“You are going on a border tour.” These words could not have sounded anymore comical than they did to me, a native El Pasoan. I had been born and raised in El Paso leaving only for the occasional school trips and family vacations, that is until I finally departed for college. I had driven passed the border so many times since childhood and then as I drove myself around exploring my own freedom of young adulthood. I had stopped noticing the flickering glimpses of homes, buses, and people living on the other side of the fence on my commute. They were all a part of the usual landscape. “Surely I know a thing or two about the border.” I thought to myself. I could not have been more wrong.
Although I lived on the U.S.-Mexico border, I had always reserved a detached fascination for Ciudad Juárez in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. As the sister city of El Paso I loved visiting my great aunts and uncles, I knew a bit of history, and I regarded Juárez’s historical influence on El Paso vital to my perception of my hometown heritage and identity. Sure, I did not know much about Juárez or Mexico’s political landscape or infrastructure, but the close proximity and natural ease of a bi-cultural city’s shared language, values, and food soothed me. El Paso was home and home included the border. Still, I never developed a strong identification to Juárez or Mexico as a whole. Las Americas remedied this fact.
Determined by the location of my grandparents’ homes, I did not have the same upbringing as my parents. Back when homeland security was not tangled up with immigration, my family moved fluidly between El Paso and Juárez. Not seen as an international voyage, with long border crossing wait-times, and plumes of smog hovering over idling cars, proper documentation, and the assertion of American Sir, but a trip to see loved ones. My mom and dad knew the ins and outs of Juárez like the lines on the back of their hands. Weekly visits to their grandparents house, dinners of delicious traditional Mexican food, and later going out with their cousins to the movies. No, my grandparents lived in El Paso and my weekly visits required less than a five minute drive. I identify as Mexican-American while I am simply American to my Mexican second cousins.
After two days of orientation the five of us sat scrunched together on a courthouse bench. Still a little more than strangers, a mix of native El Pasoans and inquisitive visitors we were asked if we wanted to attend training on Special Immigrant Juvenile Status or SIJS at the El Paso County Courthouse. Brimming with curiosity we accepted the invitation. SIJS, VAWA, U-Visa, BIWJ, CAT- all terms that were as mystifying as they were common place at Las Americas. I had not even the slightest clue what any of it meant. I had spent the better part of the past three days absorbing my surroundings and dashing to my laptop for an immediate Google search of any unfamiliar terms.
As we sat at the courthouse, Ali Las Americas Border Servant Corps. volunteer cheerfully announced “You are going on a border tour.” Toured we did. Although I scoffed at the idea of taking a border tour, I now recognize my first day at the courthouse and the following tour as a pivotal moment in my career plans and perception of immigration. Guilty of the mainstream American perception on immigration, I thought immigration in El Paso was distinctly Mexican, given that the city is 85% Latino. Wrong again! El Paso may receive hundreds of authorized and unauthorized border crossings a day, but not all of the individuals crossing into El Paso were of Mexican descent. Ali calls El Paso the “epicenter of immigration” most often a corridor where hopeful immigrants are detained by border and customs on their way to their final destination. On my second day at Las Americas my previous ideas of immigration was challenged when an individual dressed in colorful patterns walked in. Fatima as we will call her, had won Asylum a few months before and was soon to be on her way to family in another state. She had come to say her goodbyes to the Las Americas staff who helped her. After hugs and joyous tears she left and I had been told her story. My heart broke that day.
Fatima was an asylum seeker originally from Somalia. Her family lived in dire poverty in a displaced person’s camp and her father was disabled. Fatima and her brother sold water in front of their home to help provide for the family when a group of men approached her and her brother. Initially leaving after asking for her clan name, she came from an ethnic minority with no protection in her country, the men returned to kidnap her. Her brother intervened and was murdered in front of her and she was knocked unconscious. Saved by neighbors her attackers fled and so did Fatima. Living in hiding until money could be saved. She made her way through Russia and Cuba, eventually entering Mexico. She made it to the U.S.-Mexico border in Juárez and asked for asylum. Held in detention for almost two years in El Paso she was granted humanitarian asylum based on past persecution and significant harm.
Sadly, the reality is that stories like Fatima are all too common and yet it is frustratingly difficult to grant any type of relief or aid to people who are escaping all types of atrocities and have reasonable fear for their life. Certain death, rape, domestic violence, poverty, gender violence, gang and drug violence, the list goes on and on and yet despite the need and desperation of these people, current immigration law makes few allowances. Despite the popular perception of immigrants as criminals illegally entering the U.S. the truth is, these people are fleeing for their lives. Factors such as geo-politics prevents individuals from countries with affiliation with the U.S. from ever entering the U.S. as refugees. Even with the current violence in Juárez and Mexico with the drug cartels and daily executions, a murder rate higher than that in Afghanistan, is not sufficient grounds under U.S. immigration law for asylum.
Some days are more challenging than others. The office is a strange dichotomy of sorrow and jubilation. Just this week some of the law clerks and interns went to visit a client of ours in detention only to find out several hours later that he had been deported a few days before. No one was notified. When the SCOTUS struck down provision of the Arizona “Show me your papers” bill the office held its breath and shouted then with laughter when President Obama announced his support of deferred action for Dreamers. I have pulled my hair out in frustration and cried tears of accomplishment when I finally popped the two grant proposals I had been writing in the mail. Stories of abject brutality and bravery are everyday occurrences but victories such as helping a client be released from detention provide our work with conviction.
Attending an Immigration conference at New Mexico State University, touring Annunciation house- a house offering shelter and services to immigrants, discussing ethics at an Introduction to Federal Practice at the Federal Courthouse, and relaxing with Las Americas staff at the Paso del Notre Salsa night to keep sane have all been experiences that have broadened my understanding of immigration policy and developed an even greater appreciation for El Paso’s unique location, flavor and history with Ciudad Juárez. And, of course watching the Lincoln Lawyer wonderfully tied in information gathered at the Federal courthouse with the guilty pleasure of watching an action-packed movie.
Even as a native El Pasoan I realize there are many things I did not know about the border or immigration. One thing I do know for certain is best said through the words of Fr. Pedro Arrupe,“Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.” My work at Las Americas has been as joyous and it has been heart breaking, but through this experience I have uncovered my calling. I have fallen in love with immigration and family law and I have fallen in love with the border.