The following post was written by Alicia Conte, Philanthropiece’s Youth Global Leadership Program Coordinator. This summer, Alicia co-facilitated a 3-week long service-learning trip for the Youth Global Leadership students, during which they explored social justice issues related to Native American rights, sustainable agriculture, immigration policy, and global trade. It took going back to the border and a few phone calls with her Grandma Atha for Alicia to finish writing this story. Alicia would like to dedicate this blog post to the guests and volunteers who live at the Annunciation House in El Paso, TX.
Las paredes vueltas de lado son puentes // Walls turned sideways are bridges
-Graffiti on the border wall in Nogales, AZ
I am ten years old. My hair is tangled from the ferry ride across the Hudson River. I am wide-eyed, trying to take in the expansive wall in front of me.
My fingers trace the depth of names that have been immortalized in steel; metal that weighs the weight of the 700,000 names it carries. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. As I kneel down to find the end of the alphabet, I can feel the depth of my ancestor’s names: Quirini. My grandma explains how her parents made the harrowing journey from Italy in 1910 and settled into the Bronx, to carve their names into these United States. This is our immigration story.
Fast forward to June of 2015, and I’m standing under the desert sun at the border of El Paso, TX/Juarez, MX, with nine high school students from Colorado. The shade only offers itself when the clouds shift. And when it does, the fence in front of us casts a shadow of sanctuary from the Texas heat. We are here to learn about the many different lived experiences of immigrants, and the trade agreements that have forced so many Central Americans and Mexicans to flee their homes. As the students touch small fingers through fence-links, I think about how there are no names on this wall. The Youth Global Leaders later note how the porous yet simultaneously exclusive nature of this barrier is absurd. While we stand in this place where one country rubs against another, I understand that this is part of my story, too.
As part of our Border Awareness Experience with the Annunciation House, a migrant shelter at the heart of this border city, we have an opportunity to hear a variety of immigration stories. We meet with Border Patrol Agents, share meals with Annunciation House guests, visit the Migrant Farmworker’s Center, and hear stories of border crossings. As facilitators, Jake Matlak (Philanthropiece’s Associate Director of Programs and my co-facilitator for the Insight Trip) and I ask the students lots of questions. What are boundaries that exist within you? What borders have you crossed in bearing witness to the struggles of another? Upon re-entry to life in Colorado, how can you reconsider the boundaries you draw around home, school, family, friends, and self? We seek no answers, but the experiences we are offered provide an intimate proximity to the immigrant experience.
During one of our days in El Paso we observe hearings at the Federal Courthouse. Our Youth Global Leadership group sits in the back of the courtroom and silently watches as one, two, three, then four undocumented immigrants are deported to Mexico. The man I remember most is a father and a husband. His wife is a lawful permanent resident who lives with their two US citizen children in Denver, where he does seasonal work. After the sentencing is read aloud, the judge tells him, “You understand you can’t come back here?” When these words land on me my stomach turns, and I realize there will be childrens’ birthdays, weddings, grandchildren born, first days of school, soccer games– all of which he will never be able to attend– or if he chooses to, fear will constantly be hovering over him.
I cannot forget the things he will never get to remember.
Nor will I forget the physicality of it all: his wrists and ankles are shackled, his shoulders slumped, his eyes cast towards the floor. This man’s body carries the weight of the decision that was made against him; a permanent separation from his family in the US. Each of these orange-uniformed men stand in the shadow of the tall sturdy statue who holds the torch in the Harbor. As the four of them shuffle out of the courtroom and disappear behind a door I wonder to myself, Who will remember their names?
Every year, thousands of undocumented immigrants arrive here from Mexico and Central America. They come here in search of a better life–often fleeing for their lives– and wind up in our fields lifting buckets of chiles on their 12-year-old shoulders to earn $7 a day. The wretched refuse of our teeming shore, the false hope of a torch that only burns for a select few. We are erasing their stories. Shouldn’t we all get to feel the depths of our loved ones’ names? To remember the texture of sacrificing your life so that your loved ones might have a better one? As I stood on Ellis Island many years ago, I felt the contours of resilience push back against my fingers. What would our mother of exiles, the great towering statue of hope, think about the story we are writing? Of the walls we are building?
It is unjust, this selective remembrance of immigration stories. We have a convenient amnesia that allows us to call some walls monuments, some gateways, and others protective barriers. Undocumented immigrants have sacrificed their bodies yet they are not immortalized in stone or steel. How quickly we forget the mothers and children locked in family detention centers. The victims of domestic abuse who are seeking asylum. The hundreds who die in the desert each year trying to cross. The women who take oral contraceptives knowing they could be raped along the way. The children who lose limbs while riding the rails of la Bestia north. The immigrants who don’t survive the journey. There are thousands of people who flee violence and economic injustice each year to come to the US. Who will remember their names?
El Paso and Juarez are really one city with a fence running through it. At least this is what people who live on both sides tell me. And as long as we continue to draw borders, we will build fences. And as long as we construct fences, I am hell-bent on building a wall of my own. My wall will sit heavy in the sand that has swallowed so many lives. It will stand on the front lawn of the Department of Homeland Security. It will be a great towering monument stationed outside of each Immigration Courthouse. Yucca and desert sage will grow at its boundaries, with thick cactus curling around the sides. This wall will have a beautiful gateway in the middle, and engraved into it will be all the names of those who have died trying to cross our southern border. All of the stories we have chosen to forget. Then, we will have to remember.