Monday, May 9, 2016

Vigil to close the School of the Americas moving to Nogales

     The movement to close the School of the Americas (SOA) training center for Latin American soldiers has held an annual vigil in front of the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia for 25 years.  This year, the convergence will be moved here to the Nogales Wall as an expression of resistance to the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border.  The four-day event will conclude on October 10 – the fourth anniversary of the murder of 16-year-old José Antonio Elena Rodriguez by a Border Patrol agent that fired into Nogales, Sonora from Nogales, Arizona on October 10, 2012.
     Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of SOA Watch, visited Nogales in May 2013 and a vigil was held that evening at the site where José Antonio was killed.  He presented José Antonio’s mother, Aracely, with a photo of him holding a cross with her son’s name during the vigil at Fort Benning the previous November.  The Home of Hope and Peace (HEPAC) was honored to host another SOA Watch delegation that came to Nogales from April 28 to 30 in preparation for the vigil this October.    
     The journey of SOA Watch from its beginning in front of Fort Benning to the border in Nogales parallels my own life journey over those same 26 years.  My first trip to Latin America was to the Mesa Grande refugee camp in Honduras in September 1989.  The camp was home to thousands of people who had fled from the U.S.-sponsored war and repression in El Salvador.         
     A group of 500 people were preparing to return to El Salvador the following month and we met with their “mesa directiva” (elected leaders).  Beto, Arturo, Isabel, Neto, Eulalio and Miguel shared their stories with us and transformed my life.  “We are willing to risk our lives, if need be, to bring our people back to El Salvador,” said Beto, the president.  “By claiming our right to live as a civilian community in the countryside we believe we will be contributing to the process of bringing peace to our homeland.”
     They returned to Guancorita in El Salvador on October 29 and found that most of the community had been destroyed by Air Force bombing.  A few weeks later, on November 16, soldiers went into the Central America University in San Salvador and murdered Father Ignacio Ellacuría (rector), five other Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter.  Many of those responsible for the massacre had been trained at the School of the Americas.
     Then on February 11, 1990, Guancorita was attacked by the Air Force.  Planes and helicopters flew overhead for two hours and fired 15 rockets and 8 bombs around the community.  Four families that were living beneath sheets of plastic ran to seek shelter in a house made out of brick.  One of the helicopters fired a rocket that exploded inside the house – killing five people, including four children, and wounding 16.
     We visited the community the following month and Patrocinio leads us to “la casa de la masacre” (the house of the massacre).  We enter the house and there is a huge stain spread across the right wall.  The bricks are pockmarked with holes from the “esquirlas” (rocket shrapnel).  Five crosses with the names of the victims mark the sites where they died: “Isabel Lopez” and “Anabel Beatriz Lopez” (Patrocinio’s 10-year-old and 2-year-old daughters), “Jose Guardado” and “Blanca Lilia Guardado” (father and 2-year-old daughter), and “Dolores Serrano” (10-years-old).
     Patrocinio tells us about the attack and then takes out his bandana and carefully unrolls it on the ground.  Inside is a piece of the rocket, with the markings in English.  The rockets, the bombs, the helicopters and planes had been paid for with our tax dollars.
     We meet Patrocinio’s spouse, Maria, that afternoon in the neighboring community of Guarjila.  Tears stream down her face as she tells us about the death of her two daughters.  She is eight-months pregnant and shows us the shrapnel wounds on her chest and upper legs.  “It was a miracle I didn’t lose my baby,” she says.  Maria gave birth to a girl who was named Isabel Beatriz in honor of her two sisters that she never met.
     In July 1990, Guancorita was renamed Comunidad Ignacio Ellacuría in honor of the rector of the Central America University and in recognition that both the Jesuit community and Guancorita had suffered massacres.  In November of that year, Father Roy and a few other people held a vigil at the gates of Ft. Benning to commemorate the first anniversary of the massacre at the university.  The vigil would grow over the years with the participation of thousands of people every November. 
     Twenty two years after that first vigil, a Border Patrol agent fires his pistol between the bars of the Nogales Wall at José Antonio who is walking down below on International Street in Nogales, Sonora.  Lonnie Swartz empties the 13-round clip, puts in another clip, and then fires all the bullets in that one.  He shoots José Antonio once in the head and seven times in the back.
     I visited the site of the killing, on the sidewalk in front of Dr. Contreras’ clinic, ten days later.  The wall on the corner had seven bullet holes, up high, with red circles around each one that had been drawn by police investigators.  A few feet away, the side wall had three bullet holes down low, alongside the sidewalk where José Antonio died. 
     On November 2, Day of the Dead, HEPAC helped organize the first procession and vigil to protest the murder of José Antonio.  Other vigils followed to commemorate the six month, one year, year and a half, two year, and three year anniversaries.   
     We will gather together this October in solidarity with the family of José Antonio and all victims of U.S.-sponsored violence; including Isabel and Anabel Beatriz Lopez, Jose and Blanca Lilia Guardado, and Dolores Serrano.  We would be honored to have you join us.



Monday, December 14, 2015

Paris climate summit ignores the reality of Nogales

     The neighborhood where I live in Nogales is called Bella Vista (“Beautiful View”).  The view disappears in the haze on these winter mornings as desperate impoverished people burn whatever they can to ward off the cold.  This toxic reality of corporate “free trade” was not addressed during the recent “Climate Change Conference” in Paris.
     The U.S. government demanded that the emissions reduction targets set by individual countries not be legally binding, and that countries harmed by climate change should not be able to take legal action for that damage.  As reported by Naomi Klein, that’s exactly opposite to the U.S. stance on “free trade” agreements which are legally binding. 
     The North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that converted Nogales into a sprawling industrial city enables corporations to sue governments if the corporations feel they’re not being treated fairly.  The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement that was signed by the Obama administration in October, and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that is currently being negotiated, both include legally-binding provisions for corporations to sue governments.
     Prior to the implementation of NAFTA, there were trees on the hills around Nogales.  Twenty years later, there are nearly 100 “maquiladoras” (assembly plants) and the trees are gone.  The products made in those plants can not be ones that are needed by the people of Mexico but, by law, have to be exported.  The largest plant in Nogales is Chamberlain which employs more than 3,000 workers that make garage door openers.  There is only one house in our neighborhood with a garage, and it doesn’t have a door.
     Chamberlain; Kimberly-Clark; Master Lock; Becton, Dickinson and Company; and other U.S. corporations have plants here to take advantage of the cheap labor.  The minimum wage in Nogales, Sonora is $4.25 per day as compared to $8.05 per hour in Nogales, Arizona. 
     The maquiladoras have access to all the water and electricity they need to make products that freely cross the border but the workers do not enjoy that same privilege.  The water in our neighborhood is purchased from tanker trucks that fill storage tanks located on the rooves of homes.  Drinking water is bought from pick-up trucks that drive through loaded with 5-gallon jugs.  The price of electricity explains the haze in the air and the occasional house fire in winter.
     The U.S. government recently spent $187 million to modernize the port-of-entry to make it easier for hundreds of diesel trucks to cross the border daily with products from the maquiladoras, and produce grown in the states of Sonora and Sinaloa.  The government also spent tens of millions of dollars to install a taller, and stronger, border wall to ensure that workers do not leave the maquiladoras in search of higher pay in the U.S.
     As long as “free trade” is protected more than the environment and workers, corporations will continue to warm our planet to dangerous levels.  However, as Naomi Klein writes in her book “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate,” “Climate change – if treated as a true planetary emergency – could become a galvanizing force for humanity, leaving us all not just safer from extreme weather, but with societies that are safer and fairer in all kinds of other ways as well…It really is the case that we are on our own and any credible source of hope in this crisis will have to come from below.”  


Monday, February 2, 2015

Gaza in Arizona

     I saw heavy machinery up ahead as I parked on the ridge road a few miles north of the border with Mexico.  When I got out of the car, I could see a tower in the east and another one in the north.  None of that had been there the last time I was on that ridge just three months ago and I was curious to get a closer look when I returned from the hike.
     The machinery was at a construction site on top of a hill with an extensive view.  “Do not enter.  This site is under video surveillance,” read the signs, in English and Spanish, along the perimeter of the site.
     The northern tower was surrounded by a fence and had the same bilingual warning.  Two cameras were mounted on top of the tower, a microwave dish extended from the side, and a large solar panel was at the base – an imposing image set against the desert sky.  
     While I was taking that photo, Todd Miller and Gabriel Schivone were posting an excellent article entitled Gaza in Arizona  I saw the article the next day and I was startled to read, “Customs and Border Protection (CBP) contracted with Israel’s giant military manufacturer Elbit Systems to build a ‘virtual wall,’ a technological barrier set back from the actual international divide in the Arizona desert...CBP has tasked Elbit with creating a ‘wall’ of ‘integrated fixed towers’ containing the latest in cameras, radar, motion sensors, and control rooms.  Construction will start in the rugged, desert canyons around Nogales.” 
     I sent a message to Todd with the photo and asked, “Could this be part of the ‘wall’ of ‘integrated fixed towers’ that Elbit is building for CBP?”  He responded a few minutes later, “Very interesting!  I’m going to check it out.”  He and Gabe drove to Nogales the next morning and we went out together to see the tower.  
     We were greeted by an armed security guard and one of the construction workers who told us, “You can’t go any further because there’s moving pieces and equipment.”  Todd mentioned that we had seen the tower from the road and we were wondering what it would be used for.
     The foreman came over to check us out and the worker asked him, “Should we put them in contact with Elbit?”  “You have to talk with the public information office of Customs and Border Protection,” quickly interjected the foreman.  “Are you working for CBP?” asked Todd.  “You have to talk with the public information office of Customs and Border Protection.  That’s all I can tell you,” was the response.
     In “Gaza in Arizona,” Todd and Gabe describe how the University of Arizona is recruiting Israeli security companies to set up operations at the Tech Parks Arizona campus in Tucson.  The program is called the Israel Business Initiative.  The Department of Homeland Security designated the University of Arizona as the lead school for the Center of Excellence on Border Security and Immigration in 2008 and the university has received millions of dollars in federal grants.
     President Obama strongly supports “free trade” policies that enable corporations, like Elbit, to easily travel around the globe in search of increased profit but he opposes providing that same freedom of movement for workers.  The minimum wage in Nogales, Sonora is now $5.20 per day while the minimum wage in Nogales, Arizona is $8.05 per hour.  Elbit’s virtual wall will help ensure that the women and men who assemble products for U.S. companies in Nogales, Sonora stay on the lower-wage side of the border.
     Todd and Gabe quote Roei Elkabetz, brigadier general of the Israel Defense Forces, at the beginning of their article.  “We have learned lots from Gaza,” he said.  “It’s been a great laboratory.”  That laboratory is now being extended to Arizona.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Migrant Posada

     Mary was riding on a burro, and Joseph was walking beside her, as they traveled by the Nogales border wall in search of shelter during the Migrant Posada.   A cold rain was falling, but for a brief moment, the sun came out and a rainbow appeared. 
     Posadas recreate the journey from 2,000 years ago as Mary and Joseph are refused lodging at various stations along the way and finally welcomed in at the end of the procession.  The Migrant Posada was organized by the Kino Border Initiative and Dioceses without Borders as an act of solidarity with our undocumented sisters and brothers.
     The first station was at the Nogales wall which was built by the Clinton administration in 1994, just four months after he visited the site of the former Berlin Wall.  “Wherever there’s a wall, there’s a closure of the heart,” read a banner attached to the wall.  Those were the words spoken by Pope Francis last month on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
     At each station, the people outside in the procession sing to ask for lodging.  The people inside sing in response that there is no room.  “In the name of justice, I ask you to let me in.  I will not cause you harm, I just want to work,” sang the people on the south side of the wall.  “We have thousands of agents that protect our borders, and you won’t get across even through the cracks,” responded the people on the north side.
     Separation of families was the theme of the second station.  “In the name of justice, I ask for your support and solidarity.  Separated from my children, my heart is broken,” sang the deportees.  “I don’t care about what you’re going through, stop you’re crying.  The children that you left behind, you are not going to see again,” was the response.
     There was a moment of silence at the third station to remember the thousands of people who have died in the desert.  “We’re half a family, deported without pity.  The children are left crying, lamenting that they are orphans,” sang the people outside.  “We don’t want you to come here, stay over there.  The purity of the race could become contaminated” replied the people inside.
     Mary and Joseph were finally welcomed at the last station which was the Kino Border Initiative dining hall where recently deported migrants receive two meals a day.  There we all sang, “Let’s celebrate without borders or barriers, people who thirst for justice.  Today we will work and struggle together for justice and dignity.”
    

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Mother and daughter reunited

     Herminia rushed out of the Tucson cathedral to reunite with her daughter Rosy who had just been released after spending seven months in the immigration prison in Eloy, Arizona.  Herminia had been arrested in front of the White House, carried out a two week hunger strike in front of the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) office in Phoenix, and spent the last four weeks in the cathedral in her campaign to win her daughter’s release. 
     Mother and daughter ran towards each other and came together in a tearful embrace surrounded by the light of the TV cameras.  “I struggled to get out and I dreamed of being with my mom,” said Rosy.  “Never give up and always struggle to realize your dreams.”
     “This is where Rosy returned to life,” Herminia told me earlier inside the cathedral.  “She’s on her way.  She called and said, ‘Mom, I’m out now.  The nightmare has ended.’”
     I visited Rosy in the Corrections Corporation of America prison on March 2.  We passed through five locked gates and doors on our way to the visit room.  She was in a green uniform and we could only be with her for one hour.
     Rosy told me that her family moved to the U.S. when she was just 11 years old.  They lived for two years in Denver and seven years in Mesa, Arizona.
     In December 2012, the family went back to the state of Quintana Roo in southern Mexico because Rosy’s grandfather was dying of cancer.  They found the country had changed during the time they had been gone.  They were at risk of being kidnapped because the criminal groups thought they had money from their time in the U.S. and her father was brutally beaten.  Rosy and Fatima (her 13 year old sister) were both bullied a lot at school. 
     They fled from Quintana Roo and came north to Nogales.  Herminia, Rosy and Fatima presented themselves at the border here on September 22, 2013 and asked for asylum.  Herminia and Fatima were released that same day on parole but Rosy was sent to the immigration prison in Florence.  The next day, on her 20th birthday, she was transferred to the prison in Eloy.
     Herminia passed the first interview for political asylum when the official found that she had a credible fear of persecution if she were sent back to Mexico.  Rosy’s case was moving much more slowly and Herminia decided the only option was to launch a public campaign to win her daughter’s release.  Rosy was finally released on bond on April 28 and said, “I can’t believe I’m out here and not in there.”
     The Obama administration has deported more than two million people and two thousand women are currently being held in the Eloy immigration prison.  “What would happen if Obama’s daughters, or wife, were separated from him?” asked Herminia.  “What would he do?”


Friday, December 20, 2013

Migrant Christmas

     Mary was riding on a burro alongside the border wall during the Migrant Posada in Nogales on December 14.  The posada is a procession that reenacts the journey of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter for the birth of Jesus.  We stopped at three stations along the border where we listened to the migrants describe the rejection and abuse they had suffered during their journey.  Mary and Joseph, and the migrants, were finally welcomed inside at the Kino Border Initiative “comedor” (meal program) at the end of the procession.
     Julio was still in shock when I met him at the comedor that morning.  He told me that he had been walking through the Food City parking lot in south Tucson at 6 A.M. to meet a friend for a roofing job.  A policeman stopped him and said, “Show me your I.D.”  Julio replied that he didn’t have it and he was then frisked and ordered into the patrol car.  The policeman called the Border Patrol and Julio was “repatriated” to Nogales a couple hours later. 
     Julio lived in the U.S. for 15 years and is married to a U.S. citizen.  He said, “I used to drink and use drugs, but then I found God, and my life changed…I don’t understand why this happened to me today.”  He doesn’t know anyone in Nogales and he had no idea what he was going to do, not even in the next moment.
     I met Sergio the following morning as I was hiking along one of the migrant trails north of the border.  He told me that he lived for five years in the U.S. and has a spouse and a three-year-old son in New York.  He had been deported and was trying to return to his home and family. 
     Sergio had been walking for two days and he said it was very cold at night – the temperature had dropped to 28 degrees the previous day.  I gave him some warm clothes, a blanket, food and water; and told him “I hope you’re able to be with your son for Christmas.”

"We want family unity for the children of immigrants"

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Dream 9 return home

      The “Dream 9” activists returned on August 8 to the site where they had been handcuffed and placed in detention just 17 days before.  They stood in front of the border crossing in Nogales with their fists in the air and a banner that stated, “We’re Home – Families Beyond Borders.”  An international campaign won their release the day before from the Eloy Detention Center which is owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America. 
     Lizbeth, Lulu and Marco traveled from the U.S. to Mexico last month to visit their families and return with the other six.  They all presented themselves at the border crossing on July 22 and requested to be allowed re-entry to the U.S. on humanitarian grounds. 
     Their courageous action raised awareness about the hundreds of thousands of families that have been torn apart by the Obama administration’s aggressive deportation policies.  It was also a bold demand that people who have been deported should be allowed to return home to the U.S.  Obama has now deported more people than any other president in history – 1.7 million.
     Eight of the activists would have qualified for the DREAM Act which proposed legal residency for people who arrived in the country as minors and completed high school in the U.S.  The bill passed the House of Representatives in 2010 but failed in the Senate.    
     Adriana left the U.S. last year because she wanted to pursue a college degree and couldn’t afford to do so as an undocumented student in Arizona.  She spent seven months living and working at the San Juan Bosco migrant shelter here in Nogales.
     Ceferino went back to Mexico because he needed ear surgery that would have cost $21,000 in the U.S.  He tried to return to the U.S. in June.
     Luis left in 2011 after the DREAM Act failed.  He tried to cross back into the U.S. four times last year.
     Maria started college but could no longer afford it and returned to Mexico last year.  She had to put off her education here in order to work and sustain her family.
     Claudia was deported after her husband was detained while he was driving to work.
     All of the Dream 9 filed petitions for political asylum after they were denied permission to re-enter the U.S. on humanitarian grounds.  The immigration authorities determined that they each had a “credible fear” of being harmed or killed if sent back to Mexico.  They were released on parole and will continue to fight for their right, and the right of hundreds of thousands of others like them, to be home in the U.S.
     They have overcome the fear of deportation and are, as they shouted at the border crossing, “Undocumented, Unafraid!”