Borderlands Tour reflections | June 23

Text: 1 Kings 19:1-12

Speakers: Joel Call and Elisa Leahy

Photo: Elisa Leahy


What is a border?

This question was posed to us our first night upon arriving in Tucson, Arizona as we began mentally preparing ourselves to investigate this particular, hot-topic region: the border. About a month ago, Mennonite Central Committee hosted a Borderlands learning tour in the southern Arizona border region with the goal of gaining a better understanding of the many complexities both human and political that reside there. Both Elisa Leahy and I, along with a handful of others, were fortunate enough to attend.

What is a border?
A demarcation; an arbitrary boundary or line used to separate? Perhaps something along those lines?

This is a story I’ve heard. Antonio is a field worker in a small town in Michoacan. A local cartel asks him to work for them, and he declines. One night, the cartel drives by and shoots his family’s house. Their house is built simply out of wood, and Antonio’s wife, Manuela, recounts how easily the bullets pierced their home. So they leave town, take a bus to the border town Agua Prieta, and upon being dropped off they order a taxi to the port of entry to the United States in hopes of declaring Asylum. As the taxi takes off, they notice they’re driving the opposite direction of the border, the taxi driver taking them straight to the local cartel in Agua Prieta. The cartel instructs them to take a bus back home. The cartel wants to control the border; who crosses, and how. Perhaps if Antonio and Manuela become desperate enough they’ll eventually work for the cartel, or even pay the cartel to allow them to cross–maybe as a distraction from crossing elsewhere, maybe to carry narcotics over.

The cartel insists on watching Antonio buy the bus tickets and board the bus out of town. Antonio and Manuela and their child are forced to face either the threat of violence back home or the threat of violence abroad, in transit. They are stuck between threat and threat. Instead of heading home, once off the bus, they order an Uber, this time, as opposed to being dropped off at a bus stop, they instruct their driver to take them directly to the port of entry. This time, they’re luckily able to get on the wait list for families attempting to enter the US on the grounds of declaring Asylum. They’re given a number. The number is 356.
What is a border? A border is fearing for your life with number 356.

This is a story I’ve heard. On August 24, 2010, the bodies of seventy-two Central and South American migrants were found, piled up in a mass grave, at a ranch in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. Some had been tortured, and all had been shot in the back of the heads. Three migrants in the group had faked their deaths and, though, wounded, survived. They lived to tell the complete story: members of the drug cartel Los Zetas had perpetrated the mass murder after the migrants refused to work for them and did not have the means to pay a ransom.

This is a story I’ve heard. In 2011, the National Human Rights Commission in Mexico reported the number of abduction victims within a period of just six months had reached 11,333. Though it’s impossible to establish an actual number, some sources estimate that, since 2006, around 120,000 migrants have disappeared in their transit through Mexico. To make matters worse, it’s estimated that 80% of girls who cross Mexico to get to the US border are raped on the way, the situation so common that most women take contraceptive precautions as they begin the journey north.

This is a story I’ve heard. Barrio 18 and MS-13 were two rival Los Angeles gangs in the 1980’s. The original Barrio 18 members were second-generation Hispanics who grew up in LA gang culture. MS-13 was originally a small coalition of immigrants from El Salvador who had sought exile in the US during the long and ruthless Salvadoran Civil War, during which the military-led government relentlessly massacred left-wing opposition groups. The primary ally of the Salvadoran government was the United States. The Carter administration, and perhaps more actively, the Reagan administration funded and provided military resources to the government that massacred so many and left many others to exile. Around one-fifth of the population of El Salvador fled. Many of those who sought exile ended up as political refugees in the United States–around three hundred thousand of them in Los Angeles.

In the 1990’s, anti-immigration policies and programs in the US led to massive deportations of Central Americans. Among them were thousands of MS-13 members. Now the gang has become a kind of trans-national army, with more than 70,000 members spread across the United States, Mexico, and the Northern Triangle. 
This is a story of foreign intervention and rival gangs. The story of absurd, circular nightmares. This is a very old story.

This is a story I’ve heard. Manu is a child caught between two rival gangs: Barrio 18 and MS-13. One trying to recruit him. The other going after him because the other was trying to recruit him. One day some boys from Barrio 18 waited for him and his best friend outside their school. When Manu and his friend saw them there, they walked away, but they were followed. They tried running. They ran for a block or two, until there was a gunshot. Manu turned around–still running–and saw that his friend had fallen. More gunshots followed, but he kept running until he found an open store and hid inside. That night, after the confrontation with the gang, his aunt in New York decided it was time for him to leave the country as soon as possible. She made him promise he wouldn’t leave his house during the weeks that followed. He didn’t attend his friend’s funeral.

Not everyone’s story at the border is touched by the cartel or by gangs. But there’s no mistaking the overwhelming presence of an always-present threat; if it’s not seen, it’s felt. During my time at the border, my impressions began to shift: those I’d been calling migrants I began to regard as refugees, fleeing a home so torn apart by violence there’s little choice but to take the risk of leaving what little home has left.

This is a story I’ve heard. A man named Elijah, like Manu, like Antonio and Manuela, fears for his life and runs to the desert. He asks God to let him die, and lays down under a bush to do just that. Then an angel came to Elijah and provided a pitcher of water, and bread. In the middle of the desert, the wilderness, a miracle. Elijah finds a moment of peace, a moment of sanctuary, in the middle of his displacement. In the midst of displacement, a profound sense of place.

This is also a story I’ve heard. The story of hundreds and hundreds of migrants finding shelter in a monastery converted into a makeshift hotel. This is the story of Casa Alitas, a migrant shelter in Tucson where children are running and laughing, and brothers and sisters are watching a screen which will soon tell them when they’ll leave for a new home, and mothers are crying out of joy, out of pain, out of the place only mothers know.
In the midst of displacement, a profound sense of place.
This is a story in which no one knows how the day’s work will get done, but somehow, the people, the hands to do the work show up to help. The hands show up like a cold pitcher of water and fresh bread in the middle of the desert.

How do we write a new story? One where children can attend their best friend’s funeral. One where families aren’t followed by cartels to bus stops, and one where crossing a treacherous desert isn’t more appealing than staying home.
How do we write a new story? One where families aren’t stuck between two violent threats with number 356. One without endless circular nightmares, and instead, one in which the hands needed for the day show up?

Latin American novelist Valeria Luiselli notes how “When [migration crises] are discussed, the general consensus, the underlying assumption, seems to be that the origins belong to the ‘sending’ countries and their many local problems. No one suggests that the causes are deeply embedded in our shared hemispheric history and are therefore not some distant problem in a foreign country that no one can locate on a map, but in fact a transnational problem that includes the United States–not as a distant observer or passive victim that must now deal with thousands of unwanted migrants arriving at the southern border, but rather as an active historical participant in the circumstances that generated that problem.

The drug circuit and its many wars aren’t merely contained to the streets of San Salvador, but in Los Angeles as well. To quote Luiselli, “It’s urgent that we begin talking about the drug war as a hemispheric war, one that begins in the Great Lakes region of the United States and ends in the mountains of southern Honduras.” How do we write a new story? At the very least, for starters, it would be a step forward for our governments to refer to the situation as a hemispheric war because it would oblige us to rethink the very language surrounding the problem and, in doing so, imagine potential directions for combined policies.

Another potential answer that keeps rattling around in my mind: While considering the European migrant crisis and the unique place occupied by the figure of the political refugee, political theorist Giorgio Agamben says something big. To quote: “the refugee is perhaps the only category in which one may see today the forms of a coming political community.” Perhaps the figure of the refugee and the migrant is more than just a problem or a symptom of a problem–what if they are an answer? What if instead of simply treating refugees as problems to solve, communities oriented themselves around these people and took them as guiding principles? What if instead of merely bearing problems, refugees actually held the solutions to the problems we face. Large concepts such as “coming political communities” might seem beyond the scope of today but then I look around.

How do we write a new story? How do we build a sanctuary? Maybe answering this second question is the same as answering the first. Maybe it’s about creating spaces where migrants can write their own stories. Maybe writing a new story is about looking for the migrants right in our own back yard, in our own community, and asking, How do we build a sanctuary? Amidst displacement, how can we provide a place?

What is a border?
A border is a cry for a home
A border is a cry for peace.
A border is a call to be sanctuary.

— Joel Call



We gather here today in a sanctuary. Not simply this room, but this building itself stands as a sanctuary, a refuge specifically for our sister, Edith, who sought a safe place. We have chosen to define ourselves as a sanctuary church and we are still probing the depths of what that means. But today I ask you to leave the shelter of this safe place and look back with me. Because before the refuge, before the safe place, before the sheltered cave and the food and drink served to Elijah by the angel, before the gentle whisper… comes the hard journey through the desert sands. And the journey to sanctuary always begins with a threat.

Elijah’s death sentence comes by messenger. It even bears a specific deadline. By this time tomorrow, the powerful of the land will strike down Elijah with deadly violence. It’s the kind of threat that sounds all too familiar to many families on the border. After all, their death sentences are similar. Imagine it for a moment. A demand at the shipping port where you work to let the drugs slip by or we will come for your family. A note slid under the door of your family’s store with the command to pay an exorbitant amount by next week or your shop will burn. A message passed on to your son in his Kindergarten class that because you accidentally witnessed a gang murder, you are next. These threats are real. These stories have names and faces. The shipping port worker’s name is Hans. Hans refused to assist the cartels in smuggling drugs through the Callao shipping port where he worked in Peru and they made good on their promise. They did come for him and his family. His face and leg are twisted with the scars of bullets and he can barely tell the story of how they killed his brother, how they kidnapped and abused his mother. How the threat of “more to come” haunted his life and of the terror he felt when he thought of his teenage daughter with a target on her back. The shopkeeper’s daughter is named Gladys. Gladys told me of her mother and how she closed down her shop in Guatemala, her only source of income, because she couldn’t meet the demands of the drug lords. She started selling tamales from a cart instead. Then they took her cart, and she was left with nothing.  The accidental witness to the gang murder is a young father named Wilmer. When they began using his Kindergartener as the messenger to bring him death threats, he was terrified for his family’s life. What would you do? When the powerful point their weapons at your head and issue your death sentence, what are your options? You flee for your life. Hans, Gladys and her daughters, Wilmer and his family and Elijah—all of them headed to the wilderness, fleeing the promise of violence and death.

But the wilderness brings its own brand of violence and death. Elijah, lost, thirsty and very, very alone collapsed under a dusty desert shrub, and prayed for death. Hans, chased by his persecutors out of South America, found a job in Mexico at a ranch on the border. One night, his boss called, telling him a truck was arriving. He was to help unload the drugs and hide them in the floorboards. Instead he fled, scrambling away from the cartel’s foot soldiers in the dead of night to the border wall. He clambered over into the wastelands of the American desert and into the arms of Border Patrol. Gladys, her husband and their teen daughters, claimed asylum with American agents at the border. They were separated, her husband sent one way, her daughters another. For days they were held in detention centers known as hieleras, iceboxes, without proper food or access to facilities. Gladys was kept in a room with other women, packed so closely together they could not sit down. At one point the agents were unable to close the door because of the amount of bodies inside. Her daughters began to cry as they told me of the girls in their detention center. “They are still there,” Elda said, her eyes brimming with tears. “When we left, they asked us to pray for them. There are so many girls still there.” Wilmer fled north, hoping that by leaving El Salvador his family would no longer be a target. But Mexico has it’s own cartels and he ended up captured and held with other desperate migrants in dog cages by violent men demanding ransom. Hans, Gladys, Wilmer, Elijah. In the desert, lost and hungry, alone and despairing.

And in that moment, when the despair was so great that death seemed a welcome relief, Elijah felt a gentle touch. In the stark wilderness, came an offer of refuge on a journey that was too much for him. Hans, the Peruvian worker who fled rather than smuggle drugs for the cartel, was imprisoned for 2 years as his asylum case plodded slowly through the system. He could have been released on bond, but knew no one in this country and had no way of raising the money. Then Casa Mariposa (Butterfly House) touched his life and offered him refuge. They put up the money for bond, gave him a place to stay, found him work and bought him a bicycle. He is still on his journey, waiting on his asylum case, and he still bears his scars. But he has been given the strength to continue. Gladys and her family were finally reunited and released from detention, herded onto a white van and driven away. They stepped out, not knowing where they were or what they would do next, still wearing the same clothes in which they fled their home, weak and terrified. But as the Department of Homeland Security van drove away, they were welcomed by smiling volunteers into the cool chapel of an old Benedictine monastery. Casa Alitas is a refuge for families leaving detention, and for Gladys’ family, it was a place of hope. They were offered medical care, light food (easy on stomachs that hadn’t eaten real food in days), new clothes, a place to communicate with loved ones who still didn’t know if they were alive or dead, and access to transportation so they could join family in another state. Gladys, sitting across the table from me with her daughters close to her, said, “I have hope. I had hope the moment I took my first step into this place.” Wilmer, in a made-for-TV moment, joined forces with another migrant, stole a broken machete and broke the locks on his dog cage while his captor was in a drunken stupor. His journey has been long and difficult and I will skip now to the chapter of the story that brought him here, to Ohio. You may have heard how his wife and children finally found him here. How he was sold a faulty vehicle. How his son, that same little boy who carried home the cartel’s death threats, was pinned against the wall when the brakes malfunctioned. You may have heard how, as his wife and son were whisked off in the ambulance, Wilmer was taken by the police for driving without a license. Without documents to prove he had paid for the car, Wilmer was charged with car theft, then handed over to ICE while his son’s leg was being amputated. In the midst of this unimaginable darkness, Wilmer and Fatima found refuge. Members of a church in Northern Ohio stepped in to help, reuniting Fatima with her younger boys, raising donations for a lawyer, posting the immigration bond so that Wilmer could be released. They contacted this congregation and the Sanctuary Collective and people came together to labor for this family’s safe place. Wilmer and Fatima now have a house, schooling and medical care for their children. Most importantly, they have work permits that provide documentation while their asylum cases process. Sometimes the safe space is not offered by one organization but by many hands and hearts who cannot stand by while others despair in the wilderness.

I have a confession. I do not want to be a gentle whisper. I confess that all too often I want a God that comes in a storm. On weeks like this one when I hear of new immigration raids and concentration camps and lawyers who argue that children do not need soap or blankets, I want to be that great and powerful wind that rips unjust systems to the ground. As un-mennonite as it sounds, I long to be the destructive earthquake and the avenging fire and anything but a still, small voice. And yet, here I am. Here we are. One church, one offer of sanctuary. One action that feels too small in a tornado of injustice. What can a whisper do? And yet, listen to these whispers. We are a sanctuary church, but not because we are a building with doors to keep ICE out, although those doors are of immense importance. We are a sanctuary church because of everyone here who has found their whisper.  Because of Rosemary and Abbie and Susan who visited Wilmer and Fatima and babysat during hospital stays, and Chris and Tim and Pat working tirelessly to get their little boy to his appointments, and Laura for arranging schooling and transportation and Jim and Cindy who opened their home to them when they had nowhere to live and Sarah who shared wheelchair tips, and Gracie, Mateo and Rosali who helped me watch the baby two days ago while the rest of the family was at the hospital and every single person who I don’t have time to list who donates money and writes letters to Congress and shows up to Edith meetings and cares and chooses to fight back against the wilderness with their gentle whispers. Maybe that great and powerful wind we are looking for is made up of a tide of gentle whispers just like these.

— Elisa Leahy