by Maria G. Ibarra-FrayreI am used to traveling. And I am used to the mental checklist that goes, “Rain jacket, make sure to check the weather, make sure to bring cash, don’t forget to check-in for my flight…” the list continues. However, this trip is different. The mental questions that keep playing over in my mind are, “How strong can I be?” and “Will I be safe?” As an undocumented student, taking a trip to the border will not be easy. I am well aware that regardless of where I am in the United States I am never really safe. Even though I have Deferred Action status (a temporary legal status), my status in this country is never guaranteed. But now I am taking a trip to the border, and not the friendly California side, but Tucson, Arizona. A place well known for its dehumanizing laws.
I expect this trip to be an emotional roller coaster. I know that I will probably cry more than my peers. That when I see through the wall into Mexico I see a home I do not know, and a home that cannot hold me. And when I glance back to the U.S., I see a home that doesn’t value who I am, one that thinks I am an outsider. I don’t know how strong I will be, only that I have lived as an undocumented immigrant in the United States for most of my life, and spending six days in Tucson can’t be any harder than that.
Originally published on the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work blog in the spring of 2016:
This was a very painful week. To be at the border, see Mexico, experience the desert heat, and know that I constantly straddle the two identities of undocumented and social worker is too much to process. There were two reoccurring themes for me this week: fear and anger. For years I lived in fear of my legal status, of Border Patrol and the police. And even now sometimes I am still afraid. But the anger I feel is stronger, and this anger will move me out of paralysis. In order to move forward I need to propel my righteous anger into action.
This means recognizing my privileges as a graduate student and as someone who grew up in the U.S., I was lucky I didn’t have to cross the border, that I came to the U.S. as a child, and that my parents encouraged me to go college. I am lucky that I have DACA status. But how I got to the U.S. or what I have done here isn’t what qualifies me as worthy of human rights. It is my inherent dignity as a person that affords me the right to live a safe and dignified life. Therefore, it is my duty to use my anger to dismantle the ongoing narrative of the deserving immigrant and challenge the normative concepts created by the DREAMER movement. It is my duty to correct and call out people who say “illegal” and label immigrants crossing the border as criminals. It is my duty to continue fighting oppressive structures that systematically detain and imprison people of color. Yes, the road is long and steep. But so is the desert.
I have been thinking a lot about movement, in all its senses: movement of people through transportation, movement of goods through trade, movement of communities through migration, and social justice movements. We all hear the butterfly cliché that “Migration is Beautiful.” Well, what I have seen at the border is anything but beautiful. It is painful, blistering, soul aching, and deadly. Migration is a battle. We visited an organization called No More Deaths today and discussed how much the border has changed in the past 20 years. It has become a battle zone for people, yet at the same time a funnel for goods. Why is it that material goods and trade can travel freely but people cannot? We value corporate interests over human lives. We spew hateful rhetoric about criminals and drugs to distract us from the real issue at hand — that we have a capitalist system that has free trade but not free lives.
I don’t know how to respond to this reality. My heart aches and my body is tired. Yesterday I told myself that I must keep going, I have to keep fighting. Today I remind myself that it is okay to take a breath. Slow down. It is not only okay, it is essential, to allow your heart to be broken. Tears remind me that social justice is hard work — it is not a commodity.
A piece of advice for hiking in the desert — don’t stop moving. The moment you stop moving your body gets used to the comfort of being still. Perhaps the same can be said about doing social justice work, you can’t go idle. You can’t stop fighting. As a graduate student it’s very easy to wallow into self-pity, to complain about how much work there is to do, and about how little importance the world pays to it. But out there in the sun today, carrying food and water to last us hours in the desert, was a painful (literally) reminder of my privilege to fight from a distance. If there are people who risk their lives every day through miles of the desert sun, then I can continue my small battle as a social worker. People die trying to reach a small semblance of the life I have in the U.S. I owe it them to keep going. I can’t stop moving, even if it’s just small steps.
When your legs and arms are chained together your body becomes smaller. You hunch over, wobble around, and the cling of the chains is louder than your voice. Is this why the 70 men and women we saw today at Operation Streamline were dehumanized? Are we confusing the fragility of their chained bodies with a fainter presence of humanity? How is it possible to decide the lives of 70 people in two hours? These are the questions that run over and over through my mind. And I can’t get the sound of the chains out of my head long enough to process them.
Have my family members been through court cases like the one we saw today? Some of them probably have. But we don’t talk about it at home; it’s too painful, too shameful. So instead I have to learn about it on a Spring Break trip where after a week I have the privilege of returning to the safety of a hostel. I will sleep safely tonight, meanwhile the people I saw face 30 to 180 days in a detention center.
When I was sitting at the back of the courthouse, I saw that someone had scribbled “Bullshit Justice” on the bench in front of me. That’s how my heart feels right now, like we have been duped. Just as we sat for two hours watching a federal immigrant procedure that is supposed to be fair, a whole country has been duped into thinking that people crossing the border are criminals who deserve to be chained and locked up.
I stayed behind today when my classmates spoke to Border Patrol. Part of the vetting process to meet with the Border Patrol required sending in more personal information than I felt comfortable sharing. Instead, I toured Tucson with a friend and saw the San Xavier del Bac Mission and had a driving tour of the city. The mission is a Catholic church built in the early 1600s that served as what was often referred to as a conversion center for the church. It is in the Tohono O’odham Reservation and more than 300 years old.
The Mission is beautiful. But it represents a tumultuous and complicated history that symbolizes the ongoing battle of intent vs. impact. The truth is that religion in the name of colonialism is still colonialism. And one can argue that militarization in the name of safety is still militarization.
When thinking of immigration and the border I had never considered the Native American experience and what it means to have someone divide your land into two different countries. The nationalist privilege in me wants to know if Native Americans in Tucson feel patronage towards one country vs. the other; do you need to choose? Perhaps this need to pick sides comes from my own ongoing battle of feeling like I’m straddling two countries. To which do I belong? Do I need to choose?
My hand was in Mexico, and the rest of my body did not cry for it. Today was our first day at the border and I think I am still trying to process what seeing Mexico, so close, yet separated by a metal wall, meant to me. It’s been almost 17 years since I last saw Mexico and I thought that being at the fence, seeing the other side would spark more emotions but it didn’t. And I don’t know if it’s because I mentally prepared myself to feel a myriad of emotions or because I am still processing. Probably both.
As I was walking along the wall, acutely aware of the Border Patrol cars that seemed to flaunt their presence in front of us, I noticed the safety net that my U.S. citizen peers spread around me. We looked out of place: 13 women with backpacks and Michigan logos here and there. We took pictures, we questioned, we paused to look through the wall, but we weren’t intimidated. No one asked to see our IDs, no one rolled down their windows to hear broken English, and no asked us why we were there. We were standing on the U.S. border and that was it. And I was part of this paradox of out-of-place but invisible women who hiked by the right side of a 30-foot wall. My identity as an undocumented immigrant is invisible, and protected by the privileges of my classmates. I blended into spaces that were not designed for me. Under any other circumstance I would be questioned, detained, deported. But in this moment in time I can sit on the U.S. side of a U.S.-Mexico wall without being afraid.
What does this mean: to find safety in the privilege of my peers? To look at Mexico and have its people, my people, think I am one of the lucky ones? To know that I am indeed lucky? It’s too much to process, too many identities to possess at the same time, and perhaps that is why my heart is still numb to it all. This is why my body still hasn’t figured out how to respond when seeing Mexico through metal bars. This will take time.*All photographs by the author.*
***Maria G. Ibarra-Frayre**** has completed her MSW at the University of Michigan, and now works as social worker and community organizer in Ypsilanti, Michigan.*
Read more Reporting from detention and the border on IMM Print.
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