In preparation for Justice GA in Phoenix, Ariz., (June 20-24, 2012) the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) have jointly organized three Service Learning trips to the U.S.-Mexico border with our partner organization,BorderLinks. The most recent trip took place from May 25-28. In this blogpost trip participant Julie Amery reflects on the experiences the delegation had, and how they relate to our country’s self-understanding. The BorderLinks service learning trips are made possible through the generous contributions of UUA and UUSC donors.
Bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
I was in fifth grade, I was required to memorize “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, the words engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty. It was part of our unit on immigration, when we learned about America as the great melting pot of cultures, a land that offered hope to people who needed it.
Though I have for some time been aware of the complications and injustices around current immigration issues, I guess a part of me still held these words close to my heart and somewhere inside, I still clung to the belief that we’re a nation where the oppressed can find some comfort and relief. Crazy to believe, considering what I had read and heard. But it was only when I saw the wall right in front of me—the wall that keeps Mexicans and people further south from entering our country—that it really sunk in. The beautiful words of Emma Lazarus speak of a drastically different America.
That’s so often the case, though. We can be aware of a bad or unjust situation, but until we have some personal connection to it or an experience with it, it’s intellectualized. We can be angry or frustrated, we can even fight effectively to stop it, but I think until it somehow becomes personal, our hearts aren’t completely engaged. At least, that’s how it is with me.
Walking along the wall, on both sides of the border, was just one of the many such experiences on my recent trip to Tucson as part of the UUA’s delegation to Borderlinks.
We also sat in a US District Courtroom in Tucson and watched as 70 men and women were sentenced—all within a span of 45 minutes—for illegally entering the country and led out in shackles. Some would be heading to prison, others to a detention center and others dropped back at the border.
We sat in the home of Celeste and her four children in the poor, filthy and crime-ridden city of Nogales, Mexico, where we ate belly-warming chicken soup and heard about how she and her family had gone to the US for a few years, just so that they could save to buy this tiny structure that sits in a slum. Yet her warmth and hospitality trumped the surroundings.
We talked with Jeanette Pazos, the passionate and compassionate executive director of Hogar de Esperanza y Paz (Home of Hope and Peace) which provides meals to children in Nogales who wouldn’t otherwise eat, and helps poor women build skills so that they can earn a little money as well as some dignity.
We walked in the Arizona desert, finding jackets, backpacks, and worn out shoes—one of which would fit a child of about eight years.
We spoke with migrants who had just been sent back across the border, and with the people who help them with medical and transportation needs. We worshiped in a Mexican Presbyterian church, where we were welcomed like old friends. We spoke with undocumented students in the US—bright students, top in their respective classes—who can’t get financial aid for college without social security numbers. We learned about how NAFTA helped to create the severe poverty that drives people here.
Over and over, one simple idea was reinforced from nearly everyone we met. People come to our country from the south for really one sole purpose: to feed and shelter their families. People in Mexico are starving. Children are starving. They aren’t coming here to achieve the American dream. They’re coming to simply survive.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!