A Vacation at the Border: Seeing the immigration humanitarian crisis up close

  • Phil Wilson stands next to a work of art with shoes that symbolize the people who have died attempting to cross the Chihuahuan Desert. Courtesy photo

  • An altar at Annunciation House. Courtesy photo

  • Shawn and Imelda Courtesy photo

  • Phil, Shelly and Shawn. Courtesy photo

  • Shawn and Phil on the way to Carlsbad. Courtesy photo

Published: 1/10/2020 9:48:19 AM
Modified: 1/10/2020 9:47:38 AM

“Out in the West Texas town of El Paso,

I fell in love with a Mexican girl.”

- Marty Robbins

Like the protagonist in Marty Robbins’ tale of violence and existential futility, my high school friend, Shawn O’Donnell, fell in love with a Mexican “girl” from El Paso... or rather, to be precise, Shawn O’Donnell fell in love with an American woman, third generation of Mexican ancestry. The Marty Robbins tune does not explicitly state whether or not the protagonist’s object of adoration had earned a master’s degree from The University of Texas at El Paso, so the parallels are slightly askew. The story of Shawn and Imelda Lujan, therefore, might not be grist for a country tune: Shawn taught sixth grade in San Antonio where he met Imelda, a guidance counselor, and the two have just retired after amassing some 70 years of Texas public school service between them. They have two successful, hard working daughters, recent graduates of Smith and RISD.

My wife, Shelly Berkowitz, and I recently went to El Paso to visit Shawn and Imelda, and to deliver some checks donated to Annunciation House in El Paso by my wife’s group of women physicians from the Franklin and Hampshire County area. They meet monthly to discuss medical literature, and sometimes raise money for progressive causes. Annunciation House is a Catholic-run program that has served to shelter poor, homeless people at the border since its inception in 1978. Fate has chosen Annunciation House to wrestle with the consequences of callous, political whim.

Imelda tells us that her grandmother, at age 15, walked across a bridge that separates the U.S. from Mexico. She took “citizen” classes to prepare to become an American, but was told by a Mexican acquaintance that the ritual of American citizenship required that she stomp and spit upon the Mexican flag. The fractured collective fears, myths and distortions that ended her path to naturalization may well have been derived from the sense that many Americans have hostile thoughts about Mexicans. She would never stomp on the Mexican flag and, thus, could not be an American citizen. Still, her “illegal” status did not prevent her from living a full life in El Paso, nor did it injure her position as the matriarch of a family of upstanding and hard-working Americans.

Annunciation House (in temporary facilities while its historic home undergoes repairs) occupies a cinder-block building in a neighborhood dominated by concrete walls, parking lots, nondescript stucco structures housing government bureaucracies, and fast moving traffic. Metal fences and walls topped by barbed wire divide the landscape into a series of rectangles. One could not choose an area that more perfectly suggests constriction, captivity, ominous waiting in closed spaces for the punctuating moment of official decree. This contrasts with the overall spaciousness of El Paso — a city that offers the viewer an array of vistas surrounded by endless sky, angular mountains, and, even with the corruption of urban sprawl, conveys a feeling of vast geological power and freedom. Moreover, one gazes over the limitless swathes of the Chihuahuan Desert as it defines both the Mexican and U.S. expanses with identical, indifferent, Permian strata, uplifted by the same continental movement millions of years past. Even the Rio Grande, a fierce torrent of water in the American imagination, (that, in reality, is often nothing more than a series of evaporating puddles cradled in soft hills of powdered limestone) cannot formalize the separation of its shores.

While El Paso has one of the largest Hispanic/Latino populations of any U.S. city (more than 80 percent of residents) its ethnic character cannot alter the impression that corporate powers have twisted and defined the city as a mere generic expression of commercial sprawl. We drive about and pass Circle K’s, MacDonald’s, Burger Kings, Wendy’s, Auto Zones, Planet Fitnesses, Whataburgers and Chico’s Tacos in a dizzying assault of predictable sterility. We pass the Walmart where last summer, a white supremacist murdered 22 people in a planned effort to randomly target Mexicans. The store had been closed and made into a shrine to honor the victims, but Shawn tells us that the store will soon reopen against the wishes of many El Pasoans. Billboards throughout the city display the slogan, “El Paso Strong.”

Driving along the border, we see a long line of young people crossing a bridge on foot. Shawn tells us that these are residents of Ciudad Juarez who work in El Paso every day and return to Mexico in the late afternoon. It is a one-way street; few El Pasoans are willing to work for meager Mexican wages, while endless lines of Mexicans eagerly accept the minimum wages ($7.25 per hour) of Texas. American corporations, like so many swirling vultures, have relocated factories to Mexico in order to feed on the bloated potential for profits that a desperate, impoverished workforce offers. These include, Coca Cola, Nestles, IBM, GM, GE, Xerox, Dupont and countless others. We learn on the news that several members of an American Mormon sect living in Mexico have been murdered. Indeed, Shawn tells us that some 1,200 people have been murdered in Juarez over the past year, while El Paso (Juarez and El Paso have been deemed “sister cities”) has among the lowest crime rates of any U.S. city over 500,000. Most of the murders, Shawn says, are committed by members of drug cartels who use American guns and bullets to terrorize their victims.

The concrete barrier that Trump promised to force Mexico to fund remains a bizarre fantasy, but a high fence comprised of tall metal poles delineates the hostile core of American intent along the Rio Grande. The border has the dark, abandoned feel of an urban junk yard and its surroundings. We note a few ancient brick structures in ornate, Western style — the haunting grandeur of fine architecture in crumbling disrepair. “That one used to be a great restaurant,” remarks Shawn. “It closed recently.” “Imagine,” I said, “the border might be nothing more than the view accompanying a plate of beans and mole.” Imelda says that this restaurant once opened up to a path behind it, upon which diners could walk right through the border fence and take an after dinner stroll in Mexico.

We are given a tour of Annunciation House along with a class of high school kids from Minnesota who are enrolled in a course exploring “social justice.” We are instructed to neither photograph residents or divulge the address of the facility. After the Walmart massacre, the staff of Annunciation have adopted a vigilant awareness that murderous episodes of planned rage may target them. Our hosts are two volunteers named Evan and Cindy. I ask Cindy if she would describe one Annunciation House resident who particularly represents the people that they serve. Cindy is a 73-year-old woman who has just begun to volunteer at Annunciation House. “I got tired of complaining,” she tells us, “and decided to do something to help.” She pauses and looks up at the ceiling before answering my question. “I just spoke with a man who walked for two weeks in the desert with a 2-year-old child. The first thing he did was get down on his knees and thank God for sparing his child’s life.” Cindy, herself a religious woman, said that one of the common threads connecting their residents is religious gratitude. “These are not angry people, but instead thankful that they have survived, thankful toward God.”

Evan, a volunteer who appears to be about 30 years old, tells us that it is a mistake to overly attribute the evils of American immigration policy to Trump. Immigration at the Mexican border is an issue with deep roots involving a sordid American history in Central America. He summarizes the structure of the relationship between Annunciation House and U.S. authorities, informing us that the residents fall into roughly three categories: those few people that have evaded capture and are without documentation; Mexican residents with dual U.S./Mexican citizenship who collect U.S. social security and are compelled by bureaucratic decree to spend two months of every year residing upon U.S. soil to maintain their benefits; and those who have applied for refugee status and are released by ICE into Annunciation House care while their cases await court hearings. This final group, Elliot tells us, comprises 95 percent of Annunciation House’s residents. Annunciation House has its own moral mandate, and this sometimes may be convenient to ICE, which may prefer to send migrants to that facility rather than on the streets. ICE does not make immigration policy, but carries out the nefarious policies of the Trump administration. Evan tells us that recently ICE had stopped releasing those applying as refugees to Annunciation House, and had moved (following Trump’s harsh policies regarding asylum seekers) instead to have all refugees sent to Ciudad Juarez where there are few sheltering programs, and the grim risks of one of the most murderous cities in Mexico. During this time, Annunciation House was nearly empty. Evan also tells us that ICE sometimes does unpredictable and seemingly malicious things such as recently releasing some 200 refugees at an El Paso bus depot in the middle of the night. This created a crisis that fell upon the shoulders of Annunciation House and other poorly funded programs in El Paso. Currently, ICE has resumed releasing refugees to Annunciation House, but in very small numbers.

Both Cindy and Evan stress that the people who Annunciation House cares for have not come to the U.S. to upgrade their wages. These people are fleeing from the imminent likelihood of violence and death. Elliot relates this fact with the solemn but matter-of-fact manner of someone who has absorbed a terrible narrative with sobering repetition. He mentions that the plague of drug cartels, death squads, gangs and extra legal organizations in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras reflect years of bipartisan U.S. support for military coups, dictators and a decades-long policy of promoting colonial wrath via puppet regimes that did the bidding of U.S. corporations. It takes little imagination to envision what sort of reasons that people might have to hike on foot with small children across hundreds of miles of searing desert. Anyone who contemplates this story without the phrase, “life and death,” may be beyond the pale of reason. Elliot does not belabor the obvious — he only talks about the dismal history of U.S. policy toward Central America in passing. He does not mention United Fruit or the genocide against people of Mayan descent in Guatemala. However, it is clear that those aiding asylum seekers at the border are, like Evan and Cindy, morally armed with a basic historical template needed to put the plight of refugees into a coherent context.

Evan and Cindy give us a quick tour of Annunciation House — there is a men’s barracks with some 20 bunk beds arranged in rows. There is a room with children’s artwork and a small room with a few toys and games. There are altars and religious artifacts on display, and, movingly, a work of art with several pairs of shoes representing those people who have died attempting to cross the Chihuahuan Desert on foot to apply for asylum in the U.S. The backyard is mostly sand with a few cacti and a couple of small desert trees. There is a basketball hoop by a brick wall and a deflated ball lying half-buried in the sand. Cindy tells us that the program does not receive a dime of government funding, but subsists on private donations like the checks that Shelly has just delivered from her Western Mass. physician’s journal club.

The day after we visit Annunciation House, we become mere tourists, freed from the existential burdens accompanying proximity to human malice and suffering. A dull residue of guilt remains — I am a passive bystander experiencing the ephemeral, intimate connection with the few who wrestle heroically against death and bigotry. We drive to Carlsbad Cavern in New Mexico. Imelda must stay home to care for her mother. We gape at the open spaces on either side of the road — virgin desert landscapes, enough space for 10 more El Pasos and all the urban sprawl and shopping malls of New England. Shawn notes that Trump prattles about the country being “full.” As we near the New Mexico border, we are stopped for an ICE roadblock. A uniformed man scans the car for a few seconds with bored eyes. Are you all citizens, he asks. You bet, I answer and he waves us through. White privilege. Shawn says it would be different if his dark-skinned wife were there.

Later, Imelda tells us that she remembers visiting cousins as a child in a small Texas town. She went to the movies with her cousins and had to sit in the balcony at the local movie theater. The closer seats were for whites only in Jim Crow Texas. Shelly’s parents were survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. They both lost their entire families in Nazi mass shootings and gassings. We are well aware that anti-Semitic members of the Roosevelt administration blocked Jewish immigration and sent the passengers of the infamous ship, “The St Louis,” back to Europe where many were slaughtered. According to WOLA (The Washington Office of Latin America) there are many documented cases of deported asylum seekers having been killed in Central America.

The country is not full, but we do have a terrible border — not a geographic one, but a moral and philosophical boundary that divides the U.S. in two, as surely as a wall or a raging river. There are rooms of people sleeping tonight in Annunciation House, waiting for two collections of former immigrants, or their descendants, to decide their fate.

Those wishing to support Annunciation House can do so at annunciationhouse.org.

Phil Wilson lives in Northampton.




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