Sunday, August 9, 2009

Absorbing the heat

I walked out of the airport a week ago squinting my blue eyes against the sun, wearing a long sleeve flannel shirt, and thinking about the next five months—excited to experience the relationship between the politics and the people of immigration. After a quick drive through the sun-soaked streets of El Paso, I arrived at a two-story brick building, wedged like a "V" in a fork in the road, called Annunciation House. It has been the home to thousands of migrants in the past 30 years, and will be my home for the next five months. In my first week here, I sought to absorb all that I could...the rules, the stories, the names, the times, and of course, the heat.
The first thing I realized was that Texas in August is not the time or place for long sleeves, but instead, a place where pale skin and light eyes (not native to the land) need modern adaptations like sun screen and sun glasses to get by. And then I began to realize that the relationship that I had anticipated between the politics and the people is far from how I imagined.
I expected that the people would be constantly, and overtly, connected and aware of the politics. I pictured a relationship where the people would be angry, glad, or at least aware of the policies in place, because for many migrants the policies control their day-to-day lives. But what I have observed is that people are generally more confused than aware of the policies. I for one certainly am.
There is clear ambiguity in the relationship between a typical immigrant and immigration policy. An immigrant is so close to immigration policy in the way that it controls them, but so distant from immigration policy in the way that they might have an effect on the process.
For example one guest at Annunciation House, who took a boat from Somalia to Spain, Spain to Brazil, Brazil to Mexico, and then arrived in the US in January, has witnessed this ambiguity very directly. At what seemed like the end of a long journey, he arrived at the US border and asked for asylum. That moment, a new journey began. Without asylum, he was kept in a detention center until June, at which point he was ordered deported, but because Somalia will not accept deportees, he found himself arriving at a two story brick building, wedged like a "V" in a fork in the road, called Annunciation House, in a situation of immigration limbo. Since he has been here, he has been wrestling within the constraints of immigration policy. He has applied for a work permit, and now, can do nothing more than wait, follow the orders given to him, and continue to charge the tracking device that has been secured to his ankle. The extremity of ambivalence in the situation is palpable. I try to imagine having my life dictated, to the extent of day to day operation, by a system that is so far out of reach and so mysterious to me. Herein lies the reason why immigrants might not care to know about the details of or even general information of immigration policy; because whether they know about it or not, they will still be at its mercy. This ambiguity of an immigrant's incredible mercy yet vast distance to immigration policy took me by surprise.

A view from the roof of the house of the Mexican flag hanging over Chamizal Park in Juaréz, MX.

The sensation of surprise happens often here. I encountered a great surprise yesterday when I was making banana bread with some niños from the house. A grocery store in the area lets us do a pick up once a week of produce that they can no longer sell. This week, there was a lot…particularly a lot of brown bananas. The kids picked out 12 brown bananas, peeled them, and smashed them through their fingers into the mixing bowl. Next came the salt, then the sugar, then came the flour. I carefully looked through all the choices in the house bodega and came out proud with a bag of whole-wheat flour. We measured 3 cups and poured them into the mixing bowl. As the kids began to mix and I went to grab the eggs I heard, “ahhhhh! Hay animales!” I turned back, looked in the bowl, and sure enough there were tons of “animales” or little black insects in our banana bread efforts. Quickly the kids began scooping through the mix and pulling out handfuls of sugar, salt, flour, and animales. Although this helped lessen the insect ratio, it ruined the other ratios, and we were left with a random mixture of flour, insects, sugar, salt, and bananas. As a team we decided to start over, which other than wasted ingredients, had few implications.
Other things that have surprised me in my week here contain far greater implications. I was surprised to learn that just since the beginning of this year there have been more than 1,000 homicides in Juarez (El Paso city’s counterpart south of the border). That’s compared to 17 homicides in El Paso this year. These numbers can be compared to the total US military deaths in the Iraq War: 4,331 or the total US military deaths in Afghanistan: 694. If you have read these numbers quickly, I would say take a moment to recognize the disparities.

The weight of stories, numbers, and deaths on the border is immense. I will end today’s blog with what will probably be in my mind as I fall asleep tonight.

A guest looked me in the eyes today, and said to me that in his homeland of Honduras, “they kill people like they kill chickens. There is no difference to them.”

Where your mind takes you from there is unknown to me, but I bet it will be active for some time.

Please comment if you have any questions or thoughts.