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!