consequences as well. In FY 2010, our detention program will cost us over $1.7. Take Adam for example, who is in the process of getting asylum and who was in detention for 13 months. That means that the taxpayers spent $54,990 to detain someone who would eventually receive asylum. This strikes me as unfair to everyone involved.

One alternative to the detention system that many people in the immigration reform movement support is the switch to electronic ankle bracelet monitoring, which shows a rate of higher than 90% for getting people to actually show up to their immigration appointments. The cost of this is $12 per day per person, and is arguably more humane detention. However, a guest at our house has one of these ankle bracelets and it is not problem-free. He wears pants no matter what to avoid the embarrassment of people seeing the bracelet and assuming that he is some kind of criminal. Playing soccer, looking for jobs, hanging out with friends, he has to be wearing pants. Also, he has to sit by an electrical outlet for hours each day to charge the ankle bracelet. The dignity provided in this situation is certainly questionable.

The current system is overwhelmingly expensive, sadly inhumane, and clearly incomplete, leaving places like Annunciation House to pick up the slack. In 2006, when the catch and release program was visibly ineffective, major congressional changes occurred and created the system we now have. Today, in 2009, as the catch and return program is visibly inefficient and inhumane; it seems time for major changes once again. A ver.

* Governmental organizations and many media sources use the term “illegal aliens” to refer to those who are undocumented within our borders. Because of this, the term “illegal aliens” has become a common term in public use. However, it seems very clear to me that no person is illegal and no person is an alien, they simply don’t have proper documents—they are undocumented.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Problem of Social InSecurity

I haven’t posted in a while partially because I have been working on what feels a bit like dead end research for my next blog. Although my research is more or less inconclusive at the moment, I will share what experience and research have taught me so far.

One category of guests at Annunciation House is the social security category. The social security guests come twice a year for one month at a time. They are typically older women and sometimes have kids. They are the survivors of a US resident or citizen who paid into the social security system then passed away. As social security policy goes, the surviving family of a deceased social security contributor can get survivors benefits in the form of a monthly check. The twist; what happens if the family is Mexican, and lives in Mexico? Well, the policy says that in order for them to receive their checks, they have to stay in the US for one month every six months. As I bet you can imagine, this can get problematic.

A feasible scenario illuminates the difficulty and injustice of this policy. Maria, a Mexican national, marries Juan, a US citizen. Mary, a US citizen, marries John, also a US citizen. These married couples live together for years in the US, Juan and John working and paying into social security. One day, John and Juan pass away, leaving and Maria and Mary to support their families alone. Maria, looking for help with her kids, moves back home to Mexico where family and friends can lend a hand. Mary continues to live in the US. Each month, Mary gets her social security checks in the mail, her only source of income, but luckily, just enough to get by. For Maria, things are more difficult to get her only source of income. Each year, the Social Security Administration tells her the two months that she must stay in the US. For at least one of those months, her kids are uprooted from school, as they are required to come with her to the US. She has to pay for transportation, food and housing for each month that they are in the US. But despite these costs, she still makes the trip north, because it gives her access to her only source of income. As Maria gets older, it becomes harder and harder to travel north. Eventually Maria is sick and can’t travel, but unfortunately more dependent than ever on these monthly checks. So, Maria’s health won’t allow her to take the twenty hour bus ride from central Mexico to El Paso, and subsequently, her only source of income gets cut off from her. This tragedy occurs often. If you were Maria, a social security beneficiary, would it be tragic that once you need your monthly checks the most, they are cut off because you can no longer travel? If you were Juan, a US citizen who fell in love with Maria, would you feel your rights were being violated when the money you paid into the system was cut off from your wife when she became too sick to travel to the US twice a year?

Aside from the injustice to the people and the immorality of it, this policy is also explicitly harmful to US taxpayers. On more than one occasion, we have seen elderly women come to the US for their assigned month, get sick, and end up spending the month in a US hospital, leaving the bill for the taxpayers. But what do we expect when we ask elderly women in poverty to spend 16% of every year in the US without family to take care of them?

The situation instinctively seems very clear cut. It is a policy that doesn’t make sense and has the effect of leaving deserving people very desperate. It is a policy that needs to be changed as soon as possible. With that being my goal, I set out to do some research.

Some of my initial questions were: what is the name of the act that put this in place? When did it take effect? Is Mexico the only country to which it applies? Why hasn’t it been challenged?

The first try was with the board of directors of the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, who fortunately for me, held one of their quarterly meetings at Annunciation House. On the topic of civil liberties and constitutional rights, we brought the social security issue to their attention, and to my surprise, they were overwhelmingly uninformed of this issue. They were astonished by the glaring unconstitutionality of it. Their lack of awareness tipped me off that finding information might be difficult.

My next stop was the Internet and the library. Both proved useless. I spent hours on the Social Security website sifting through policies that might contain this piece, but I couldn’t find anything pertinent. And not surprisingly, the El Paso Public Library did not have books about social security policy.

I then decided to go directly to the source. I walked the five blocks to the downtown social security office. As I entered, there was a machine that I pressed to get a ticket. The ticket printed and read, “You will be helped in approximately 450 minutes. Please take a seat and wait for your number to be called.” The hundreds of people sitting and waiting was a daunting site to see, and without 450 minutes to spare, I turned around and walked home. At home I looked up the social security phone number and gave them a ring. 20 minutes after listening to ear piercing on-hold music, I was startled by a real-live voice. This was a breakthrough.

The helpful man on the other end informed me that the policy was part of the 1977 Omnibus Reconciliation Act. With that name, no wonder I couldn’t find it online. He told me that this social security policy applies to every country in the world, not just Mexico. Surprised and unbelieving I asked, “So a women from Australia has to fly to the US and back twice a year to receive her checks?” He replied, “well they actually have a treaty with us to override it, so Australians can receive the checks without traveling.” On to something, I asked, “how many other countries have a treaty like this too?” “A few” he said. “What about France, England, Germany, Italy, Canada, Switzerland, Denmark…” I inquired. The answer was yes, yes, and yes. They all have treaties too. “What about Brazil, Honduras, Peru, Argentina…” The answer was no, no, no. They don’t have treaties. I quickly learned that if a country was primarily white and wealthy, they most likely had the treaty. If they weren’t white or wealthy, they most likely didn’t have the treaty.

This conversation was incredibly helpful and changed my thought path on how the policy might be changed. I had assumed that the policy was discriminatory against a few countries, and therefore could be challenged on the basis of NAFTA, other international agreements, or as unconstitutional. But the fact is that the policy is completely universal, and across the board. It is just isolated treaties that help some countries get around this crippling policy. Can a country be blamed for signing treaties with some countries and not with others? That is a right the government does indeed have.

The questions that this arrangement begs are what does a country need to attain this treaty. Has Mexico really not tried to make the treaty? Or have they just been denied? Is requiring a women from South America to come to the US twice a year to receive her checks essentially denying her her checks, because the travel expenses would make it fiscally useless? Is there a reason for the immense racial divide that tells whether or not a country has the overriding treaty? If we accept that it is necessary for Canada to have a treaty, why isn’t it equally necessary for Mexico to have the treaty?

My next goal is to answer these questions and then write a letter to my Congressmen.

As I have previously written, it is rare that I can feel so one-sided and sure about right and wrong on a particular issue, but this is one of those rare occasions. I know that this policy towards survivors of social security contributors needs to end, and the sooner the better. If you feel outraged, or even just agitated, by the situation Maria finds herself in, or for the citizen whose wife is put through so much just to receive the checks his family deserves, I hope you will help end this. I will post the letter to my congressmen, hoping that anyone interested will alter it accordingly and pay the 44 cents to send it along to his/her congressperson with his/her signature at the bottom.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

At the Bottom of the Ladder: Unaccompanied Minors

An evening in Juárez brought to my attention the tragic struggle for unaccompanied minors on the border, and the odd relationship of power and obligation between different groups that share the same issue but at different levels.

The US Consulate in Juárez, located ten or fifteen miles from el centro de Juárez, looks pristine and tranquil from the outside, surrounded by tall white walls, guards with European looking berets, and decorated with bright, human sized letters identifying itself. A high-fying American flag floats fiercely in the windy desert sky. The busy streets and towering chain hotels around it forebode what is found inside the protective white walls. Once you are in, there is visible truth to the fact that it is the busiest consulate in the world. The paths leading through the rare green grass are busy, and the shiny floors inside sing a constant melody of squeaking leather shoes, tapping high heels, and a bilingual murmur.

In order to get in I had to fax a copy of my passport ahead of time, and then, as verification, present the actual passport when I arrived. That got me into the lobby and screening room. From there an escort took my group through the well-watered lawn and into the glamorous, newly built main building. Upon entry, Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama welcomed me warmly, or at least their large pictures did.

I was at the consulate to attend a symposium about unaccompanied minors on the border. The event was set up with a panel and an anxious audience to ask questions. The crowd mainly consisted of high-level diplomats in suits, and then of course there were four Annunciation House volunteers noticeably under dressed. To my surprise, the event was a potluck. But all that we could have possibly offered was our water bottles and journals, which we each carried in hand. Our lack of contribution didn’t stop us from enjoying homemade tandoori chicken, flan, tortillas, pastries, etc. I was delighted at the idea of a governmental potluck, and of course by the free food (monetarily speaking).

Prior to the event, I knew nothing about the topic and was hoping to take some notes and learn a little bit because the issue of unaccompanied minors is one that affects the work of Annunciation House. The assemblage of information at the consulate was evident, and I was eager to get at some of it, so I had fun asking officers about consulate information. During a side conversation, one of the questions that came up was what happens if a non-US citizen happens to have a baby while visiting the Consulate. Since it is technically US soil, would their child be a US citizen? The answer was no. Apparently, at any time the US can momentarily switch the possession of the land to Mexico, making it a Mexican baby, not a US baby.

As I learned who each of the panel members were, I realized that whoever chose the panel members must have a taste for drama and tension. On the left, was a high up administrator in Desarollo Integral de la Familia (DIF), which is the Mexican version of US Child Protective Services. Her role was to provide information about the services that DIF provides and how it runs. On the right was Ginger, a sharp woman from where she calls, “the boondocks of Pennyslvania,” whose role was to testify to the conditions (reportedly awful) of the DIF facilities in Juaréz. In the middle, maybe designed this way to keep the peace, were two representatives from the Mexican Consulate. Ginger’s presence provided much excitement. She initially became involved with border issues when she volunteered with a DIF shelter in Juárez during college. After graduation, she went back to volunteer with DIF, and wrote and received many grants to help support the struggling shelter where she worked. Ginger put in tremendous time and resources to the DIF shelter, but was dismissed this past June for “administrative reasons.” These reasons are most likely related to her speaking out about corruption in the organization, and neglect of the unaccompanied minors. Remember that on the other side of the panel was an administrator from DIF, potentially responsible for Ginger’s dismissal. As the talks got under way, the tension between the woman on the left and the woman on the right seemed palpable.

Slowly, background information surfaced. The primary issues with unaccompanied minors are who is responsible for them, what that responsibility entails, and where the kids go in the long term. For example, a boy who is fifteen might cross the border, maybe looking for work, or maybe escaping an unsafe situation at home. If border patrol then picks him up, where does he go from there? Sometimes the boy would be deported immediately, other times, he might be detained, and then deported. One of the questions is what responsibility does the US have to provide education and services to the kids who they choose to detain. The responsibility is great, and also has a great cost. It is very expensive to provide schooling, counseling, housing, and meals for someone that they plan to deport anyway. The cheapest thing to do is to deport the kid to Mexico, where he will then be under DIF jurisdiction. Once at DIF, the next goal is to make contact with the child’s family, get an address, and send the kid “home.”

My question was if a kid has traveled all the way from his home by himself and attempted to cross the dangerous border, isn’t it clear that home might not be the best place for him. But then, what is the alternative? What I found out is that in this whole process there is very little, or no part at all, that includes the desire of the kid. Because they are under the discretionary age of 18, their opinion is more or less disregarded, and their plans are made by members of US and Mexican governments. Clearly, this story of an unaccompanied minor navigating the process of crossing the border and being deported is a tragic one. Undocumented minors on the border could very well be the most vulnerable of all, and because of limited funds, limited contacts, and a hot potato attitude to send them back across the border, children on the border are the victims of an international game of politics, money, and jurisdiction.

The discussion went back and forth between Spanish and English, but I thought this to be insignificant as I assumed that every one there would understand both. At one point, in English, Ginger made a very pointed argument that DIF is not using its resources to support the kids that it needs to support, and furthermore, that she has often seen inhumane treatment of kids in DIF custody. She said that the administration of DIF is caught in dirty politics, and more interested in their image than the work that they do. She pointed out that the people who are experiencing the repercussions of this behavior are the stranded unaccompanied minors. As Ginger spoke, I continued to look over at the DIF administrator, trying to read her reaction to the very clear criticism of her work. I thought I saw embarrassment on her face.

At the end of Ginger’s statement, someone from the audience raised their hand and asked the administrator from DIF a question in English. She looked confused and nervous, and finally spit out, “en Español por favor.”

This indicated to everyone that the administrator from DIF didn’t speak English, and therefore had missed Ginger’s entire argument against the administration (her administration) of DIF. An air of disappointment came across the room. The importance of bilingualism on the border, and in general, became glaring. Without it, as we saw that night, Ginger might as well have been talking to a wall.

One thing that continued to frustrate me during the talks was the futility of it all, and the utter lack of options. The problem is clear—unaccompanied minors don’t have a home on either side of the border, have risked lots to flee their family, and neither Mexico nor the US has the resources or creativity to figure out what to do with them. But there seems to be little alternatives to that reality. Dealing with unaccompanied minors on the border is a really difficult task inside and out, and it became clear to me that no potluck symposium was really going to change that fact. So it seems, the problem of handling these kids on the border, is really just a byproduct of a bigger problem, which is the fact that children, for whatever reason, have been handed a situation in which the need to leave their family, in search for something else, exists.

The real root of this problem is the social and economic systems that dictate these people, and put them in positions where escape becomes their only perceivable option. But recognizing the real roots doesn’t feel like much help either, as it just makes me realize the depth of the problem and feel further from a solution.

Similar to many problems, this one has distinct levels. These distinct levels of power and responsibility strike me, and are painful to consider. From the bottom of the food chain to the top the levels go like this: The unaccompanied minor, the shelters (like Annunciation House) who receive the unaccompanied minor, the Mexican and US consulates, and the economic, political, and social structures of our world. I am writing about unaccompanied minors now, but a tier system like this seems to exist with many national and international structures as well. It is painfully ironic that the lowest levels on the power scale seem to be the highest in the knowledge-of-the-issue scale. It is also unfortunate that all of these levels can’t get it together to communicate and send some knowledge up the ladder and some power down the ladder.

It seems too often that the people at the bottom are left to clean up the mess that the decisions and structures above have made. This is a constant occurrence in Annunciation House. It seems that the type of person who walks to our door, is decided by national and international policy. As those policies change, the populations of our houses change in correlation.

Simply put, our house serves as the home for the byproducts of failed governmental policies. Detailing that statement will be saved for another blog.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

An uncovered thought

Today I remembered something that I had written about immigration and borders nearly a half a year ago. I searched my computer and found the document. In reading it again, I was shocked by my radicalism and harsh criticism of United State's roots, and mainly by my overall one sided opinion, which I often try to avoid in my writing. Despite the narrow view of the argument, I think it is worth posting. Here it is...

International border control is an extremely important and under recognized global issue. Since human greed and territorial nature created the idea of a “border” centuries ago, the world as we know it has been defined by borders and the policies that surround them. As natural borders—such as rivers—drastically change environments, artificial borders—such as the US-Mexico border—drastically change human existence. A look at the border policy of the most powerful nation in the world is a good exercise to connect with the vast implications and hypocrisy of border and immigration policy.

When the white man arrived in America, we encountered the native population, who believed that like the air and the water, land was not something that could be “owned.” Exploiting this belief, we swept away other cultures and civilizations from coast to coast, and then drew lines on the land to signify what was ours. As we defined ourselves to be a beacon of hope, the masses arrived, and increasingly, we have looked to those lines on the land to keep them away.

Our southern border, which was once abstract, has come to separate one of the wealthiest nations from one of the poorest nations in the world. Before the border existed, the man two feet north was no better than the man two feet south, but today, that difference of four feet might be the difference between wealth and poverty, food and starvation, hope and desperation. All because of a line and our laws to define its significance.

There is a legislative line of order versus liberty that is hopefully balanced, but more often stumbled over, when defining the rules of our border. As immigration into the U.S. increases, citizens sometimes feel that we are losing order and that “our” land should not be theirs too. This ideology is often rooted in racism and a fear of blending cultures. The notion of protecting “our” land has been given life through much legislation dating back as early as the Chinese Exclusion Act or even as recently as the major immigration reform in 1996 and the USA PATRIOT Act following 9/11. Essentially, this type of legislation makes our borders less permeable, and allows us to send more and more immigrants across that line and back to their “homes.” The irony of this ideology—that has become the centerpiece of US immigration policy—is simply immeasurable.

The U.S. is located on land that we stole through violence in the Mexican American War. The U.S. came to prosperity on the backs of stolen humans from another continent. One of the driving forces of our economy today is the cheap and hardworking undocumented labor force, a product of the line we drew so long ago. But still, despite all this, our policy towards immigrants is self-righteous and overtly seeks to protect “our” land for ourselves.

This hypocrisy expands beyond the line from Tijuana to the Gulf of Mexico. It exists in every border laid out on this earth. Can we truly own land? Can we acquire it fairly? Is the security that we feel from a line in the dirt worth the tremendous divide that it unequivocally creates among humans? The root question that we each must ask ourselves as part of humanity, is whether borders are justified in their existence.

As always, please comment with thoughts or criticism...I am eager to hear it!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Place We Call Home

Williams is a Rwandan national, who has been in the US for no more than half a year. John, a Somalian national, is his good friend. Yesterday Williams walked into Annunciation House and asked me, “Is John home yet?” I answered, “I think so” without digesting the significance of this question.

After a moment, I got it. Williams calls this place home. To me, that means a whole lot.

You could call Annunciation House a homeless shelter, but I guess, once the guests are here, they are no longer ‘homeless.’ For that reason, among others, we choose to call Annunciation House a house of hospitality.

Raul snapping shots of himself

It uplifts me to know that my day’s work (and night’s work) sustains a home. A home for thirty, forty, or fifty people, that by some definition, are ‘homeless.’ A home that serves as a refuge from violence, oppression, racism, marginalization, and all else that exists out side of our brick walls.

Because I sleep, eat, and live at the house with all of the guests, and love every moment of it, I sometimes lose sight of the fact that the people living here—who would be deemed by society as the poorest of the poor—might not love living here as much as I do. But even if the guests don’t want to live at Annunciation House forever, it is a testament to something good, that for at least today, the guests call it home.
Max's Despedida

I remember vividly, and shamefully, the confusion of when I visited Annunciation House for the first time last winter. I walked into the main Sala, and didn’t know how to act with the guests. “Should I act sympathetic and understanding?” or “Should I just walk by and do nothing?” I wondered. These thoughts went through my head because at some level I assumed that the people at the house felt bad for themselves, were unhappy, or maybe even lacked hope. Why I assumed these things, I don’t know, because they are quite far from reality.
Victorcito and Miguel spinning the office chair

The guests at Annunciation House, and most likely all people in the world, don’t feel bad for themselves. Nor do they lack hope, dignity, or happiness. They are in fact hopeful, proud, and happy to be alive, despite that they have been thrown hefty challenges to overcome, and great pain along the way. The space of hope, pride, and dignity, thus becomes our mutual space. The space where all people interact on the same level. It is this oasis of communality that we at Annunciation House rely on to sustain a home.

When we see oppression in the world, or anything that we know in our gut is wrong, we can choose to fight it or to take flight from it. The fight that I take is in creating a space within which a community can avoid all those things that lessen us as human beings. I may not be able to give surgery to this woman, or get a job for that man, but I am with them in this communal space, representing the world that we seek. Right now, I can’t change the law, or stop the violence in Juaréz. So I will start small, and work to sustain the microcosm of what I hope to see bigger one day; a place where all people are welcomed warmly, and respected highly. A place where all people can find home.

Please feel free to comment if you any thoughts have been provoked.

Something funny: after writing this I stood up to use the bathroom in the shop where I write. Above the urinal was large sharpy writing, which read, “Find Home”

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Today is Mexican Independence Day, and this blog is dedicated to support and hope for a day when Mexico can be independent from US drug policy.

Celebrating independence in Juaréz

Although I live on the safe side of the border, the vast implications of the drug violence permeate the border with ease. I, in my short time here, can’t count on my fingers the number of people I have worked with that are refugees of the violence in Juaréz. One family I know became drug war refugees when they coincidentally were witnesses to a homicide, making them the next target. After receiving many shots to the body, and narrowly escaping death, this family fled to El Paso to seek safety. Their case is one of many. In September so far, more than 150 homicides have occurred in Juaréz.

What can be done to stop the drug war on the border? I offer this sequence of thoughts to shape an answer…

One of my jobs here is maintaining the bodega, which is basically our stock room where we keep all of our food, toiletries, and cleaning supplies. This job entails stocking, organizing, and ordering new supplies as needed. From the get go I knew that the ordering part of the job would inflict moral struggles for me.

I consider myself a minimalist, and have grown a harsh dislike to anything that I deem “unnecessary.” Of course unnecessary is incredibly vague and relative, but I use it to determine what I need, consume, and purchase. Unfortunately, I have a tendency to force (or at least try to force) my definition of necessary on others, and I often can’t understand, or at least can’t always sympathize if someone uses anything ‘unnecessary.’ I have learned slowly to get less agitated at the site of ‘unnecessary’ items in use…but having to order 200 lbs of something I consider unnecessary, that is a test of my ability to let go at a whole new level.

Some things that I have come to deem unnecessary are coffee, sugar, sweets, soda, chips, and so on. In my first fifteen days at Annunciation House we went through more than 150 pounds of sugar, which is used each meal to make some sort of sweet juice. In that same amount of time we went through ten jars of instant coffee, which is heavily relied on each morning. Eventually, the time came around when I had to order more of these ‘unnecessary’ items…or did I?

I began to wonder, “Do we really need sugar?” “Do we really need coffee?” And of course I thought that we didn’t need more of anything besides rice and beans. But then I wondered, is it my job to decide what we need, or to just supply the demand of the house, even if it may be unnecessary.

My inclination to deprive the sugar-toothed, caffeine-addicted population of the house must be rooted in some sort of self-righteousness. A belief that because I ‘know’ that coffee and sugar is unnecessary, and therefore wasteful, that I then have the right to control the use of it, by partially forcing my ideas on others through my power exerted as Mr. Bodega. The big question becomes, do I have the right to control anyone else’s consumption but my own, even if I have the power to?

This question gets debated among the volunteers. At one point during my antics of ‘unnecessary,’ another volunteer proclaimed, “give them some damn sugar, they are living in a shelter and you want to deprive them of a basic pleasure for your lofty environmental morals?” I would say that this is a very valid point. But my response is that if I know that sugar and coffee are bad for the body, nutritionally unnecessary, and environmentally destructive in their creation, wouldn’t I be crazy to not control the use of it since I have that power? The counter to that would be that taking someone else’s free choice into your own hands is never helpful or OK. It’s not helpful because people need to learn to make their own decisions, and not OK because each person deserves freedom and responsibility. And then my response to that is; do people still have the right to free choice even if their choices potentially harm other people or our Earth? I hold some belief in both of these opposing views, but struggle to focus on the fine line between free-choice and communal wellbeing.

I outline this argument not for the importance of sugar and coffee. I outline it because it is one conflict that defines life or death on the border.

These contradicting beliefs of free-choice and communal wellbeing also battle in my mind when I ponder national issues. I have spent much time hoping for a prohibition number two and exploring ways that it could work. I have even spent time hoping to make coffee illegal. But I also realize that once you go down that road of deciding what is right for other people, where does it end?

We are lucky to have prohibition, in its complete cycle, as such a clear example of what happens when the government attempts to define morality through legislative might.

It was the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919 that culminated a long temperance movement and began a period of prohibition in the US; in which the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol was illegal. Early on there was much public support for prohibition, and people became very confident of its permanence. In fact, one of its creators, Senator Merris Sheppard, suggested that, "there is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a humming-bird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail."

As time went by, opposition to prohibition increased. One particular group in opposition to prohibition was physicians, who had commonly used alcohol as a therapeutic prescription. Evoking thoughts of the current debate over medical marijuana, physicians began lobbying for the legalization of “medical liquor.”

The crime caused by the alcohol black market also inspired much opposition. Infamous gangsters such as Al Capone made their wealth through illegal alcohol sales, and committed their crime on its behalf. Much crime, theft, and murder, began to get directly linked to the criminal activities in violation of prohibition.

With increasing momentum in opposition of prohibition, maybe Senator Merris Sheppard began to expect the humming bird to fly to Mars.

Instead, prohibition was repealed. In 1933 Roosevelt proclaimed, “I think this would be a good time for a beer,” as he signed an amendment which legalized small amounts of low percentage alcohol. Later that year, the 18th Amendment was repealed completely with the ratification of the 21st Amendment, which cited that if alcohol is to be prohibited, it is the right of the states to decide.

The repeal provided for many benefits. Alcohol-based organized crime lost nearly all of its profits to low-priced alcohol sales at legal liquor stores, reducing violence drastically. The government and ordinary citizens began collecting revenue from the legal alcohol industry. And from a philosophical standpoint, citizens were provided the liberty that our constitution attempts to provide. Decreased violence, increased freedom. Decreased government expenditures, increased government revenue.

After repeal, some early supporters of prohibition accepted its flaws. John D. Rockefeller Jr., expressed that, “When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.”

I think the dots could be easily connected to justify looking at the current drug problem through the prism of what prohibition has taught us. Currently humans face tragic and vast deaths from the battle for control of the intensely lucrative illegal drug trade. We face immense government expenditures to fight against drugs including upwards of 7 billion dollars annually for just the arresting and prosecuting of marijuana use offenses. Lastly, constitutionally we may be compromised, as it is often pointed out that drug prohibition is a usurpation of the power to regulate interstate commerce.

With the incredible toll that the illegality of drugs takes on the US identified, the call for legalization rings loudly in my ears. But what would that look like? Is it possible to predict? My guess would be decreased violence, increased freedom. Decreased government expenditures, increased government revenue.

As much as I consider sugar unnecessary, I consider drugs more unnecessary. However, an indicator of where my compass pointed me is that today I ordered 200 pounds of sugar and 20 jars of coffee. I have realized that just because something may be unnecessary, or even harmful, that does not warrant one body’s exertion of forced morals over another body’s right to free choice. People deserve to choose what they use…deserve the right to liberty. The vast amounts of people whose lives are taken each day by the prohibition of drugs deserve to survive…deserve the right to life.

Juaréz at night

Potentially evident from my blogs, I am a person who struggles with choosing a side in many issues. I get caught up in the ambiguities, and the apparent legitimacy of two opposing arguments. This issue however, is one that seems to be straightforward, which is why I am so surprised that the legalization of drugs seems so far out in the realm of feasible public policy. To me, we can achieve both enhanced free choice and enhanced communal wellbeing with one policy change.

Picture this: Obama sits at his desk, with a pen in his hand, and proclaims, “I think this would be a good time for a joint,” as he signs into law the legalization of drugs.

The absurdity of that image proves to me that there is a lot of work to be done and a long road ahead in the efforts to legalize, in the efforts to save thousands of lives, in the efforts to promote free choice, in the efforts to independence. Similar to most movements, this one will only grow with the momentum from public sentiment. That means us.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Neighborhood Relations: El Paso/Ciudad de Juárez

Around the northern perimeter of El Paso, there is a mountain that looks over all of El Paso and Ciudad de Juárez. Rim Road will take you from downtown, up the mountain, past many mansions, and eventually to a scenic overlook with incredible views of El Paso, Juárez, the border, the border bridges, etc. Rim Road makes for a great bike ride. On my first ride up someone looked at the mansions and remarked, “I bet these houses sell for a lot with such nice views of all the poverty that makes them rich.” Although that is probably not why the residents enjoy the view, it is indeed an intense contrast seeing a mansion in a peaceful neighborhood, with big windows that watch over the slums, the border, and the most dangerous city in the world—Ciudad de Juárez.

One day I biked up the hill and relaxed at the top while the sun was setting and people were coming and going to enjoy the view. One notable part of the view is very large white letters on a mountain in Juárez which read, “La Biblia es la verdad. Leela!” “The Bible is the truth. Read it!” A family showed up and began taking pictures of the overlook. With great emotion one of the younger boys pointed to the writing on the mountain in Juárez and said, “Mommy, look, I think that says Hollywood!” The mother responded, “No honey, I don’t think that says Hollywood, I think it is something about the Bible. It says the Bible is good. Ha! See kids, I told you the Bible was good!”

Juárez is certainly far from Hollywood. It also happens to be very far in many ways from it’s own neighbor, El Paso, despite looking like just one city from the overlook.

A family points out various sites from the overlook

Juárez’s population of 1.6 million is twice El Paso’s population of around 742,000. For a few reasons Juárez’s population has been increasing dramatically as of late. It often goes unnoticed that Juárez is actually the final destination for many migrants. Since NAFTA, many American companies have put factories in Mexico, called “Maquillas,” right along the border, which has created many low wage, but somewhat consistent jobs. Juárez has one of the strongest economies of any Mexican city, and many people travel to Juárez for work with no intention of crossing the border. If they can’t find work in Juárez as they had planned, then they might cross the border.

Taking in the view

Despite having half of Juárez’s population, El Paso has far more active police officers than Juárez (1,728 to 1,300), meaning that the officer per capita rate is at least twice as high in El Paso than in Juárez. For example, if Juarez has one police officer for every 100 people, El Paso has one police officer for every 50 people. However, the Mexican Government recently called on the Mexican Military to serve as the officers in charge, which proved to be a very controversial decision.

Some people may say that El Paso’s higher number of police officers attributes to its incredible safety, but criminologists say it is another factor. El Paso seems like it should be prone to crime for many reasons. First, it is located across the border from what is now considered the most dangerous city in the world where 1,600 people were murdered last year. Second, it has many immigrants—undocumented and documented—whom the media often portrays to be perpetrators of crime. Lastly, El Paso’s poverty rate lingers around 27% (over twice the national average). All of these factors might lead someone to think El Paso is a dangerous place, and in fact, many of my friends expressed great fear for my safety in El Paso. Speaking on the phone, one of them asked me, "Can you walk on the street by yourself ever?" My answer? "Yes."

To the great surprise of many, there were only 18 people killed in El Paso last year, making it the third safest large city in the country in terms of violent crime. But, with all the factors listed above, how could it be so safe…safer than all but two large cities in the US? Many studies done both independently and by the government for the past 100 years have shown that immigrants are actually less likely to commit crimes than native citizens. So it is in fact the immigrant population itself that makes El Paso so safe.

One irony in the relationship between the cities is that the mayor of Juárez lives in El Paso. At first this seems absurd, but I guess if he can, why not?

People wonder about Juárez’s violence spilling North over the border, but I wonder why El Paso’s safeness isn’t spilling South over the border. This year, since January 1st, there have been 1,420 murders in Juarez. It is the single most dangerous city in the world, with 130 killings per 100,000 people. To compare, Baghdad ranks 10th on the same list. But how could it be so dangerous if it is right next to the third safest city in the US?

One reason that Juárez is dangerous is the strong drug cartels, which are fueled with guns from the US, and with money from the vast US narcotics market. Also of concern is the number of criminals that the US deports to Juárez. Just out of jail, dropped in a new city, knowing nothing more than crime to get by, what might one do?

El Paso is safe because of the high immigrant population. Juárez is dangerous because of the cartels, which are essentially employed by the US narcotics market and armed with US guns. It appears to me that the northern counterpart is safe because of what the south gives it (immigrants), and the southern counterpart is dangerous because of what the north gives it (money and guns). This arrangement seems incredibly twisted.

Aside from population, police force, and homicides, there is a lot to describe about the emotions and ethos of the Juárez-El Paso neighbor relations. To begin, it is an unbalanced relationship. If you want to go into Juárez from El Paso, you simply drive, walk, or bike in, with no checkpoint or stops. Coming back to El Paso could require multiple hours in a line and a crossing fee. Any person north of the border can go into Juárez whenever they choose. But only a select few from south of the border can travel north. I often take this ability of mine for granted.

When one of the guests from Mexico left a few days ago to head back home, I said that maybe someday I could visit him. He seemed surprised and asked, “Tienes papeles? Do you have papers?” Immediately I laughed, because it seemed so obvious to me that I could just go into Mexico if and when I pleased. I then realized that he was serious, and justifiably he had assumed that since you need papers to get into the US, you would also need papers to go into Mexico. I was taken aback by my laughter because it exemplified how one-sided the relationship of travel is between these cities and between these countries.

The border is seen above

Also, the ancestral culture here is very different than any place that I have lived. Before I came down here, I would have been hard pressed to list five people I know that migrated to the US in their lifetime, or even five people whose parents had migrated to the US. Here, I would be hard pressed to list five people who don’t fit that criterion. At one point, a boy at the house continued to ask me, “eres gringo?” which, to my knowledge translated to, “are you white?” but because it was so obvious that I was white, I figured their must be something more than the color of skin to the term gringo. While I stood confused, another girl jumped in and said, “Yes, you are a gringo! Because you were born in the US right?” “Yes” I said. “And were yours parents born here to?” She continued. “Yup!” “And not yours parent’s parents too, right?” “yea, they were born here to.” I said. She responded, “wow, that’s like a lot of years, and soo much family. You really are a gringo!” Having grandparents who were born in the US seemed so typical to me, but I have learned that here in El Paso, that is a very rare thing.

Through the comparison of data and ethos between the two cities, and their relationship, it is clear that these cities are very different from each other despite their proximity. I was marveling today that eleven blocks from the peaceful bench where I sit, is the most dangerous city in the world.

I had always viewed the border as being something that separated the two cities. But now that I am here, I am beginning to think that as different as these two cities are, maybe the border is the only thing that holds them together.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Blame and Perpetuation

I was on shift one night and the doorbell rang as it does every 5-10 minutes. Habitually, I stood up from my chair, walked out of the office, and through the sala towards to the door. As I looked up towards the door, I saw her slap her two year old in the face. My energy and emotions froze, but I continued to take steps toward the door. He balled intensely, his cheeks were wet with tears. She pulled her hand back and slapped his face again. The image of his quivering lips stuck in my mind. I opened the door, but couldn’t tell you who walked in. I turned around back towards the office, and saw her strike his face once more. After this slap blood from his lip emerged and joined his tears to cover his cheek. As I continued to the office, stunned, I could hear his wailing prevail behind me.

I was shocked, stunned, scared, overwhelmed, and not in control of my actions or thoughts. As I stood there, back in the office, I could not believe that I didn’t grab the child and scream at the mother. I didn’t know if I should be ashamed that I kept walking, and allowed her to slap him twice more after the first time…should I be appalled that the other guests in the Sala looked on quietly too?

The Guest Sala

When it occurred to me that I was legally obligated to call Child Protective Services (CPS) and report the incident, more dread, despair, and fear amassed within me. The mother who had hit her kid is a guest that I respect greatly and interact with frequently. She has four kids in the house, all of which are tremendous, and whose company in the house is thoroughly enjoyed. What would it mean if I called CPS I wondered. Would they come take the kids and separate the family? Would they not have time for the report and never follow up? I wondered what the implications would be in this house. Would this family forgive me? Would they think I had disrespected them by calling the authorities on them instead of dealing with it myself? I didn’t even know what I thought would be the better scenario, if CPS ignored it or acted on it. I guess none of these thoughts mattered because I had to call CPS.

I called and they took down all the names, birthdates, and specifics of the situation. They thanked me for the report and said goodbye. At that time, I had heard from people that these days CPS is very short on money and resources, and generally don’t follow up on reports unless they were extremely urgent or dangerous. I expected nothing more to come of it.

An hour later I received a follow up call from CPS asking for more details of the situation. That call ended and it was still unclear what would become the situation.

Thirty minutes later, the doorbell rang as it does every 5-10 minutes. Habitually, I stood up from my chair, walked out of the office, and through the sala towards to the door. I opened the door and she said, “Hi I am from CPS, I need to speak with one of the guests.” My heart sunk and I stepped outside and shut the door behind me. I went into this desperate prattle about how she is a good mother, how she is only doing what she knows, and how her kids should stay with her. The CPS social worker sensed my uneasiness and assured me that I didn’t need to worry.

I stepped inside, found the mother and said, “Hay una mujer a la puerta por usted, There is a women at the door for you,” with a quiver in my voice. Surprised because it was 9:30 at night, she curiously proceeded to the door.

Next, the whole family— four kids, mother and father—were waiting in the office to speak with the women from CPS. I tried to stay busy with dishes and such, but couldn’t get past the idea that they all knew I had caused this. The fear and uncomfortable ness in the room was eminent. They all sat fifteen feet away from me and I was sure they were wondering why I would have done this to them. One by one they walked out of the office, none with any words or positive emotions on their faces. I was anxious know what had happened.

I finally got a chance to talk to the woman from CPS. She had decided to give the family a warning, discuss the nature and patterns of violence and discipline, and sign the mother up for free parenting classes. Hearing this I became incredibly relieved and grateful for the prompt action and sound judgment of CPS. I felt lucky that I am in a country that has structures for organizations such as CPS.

A few kids playing out side the house

But as good as it all sounded, I realized that the mother’s reaction is really what is important when determining if any progress will be made. What message was sent to her by all of this? Was it simply that now she knew she had to ‘discipline’ her kids in private? When the mother walked out of the office and into the crowded sala, she went up to people, and explained what had happened. They all gasped in shock. While they gasped at the fact that CPS had been called, these very same people had not gasped at the site of a two year old getting hit in the face until he bled. In this same nature, the father of the child who got hit complained to another volunteer a few days later, “Now my wife can’t discipline her kids right.” There is a high level of disturbance in all of this, but is there any blame in it?

People do what they know. We live how we have watched other people live. Growing up, the mother and father of that two-year-old boy may well have been disciplined with violence too. But back then, in a different place in a different time, CPS was never called, and the cycle perpetuated to the next generation. Do we blame the loving mother who is disciplining her kids the way she was taught to do so?

On a larger scale, can we blame the perpetuators of harmful tradition, because it is all they know? Do we blame those who are racist, even though they were raised racist? Do we blame those who oppress, even though they were in raised to oppress? Do we blame those who disregard the health of our planet, even though they have never known the implications of their actions? If we do project blame, what will come from it? If we do not project blame, but instead take action against something that we see as unjust, what will be gained from that?

I do not blame or judge that mother for hitting her child. She did what she thought was right.

But neither do I accept a mother hitting her child in the face as anywhere near OK. I consider it very wrong.

I think that if in our reaction to the things that we see as wrong, we can step away from blame, or judgment, and focus on action and non-complacence, perhaps the perpetuating, pernicious traditions of our world will slowly dissipate.