“A Texas Homecoming”
A Sermon by Josh Leach
Delivered on November 27, 2016
At the First Parish in Bedford
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.
—Anna Akhmatova, “Lot’s Wife”
I got off the plane in San Antonio last month and realized it was the first time I’d been back in my home state in a decade or longer. I almost didn’t recognize it. It wasn’t until Inés and I passed a roadside sign for the unmistakably Southwest chain “Whataburger” that my Texas memories started to come back to me.
Inés, the person I was traveling with, is a colleague from UUSC. We were in San Antonio together on a research project for the Service Committee. For much of the past year, we have been investigating the Obama administration’s Central American Minors, or CAM, program. This program allows a small number of refugee children in Central America to apply for asylum in the United States from inside their countries of origin. On paper, the CAM program is a great idea, but we had been fairly skeptical of it, as was much of the rest of the advocacy community. We feared that its requirement that children remain in-country while being processed – which can take a year or longer – would leave them at risk, and we worried as well that the administration was using this limited humanitarian program to excuse its otherwise harsh policies toward asylum seekers.
The future of this research project has now of course been entirely thrown into doubt, despite a year’s worth of effort, by the arrival on the scene of our new president-elect – who, if he takes his cues from his own advisors and his various past utterances, will likely abolish the CAM program altogether. Inés and I didn’t know this, however, when we arrived in San Antonio in those halcyon pre-election days of mid-October. We were just there to collect the results from a survey about CAM that was being conducted by our partner organization, RAICES, which offers legal services to asylum seekers in detention. In the meantime, we had been instructed to interview as many members of the RAICES staff as possible and to try to make ourselves useful to them as well, if we could.
Our guide for the week through the underworld of the U.S. immigration system was Jonathan Ryan, the executive director of RAICES – an attorney, refugee advocate, and originally a citizen of Ireland, who has nonetheless managed to acquire a Texas twang over the years. I had seen Jonathan speak once before, when he came to Boston, and I found him to be one of those effortlessly charismatic people who, if they are not in politics, do well to follow Jonathan’s example and enter the field of fundraising. Call it the gift of the Blarney – indeed, I think Jonathan did call it that, at some point – but he has that half-self-deprecating, half-all-knowing streak that makes you feel ready to open your wallet and your heart. I confess to hero-worshipping him a bit from afar.
Jonathan called Inés and me while we were still at the airport and invited us to come down to “the Casa” and meet him there whenever we were ready. We had no idea what this meant, but guessed from the RAICES website that he was referring to the shelter. This would be the first of many times that he was just a couple steps ahead of us in his terminology. When we arrived we found him outside the front door finishing a conversation on a set of wireless headphones. “Sorry about that,” he explained, shaking our hands, “that was the city. A septic tank just blew up in a trailer park and everyone there’s undocumented. Lord knows why they called me – maybe it’s just that the immigration attorneys are the only lawyers in town who speak Spanish.” Before he reached the end of these sentences we were already through the door of the shelter, a large Victorian house that used to belong to the local Mennonite church, and were being led through a kitchen and foyer that was packed with young Central American kids and their moms talking and watching a video.
“Sorry for the chaos,” said Jonathan, “you mind if we get behind the wheel and talk there? We just need to head upstairs and grab some mochilas and do a bus station run. I’m happy to drive if you want to come with.” I didn’t at that point know that mochila meant backpack, and I wouldn’t have known if I did what we were doing with them or why we were going to the bus station. But already I gathered that the important thing at RAICES was just to roll with it, septic tanks and all. Jonathan was almost immediately piling my arms with backpacks as I tried to take in the surroundings. I was struck by the coziness of the place. Kids upstairs as well as down were sprawled on sofas or playing games. The only reminder at this stage of the larger enforcement apparatus that hung over these families was the ankle monitor I glimpsed on the foot of one woman, as she dangled it over the edge of the couch — but before I could really think about that, Jonathan had us out the door again and we were on our way to the Greyhound.
“So should we try to meet with staff today?” I asked him, trying to make sure we didn’t lose sight of business. “No, ‘fraid they’re all at Fort Bliss,” he said, “tomorrow will be a lot better.”
“What do they do at Fort Bliss?” I asked him.
“Legal services for the kids there.”
“The kids aren’t in the other detention centers?”
“No, not if they’re unaccompanied, then they just get served with an old-fashioned NTA.”
I nodded again as if I understood these words. I would realize in the days ahead that hanging around with asylum attorneys is a bit like being a journalist embedded with the military. I was surrounded by a sea of mysterious acronyms, jargon, and abbreviations that were too second-nature for everyone else for them to realize they had to explain them. This was a world of SIJs and U-visas and T-visas, all under the shadow of the IIRARA and the TVPRA, the two great whalebones of legislation that still define and circumscribe the rights of all asylum seekers at the U.S. border. The first of these, the IIRARA, or the so-called “Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act,” had stripped immigrants and refugees of numerous due process protections when it was passed in 1996. The second, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, had restored at least a few of them, but only to unaccompanied minors. Adults and children traveling with their parents are still in many ways unprotected by the court system.
Once we got to the bus station, I began to get a visual sense of the role the shelter played for the asylum seekers who were moved through town. The station was filled almost exclusively with Central American women with young children. Arriving by the tens each day from ICE detention facilities, RAICES could offer them a bed for a night but little more than that, as the next day several more bus loads would have arrived, with thirty new families needing a place to stay. The goal of the shelter, therefore, was to help them get on the bus the next day so they could to reach a relative or friend in the United States or some other place to stay, while their asylum case was still pending in court.
Most of the Central Americans who come here, we learned, do in fact have family already in the U.S. because they are, in many cases quite literally, the second generation of Central American refugees who have come to this country. Many of their parents fled in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration supported repressive dictatorships and paramilitaries in the region. The people who crossed the border in 2014 are fleeing powerful and violent criminal gangs, most of which actually trace their origins to Los Angeles, but which were exported to Central America by a wave of U.S. deportations in the 1990s. These gangs often specifically target people who have families in the United States, because they believe these families will be more vulnerable to extortion. This is partly why so many of the people who arrive in this country on the run are the same folks who already have relatives here.
The women at the bus station were those who had already spent a night or two in the RAICES shelter and were waiting to leave for their Greyhound trip across the country. The backpacks we had brought with us were to help them on their way, and included some food, money, clothes, and coloring books for the kids. The RAICES staff confessed to us, however, that these supplies were meager at best, and would be used up fast on the bus ride. Most of these mothers did not speak English and did not know much about the geography of the United States – just as I know nothing of the geography of, say, Guatemala – and many had no idea that they were in for a three or four day trip on the Greyhound before they managed to get all the way to Boston or Philadelphia. Once they realized we were from RAICES, they gathered around us and showed us their tickets, asking, “Qué el significa?” Inés tried to show them on a map where they were headed, and flinched each time as she had to tell them just how long a journey they were in for. While I was at a loss anyways in the Spanish-speaking crowd, Inés later told me that a few of the women did not speak Spanish, let alone English, but only knew Mam, one of the indigenous languages of Guatemala.
The fact that these women had made it even this far was a remarkable testament to their courage and the extremity of the dangers they were escaping. To say nothing of the perils of the journey through Mexico and across the border, where cartels now control all the major crossings and have to be paid off in advance, they had also – by the time we met them – already passed through several ordeals in our immigration bureaucracy. Most of them sought out border patrol officers when they arrived in the U.S. They did not evade anyone, nor did they break the law. Nonetheless, they would have spent several nights in temporary holding cells, called by migrants hieleras, or ice-boxes, for their very cold temperatures. Border Patrol can summarily deport anyone it apprehends within a certain distance of the border, without any trial or due process. Last year, it returned about 200,000 people at its own discretion, who never had a chance to see an immigration judge. Before it does so, however, Border Patrol is supposed to ask people whether they are afraid for their safety. Many advocates, however, have documented cases in which Border Patrol failed to ask this crucial question, and people were sent back immediately into danger. This kind of wrongful deportation is particularly egregious, because there is no appeal from it in the court system, and having a prior deportation on your record – even a wrongful one – bars you from ever obtaining full asylum status in the U.S. again.
The women we met at the bus stop had not only managed to navigate the encounter with Border Patrol, they had also for the most part just spent several days or weeks in a family detention center where they had to pass a “credible fear” determination with an asylum officer. It is only after that point that they are finally released and begin their immigration court proceeding before a judge, who will decide whether they can to stay in the country permanently. Until that time, which may take months or years, they are not permitted to work in the United States, so they are for the most part forced to depend on the generosity of their friends and family members. This is, unsurprisingly, a situation that places great strain on these relationships. The RAICES staff told us that they knew, as they saw the families shipping off in the buses, that many of them would end up homeless in the coming months.
On one of our numerous trips between the shelter and back that night, picking families up, dropping backpacks off, Jonathan at some point got a call on his cell and asked me to answer it, as he was driving. A gruff voice said on the other end, “Is this the shelter? We’ve got three bodies for you to pick up.” I relayed this message to Jonathan, and he said that was ICE’s way of announcing that they were about to deposit a family of three, fresh out of detention. Jonathan pulled into a sketchy and nondescript parking lot behind a Tex Mex restaurant and we waited. A few minutes later, a prison bus with iron bars on the windows pulled up in front of us, and a small woman with two young children got out. “You’re with the shelter right?” asked the bus driver to Jonathan and me. We said yes, though if we had been lying he’d have been none the wiser, and nobody checked to make sure.
Jonathan began expansively gesturing and smiling and talking in rapid Spanish as he opened the door for the family to climb into the back seat. From what I could follow, he was trying to reassure them that they were not in detention any longer, that we could take them to a shelter where they could eat and spend the night, but that they could leave at any time. Still, however, the woman asked “When can we leave? How long will we have to stay there?”
I realized that no one had explained anything to them, either in custody or on the bus, about who we were or where they were going. ICE had not even told them that they were no longer detained. As far as the mother and her kids knew, Jonathan and I were two unknown white guys who had pulled up in a shady parking lot and asked them to pile in. We could be human traffickers or god knows what else. It would not be an idle fear. In the bus station another RAICES staffer, Jen, had told me that, when she drops people off to begin their trip, they always warn them never to move outside of the visual range of the Greyhound employees at the counter, because traffickers specifically prey on people who have just come out of detention.
It was a jarring experience to spend a night in the presence of such raw matters of basic survival, and then to wake up the next morning in a hotel room and be just another tourist in San Antonio, but that’s how it was. Jonathan called Inés and me early on day two, and said that we should check in with him after we had grabbed some breakfast and seen the sights for a bit. He already sounded chipper, and we never could figure out when or if he ever slept or ate meals.
After that incongruous reprieve, however, we were plunged back into the world of the U.S. immigration system as promptly as we had been extricated from it that morning. We paid a visit to immigration court, where – of course – Jonathan knew every security guard by name. There we saw women in removal proceedings who did not have a lawyer at their side, even though the government across the aisle was represented by an attorney arguing for their deportation. In one courtroom, the government attorney was holding and trying gently to pacify an infant. This baby was the child of the family whom she, as the ICE lawyer, was nevertheless duty-bound to argue should be removed from the country, and sent back to a part of the world whose violent death rates rival those of active war zones.
In another room, we watched a judge look through the case files of five different families who were supposed to report that day but had not shown up in court. This is apparently common. I’m not sure I’d show up either, with no money to afford a lawyer and the stakes this high. The judge ordered all five families deported.
Later that night, back at the RAICES shelter, we learned one of the reasons why people so often don’t show up for their removal hearings. Many of them don’t have the faintest clue how the system works, and nobody bothers to explain it to them.
One of our tasks that night at the Casa was to help the women who arrived at the shelter to go through their ICE paperwork. It is a service RAICES tries to offer to everyone, though their shelter can only reach some fraction of those who pass through San Antonio. The women would come into the office and present Inés and me with a bundle of papers they had received from ICE when they were released. These papers were exclusively in English. I will never be able to understand why this is so as long as I live. Using the T each morning and refreshing my Charlie Card, I notice that the city of Boston has managed to provide a Spanish language option on its computer screens. Every ATM and check-out counter you visit has a Spanish option. And yet somehow, our immigration authorities, who should know better than anyone that they will be encountering a Spanish-speaking population, put everything into a bureaucratic English. In these incomprehensible papers were such crucial pieces of information as when and where the women were supposed to meet with their local ICE officer, and when and where they were ultimately expected to show up in court, if they were to avoid being deported in absentia.
Certain images and incidents stand out in my mind from that night and after. Inés and I were interviewing one woman and got to the standard question on the intake form about whether or not she had been fitted with an ankle monitor when she was released. The woman looked down with an embarrassed expression and extended her leg so we could see it. I stared at it rudely and immediately felt sorry for doing so. Later that night, the woman approached Inés and asked if she knew of any spare clothes in the shelter. She explained that the ankle monitor had been fitted so tightly by the ICE officers that she was going to have to cut through her pants in order to change clothing.
As I came more days to the shelter, I did not fully lose my initial impression of the warmth of the place, but the scars of persecution, flight, and detention began to be more visible as well. One of the RAICES staffers told us that many of the women they worked with arrived at the shelter with unwanted pregnancies – the result in many cases of sexual violence while in transit through Mexico – and had very few affordable options for terminating those pregnancies or receiving reproductive health care. One night Jonathan arrived at the shelter and asked the other staffers if they had noticed that every child in the place seemed to have an eye infection. I hadn’t noticed, but I saw later that he was right. Every kid I saw seemed to have one eye swollen and to be digging their knuckles into it. Another night, a staff member handed Inés and me a spray can. “What’s this?” I asked. “Lice repellant, for your hair,” she said. “The kids bring them with them from the detention centers all the time.” It was my job a couple hours later to make a Walgreens run to stock up once again on nit-combs and lice shampoo.
I didn’t have much time to think or feel about all these things as we finished up the trip. I was focused on getting the data we needed for the report, and then on the final presidential debate that happened while we were over there as well.
Returning to Boston, however, there were several days when I would just feel odd and out of sorts at strange times. My eyes would get watery and start to sting while driving. I’d listen to the radio and not be able to pay attention. One night or other, I decided to curl up on the couch and watch El Norte, a film from 1983 about the first generation of Guatemalan refugees. It had been sitting in an open tab on my computer for a long time, as it seemed necessary to my self-guided course of education in Central American issues since coming to work at UUSC, yet I had never really gotten around to it. I found it to be a beautiful movie, about a Guatemalan brother and sister’s journey through a U.S. immigration system that have changed remarkably little since 1983. It is also an unapologetically sentimental movie, and by the end of it I was tearing up and coughing out sobs.
I realized what had been wrong with me the past few days. I was having feelings, nothing more odd than that. I was having an emotional response to San Antonio, except that it had been slumbering within me ever since I came back like a kind of depth-charge, and this movie had finally set it off.
I tried to explain some of this to a friend the next day, but kept making myself seem ridiculous in the process. I couldn’t help but revert to my usual mode of self-satire and self-deprecation as I described it, yet I felt all the time that I was dishonoring my own emotions and experience. I kept thinking God, I must sound like such a cliché – the privileged liberal who goes someplace and witnesses suffering from a safe distance and comes home to tell everyone that his eyes have really been opened. As Kurt Vonnegut once described a return from Mozambique, where he had witnessed the ravages of a civil war:
“When I got back to my own country (where my family was off skiing in Vermont), I got a room at the old Royalton Hotel in Manhattan, and I found myself crying so hard I was barking like a dog. I didn’t come close to doing that after World War II.” Vonnegut goes on to say, referring to a picture from a few pages earlier: “The photograph at the head of this chapter shows me in action in Mozambique, demonstrating muscular Christianity in an outfit that might have been designed by Ralph Lauren. [As if I had shown up there and] fixed everything.”
Like Vonnegut, I knew I had fixed nothing. In fact, I was acutely conscious in San Antonio of my uselessness. Unlike Inés, I did not speak the language of the people at the bus stop. I could not answer their questions about where they were going or how long it would take to get there. I did not know where one could find a change of clothes in the shelter. The lice shampoo I bought on RAICES’s dime was too expensive. I should have gone with the store brand. My time at UUSC had taught me words in Spanish like derechos humanos and el militarizacion de la frontera, and other abstractions, but I realized halfway through the trip that I did not know how to say “I’m sorry.” I stuck out like a sore thumb.
All of this was before the election. All of this was before we learned that the next president was likely to abolish the CAM refugee program we had just spent a year painstakingly investigating in the hope of reforming it and improving it in small ways. This was before we realized that the things we were seeing at the border were just a small foretaste of what a Trump executive branch could do with the deportation apparatus that is already in place. If I was feeling useless then, the weeks since haven’t done much to convince me otherwise.
A lot of us are struggling these days with that specter of futility. At UUSC, we are wondering what was the point of all that research, if the next administration will never listen. In the larger community, we are wondering what was the use of any of the progressive gains of the past decade – our first African American president, some forward steps on addressing climate change and making health care more affordable and pardoning a few non-violent offenders – if they can all be rolled back in an instant – “Born in a night to perish in a night,” to use the words of William Blake.
As the song we played earlier in our service put it:
You ask am I angry?
And I’m at a loss for words
After all we’ve done
Every battle hard won […]
What is the point? we ask ourselves. And what do we do now? The answer that comes back to be is that we can be Lot’s Wife. We can turn and look. We can bear witness to suffering, and tell what we see.
My sister, who is a high school teacher in Southern Mass., told me after the election that many of her students were Trump supporters, and that she had witnessed first-hand the breakdown in communication between the two impossibly polarized sides of our political divide. She told me about a time when her health class had had a particularly ugly argument on the subject of gender identity. She said that no arguments worked to bridge it, no facts, no statistics, no New York Times articles or Buzzfeed listicles. The only thing that worked, she said, was an event that the school district hosted that allowed her students to meet real people who were transgender and hear their stories. This, she said, changed the discussion, and it was here that she placed her hope for the future. Maybe, she said, we can share our real stories. “Like those things you saw at the border,” she told me. “Those were really moving. I think those would make more of a difference than all the abstract arguments about immigration.”
Maybe so. Maybe that is the use of the useless observer. We can, if nothing else, tell people honestly what we have seen, while we stood there gazing. And perhaps sometimes that’s enough. Several times in San Antonio, I would think to myself, if only people could see this. If only they could see what an ankle monitor actually looks like on a person. If only the citizens of this country could see the mothers getting off the prison bus and asking which detention center they were being sent to next. The tired lies that are passed around about immigrants and refugees would expire on people’s lips, because they thrive on the fact that these populations are, to many of us, invisible, and unknowable. That is one reason why the detention centers themselves are located so far from inhabited areas.
The world needs more of us to be Lot’s Wife. We need to be willing to turn back and witness. Of course, the God of the Bible did not like it when Lot’s Wife did that. He was busy destroying some cities and no doubt felt embarrassed to be observed in the act. So he turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt. But we UUs don’t seem to have much trouble disobeying the commands of the Biblical God. Let’s do it again, I say. Let’s turn back. And remember that it is precisely because that backward glance is such a powerful act, precisely because it is not futile or useless at all, that gods and presidents so often feel the need to punish it, by rooting the witness to the earth.
Our final hymn is number 108, My Life Flows On in Endless Song.
Our closing words are by the great poet of the First World War, Siegfried Sassoon:
HAVE you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked a while at the crossing of city ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heavens of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same,—and war’s a bloody game
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the Spring that you’ll never forget.