BORDERS - Joyce Hollyday
Sometimes they find people wandering in the south Arizona desert—usually hungry, often lost, almost always dehydrated and desperate. Sometimes they find bodies—if they get there before the vultures and the coyotes. And sometimes they find bones, scattered and bleached by the sun.
Every week these church volunteers conduct compassionate searches near the Mexican border, giving aid to migrants who need it. They put out large drums of drinking water—which are shot full of holes with some frequency by members of right-wing militia groups and Border Patrol agents. The volunteers gather up cherished possessions left behind in the sand: family pictures, icons of saints, a rosary, a child’s backpack, a well-loved doll. They collect signs of dashed dreams—a woman’s high heels and makeup kit, a man’s wide brush for painting houses—and cloths used for wrapping tortillas, delicately embroidered with flowers and edged in bright crochet work, found strewn across this unforgiving land.
When I was with them last summer, we took a two-hour pilgrimage to the site where Miguel Vasquez Lara lost his life. Miguel, one of 3,000 migrants who are known to have perished in the Arizona desert in the last decade, was 26 when he died of dehydration in May 2011. As we walked, our guide cautioned us to watch out for scorpions, tarantulas, and rattlesnakes. I took note that we didn’t need to be warned about drug cartels, militia thugs, kidnappers, traffickers, or thieves—or Border Patrol agents with their watchtowers, floodlights, electronic sensors, thermal reconnaissance cameras, pistols, rifles, tasers, batons, horses, dogs, drones, and helicopters.
Migrants get captured by the thousands. In a federal court in Tucson, we witnessed 83 being sentenced to detention or deportation in an hour and a half, caught in the jaws of Operation Streamline. They were brought in shackles to the courthouse for a brief meeting with an attorney, then led into the dark and cavernous courtroom seven at a time, wearing the ragged and sweat-stained clothes they had lived in for days—or weeks, if they had come all the way from Honduras or Guatemala. The United States versus Rafael Gonzalez Ramirez. The United States versus María Mercedes Hernandez. On and on it went.
My eyes were riveted on a young Honduran woman, visibly pregnant—and terrified. A man in a torn white T-shirt and dirt-caked jeans addressed the judge in halting Spanish. Head bowed, shoulders slumped, he explained that he suffered from severe claustrophobia and couldn’t handle detention. “It could lead me to suicide,” he said. “I’m not in my right mind. I’m sorry I can’t control it. I ask for your forgiveness.” The judge responded: “Try to make it.”
It used to be easier to get here. I’m part of a group called Mujeres Unidas en Fe (Women United in Faith) that meets weekly in Madison County where I live. Most of my Spanish-speaking friends have been here for many years.
Soon after the presidential inauguration in January 2017, the current administration issued an executive order promising to accelerate deportations. Understandably, facing such terror, many immigrants chose to lay low and keep to the shadows. But Rosalinda announced to our group over lunch the following week, “I think the best way to keep from being sent back is to introduce ourselves to local law enforcement—let them see our children and get to know our families.” It felt audacious and brave—and very frightening.
Three months later, in April 2017, we hosted Lunch with the Law. I could see the fear etched on my Mexican sisters’ faces as our burly 6-foot-8 sheriff arrived with nine of his deputies, along with the Mars Hill chief of police and the head of security at the university. Three-year-old Enrique plunked his favorite toy on his head—a plastic helmet with a dark face shield, emblazoned with the word “POLICE” in capital letters. He toddled up to the sheriff, while his mother Carmen watched nervously. The sheriff bent low and reached out his hand, and the ice was broken.
The mujeres had prepared a fabulous feast of tamales and empanadas, rice and beans, tortillas and salad, flan and sweet dulce de leche caramel cake. As we ate, they found their voices. Rosalinda, in tears, spoke about her beloved nephew who was kidnapped and murdered by a gang in Mexico, voicing her terror about the possibility of being torn from her children and sent back to violence and poverty.
The law officials listened to the women and responded in ways that made them feel heard and safe. The word we got that day was that immigrants are welcome in our county and local law enforcement has no plans to cooperate in deporting them. The sheriff quoted Bible verses about loving neighbors and taking in strangers. He also pointed out that federal money isn’t exactly pouring into Madison County, and the U.S. government has little leverage to tell him what to do. The chief of police swept his eyes around the room and declared wryly, “I can guarantee to you ladies that I have arrested and put in jail more members of my wife’s family than Hispanics.”
They kept their promises. When agents from ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) carried out raids in counties all around us last winter, Madison County was untouched. At our Second Annual Lunch with the Law—exactly a year ago—spirits were warm and welcoming from the start. The mujeres talked about the hardships they and their families face because non-U.S. citizens can’t get drivers’ licenses. The law enforcement officials expressed their support for changing the law.
Then Berta, not quite five feet tall, stood up, held up her phone and pointed it toward the chief of police—who was sitting across the room with Enrique in his lap. “If you catch me driving without a license,” Berta said, I’m going to show you this.” It was a picture she had just taken of the chief happily enjoying his lunch. “You can’t give me a ticket,” Berta declared, “you ate my gorditas!” The chief laughed heartily, and the rest of us joined in.
We lost Berta last fall, from complications related to diabetes. But that precious moment lives on in our collective memory. We will certainly remember it this Thursday when we gather for our Third Annual Lunch with the Law.
Borders can be crossed. Borders can be dissolved. And bridges are a far better investment than walls. For all of us.
Joyce Hollyday is a pastor and author who is on the verge of moving to Vermont, where she hopes to help nurture a faith community with friends and finish writing a novel.