House of Representatives to environment: Screw you, secure the borders.

The House of Representatives just passed HR 2578, an omnibus piece of legislation including HR 1505, the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act. The final vote was 232-188, with most Democrats opposed and most Republicans in favor. The roll call vote tally is here.

This sneakily named bill gives the Secretary of Homeland Security authority to manage federal lands within 100 miles of both the U.S.-Canada border and the U.S.-Mexico border. This power is an expansion of Section 102 of the Real ID Act, passed in 2005, which gives the DHS Secretary authority to waive any federal laws during the construction of border enforcement structures, including the border wall. Because of that act, all major pieces of environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (which mandates review of all environmental projects) and the Endangered Species Act have been waived during border wall construction and other border enforcement activities. Perhaps most insidiously, the law explicitly states that DHS waivers cannot be subjected to judicial review.

HR 2578 would extend essentially the same powers to all federal lands within 100 miles of either U.S. land border. It prohibits the Secretary of the Interior (responsible for National Parks and Bureau of Land Management Land) and the Secretary of Agriculture (National Forests) from interfering with Customs and Border Protection activities within this 100-mile area.

Let me say that again, really clearly. This law gives the Secretary of Homeland Security the authority to waive all environmental legislation within 100 miles of U.S. land borders.

Apparently, it’s not good enough that our border enforcement is killing hundreds of people every year. We also have to make sure that things like preserving wilderness areas don’t interfere with catching and deporting people trying to make it to the U.S. And lest you think this is about border security–the Department of Homeland Security and the Border Patrol have stated that this law is unnecessary for border security. The current system of interagency land management is working just fine for them.

The Senate still has to vote on this (it’s S.803, introduced by Arizona Senators Jon Kyl and John McCain). You can read up on the bill here, get the Sky Island Alliance’s talking points here (PDF), and go hereto take action and contact your Representatives and Senators.


Immigration reform and invisible costs

Friday’s immigration announcement by President Obama was a great moment in a lot of ways. Seeing the reactions to his announcement that the Department of Homeland Security is stopping the deportation of DREAM Act eligible students was a good reminder of the spectrum of opinions that the U.S. population holds on immigration issues. Many people were celebrating, knowing that they might have an opportunity to work or continue their studies. Others were decrying the fact that this was done via executive action rather than Congressional legislation, claiming that this was nothing more than a political decision to appeal to Latin@ voters.

All of this has put me in a reflective mood about border and immigration policy, especially in the context of the massive wall that I cross at least twice a day now. One of the rallying points behind No More Deaths is that these issues shouldn’t be political—they’re human rights issues. I firmly believe that thousands of bodies piling up in southern Arizona’s deserts are a human rights issue. And in March, when I was here doing work in the desert, it was easy to see immigration in only those terms. The people I interacted with on a daily basis weren’t policymakers or strategists. They were people like me, except that they needed work and had the misfortune to be born on the wrong side of the line.

Perhaps the clearest part of being out in the desert was how visibly wrong and ineffective our border enforcement was. It seemed clear that people weren’t being deterred by the militarization or the wall itself. Crossing numbers are certainly down in recent years, but there’s no real way to tell if this is because of the U.S.’s poor economy, increased border enforcement, or both. What is clear is that plenty are still choosing to cross—it’s just that more of them were dying in the process. A week out there convinced me that our currently policies couldn’t continue for much longer, because they were inherently unsustainable. I figured that they would collapse under the weight of their own inhumanity, that reform could happen if enough people knew what was going on and called for change.

Now, I’m in an urban area, talking to tons of different people on a daily basis and hearing dozens of stories from migrants. A lot of them have left desperately poor town in central and southern Mexico, where a good wage is $30 a week. Some of them are my age, except instead of attending a liberal arts college and blogging about politics, they have a three-year old child at home who they need to support. Most of them aren’t coming to the U.S. to pursue higher education. Many of them don’t want to live there permanently or assimilate into U.S. culture. The majority are simply looking for work, having run out of options at home.

I was speaking to a group of women in the Migrant Resource Center where I’ve spent the past week working. They were discussing the poor wages in their home states that had led them to try to cross the border, while I chimed in occasionally with questions.

One of them turned to me and asked, “If you were in my position, if you couldn’t find any work at home and had four children to support, would you try to cross into the U.S.?”

I looked at her and froze for a moment, unable to answer because the circumstances of my life had never forced me to consider something like this. Eventually, I said, “I don’t know. But maybe. Probably.”

She nodded, looking satisfied. “Until you’ve been in this position, you don’t know what you would do,” she said.

In the desert, I heard stories like this and wished people safe passage. On the Mexican side of the line, though, these stories carry an entirely different meaning. The people who tell me these things have just been deported, and, with very few exceptions, most of them are headed back to the towns they came from in Mexico’s interior. Having seen the reality of the desert or the brutality of the Border Patrol (nobody I’ve spoken to who was in custody overnight was fed more than one meal, and most of them were housed in detention facilities where sitting down was impossible because of crowding), most of them are giving up and heading home.

From a political perspective, this is a win. Comprehensive immigration reform has been discussed for a long time in U.S. politics. All of the strategies I’ve heard rely on essentially three actions—providing a path to citizenship for the undocumented immigrants already here, changing our visa system to grant temporary work visas and possibly increase quotas for nations like Mexico with high demand, and increasing enforcement on the border to prevent unauthorized crossings. No matter how people feel about Mexicans or what to do with the undocumented folks once they get here, everybody seems to agree that preventing migrants from crossing illegally is a good thing. Policy, as much as it could aim to provide better jobs for Mexico or legalize those who’ve already made it here, is going to favor border militarization.

Out in the desert, it seemed like this couldn’t go on forever. The degree of suffering was so great, the injustices so stark, that I knew a better world couldn’t be too far off. From the city, though, abuse becomes mundane. The people I talk to everyday who come in dehydrated, forced into the back of vehicles which look like they’re designed to carry animals, crying because they can’t find work at home and don’t know what to do—all of them fade together, human casualties in a policy system which doesn’t care about their suffering. Which isn’t going to care about their suffering.

In the midst of all this, it’s good to know that the undocumented migrants who have already made it to el norte, who have lived there for years and built lives there, might be able to stay. But immigration reform which only tweaks our visa system isn’t going to solve the issue. Reagan’s 1986 comprehensive immigration reform—the last large-scale legalization we’ve had in the U.S.—was supposed to provide enough border enforcement to make sure people stopped crossing. And we all know how that worked out.

As long as there are people who are desperate to find work, I have to believe our border wall won’t make a difference. If we build a twelve foot wall, they’ll find a thirteen foot ladder, or so the saying goes. But being here makes me afraid that our awful policies are working in some twisted way, that the suffering I’ve seen this week is simply supposed to be another form of collateral damage.

The physical border is a space often forgotten in political discussions. We talk about who ICE chooses to deport in the U.S. and what it’s like to live life undocumented, always afraid that one misstep could get you sent back to a country you don’t remember leaving. We don’t talk about the border militarization in real terms, what it means for the people who live on either side of the line, who conduct their day-to-day lives perpetually in the shadow of that fence. We say we’re adding enforcement and agents, and people see it as a good or accept it as a necessary compromise to push for reforms in the system. We’re sold a specter of drug cartels and devious migrants sneaking across our borders, and we don’t often pause to consider what that added enforcement will mean or how many more bodies will pile up in the Arizona desert because of it.

I want comprehensive immigration reform, and I’m so happy to learn that many of the people I know won’t have to live with the specter of deportation hanging over their heads, at least for the next two years. I hope, though, that we can bring these spaces into our national dialogue too, that in our push for legalization of those already here, we don’t forget about those who would still come. I want us to see the human rights side even as we acknowledge its political dimensions. I don’t want the suffering in the desert, the costs on the Mexican side of the line, to forever remain invisible.

In which I respond to the people commenting on the NYT article about Obama’s executive order on immigration

So this morning, President Obama announced that undocumented students who would be covered under the DREAM Act will no longer be deported. This policy applies to people who are under 30, arrived in the U.S. before they turned 16, have been here for at least five years and have no criminal record. They also must be currently in school, have a high school diploma or served in the military.

Obama is essentially shifting policy through executive action, and while it’s similar to the DREAM Act, it doesn’t provide a path to legal citizenship for undocumented students. Instead, it grants a two-year “deferred action” during which an individual is essentially safe from deportation. People who are granted this deferral may then apply for work permits.

While this isn’t citizenship and doesn’t solve the immigration problem in the long term, it’s an important short-term step towards a more humane immigration policy. I was really excited reading the New York Times’ article about it, and then I decided to look at the comments. Where, naturally, I lost most of my faith in humanity.

Every time immigration comes up, people respond with all kinds of xenophobic, racist and just plain factually inaccurate stuff to justify their opposition to treating people like human beings. And I’m getting pretty sick of it. So, I’m going to pick a few choice comments from the NYT’s article and respond to them here. (Trigger warning: racism)

1) These people are illegals and by definition, criminals. Therefore they should all be deported as soon as possible.

Okay, first of all, “illegal” is an adjective, not a noun. So a person can’t be an “illegal.” But I digress.

U.S. immigration laws are civil, and violating them has historically been a civil offense, not a criminal one. Until very recently, it has been federal policy to apply prosecutorial discretion when criminally prosecuting people for violating immigration laws. This means that, except in rare cases where an undocumented immigrant committed a more serious crime, people are generally deported with only a civil infraction (the equivalent of a parking ticket) rather than a criminal conviction. Most people here illegally have never been convicted of any crime, in violation of immigration laws or otherwise.

This is now changing, as federal initiatives like Operation Streamline seek to criminalize unauthorized immigration to dissuade people from trying to come to the U.S., which brings me to my second point. Pointing out that someone has broken a law has no bearing on whether or not the law itself is just. Nobody is disputing that people who came to the U.S. in violation of its immigration laws have broken those laws. People are arguing that those laws are unfairly applied and have many, many unintended consequences which are bad both for the individuals affected and the nation as a whole. These consequences include familial separation, as well as large numbers of bright, ambitious students who are unable to attend college and contribute to the U.S. because they can’t afford tuition and aren’t eligible for financial aid because of their immigration status.

Which brings me to the they should all be deported line. As for that, I offer only this article. Next?

2) I am naturalized citizen who patiently and painstaking waited on line and went through the whole legal process. This is going to encourage more illegal immigrants crossing the border with children in tow and more anchor babies. This makes me sick to my stomach!

So, you waited in line and got legal residency. Good for you. (Seriously, good for you.)

Here’s the thing, though. U.S. immigration works on a quota system, where each country in the world has the same cap on the number of people who can get immigrant visas each year. In order to apply, you need to have a close relative, generally a sibling, parent or child, who is already a U.S. citizen (this is called an F4 application). If you’re from a country with very few applicants, like Iceland, awesome–you can get a visa pretty quickly. If you’re from a country like Mexico or the Philippines, you’ll be waiting a while. The wait for Mexico is currently somewhere between 15 and 20 years if you already have a close relative in the U.S. Waiting in line simply isn’t an option for many people, least of all those who were brought to the U.S. by their parents and have been living and going to school year for years.

In order to be eligible for Obama’s “deferred action,” someone must have already been living in the U.S. for five years. Trust me, this isn’t going to encourage anyone to cross the border who wasn’t already going to cross. And if you’re really concerned about more people crossing, your best bet would be to advocate for job creation programs in Mexico.

Finally, I’m not sure how some undocumented immigrants gaining legal rights in any way hurts or affects your status as a legal permanent resident.

3) Why don’t we just give them everything ELSE we’ve worked so hard for!
I was adopted from Italy years ago. And my parents had to spend time and money making me something I could be proud of.
And ” American Citizen.” It use to be an Honor to be an American Citizen. You use to have want it so bad you could tastes it.
Nowerdays Just dump the kid on the white houses door step say “I no speaka the english.” And wham! you an American Citizen. No questions asked.. But now They don’t have to work for it.

Nothing in this decision will make anybody an American Citizen. First of all. And many people who come to the U.S. without documents don’t want to be U.S. citizens–they simply want to come and work.

Second of all, there is nobody who came to this country without documents who didn’t work for it. Nobody. I’ve spent the past week in the Migrant Resource Center in Agua Prieta, Sonora. We help people who have just been deported get back home and provide food, water, clothing and basic medical care. I’ve heard dozens of individuals stories, each distinct, but with many common elements. People generally pay thousands of dollars to hire a pollero to bring them to the U.S.–this in a country where making less than $30 a week is common in many central and southern states. People walk for a week or more through the brutal heat of the Arizona desert to come to the U.S., and thousands of them have died in the attempt over the past decade. So don’t tell me people don’t work for this.

I’m going to ignore the racism in the comment about people not speaking English, except to point out that the U.S. doesn’t have an official language. But it is currently the exact opposite of easy to become a U.S. citizen, or to even get legal permanent residency.

Finally, and again, I’m not sure how some people getting more legal rights in any way diminishes or cheapens your citizenship.

4) So Obama is giving 800,000 illegal immigrants work permits. All US citizens who are out of work or have to work part time should figuratively spit in Obama’s face, since he is spitting in yours.

Ah, the jobs argument. First of all, undocumented students who apply for deferred action still have to apply to get a work permit, and I highly doubt all 800,000 of them will qualify.

With regard to the larger jobs issue: this is a pervasive anti-immigration argument, but I think it’s fundamentally flawed. First of all, a work permit isn’t a guarantee of work, so all this would do is give some undocumented students the same chance that U.S. citizens have to apply for the few jobs that are out there. I personally don’t believe that U.S. citizenship should magically confer a person with any more of a right to work than a non-citizen resident would have.

Even if you disagree, though, I would again point to this article. Often, the consequence of undocumented workers being removed is that produce is left to rot in the fields. Many other standard complaints, like that immigrants don’t pay taxes, are patently absurd as well. Immigrants pay sales tax, and those who work under fake social security numbers pay into both Social Security and Medicare, without being able to benefit from either of those programs (effectively subsidizing the rest of us).

There’s been a longstanding argument that immigrants do jobs U.S. citizens aren’t willing to do, and I think that’s often true. But the counterargument to that–that if we enforced immigration laws and cracked down, wages in agricultural labor would rise–seems compelling as well. So what do we do?

I’m not an economist and I don’t have an answer to that. My support of immigration reform and more visas is rooted in human rights, not economic arguments. I believe people have a right to migrate where they want to and to be treated like human beings while doing so. That said, I think it’s worth pointing out what is made visible and what is made invisible when we talk about immigrants “stealing American jobs.” The rise in immigration over the past few decades, specifically to the U.S. from Mexico and other Latin American countries, is largely due to trade liberalization agreements. Agreements like NAFTA and organizations like the WTO have lifted many international barriers to trade in the name of efficiency. One effect of this has been the collapse of the rural Mexican economy for many small farmers, pushing them to migrate north. Another has been the shipping of U.S. jobs overseas, largely to Asia, where labor is cheaper.

Regardless of how you feel about trade liberalization, I think the anti-immigration argument overlooks the structural nature of free trade. It’s telling that those who decry the effect immigrants are supposedly having on the U.S. economy, notably Republican (and many Democratic) policymakers, are much more silent on the free trade agreements which encourage U.S. jobs to be shipped overseas, as well as the factors which push migrants to the U.S. These are all complicated economic questions with room for debate, but a knee-jerk, “They’re taking our jobs!” is not going to lead to sensible policy on this issue.

5) The president does not have the constitutional authority to do this. Congress makes the laws.

There’s a legitimate conversation to be had here about the limits of executive power, and there’s certainly a problematic history of presidents using executive actions and policy shifts to do what they want. However, while Congress does make the laws, it’s the executive branch’s job to enforce them. Part of that means prioritizing certain methods of enforcement over others, which to my mind, is exactly what this is doing. The President has decided that applying U.S. immigration laws to students who have been in the country for years is not the best use of the government’s resources. Given the impossibility of deporting all 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S., I’d have to say I agree. (There’s another conversation to be had about the construction of “good” vs. “bad” immigrants as it relates to the DREAM Act, but I’ll save that for later.) In the fact of a Congress which has thus far failed to pass any immigration reform laws, I think this action was both warranted and necessary.

6) What Mr. Obama did is pure politics. What kind of leadership is that?


Have we elected President Romney today?

We might have. Everybody is focused on the every growing population of Hispanics and as an article in the Times mentioned this week, they are forgetting that it is 2012 and not 2050.There are still many more non-Hispanic voters than Hispanic voters. A lower percentage of Hispanic people vote than do whites and blacks.

First of all, non-citizens can’t vote in elections. Which means nobody who is directly affected by this policy can vote. As far as the larger Hispanic community goes, of course this is a political act. Because everything the president ever does is a political act. Because he’s a politician. It’s entirely possible that President Obama realized that same-sex couples should be able to get married of his own accord, and that’s awesome. But the decision to announce that at the time he did was a political act. Pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq was a political act, just as George’s Bush’s decision to invade was a political act.

Just because something is a political act doesn’t mean it’s wrong, or corrupt, or immoral, or shallow. Politicians are always going to consider the potential effects on voters when taking stands on issues. I would argue that they probably should consider that, since they’re elected to serve voters. That doesn’t mean that Obama’s action was only about getting votes, and it doesn’t make his action any more or less valid.

Finally, I would like to point out that Hispanic and Latin@ people are not and should not be the only people who care about this issue. There are plenty of people who are concerned about undocumented immigrants who support this action wholeheartedly. As much as I’m critical of Obama, and the entire U.S. political system, I’m happy that we were able to make this small step forward, and I trust that many of my fellow non-Hispanic/Latin@ and white Americans are as well.

There you have it. I think I touched on all the major arguments I saw in the comments, though if I missed any, somebody should let me know. Immigrant rights are human rights, and while stopping the deportation of students isn’t enough to solve the problem, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Douglas in photos

I tend to mostly to text-based stuff on here (print journalist, people), but one of my goals for this trip is to get more photos up to accompany the text. With that in mind, I took a walk this morning, with the intention of documenting a bit of what life is like in Douglas and showing you all where I’m actually spending these two weeks. This isn’t really accomplishing my goal, since I’m just doing photos and not text, but I’ll get there eventually.

My bed in the trailer where I live. Hard to see here, but it’s essentially three mattresses stacked on top of each other, and consequently very wobbly.

Trailer kitchen! Thus far, it’s cockroach free, but appears to have at least five other species of relatively large insects crawling around. I get to cook, since Jeff, my Unitarian minister roommate, doesn’t really know how.
Our trailer from the outside. It’s owned by Fronteras de Cristo, which runs the migrant center, hence the giant cross on the screen door.

Trailer park! Many of our neighbors are fond of mariachi music, but sadly none of them have unsecured internet networks for me to mooch off of (I’m typing this at the migrant center, which does have wi-fi).

My daily commute along the Panamerican Highway. It’s about a mile from our trailer park to the Mexican border–we can bike or walk.

5th Avenue, 5 blocks from the border. Almost all the businesses in Douglas are giant chains or  small shops catering to Spanish-speakers. I haven’t seen any local businesses that had signage in English, even on the U.S. side of the border.

A lot of the fast food places have peso exchange rates on the sign, and the Mexican food places I’ve been to in Agua Prieta are all happy to take dollars as well.

Douglas used to have a Safeway, but it closed down. So here are the ruins of Safeway.

A stop sign at the end of 5th Avenue. It says “Chino Road,” which left me wondering if that’s a reference to the area’s mining past (a lot of Chinese immigrants worked in copper mines in Cochise County, chino means Chinese in Spanish) or just a coincidence.

Landscape outside of town looking south. You can just see the border wall in the distance.

An old no trespassing sign. The small print on the bottom says it’s from Phelps Dodge Co., which was the big mining company in Douglas back when it was a copper smelting town.

The official surveyed boundary of the United States, as seen through the border wall.

Douglas’ wastewater treatment plant, out in the desert to the west of town, just a few hundred feet from the border fence.

The wall once again. I got Border Patrol called on me twice for walking too close to it–I set off their cameras, and they had to go check. The agents responding were excessively nice and apologized to me for interrupting my walk. Don’t think it would have gone so well if my skin were a different color.

Wal-Mart is like five blocks from here, but apparently has a shopping cart return right before the border crossing  because so many people cross just to go shopping. Phil, who coordinates the migrant center, said it’s been estimated that 80% of Douglas’ sales tax revenue comes from Mexicans buying stuff.

The migrant resource center where I’m working. It’s literally right after you cross the border, so you can’t miss it.  Can’t decide how I feel about the “may we live always as brothers” text–good aspiration or cruel irony.

Migration from the Mexican side

I like to think I’m pretty good at seeing the complications of issues, of looking at things from a variety of angles. I’ve realized, though, after my first day working in the Migrant Resource Center here in Agua Prieta, Sonora, that my thinking on migration has been missing a huge chunk of the picture. I’ve spent time thinking about the border wall, U.S. immigration policy, drug wars, deportation proceedings and racism. What I’ve really forgotten to think about is what happens to migrants once they’re repatriated to Mexico.

The intricacies of U.S. immigration law are really complicated, and I still don’t fully understand them. Some people who enter the U.S. without papers are legally deported, meaning they’re barred from re-entering the country for a certain number of years (5, 20, life) and will face criminal charges if they disobey. Some people are charged criminally for unauthorized entry to the U.S. and serve jail time before being deported. Some people simply sign a voluntary departure form. Regardless of the method by which they return to Mexico, though, the process is pretty much the same. People spend time in a detention facility, usually run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and then they’re bussed to the border and dropped off, often without their stuff.

This means that Mexican border towns—Nogales, Naco, Agua Prieta, Ciudad Juarez—have had to come up with an entire infrastructure to deal with the busloads of Mexican nationals who come through them. Most Mexican migrants to the U.S. are from central and southern Mexico, and taking care of everyone and getting them home is a huge logistical challenge. There’s a Mexican federal agency, Grupo Beta, which provides assistance to migrants. One of the big things they do is help people pay for bus tickets home. They’ll cover 50% of your bus fare home, and can also provide transportation around the border towns if people need to get to shelters or the hospital. They also run a public service campaign telling people not to try to cross into the U.S. through the desert (No vaya usted—no hay suficiente agua). The Mexican consulate can also buy you a bus ticket home, but this only works once per person in your entire life.

The Migrant Resource Center here tries to provide people with the things they’re most likely to need once they’re repatriated. There’s free food (bean burritos) and drinks, basic medical care, clothes and shoes, free phone calls to both the U.S. and Mexico, assistance locating belongings and family members, and assistance with bus tickets. Phil, the guy who runs the center, said that traffic really varies. From May 2010-December 2011, the center didn’t serve any migrants, because ICE had stopped deporting people through Agua Prieta for whatever reason. Then, in January 2012, they had a trickle which picked up to thousands of people per month by March. It’s started to slow again now, and we might go this week without serving more than a dozen or so people. But the plan is for me and Jeff to work 8 hours a day at the center this entire week, then take Saturday off. (I’m thinking about just taking my camera and a ton of water and walking along the border wall until I get bored.)

I’m looking forward to talking with the center’s regular volunteers, almost all of whom are Mexican. I had a long conversation with Sergio yesterday, a man who volunteers every Sunday. Besides being nice Spanish practice (those parts of my brain are slowly waking up again), it was a great way to learn about Agua Prieta and Mexico. I always have to remember to take conversations like that with a grain of salt, to remember that no one person is speaking gospel truth and that anyone I’m talking to in that context is usually going to be middle or upper middle class.

One thing I’d like to learn more about, though, is why Agua Prieta is a relatively safe town when so many other border towns have become increasingly violent. Not that the media narrative of border violence isn’t overblown, but Agua Prieta in particular is, by all accounts I’ve heard, perfectly safe. Sergio told me that if you want to get into trouble, you can do that, but if you stay out of bad activities, you’ll be fine. Phil and Tommy, another church guy, have dismissed most of my safety questions by telling me it’s fine. Yes, I can walk around Agua Prieta at night by myself. The worst problem they’ve had with female volunteers solo is getting catcalled, and that’s something which is hardly unique to here. I did end up walking through town by myself last night, because we went to a minor league baseball game and I didn’t want to wait in the hour-long car line to cross the border in Tommy’s car, so I just walked about a mile and a half back home (mostly on the U.S. side). And nothing felt sketchy. I know my anecdotal perceptions don’t mean much, but everyone I’ve talked to has consistently told me that violence in Agua Prieta is way, way lower than in Nogales, much less Ciudad Juarez. Anyway, if I do figure that one out, I’ll be sure to write about it.

Seeing through the wall

When Terry Tempest Williams came out with her book Finding Beauty in a Broken World a few years ago, I was pretty sure she’d made it just for me. For as long as I can remember, that title has more or less been my life philosophy. I was raised hiking and backpacking in a loving family that showed me how many amazing things the world has to offer, and I’ve been fortunate to have friends throughout my life who have been supportive. But much of my life has also been spent looking for problems in the world, reading about war and starvation and violence and systematic inequalities.

It was with this in mind that I went to a concert on the border wall yesterday afternoon. Some churches in Douglas and Agua Prieta had organized a binational chorus to perform on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, just outside of town. Wearing orange shirts with the trickster god Kokopelli on them, a group of singers stood on each side of the wall. They traded verses back and forth, sometimes in English and sometimes in Spanish. People gathered on both sides to listen and watch. There were white people and Latin@s on both sides of the wall, Mexicans and Americans, and people of all races and nationalities speaking English, Spanish, and everything in between.

Chorus on the U.S. side of the wall.

My initial reaction upon seeing the border wall has always been a combination of rage and sadness. It’s monumental, terrifying in its scale, awesome in its cruelty. It’s a scar on the landscape, bisecting habitat, casting some as “other,” reminding the world of American military might. The scale of the wall compared to the assembled singers had its usual effect on me. I saw people sticking hands through the wall to take pictures, friends shaking hands through the fence posts. I reflected on the fact that, while I could freely move between the two sides, at least half of the people present didn’t have that privilege.

Looking down the border wall in Douglas, AZ.

In spite of the way injustice is written on the dusty ground, the people singing did so in celebration. The songs were sometimes somber, but the atmosphere was happy, almost celebratory. Friends smiled at each other. Every time the chorus on the U.S. side stopped singing, a man on the Mexican side would spin a giant homemade noisemaker, the crackle carrying far beyond our party. Border Patrol vans circled in the distance, but left us alone.

A woman on the U.S. side of the border.
Chorus on the Mexican side, as seen through the wall.

Realizing this, I thought back to my last time traveling through the deserts of the American West, almost two years ago. I recalled how no matter where we were, almost every night I could watch the sun set through a barbed wire fence Contemplating that scene, my mind would freeze the frame and see the aesthetic beauty, cattle grazing, beavers driven to extinction, disappearing sage grouse, American tradition, a struggling family and climate change captured together in a single image. And in spite of the imperfections writ large on the landscape, I always found beauty in the complications of that scene. I always found a way to appreciate the place while seeing its scars.

For as long as I’ve been seriously thinking about it, I’ve seen our border and immigration policies as evil, and the wall as the clearest manifestation of that. I still feel this way—there’s no amount of beautiful singing in the world that could make me feel differently. But yesterday’s concert was a good reminder that we can be happy in the midst of evil, celebrate even in the fact of injustice.

Now, my mind freezes the frame on the assembled orange t-shirts, the people singing their hearts out in the U.S. and Mexico. Looking at them, it’s clear they represent a single community. There’s resiliency in their insistence on ignoring the wall to the best of their ability, in their efforts to continue with life as normal in spite of the monstrous demonstration of military might standing in their way.

But more than that, their celebration is a parody. In choosing to be happy in spite of the fence, in choosing to play music no matter how impractical it may be, they’re showing the fence for what it really is. The electronic keyboards and bongo drums and prayer flags hung on the metal stakes make the wall look absurdly, ridiculously out of place. In the act of bringing something beautiful to this broken place, they’ve made the wound that much more visible. And they’ve reminded me that we can fight for things we care about without forgetting to smile, that we can hold love and rage in our hearts simultaneously. Because all over the world, in places where violence has taken hold, places the state sees strategically while everyone else forgets to look, there are people who will keep fighting and keep playing music, never forgetting that walls, turned on their side, are bridges.*

*This was a piece of graffiti on the border wall near Nogales, though it’s since been painted over. Written in Spanish, it said las paredes vueltas de lado son puentes.

Humanitarian aid as an atheist

Out here on the border, social change and spirituality seem to be closely linked. Almost all of the migrant aid centers on both sides of the line are organized by churches, and while the group I’m with, No More Deaths, is secular, it has its roots in Tucson’s Unitarian Church and Catholic liberation theology. This is nothing odd—there’s a long history of religion inspiring social work and activism. Jesus was pretty clear about that whole “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” thing, and there have been no shortage of church-organized homeless shelters, Catholic orphanages and some pretty radical priests talking shit about capitalism since then. Worldwide, it’s not all Christians, either, and if I were better informed about other religion, I’m sure I could come up with dozens of other examples from all over. The desire to help the less fortunate in the world is often seen as a key part of a deep spiritual calling.

My companions for these two weeks are all Christian. I’m with one other No More Deaths volunteer—a Unitarian minister from Georgia named Jeff—and the shelter we’re working with is run by a guy named Phil who lives here in Agua Prieta and is Episcopalian. I asked Phil yesterday about the preponderance of faith-based aid out here, and told me that in his experience, people who don’t come from a faith tradition tend to burn out doing this work faster.

“Why?” I asked him.

“I think it’s hard to deal with the suffering out here without some way to make sense of it,” he said.

He’s not wrong. Last time I was on the border, I was out in the desert putting out water and food for migrants crossing. I went out there expecting to find tragedy, a misguided series of policies which united in a particularly deadly way in the Altar Valley of southern Arizona. What I found instead was deliberate cruelty, overt racism and a series of policies which were explicitly designed to funnel people into the desert, knowing they would die there. Many No More Deaths facilitators describe the Arizona borderlands as a low-intensity war zone, and that’s how I felt during the brief time I was there.

When I went home, it was hard to process all of this. I withdrew from my friends and spent a lot of time drinking while trying to write about what I’d seen. I had days where I couldn’t fathom the thought of being happy, because it seemed so wrong, knowing what I’d seen, knowing that what I had seen was such a small chunk of the whole picture. And I absolutely had nights where, lying in bed with tears running down my face, I thought, “I really wish I believed in God right now. I wish I had some way to convince myself that this would all be okay.”

That’s the thing about being an atheist. Because I don’t believe in God, I also don’t believe in absolute justice. I believe all kinds of evil people die and get away with the evil things they did. I don’t think Ted Bundy and Adolf Hitler are spending eternity in hell being punished for the lives they took—they’re just dead. I don’t think those who have been made to suffer in this life have any greater reward waiting for them, and I don’t think the scales balance in the end. The suffering I see on the border isn’t part of God’s plan or the result of our sin. It’s just awfully, cruelly wrong.

For me, knowing there’s nothing after death makes fighting for this world all the more important. Religion was used in the Middle Ages (and still is by some people today) to justify poverty, to keep the poor from rebelling by telling them that if they just stayed quiet and accepted their fate, they’d be rewarded beyond their wildest dreams once they got to heaven. I would argue that religion still fulfills that function in many parts of the world, at least for some people. For me, this world is all we have, so we’d better make damn sure it’s a good one for everyone. We’re not going to get a second chance. There’s no heaven waiting for us, nothing perfect after we die, so it’s that much more important to keep working towards a better earth.

It’s this thought that keeps me going, and it’s that thought that’s going to make these weeks a challenge. I think partially because of their belief in the afterlife, a lot of Christian work is centered around aid and charity. Feed the poor. House the homeless. Minimize suffering. Run a shelter. Here in Agua Prieta, I’m going to be working in a shelter which provides services to migrants who have just been deported. It’s important work, and I’m grateful that people are doing it. Putting water in the desert is important, life-saving work, too. But none of it gets at the structural, the systems that make these things necessary in the first place. Food banks are awesome, but anyone who thinks they’re solving hunger or poverty is naive at best.

This is the challenge of activism in the world today, and it’s all the more stark for those of us who think that death is just death. We need to make sure people have food today and migrants have a place to get medical care today. But if that’s all we do, we’re not making any progress. We have to find some way to make life better, measurably, systematically. I don’t know what that looks like yet, and I don’t know if the next two weeks will give me many ideas. What I do know is that as long as this wall is here, as long as we build our nation on racism, exclusion and the backs of poor people the world over, what we’re doing is absolutely, unequivocally wrong. It’s because of, not in spite of, my atheism that I feel called to work for as long as I need to to change that.