PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Remembering The Dead

If I were at home, I would probably take the day off. I woke up achy and miserable, after hacking all night with a cold our group seems to be sharing.

At first, I was feeling sorry for myself knowing I couldn’t take a bread. I needed to charge through. But then I thought of all of the people we saw in the tent city, without proper clothing and blankets, waking up in 32-degree weather. They can’t take a day off. Who am I to let a little cold keep me from witnessing to their story.

Our day began at the Farm Workers Center with the director, Carlo Marentes, taking us up to the roof so that we could see the place across the street where people were kept in a pen as they awaited admission to the building to ask for asylum.

The U.S. policy previously allowed people to cross the bridge between the U.S. and Mexico to ask for asylum. That is the law as well as what the United Nations is the proper way to seek asylum. But the Trump administration has now changed this to a military strategy. We were able to see Army officers and vehicles at the Border Protection Office. The U.S. approach to asylum seekers is now a strategy of war.

The policy has changed to limit the number of asylum seekers. If there are beds available in detention centers, more people are allowed to cross to fill them for the for-profit companies that run the detention centers. But if not, the number of people requesting asylum is limited.

Father Bob, our host, told us that during the summer, he saw people kept in this waiting pen for four to 11 days at a time. The people were packed in like sardines, without hats to cover their heads in heat over 100 degrees. They had to stand there and wait until their names were called to enter the building. People were treated like prisoners, but they didn’t even get the same rights as prisoners are afforded by the Geneva Convention.

After witnessing yet another outrageous policy in action, we had a chance to learn about the Farm Workers Center, which opened in 1995. Its purpose is to advocate for the migrant farmers who immigrate to the U.S. He said many of them come here to flee violence but also to provide economic security.

Asylum seekers waiting to be admitted to Border Patrol.
Asylum seekers waiting to be admitted to Border Patrol.

One of the most egregious assumptions about the migrants is that they are poor because they are lazy or stupid, but the reality is that they are exploited. Father Bob told us that most of the chili workers in the area make less than $7,000 a year, working whenever they are able to harvest.

Carlos shared with us the way they earned their money. They were given a bucket to fill, After filling a bucket, the harvesters gives it to a man who empties the bucket and they are given a chip.

Most buckets net you 70 cents. If you are harvesting habaneros, you get $2 a bucket. However, they are much harder to harvest, since they cause breathing issues, and the pain it causes makes the harvesters feel like they have a fever in their hands.

The farm does not provide masks or gloves for the workers. They need to provide their own. They are not allowed to bring any food or water with them. They have to purchase it from the farm. They also sell them alcohol. It costs $1.50 for a burrito and $2 for a beer. The farm charges for the ride to the fields.

In order to earn minimum wage for an eight-hour day picking pecans, a worker would need fill 100 buckets. On a realistic day, which begins early in the morning with the drive to the farm and ends late in the day, a healthy worker may make $45, even though they are gone for over 12 hours.

Carlos explained to us that the system is rigged against the farm worker, who has no rights. That has been the case since the U.S. government initiated the Bracero agreement with Mexico, which brought workers from Mexico over during World War II and in its aftermath to work in the field They were needed to harvest the fields, but they sprayed them down with DDT, causing untold medical problems.

Today, that exploitation continues with undocumented workers who provide an important service but who, because of their status, have no voice and can be treated so terribly. He also pointed out that when ICE cracks down on the workers and deports them, there is no consequence for employers who knowingly hire them.

He explained how vital migrant labor is to three segments of the U.S. economy. Over 80 percent of all farm workers are migrant laborers. In addition, the construction industry and the service industry, which includes hotels, hospitals and other housekeeping services, are hugely dependent on a migrant labor pool and that the system has been set up to exploit them.

Cutting off migration will create a myriad of problems for the economy, even as it limits access for people who are fleeing violence in the hopes of finding a better life.

Our group's altar at the Columban Mission Center.
Our group’s altar at the Columban Mission Center.

After leaving the Farm Center, we returned to the Columban Mission Center to construct an altar for the Day of the Dead, which is celebrated Nov. 2. This Mexican tradition involves remembering the lives of people who have died by constructing a home altar with three levels decorated with items that person loved in life. The pictures of loved ones are placed on the altar and they are surrounded by food, beverages, music and other things the dead cherished as a way of remembering and honoring them and bringing them closer to their family on this day of remembrance.

Our group worked together to create an altar and then we shared whose picture we brought to remember. I placed the photo of my nephew, Joshua, who lost his battle with depression Sept. 30 and whose celebration of life service I would be leading Nov. 3.  I placed his favorite food, Saltines, by his photo. It was poignant and powerful, a tradition I wish we shared with our Mexican neighbors.

After finding out that those of us who had planned to be present at the Mass at the Detention Center would be unable to do so due to an administrative error, our group had a quick change of plans and drove to visit Jorge, an undocumented man living in sanctuary with his son at a retreat center run by the Catholic Diocese in Las Cruces, N.M.

Jorge and his family.
Jorge and his family.

Jorge is a classic case in point in what has gone awry in the determiation by ICE to deport undocumented people. He was a university professor from Colombia who with his wife and son fled to the U.S. to seek asylum in 1998 because of their involvement with human rights issues in Colombia and the threat that caused to their lives.

They were hopeful they would receive asylum, but after 9/11 things changed and it became increasingly harder to succeed with an asylum claim. They were turned down repeatedly, Jorge he remained in the U.S. without documents, hoping to eventually win an appeal.

Jorge received a Social Security card and began working. Although he and his wife never received any benefits from the U.S., they nonetheless paid taxes and contributed to the economy. He became a vital member of the community. He was even honored as the National Red Cross Disaster Volunteer of the Year and was recognized by Anderson Cooper on CNN.

But after Trump’s inauguration, things changed. After inquiring about services for his son, who is a U.S. citizen, he and his wife were put under surveillance by ICE. One day, while he was with his son, who has a medical condition, at a doctor’s appointment, his wife and older son, who graduated from a U.S. college, were taken into custody by ICE.

Jorge show the dent in his car that was hit by an ICE vehicle.
Jorge show the dent in his car that was hit by an ICE vehicle.

He was confronted by ICE at the medical appointment and told to follow the ICE officers to El Paso. However, they did not have a warrant for his deportation, so he knew it was not legally ordered. When he tried to flee and go to his church, the ICE officers hit his car and tried to force Jorge off the road.

However, he told us through tears that “an angel was at the wheel of the car and not me. By the grace of God, I was able to get away long enough to get into my church and claim sanctuary.”

Now Jorge, who had been a contributing member of society as well as an essential volunteer, with no history of any violation of the laws and awards for his service, is living in this retreat center with his son. He Skypes his wife every day. It has been nearly 18 months that they have been apart.

He told us he still holds out hope that with a new administration he will be able to claim political asylum, since his life is at risk if he goes back. A man of faith, he believes that God’s power is greater than any other world power and he places his trust in that.

Jorge is the face of the people being deported today, not criminals or bad guys taking from our system, but people seeking to contribute and make our country a better place.

We ended the day with a trip to a Women’s Cooperative, where we were able to watch as they prepared their altars for the Day of the Dead. They were poignant and powerful, but the most meaningful one was of seven photos of children:

Darlyn Cristabel, age 10; Juan de Leo Gutierrez, age 16; Jakelin Caal Maquin, age 7; Felipe Gomez Alonzo, age 8; Wilmer Josue Ramirez Vasquez, age 2; and Carlose Hernandez Vasques, age 16.

These seven children are all casualties of the U.S. immigration policy, having died in custody of the Border Patrol. An eighth, a 20-month-old girl named Mariee Juarez, died shortly after being released from a family detention camp.

This is the reality of what is happening in our country today. I’m glad I didn’t let my cold keep me away from all that I heard, saw and learned today.

We need to tell these stories and remember the dead. Not just on the Day of the Dead. But every day. Because the situation is getting worse.

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