“What does it mean to you to be American?”
The question came from the back of the group and officer Schwieg looked into the desert sun to respond “It’s being free and knowing your family is safe and protected. It’s having and believing in each of our inalienable rights from the constitution. It’s the opportunity to reach for your dreams …”
Schwieg, standing in his olive green Border Patrol uniform, gazed out across the border. Past us seated in folding chairs, past the bare sand strip kept clean to detect footprints, past the 18ft tall iron fence designed to withstand impact from a garbage truck, and into the hills of Mexico.
“But honestly if I was in a different situation I can’t say I wouldn’t try to cross. That I wouldn’t cross to be safe and to make a better life for my family. I can’t say I’d be any different than them. I’d do anything for my family.”
That simple but powerful realization speaks to a truth that we’ve all been finding on our journey south. We’ve seen the deep connections to place of the Acoma people, the vision of resilience at the Native American Community Academy, the burden of duty within the Border Patrol. We’ve witnessed moments of tenderness in a dehumanizing federal courtroom and the trauma of a hard life and even more difficult journey on the faces of refugees. For each of us these last two weeks have been affecting, immensely challenging, and galvanizing. Now speeding north bound for homes and families we’re left to link together the pieces. We are working to hold contradicting truths. Together on our journey we’ve been surprised, delighted, moved, and heartbroken. We have witnessed good people working within and against broken systems. We’ve seen strength pulled from long histories of pain and heard hopeful visions about what our country is and should be. Now its up to each of us to make our own sense of it all.
Our desert adventures began long before sunrise as we made the pilgrimage to Albuquerque’s world famous (literally) Balloon Fiesta. The annual even attracts hot air balloonists and spectators from around the world and is thought to be the globe’s “most photographed event”. We stood out amongst massive balloons of all shapes and colors as flight directors wearing striped referee uniforms darted around talking intently into ear pieces. Before we knew it the violet morning air was full of colorful shapes gently floating in the breeze. We heard from long-time volunteers about the rigors of balloon piloting and the deep camaraderie that the event inspires between volunteers, spectators, and pilots year after year. We spent the afternoon setting up for and then manning the gates of the festival’s mainstage concert and all left with a sense of wonder about what it must be like to noiselessly float above it all.
We came to New Mexico to learn from and about the Pueblan people. Unlike most of The United State’s native peoples these tribes hadn’t been forcibly removed from their homelands and had been able to maintain a connection to place that has spanned thousands of years. We started by traveling west to the Acoma Pueblo to visit the famed “Sky City”, their traditional village set 360ft above the desert on a mesa. We learned about the depth of their community and the transformation’s its undergone since the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500s. It was striking how hard the members of the Acoma tribe had been fighting to preserve their culture and to maintain their autonomy and privacy as a people.
The idea of preservation and celebration was echoed when we visited the campus of the Native American Community Academy (NACA). Founded in a building that was part of the former Albuquerque Indian School (a state boarding school open until 1982 that embraced the motto “Kill the Indian, Save the man”), NACA is a public charter school that teaches rigorous academics “from an indigenous perspective”. History classes begin long before the arrival of Europeans, English books are written by indigenous authors or have indigenous characters that students might be able to see themselves in, and in lieu of romance languages students can elect to take one of five different tribal languages. But the school’s indigenous perspective goes beyond a recognition of native culture. The dean of students talked to us about the importance of learning to pull strength and resilience from the long history of pain and repression native people’s have faced in America. She told us about their deep belief in restorative justice a practice that echoed what we learned back in the Boundary Waters and saw again at Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation in Chicago. We left impressed with the maturity of the students and the staff’s commitment to seeing and educating the whole student.
Crossing town to the campus of University of New Mexico (UNM) we spent time with Dr. Anthony Fleg who conceived of and directs the Native Health Initiative (NHI). NHI works within New Mexico’s indigenous communities to create programs that holistically address the many health and wellness issues native peoples face. Anthony and his wife/co-director Shannon helped us understand the subtle but crucial differences between fixing and serving and encouraged us to take a strengths-based approach to solving issues within our own community. We spent the afternoon hearing directly from a panel of female healers that taught us about recognizing wholeness and respecting the need for balance in our lives. They spoke of the strength of “good medicine” that was both for the spirit and the body. We discussed the balance of needing to use the good science of modern medicine without ignoring that so many health issues are rooted in problems of lifestyle and mind. We left with a deeper appreciation of the connection between us and the world and an understanding that recognizing the humanity in any system and every person is important.
After a few days immersed in the indigenous community in Albuquerque we journeyed south to El Paso and dove into the borderland. Based out of the Cristo Rey church in the El Segundo Bario a low-income Hispanic neighborhood just across from downtown Juarez, we immersed ourselves in the complex systems and culture that are unique to our southern border.
Our first afternoon we spent time in the federal courthouse watching the criminal proceedings of defendants accused of “Improper Entry by Alien”, a federal misdemeanor for those caught crossing the border between official ports of entry for the first time. These hearings were solely about the defendant’s criminal charge and were unrelated to their later cases in immigration court. In the first case we saw the judge struggled to communicate with three Guatemalan defendants that spoke a unique indigenous dialect. One defendant told the court that she “wasn’t sure how old she was but someone once told me I was 60”. We were left to contemplate what it would be like to have attended no school, not know your own age, and be detained in a country where we didn’t share a language with anyone around us. After watching eighteen Spanish speaking defendants plead guilty and be sentenced in a rapid-fire 25 min streamlined hearing we met with the judge herself. She told us about the long path to the federal bench and about the complexities of her experiences trying and hearing the stories of those coming across our border. We left trying to reconcile the formality and thoroughness of the court proceedings with the nagging feeling that so much of the system was predestined with actors that lacked agency to do anything but play their own small part.
The next morning we traveled west of town to mile marker 357 on the border. In a sand wash we spent time along the newly-built 18ft tall iron fencing and heard from Officer Schwieg about his experiences policing our southern border. In addition to reflecting on his own story he told us about Border Patrol’s limited role within the much larger US immigration system. It surprised us to learn that because of federal mandates Border Patrol Agents are not afforded the same prosecutorial discretion that most law enforcement officers enjoy. We left with a lot to consider and a much more nuanced picture of what happens in the field out along the border.
Our final days in El Paso included visits from the lawyers of Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Service (DMRS) who explained the intricacies of the asylum process and educated us about the long, arduous, and often impossible pathways to citizenship that are available. DMRS is the agency that represents many of the children that were separated from their parents this spring and we learned about the disastrous policy decisions that are making it impossible to re-unite some of those families. By the end of the presentation many of us found ourselves thankful for their work and deeply frustrated at the injustices the most vulnerable are facing.
These injustices became tangible for us when we sat down to talk openly with two of the refugees that had been living with us at Cristo Rey. These families had been released from immigration detention only days earlier. They were in the process of departing El Paso to be with the friends and family that agreed to sponsor and house them until their asylum hearings. They told us stories of the arduous journey they had undertaken with their families to escape lives where they had no control, little work, and no ability to provide a better life for their children. They talked about the degrading overpopulated conditions in “the freezer” (a nickname for immigrant detention derived from the heavy air conditioning used to keep the centers bellow 60 degrees). But what stood out most was their humility and hope. When asked about the future they told us of simple dreams that involved working hard, their families being safe, and their children going to schools where they can find happiness and opportunity. Simple dreams that reminded us so much of the American Dream that we’d been studying in class for the last month. Simple dreams that so clearly echoed what being “an American” had meant to Officer Schweig under that hot Texas sun only a few days before.