Tuesday, August 21, 2007
I don't mean to completely skip over Sierra Vista, AZ (where Scott and I were hosted together in an aMAZing familia Mexicana) but I just have to tell you about our experience at the very most southwest corner of the continental US, and the people we interacted with today.
San Diego is such an international city (the seventh largest metro area in the US), and to take advantage of that, we heard some very different perspectives on border/ immigration issues today.
We began with Kathi Anderson, the Executive Director of Survivors of Torture International. Do you know the difference between refugees and asylum seekers upon entering a country like the US? I sure didn't. (refugees are granted certain rights upon entering a host country because of their status-- they can work immediately, enroll their kids in school, etc. Asylum seekers can't do anything until their hearing, which can take weeks, months, or longer.) How about vicarious trauma? It is a condition that affects service providers to refugees from hearing repeated tragic and traumatizing stories... the social workers, lawyers, etc., start internalizing the stories of those they are working to help!
We also heard from Pedro Rios of the American Friends Services Committee, which advocates for allegedly illegal immigrants that are going through the deportation hearing process, and provides a support and advocacy network for them. They also submit complaints of human rights abuses in border enforcement practices. An example he gave was an eyewitness testimony of an illegal immigrant being detained by border patrol, being handcuffed to the patrol's ATV, and forced to run alongside the ATV at full speed for over a mile. Pedro said that the work has escalated in its pace because all of our immigration practices are now "filtered through the lens of the war on terror." Did you know that if you were a Mexican national that wanted to immigrate legally, the average length of the process is 12-15 years, and that is if you have a family member in the US that is sponsoring you? We also talked about the real issue being the nature of the economies between the US and Mexico that encourages (or forces, depending on who you talk to) people to cross the border to make a living (if their livelihood has been undercut by NAFTA practices, where farmers crops are being undersold by American exports, for example. Whew! heavy stuff, and admittedly, a polarized perspective. I have a hard time taking statistics for fact, because the numbers can shift depending on who does the calculating and how... I am simply repeating for you what we heard.)
We also visited the Wildlife Reserve- the Tijuana Estuary, the watershed of which is 3/4 Mexican and 1/4 American. The politics around protecting the environment in international waters is another story, but what we also learned is that the mandated road (a homeland security project) that needs to be a 10% grade or less along the border in the last few miles before the coast will require major land upheaval -- chopping off two tall mesas (flat-topped hills), which will fill the estuary with sediment, with unpredictable wildlife endangerment and watershed damage.
And lastly, we met a border patrol official who has been risking his life patrolling the Mexican border for the last 23 years. To every day encounter coyotes (people smugglers) who drive or climb or swim over the border leading groups wanting to get across-- to have rocks thrown at your head, be shot at, to drive a vehicle with a huge "Nightbuster" floodlight atop it... I would never want to have this guy's job. Needless to say, he has a few things to say about his thoughts on amnesty for people who have snuck past him.
To be exposed to these various elements of immigration, especially with such an international audience with strong feelings on border policies, was a fascinating opportunity. Our cast will discuss and process the day's experiences and if they changed how we individually think about immigration on Thursday. I am looking forward to that conversation.