30 October, 2006

The Great Wall of Politics

“How we respond to this crisis reflects the basic values of who we are as a people.”

There is a barrage of views on immigration. It can be daunting to remain true to heart when politics contort the value of life to suit the needs of political and economic gain. The issue is indeed slippery, with its locus fluctuating with the political climate. I find it increasingly difficult to relate to human issues in a world that belittles itself to numbers and language that lacks personal identity. It seems important to examine the effects of a heightened factual identity, while our human, perhaps soulful identities diminish into statistics and code.
Along with the increasing tension of border and immigration control, there is also an increase in the awareness of global diaspora. Diaspora is an academic term for the global immigration of an ethnic population from one region to another due to extreme and unfavorable situations. Think: Native Americans, Jews, Africans, Poles, etc.
Our regional immigration situation is a form of diaspora. The people of Mexico are undergoing the effects of broken governmental regime. This is compounded by side effects of the North American Free Trade Act. Both are political fabrications that neglect human rights and disregard the value of human life.
We live within this worldview that conveniently turns people into statistics on an international bar graph. (How many times have I found myself unintentionally categorizing and grouping people into sorts?) With this in mind, I felt the need to speak about the importance of remembering our core values when we make choices about other individuals.
Personally, this is what attracts me to humanitarian aide groups. I resonate with their dedication to maintaining a core of values that governs behavior and transcends politics in efforts that elevate the pain and suffering of those at the mercy of political folly. I could be wildly naïve for claiming this, but humanitarian aide groups have a fairly transparent goal: To provide basic aide and voice to an invisible population.

So recently, I reconnected with No More Deaths. NMD is a coalition of human rights and faith-based groups invested in the aide of migrants suffering the extreme conditions of crossing the desert into the US.
States Geoffrey Boyce, media coordinator for NMD: “We are experiencing an ongoing humanitarian crisis here on the US/Mexico border. This crisis is the result of the economic conditions — which leave millions in Mexico and Central America with few options but to migrate in search of work — and US border enforcement — immigration and trade policies which refuse to recognize the immense human consequences of neo-liberal development and the realities.
“What we see here in the borderlands is a fraction of phenomena that is global. According to the UN, only 2% of global intra-state migration involves the United States. Around the world, millions are leaving their homes in search of a better life. Since January, it is estimated that as many as 3,000 people have died attempting to cross from the western coast of Africa to the Canary Islands, where they have access to the European Union.
“This global exodus from the global south to the north is engendered by the gaps between rich and poor, between opportunities and access to the basic necessities of life; every year these divisions grow larger. Every year, hundreds of bodies are recovered from the Arizona desert — it is likely that many hundreds more die and are never found. How we respond to this crisis reflects the basic values of who we are as a people.”
Mr. Boyce continued: “Since the late 1980s the United States has taken an enforcement-only approach to the border, increasing law enforcement, technology and infrastructure, without any impact on the total number of people who evade this net and enter the country clandestinely. Expanding this apparatus is not the answer — we must fundamentally reconsider our approach to the border and immigration.
“Our main goal is to save lives. However, we recognize the crisis will only end with policy reform that recognizes inherent value and dignity of all people, regardless of their nation of origin or legal status. We did not ask for this crisis, but we cannot wish it away or resolve it through simplistic approaches like building more walls or increasing the presence and powers of law enforcement. Fundamental to our approach needs to be a recognition that human rights know no borders, and our immigration system must change in order to provide safe and legal avenues for migration, so that nobody has to die crossing the border.”

“All the language we hear dehumanizes people on all levels,” says Shanti Sellz, a volunteer for NMD. “Political rhetoric is trying to reduce people to numbers. You don’t hear language about families, men and their wives and children, women and their families.”
Shanti Sellz is a humanitarian aide worker associated with the No More Deaths Coalition. She and Daniel Strauss, also a humanitarian volunteer were arrested in July 2005 while medically evacuating three sick migrants from the Arizona desert. The men were found several miles north of the US/Mexico boundary, severely dehydrated. Volunteer doctors instructed Ms. Sellz and Mr. Strauss to bring the men to a Tucson clinic after it was determined the level of care they needed was more advanced than what could be administered in the field. At the time of their arrest, the two humanitarian volunteers were following a protocol previously agreed to by the US Border Patrol.
In his September 1st ruling, US District Judge Raner C. Collins dismissed all charges against Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss. Judge Collins stated: “Sellz and Strauss had made reasonable efforts to ensure that their actions were not in violation of the law, and that ‘further prosecution would violate the Defendant’s [sic] due process rights.”
The case against Sellz and Strauss drew national attention, dramatically framing the human cost of US border policy and the complexities of an increasingly politicized region.
Ms. Sellz claims our choices to how we react to those in need effect people on all levels. We are all effected. “There is nothing political about helping others. Politics separate people from each other. Everyone has the basic right to life.”
When I asked Ms. Sellz about her interaction with the Minutemen — a volunteer citizen militia patrolling the border for illegal crossings in order to bring migrants to justice with the Border Patrol — she claimed she had none. The Minutemen are marginally on the border and do not regularly interact with No More Deaths.
I asked Ms. Sellz why the Minutemen have gotten so much press in the past few years.
She stated the organization speaks to the “hysteria in America,” that they use the language of fear and dehumanization while neglecting to speak about the issues in human terms.
Sounds familiar.

Aleia Woolsey, regional photographer and NMD volunteer, shared her personal impressions on being a humanitarian aide volunteer and why she finds it crucial to maintain awareness.
“Young educated people such as Daniel and Shanti do not deserve to have their paths of consciousness and global awareness be interrupted by the unjust courts systems of this country. When interpreting the law, we must carefully examine their reasons for being, and not let them oppress our own human nature, especially if it means saving lives…I encourage anyone who wants to see life with open eyes to volunteer with No More Deaths next summer. Not just to feel the heat and dryness of the border, but to hear someone tell you a story of their journey across. All they really carry with them is their faith and some water. Blessed are those guided by the sun.”
Ms. Woolsey explained daily life in the Sonora desert, “My experience as a volunteer with NMD was always eye opening and challenging. I was faced with medical situations as well as emotionally sensitive ones. The desert heat kept us clear and focused. As volunteers we rose early with the sun, knowing anybody walking across would do the same, just to spare a moment of torment from the Arizona sun. Starting patrols with the sunrise feels good, a natural pace. I remember one time around seven in the morning last summer, we checked out this well known pick up spot, and found about twelve backpacks full of clothes, food, everything anyone walking across the desert would have. There were combs, toothpaste, full cans of chille and warm corn tortillas. Even little kids’ playing cards.”
Ms. Woolsey also expressed her motivation for involvement. “It is a business; tens of thousands of dollars are paid each day by migrants looking for a ‘guide’ into the land of opportunity. The volume of migrants that pass thru the Mexican/US border each month is a shocking number. If we are able to save any of them from dehydration or heat exhaustion it is by the grace of God.
“It is so valuable to meet people with different backgrounds then oneself, to listen to their story about hardships and the journey they are on. Most likely their story has been being told for many years, past down through generations, living with the reality that modern economic policies have created. Tucson has historically been an active community in the struggle with immigration.
“Since the mid-1980s when huge numbers of Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees came over, there has been a lot of controversy, both political and religious. With the rise of the US sanctuary movement came close examination of our laws and how they could be interpreted. When and where does helping your fellow brothers and sisters turn into a crime? Is it against the law for a congregation to declare themselves a sanctuary for refugees if the government fails to assist those who apply for political asylum?”
Ms. Woolsey punctuated her point. “These were the big topics back in the 80s and continue to be today. Many churches that were active players in the sanctuary movement then are the same churches that began the organization, No More Deaths. Southside Presbyterian Church is pretty much the founder, and works closely with Humane Borders, another organization that supports the situation by providing barrels of water in desert. There are many supporting groups in the region that all lend a hand to support the migrant population. They always like volunteers, and it’s a good way to practice your Spanish.
“We all owe it to each other to learn about the issues concerning the border. We are the people of Arizona and should be aware of what is happening on our land. The history of people along the border is much stronger then its wall. Barbed wire, concrete, metal, rushing water; none of these things have ever kept people out, so until we develop an immigration policy that works with the flow of population, at least we can try to save a few people from dying in our desert. Humanitarian aid is not a crime.”

Hearing personal accounts from first hand experiences helps keep us in touch with the value of human life. We might resist the trend of turning people into statistics, and remember that at some point in our lives we were taught to watch each other’s back.
This doesn’t just apply to the familiar, and will prove to be evident in coming years.

“No More Deaths has been working since fall 2003 to take effective action to end migrant deaths in southern Arizona. Tactics include advocacy, outreach and direct humanitarian assistance along the border. No More Deaths calls upon the United States to change its immigration and border policies to protect the rights of workers respect the dignity of migrants and help families re-unite and stay together. No More Deaths demands safe, legal and dignified avenues for people to cross the international boundary, and opposes the fundamentally flawed and ongoing approach of border militarization. For the past two summers, No More Deaths has staffed 24-hour desert camps from which search and rescue patrols originate, providing food, water and medical assistance to migrants in need.” — No Mass Muertes @ nomoredeaths.org

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