Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday - A Lengthy Journey

There are 70 of them.  Some have been here before; for others, it is the first time, but that fact doesn’t matter much here.  Not really anyway.  The noise from the shackles is loud, clinking and clanging with every movement.  The air is warm from all the bodies, even though the ceiling is 3 stories tall.  There are six black microphones and six grey suits standing near the front of the room.  For the moment they are quiet.  The only noise is the sound of shackles and fear.  A black robe enters the room and we all rise…
Lent is upon us.  In fact, today is Ash Wednesday:  a day where we are reminded of the shortness of human life and God’s condemnation of sin.   But it is also a day to be reminded about the promise of God’s renewal.  The literal lack of baptismal water is replaced by ash and dust which marks us as God’s children; children who receive forgiveness and grace for their sins. 

Perhaps it is simply because it I just returned from a retreat on immigration at the Arizona border, but the journey of Lent seems to contain striking similarities to the journey of a migrant.  They are wandering in the sand, facing death, finding indignity when they are captured, and then punishment.  During this process, they admit their sinful natures to us in the courtroom, “Culpable”, and we accept it and punish them.  We lack in God’s forgiveness.  

“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Today is Ash Wednesday, and as part of my commitment to the stories I heard in Arizona and as part of my own Lenten journey, I will be writing one story centering on immigration for each week of Lent.  The stories I heard touched my heart and have led me to believe that the inhumane policies we have been enforcing at our border are sinful.  

A section of the wall near Douglas, AZ

Worse than lacking in God’s forgiveness, we do not acknowledge our own sins against migrants.  We do not care why the migrant is guilty, or why they faced death to come to our doorstep.  We build walls to force them into walking through the desert, we shame them by shackling them together and parading them through a courtroom, and we hate them for seeking our money for their families.   We continue to implement programs that cost millions and are not effective.

"We confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves."

This is confession is often done publicly during church to remind us of our failings.  But following it, the most miraculous thing happens...  We are forgiven.  God forgives and renews, opening the way for us to change.  We are given the opportunity to make things right, to work together to lean towards love.  God doesn’t ask us to confess so he can punish us, but to give us the chance to try again.  Perhaps we too as Americans can be given a second chance to act with love toward our neighbors.

I don’t ask you to agree with me.  I just ask that you listen to the stories and be open to hearing the cry of another human being.  And so, I’ll begin this week, with the dustiness found in the desert…


There is very little in the desert that is hospitable.  The plants are armed with a variety of needles and barbs.  Even when they are small, they can make you regret ever having entered the desert.  The big ones can poke out your eyes and leave you with injuries that need to be treated in a hospital.  The animals either have fangs, talons, or stingers --sometimes a combination of them-- and many of them are poisonous.  Even the very desert air is trying to kill you.  With every breath, water is leeched out of your body into the air.  During the day, the animals hide, because the sun scorches the land.  The sand will wear out your shoes and blister your feet.  Dead bodies do not rot in the desert sun, they mummify.  Nighttime, though, brings with it a bitter cold; hats and mittens are required.  Navigating through the plants in the dark is impossible as they are scattered around like an unplanned maze.  The hills are steep and rocky, causing you to stumble and breathe deeper, leading to more water being sucked from your breath.  The more water you lose, the more disoriented you become.    The desert is trying to kill you.

For many migrants, walking the desert is part of their journey.  They arrive drinking a coke and wait with a group of strangers --sometimes 10 to 20 people-- at the meeting place set up by their coyote.  Each of their stories is different.  Some are looking to earn extra money for the baby that is on its way, others need money to pay for medicine, and some just want to build a new house with something other than a dirt floor.  Because of the years it takes to pay for the journey, an increasing amount of women and children are trying to make the journey to the US, so that they won’t be separated from their husbands and fathers.

Most of the migrants know nothing of the desert and expect to be in the US seeking a job by tomorrow.  They don’t realize the journey will take several days and they will be walking in the dark because during the day, the sun kills.  They enter with a backpack, money, and a few beers or maybe a liter of water.  Most carry a rosary or similar religious icon.   They probably know nothing of the nearly 4 gallons of water it takes to keep hydrated in the desert.  They probably don’t know that the desert has killed 1500 known migrants between 2004 and 2011.  That is almost one death every other day, and that is only the bodies that are found.  Whether they know these things or not, they still make that first step into the dust.

The Desert is huge, dusty, and dangerous.


 “Culpable”, responded the first young man admitting his guilt into the first of the black microphones. 
Judge:  “Do you, Sr.Lopez, understand that by pleading guilty you are giving up your right to a trial and your right to remain silent?”


Are you a resident of Mexico and did you unlawfully enter the United States at the border near Douglas on February 14th, 2011?


Is there anything you wish to say?


This series of questions is part of “Operation Streamline” and was asked to each of the 70 migrants that were in court.  Six migrants stood at the six black microphones with their six grey suits and confessed that they crossed the border in Arizona.  Following one of the migrant’s questions, one of the suits said something:  “My client would like the court to know that he was crossing to find work so he could send money back to care for his 3 year old daughter.”  Later, another suit said, “My client was trying to visit his mother who will be having surgery next week.”  They received the same sentence as all the other first time crossers.

Most of the migrants --shacked together like cattle-- I saw had been hurried into the courtroom within 48 hours following their capture.  Some of them had tried to cross the desert only yesterday.  Once apprehended, they are thrown into a detention center, are given around 30 minutes with their shared public defender (up to 6 people/defender) to discuss the process of what would happen to them if they plead guilty.  They are possibly fed and given medical treatment --for their dehydration, blisters, or other conditions that are resultant from their desert journey-- and are sent to court to plead guilty.  Sentencing is done right then and there.  For pleading guilty during Operation Streamline, most first time crossers get 5 days jail and those with a felony (usually for border crossing) receive 30 days.  After the time is served in a (private) prison, these people are deported back to their country of origin.  

One case that sticks out in particular for me is Sr. Reyes.  He pleaded guilty like all the others, but instead of 30 days, he received 105 days in jail.  Why?  He had been convicted of human smuggling in an Arizona state court before being processed in this Federal court.  I was shocked when I heard it.  “So he is a coyote”, I thought.  Then his public defender spoke.  

“Your honor, my client was convicted in Arizona state court for smuggling himself, not other people.  I would like the court to consider the same sentence of 30 days instead of the 105 days.”

Unfortunately for Sr. Reyes, the judge would not consider it, since he didn’t want to argue about the legality of Arizona’s state law that says a migrant crossing the border can be convicted of smuggling him/herself.  Sr. Reyes was given 105 days in prison and will be deported back to Mexico after his time is served.

Within 2 hours on Wednesday, February 15th, 2011, all 70 migrants had plead “Culpable”, were sentenced, and for that day, Operation Streamline was over.


My story here leaves out hundreds of details.  It says nothing of the cost of this program; it would be more economical to give each migrant $1000 upon reaching the border and letting them go back home.  It also doesn’t tell about the sketchy situation of private prisons in Arizona and the owners lobbying for stricter immigration rules.  I encourage you to do a little research about Operation Streamline, and if you live in one of the Border States, perhaps consider attending a session.  I for one was shocked to see how the legal system was working.  

I call us back to today, Ash Wednesday, and I question the reality of forcing people into the dust, into the desert.  I question the need to shackle together 70 people and force them to confess their guiltiness of trying to better their lives.  I admit that the policies of the United States are not working and I ask God (and the migrants) to offer forgiveness so that we may work on changing the law, the way we offer hospitality to the stranger, and how we show mercy to others.  

I hope that these next six weeks, you will continue to join me and hear the stories from our own border.
Blessings for your Lenten journey.  Never forget that you are dust and you are loved.

Team Mexico walking through the Desert

I confess that I’ve missed the mark.  I have not loved you with all my heart, soul, and mind.  I certainly have not loved my neighbors the way you have shown to do.  Many days I don’t even love myself.  I'm sorry I put obeying rules and regulations over loving others.  I’m sorry I leaned toward the law and not towards love.  Show me how to love more freely; others, myself, and you.

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