Show Me Your Papers ~ Arizona’s SB1070 Law

July 29, 2010, perhaps is a good day to remember for the history books. Not in the sense that something “great” happened on this day, but rather it’s a day in which a law goes into effect that will essentially put in jeopardy the safety, welfare, dignity of the immigrant community in Arizona – for that matter here in the Valley – and to go further the entire United States.

As Steve Taylor of the Rio Grande Guardian captures, “Under SB 1070, if an undocumented immigrant is identified by law enforcement in Arizona, he or she can be prosecuted and deported. The bill makes failure to carry immigration documents a misdemeanor. It also gives the police broad powers to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.” It was interesting to watch CNN last evening capturing some of the “training sessions” of the Arizona Sherriff Department. I would love to get my hands on the tape, the training manual or better yet sit in on these “sessions” to see what “criteria” will be in use to ascertain who needs to be “enforced.”

Such a law is obviously problematic and will lead to scenarios of racial profiling, inhumane detention and persecution. The fear that this law has created within the community is astronomical. Families are separating, persons have gone into hiding, others  have returned home and I know that there are others who are those still here – praying that they will be “spared ~ passed over.”

Although Judge Susan Bolton put “most of the measure/law on hold and agreed with the Obama administration’s core argument that immigration enforcement is the role of the federal government (Associated Press)” – the sheer fact that Arizona could reason even as I write why they are allowed to “clear the state of undocumented persons” is frightening. For the Governor of Arizona or even the Sheriff, Bolton’s “hold” as the Governor put it is “just a bump in the road.” An indication that in their minds that this will come to pass. They are prepared to “make room in a vast outdoor jail and are determined to round up illegal immigrants to fill it.”

This law as my friends from La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) put it is one that is “bad, immoral” and perpetuates the stigma that those entering the US without papers aren’t honest, aren’t tax payers, aren’t hard-working. If anything they are prptrayed as criminals, milking the systerm, taking advantage of the “American systerm.” But, there is always two (2) sides to every story. We perhaps don’t consider that some come to seek asylum, safety from religious, political or economic persecuction. Or that without their labor, sweat the “essential work” of this nation would not happen. Think about the grapes on your table or the person who washes the dishes at your favorite restaurant. Or consider who is building and cleaning the nation or taking care of the nation’s children and elderly. It’s as if we are talking out of our faces.

This law if it realizes what it seeks to do will be a law that will undermine not only the authority and soverignty of the federal government, but will further  notions of privilege, separation, us vs them, legal vs illegal, papers vs no papers and the list goes on and on. This is troubling to say the least , I stand and write in solidarity with the men, women, boys, girls, families whose lives have now been placed in jeopardy by this law. I guess I would be a little at ease if I knew there was a “record” of treating persons no matter their ethnicity, language, background, occupation with pride, respect, dignity and honor. But, unfortunately the record of such is few and far between.

On this day I charge people of faith, who have been called to “loosen the chains of injustice” and to “not let surface things delude us” – to be united in prayer asking that we and our country “be freed from the things that hold us back” and treat all persons with papers or without with dignity, integrity and graciousness.

I think about the “Passover Lamb story” of Exodus 12 where the Israelites are told to get a lamb, slaughter it and take some of the blood and put it on the sides and top of door frames of the houses. The Lord tells them that when he passes through Egypt in order to bring about judgment on the gods of Egypt that the blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when the Lord sees the blood he will pass over you.”

My prayer for immigrants of this nation – with and without papers – that the blood, sweat and tears that they have woven into the tapestry of this country will cover them in these days ahead. That they will be covered, protected and most importantly shielded from hurt, harm and danger. That the Lord of the Passover will deal appropriately with the “gods of the United States” who use fear, intimidation, violence as a means of establishing who is deserving and who is not. May the Lord of the  Passover be with these families as they drive to work or school, sleep in their homes or go to the grocery store as border patrol agents, sheriff deputies, police personnel seek to “protect our borders” and “keep the criminals” away. May the Lord of the Passover make clear to our world that in fact all of us are part of the Lord’s creation and we do not have the power to inflict harm, danger on others. May the power of the Passover Lamb of Exodus be at work in Arizona, Texas, California, Florida ………… in the United States of America. May the power of the passover lamb be the “only paper” they need and provide them hope, faith and assurance that God is with them even in the face of “many gods.”

Snakes in the Grass

Tamara and I attended the Pharr Literacy Project Festival on Saturday, July 17, 2010. We were happy to meet another seminarian, Yvette Murrain. Yvette is a 3rd year MDIV Student at Drew Theological Seminary in Madison, NJ. Yvette will be working here in the Valley for 10 weeks as a part of the Communities of Shalom program. It is funny how we came so “far” to meet each other! This is one of the reasons why I am certain that the Valley is a special place.

We are happy that Yvette offered to share one of her blog postings with us. Enjoy!

The Pharr Literacy Project has just recently collaborated with a local group called “Los Caminos Del Rio” by inviting this organization’s Ameri-Corps Vistas to work at the center. According to loscaminos.org, “Los Caminos Del Rio offers kayak trips virtually every weekend at Anzalduas Park. Participants will explore sections of the Rio Grande, and can experience a safe and exciting introduction to kayaking along the Rio Grande River savoring historical and environmental details with the assisance of friendly and trained adventure guides.”

My day with Los Caminos Del Rio personally introduced me to the “historical details” of immigrant women crossing into the United States.

On Saturday, June 26, 2010, I journeyed with my coworkers Chuy and Reyna (*who speaks little English*) to the Anzalduas Park which extends to the Rio Grande River. As we came closer to the river, near the edge of the park the family friendly atmosphere abruptly ended. The armed border patrol station, barbed wire, and yellow (government access) gates signified that everyone is not welcome. Especially not illegal immigrants crossing the Rio Grande River into the United States.

While we waited for our turn to kayak down the Rio Grande, Chuy, Reyna and I decided to find our own adventure and walk along the grassy river bank in hopes of getting close to the dam. Reyna and I were afraid of the snakes that Frank our guide warned of. We tip toes along the rocks in the high grass holding hands. Soon we would grasp hands in recognition of a more sinister fear, something that rocked us to our cores. Just a few steps in front of us I noticed a pile of black “stuff.” “Snaaaake Skinnnnnn!” I screamed. Reyna and I jumped back squealing like little girls. Chuy the grave man stepped forward and picked up the “snake skin.” Reyna yelled at him not to as he flung the skin towards us.

All at once we realized this “snake skin” was not what it appeared. The “snake skin” was actually a torn pair of black women’s panties. Reyna and I weren’t scared anymore, WE were safe. No snake skin to signify the impending approach of danger. No snake skin. Chuy held the underwear up and said “Ooooh someone couldn’t wait to get things going” with a laugh.

It was as if some light bulb went off in Reyna’s face because it lit up and then darkened. The same light bulb went off in my head too. We looked at one another and said “No Rape.” And then I remembered where I really was. The Rio Grande River isn’t just some adventure zone. It’s a place where the sweat and tears of an oppressed people rage between two worlds.

I was on the banks of the Rio Grande River where thousands of poor immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries a month cross in the United States. Many of these travelers are poor defenseless women depending on coyotes to make their way across the river into the United States. Those torn black underwear belonged to a woman, someone’s daughter, mother, sister, cousin  - a child of God. I didn’t know if her left behind undergarments signified that she had been abused. I didn’t know if she was an immigrant coming to the United States to find work to feed her children. I don’t know if she was a young pretty girl manipulated by the Mexican Drug Cartel to carry drugs inside her body across the border. I didn’t know anything about her except for what she left behind.

I thought of all this as Reyna whispered the word “rape” in an erie echo. She knew just as  I did what those underwear meant. We had a “sister moment” that defied out language barriers. My grasp on her hand got a little tighter as we walked further up the bank. Chuy didn’t make nay more comments as he walked ahead of us. A group of adventurers joined us in our “nature walk” and we all jumped in the river and free floated with the current until we reached the shore again. A few people remarked that they felt they were “doing what their ancestors did years ago.” They laughed as they said these things. It wasn’t funny to me in light of finding Blank Panties.

After stumbling upon the Blank Panties, the Rio Grande River didn’t look the same. The sand on the bank near the dam looked scattered as if a struggle had just taken place. The water looked cloudy, murky, and dangerous. I got in it anyway. I kayaked. All for adventure, right? No, I was in sacred water and will thus act accordingly from now on.

Watching news coverage of the new immigration law in Arizona hit home.

I’ve been on the border. I’ve seen and felt some things. It’s real here. There are snakes in the grass in the Arizona state senate.

“Jesus be a lawnmower, in the Rio Grande Valley Everyday”

to be sung to the tune of the Fred Hammond’s “Jesus Be a Fence All Around Me Everday”

Rio Grande River

Rio Grande River

“La Ley” – The Law

Paulina's Briefcase - Mexican Labor Law Book on the left; AVON catalog on the right

Last week I had the opportunity to preach at the First Presbyterian Church of Edinburgh, Texas. The Gospel selection was a familiar one “The Good Samaritan” – Luke 10. This passage seemed so appropriate given the work Tamara and I were blessed to witness with the maquiladora workers in Reynosa and Rio Bravo, Mexico. The focus of our gathering was not only to say “hello”,  catch up with what is going on in the world, or even to explain why we are here from NYC, but to join in their “lucha” (struggle) for fair, safe and healthy working conditions.

Helping women become their own “lawyers” and understanding the power of negotiation is a conversation that I can not recall every being a part of before.  I am accustomed to Bible Study groups where I come as a leader or as a participant with my Bible, notebook and highlighter – ready to learn, discuss and share. The gatherings that we have witnessed with the women in Reynoso and Rio Bravo were carried out in the same spirit of inspiration, and motivation but the central text of these discussions was not the Bible or the daily newspaper but rather “La Ley Federal Trabajo del Mexico” – Mexican Labor Law.

On the way back last Saturday Ed asked Tamara and I if we have ever encountered the United States Labor “Law Book.” Our response was “No” – in fact it never crossed our minds to go buy one, search for it online or even borrow it from the library. The difference in how one works for justice, respect and equity became quite apparent. For these women having a clear, succinct knowledge of the “law” is a bedrock and necessity for their struggle. This has been one of the concrete “things” that Ed’s work has given them. Ed has inspired and enabled these special women to pick up a “law book” and be empowered by it NOT intimidated by it.  This “law book” for these women has become in some ways their “Bible” providing a sense of direction, hope and new expectations for how their working lives, careers should be crafted and sustained with dignity. This “book” sets the rules and makes it clear that although their jobs are at the bottom of the totem pole they still have rights – they too are people.

I was particularly struck by Paulina, one of the promotoras. She carries a pink and black AVON briefcase. In the front pockets of her “briefcase” is the Mexican Labor Law book on the left and her AVON sales catalog to the right. If what we carry is an indication was is true and dear to us, I am happy to make the assertion that for Paulina Mexican Labor Law (worker’s rights) and AVON (women’s empowerment and beauty) are central to her being and provide her the drive and income to stay in the “lucha.” What sorts of books do you carry in your “bag” or sit on your nightstand, desk or bookshelf? What words, laws, phrases give you hope, provide promise or have helped to ground your being – your sense of personhood?

For these women the Mexican Labor Law book is the book that clearly dictates what they deserve as workers. They will not give up until the “law” manifests itself in their workplace.  The “law” as these women see it is their lasting hope for equal, fair and just treatment. The challenge that these workers left me with is how do I understand the “law?”  How have I used the “law” to help in my struggle for justice and equity? How can “knowing” the law help in bringing down an deeply entrenched and often unjust system? How can I/we as I/we do justice work be a part of the process that creates laws that empower and uphold dignity? How do I speak against “laws” such as the Arizona “SB1070: show me  your papers law” that seeks to polarize and essentially shame those with proof and those without? How does one rise up “against” laws that do more harm than good? How do we organize, negotiate, sit at the table with lawmakers, CEOs and managers as these women do and bring to their attention their “breaking” of the law? How can/does the “law” hurt or bless the enterprise of believing that we are all a part of God’s creation, which means that we all deserve a chance to live, survive and prosper?

In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus arrives at this story by way of a question being asked by a lawyer. The lawyer wants to know “how do I inherit eternal life?” Jesus doesn’t answer the question, but rather does a Jesus “typical” thing – he answers the question with another question – “What does it say in the law?” The lawyer I can imagine just blurts out verbatim what the “law” says – “you should love the love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, body and strength and love  your neighbor as yourself.” After answering the question, Jesus responds “do this and you will live.” This question prompts the lawyer to ask “well who is my neighbor?” And there Jesus responds to the question using an illustration of the Good Samaritan who cared for an injured man while the priest and the Levite “stepped over him.”

The “law” was very clear as to how one can inherit eternal life – how one can live free – how one can live in a world of justice, community, hope and love. But, the implementation or execution appeared to be a bit problematic, challenging. It challenged this lawyer to not only think about his vertical relationships, but his horizontal ones as well. The “law” if fulfilled correctly was not only concerned about keeping things in balance with God, but also with one’s neighbors, community. The “law” that Jesus has called us to follow, plant and blossom in our hearts is one that does not cut or put off, but rather expands and embraces all those whom we come along with.

Jesus sets the record straight about the “law” and what it really means and what it has the capacity to be and do if we make an earnest attempt to learn it and use  it in our lives. The maquiladora workers in Mexico, through the help and gentleness of Ed, have come to know the “law” for themselves.  In their coming to know “the law,” these women have given life to their families and communities; they have ensured that their bodies are not exploited and are given the proper rest and nourishment; they have shown that the “law” is just not applicable to some but applies to everybody. I am convinced that these women will inherit eternal life not only because of their spiritual discipline, confidence, values but because they see the hope in how the “law” when used for good is a pathway to life and love.

Paulina and her briefcase

Mexican Labor Law Books

“It’s not about winning, it’s about being faithful…”

So I am here in South Texas ~ in the Valley of Texas ~ in the borderlands between the United States and Mexico. Many have asked why are you going? What will you be doing? How will this impact your work as a seminarian? These are all valid questions and I honestly don’t think I will ever have a “full” answer to them. HOWEVER, this trip to the border is important to witness and be of service to the people, organizations and communities that seek to bear witness that “no matter who and what you are” you deserve the opportunity to live, survive, dream – be acknowledged and recognized.

Texas is an interesting place. My brother even before I left New Jersey said, “Everything is big in Texas.” He is right, but Texas is also a place where particular groups have been written off and denoted as “invisible.” This is a problem for me! How can I as a Christian, a preacher, a seminarian sit back and just “watch, hear, witness” the profane treatment of what I consider G-d’s creation? We are all G-d’s creation right? With papers or without papers? Spanish or English speakers? Passport or no passport? Male or female? Young or old? Rich or poor? Aren’t we all a part of the kin-dom of G-d?

Over the past few days, my colleague, Tamara and I have been getting acclimated to our new home, work station for the next 6 weeks. Of course, we have to adjust our temperatures, but also realize how close to home separation, invisibility, supremacy mark the world that we are a part of.

It’s been uplifting over these first few days to reconnect with Rev. Ed Krueger and his wife, Ninfa, long time activists and justice workers who have put their lives on the line in order to serve women factory workers (maquiladoras) in Mexico and women here in the Valley who desire to be recognized by the US government as “citizens.”

There is a lot of hope being spread through the work of Proyecto Azteca and their Executive Director, Ann Cass, who is out in the field, in the Valley, helping families build homes with access to running water, a bathroom, electricity in the colonias. Things are happening here in the Valley perhaps not at the speed of a New York minute. But, something is happening to break open the reality of injustice and discrimination that has plagued the Valley for so long.

The first of many lessons that I have learned is that there is something about sticking with it, keeping the course, demonstrating fortitude even when conditions, government, friends and family say otherwise. “It’s not about winning, it’s about being faithful” are kernels of wisdom that Ann Cass shared with Tamara and me on Friday. These words have been haunting me over the past few days … they even came up indirectly during Mass yesterday at Holy Spirit Roman Catholic Church in McAllen. How can I not be so concerned about crossing the finishing line but rather more concerned about the progress made along the journey? How can I accept the fact that standing up for those considered “less than” may mean no glory or honor but perhaps shame and shun? How can I endure the journey knowing that I maybe alone in this work to speak truth to power? How can I be satisfied in working through my call to be a justice worker? How do I remain faithful to what is right even when it hurts?

We have been called to be faithful … to be faithful to our resources that G-d has given us … to be faithful to the call of Jesus to do unto others as you would do for Jesus … to be faithful to the commandment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves … to be faithful to our founding document as a nation that declares that all men (women) are created equal .

We have been called to be faithful to the call, standard and expectation set for us by Jesus even in desperate and dire conditions and situations. The next few weeks that are before me provide me … Carolyn … an opportunity to demonstrate my faithfulness to the call of justice, mercy, understanding but also join with others who have made FAITHFULNESS their order of the day.