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Students explore issues around immigration at El Paso

Tired but excited, students arrived in El Paso, Texas on Monday, March 12 after hours of travel that began that morning at the Outdoor and Environmental Club parking lot. The group, consisting of 12 Beloit College students, would be spending five days working with an organization named Annunciation House to learn more about specific issues that affect the border between El Paso, Tex., and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico funded by the Weissberg Program.

Annunciation House was founded in 1976 by a small group of young adults. The group began to serve and stand in solidarity with the poor and vulnerable. As volunteers described, Annunciation House has always sought to serve the “poorest of the poor” in the community. It is now understood that these are often undocumented immigrants who cannot benefit from established resources and often are also facing poverty, injustice and oppression. 

A mural in Casa Vides. Photo by Laura Savage.

The organization now consists of three different houses: Annunciation House, which houses guests for weeks to months; Casa Vides, a longer-term house for guests with ongoing needs such as medical situations or widows of United States citizens who are required to spend a specific amount of time in the US each year to collect their entitled Social Security benefits; and Nazareth House, which was opened in 2014 for very short-term guests that have just been released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody.

Students Alondra Guzman’20, Ava Rockafield’20, Dianne Lugo’19, Dulce Saenz’20, Eva Haykin’21, Gabe Perry’19, Laura Savage’18, Maha Sabbagh’21, Mickael Raggi’18, Sam Funk’20, Superior Murphy’21, and YJ Na’20 made Casa Vides their temporary home. After quickly drop

ping suitcases and backpacks in their temporary rooms at the house, the twelve gathered into a white van that would become their trusty transportation for the entire trip.

After a brief tour of Annunciation House, just a few blocks away from Casa Vides, students gathered in the large dining hall on the second floor. There they took part in perhaps the best part of the entire trip: eating food prepared by the guests who share their stories across the table, underneath a beautiful mural painted by a volunteer years ago watching over with the message: Tuve hambre, y ustedes me dieron de comer; tuve sed, y me dieron de beber; fui extranjero, y me recibieron (which roughly translates to: I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me).

Every meal was prepared and eaten at either Annunciation House or Casa Vides. The only thing expected of guests are daily chores. These chores consist of preparing and cooking meals, washing the dishes, cleaning bathrooms, sweeping and mopping the floors or organizing other rooms in the house.

There are often 40 to 50 guests at Annunciation House although Chris, a volunteer since 2017, recalls a time where they had to make room for over 60 guests. Many of the guests are fleeing violence and poverty. Often, they are in the process of requesting asylum in the United States. However, what they face in the United States paints a vivid and ugly picture of how immigration has been criminalized and how, despite international law, refugees often face weeks and at times years in private detention centers with little access to lawyers and other basic rights.

After dinner, Sarah Rosen, a volunteer since 2017 and the guide throughout the trip, drives the group back to Casa Vides to prepare for the first of many different experiences the 12 will face the rest of the week. 

Dulce Saenz’20 at the current border wall. Photo by Laura Savage.

By 9:00 a.m. the next morning the group is once again in the van, this time preparing for a three-hour hike up Mount Cristo Rey, which they’d been able to spot in the distance from the roof of Annunciation House.

Mount Cristo Rey serves as a hiking trail with a stunning 29-foot-tall limestone statue of Christ at the very top. It is also where three different borders meet: Texas, New Mexico and Mexico. During the hike, students pause to admire the wall visible as far as the eye can see that separates Ciudad Juárez and El Paso. The wall does not extend up the mountain. It is why hundreds still risk everything and try to evade the heavy Border Patrol presence and various sensors spread throughout the mountain in an effort to cross into the United States.

At the top some of the student take selfies and admire the beautiful views. Dulce Saenz pulls out a Mexican flag from her backpack and takes photos with it spread across her and Ciudad Juarez behind her, a statement of solidarity and support for people like her own parents.

After the group reaches the bottom of the mountain once again, there is a quick drive to the physical wall. A wall, that President Trump often ignores already exists. While Trump continues his campaign to build his massive concrete border wall along the US-Mexican border that he insists Mexico will pay for, a rusty, towering wall already snakes through hills and canyons and often cuts into literal backyards that replaced a chain link fence over 20 years ago. It is a portion of this wall that students touch and fit their hands through. “Look, my hand is in Mexico right now,” remarked Savage.  

Lunch is spent eating burritos in the van, scoffing at the wall and reminiscing about how difficult it is to parse through and how tragically beautiful the mountain was. An easy and fun hike for the group, but often a hard and terrible journey for many.

The

Laura Savage’18 at the current border wall. Photo by Mikael Raggi.

struggle immigrants face is made only more clear as a presentation is held by the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee (DMSC). The DMSC is an advocacy group based in El Paso that work to try and “challenge the inhumanity of the US migrant detention system, its practices, and policies.” To do this, DMSC track reports about abuses in detention centers in or near El Paso and bring attention to them. They also stay in direct contact with detained migrants and their families in hopes of supporting their needs. They must do this because “refugees are treated like criminals” and held in “inhumane conditions.” As Alan Dicker, a member of the DMSC describes, “the purpose [of detention centers] is to take away all agency” and to “break people.”

Dicker describes how 400,000 people go through this detention system every year and how how language in a congressional appropriations law requires ICE to maintain 34,000 immigration detention beds on a daily basis. A bed quota that leads to ICE not exercising discretion and also leads to ICE detaining more and more individuals with little to no risk to public safety for longer periods of times while they await court hearings. 

Dicker also highlights how immigrants in El Paso are “fighting a stacked system” where 95% of asylum seekers are denied in court (and depending on the judge, that number can skyrocket to 99%). He also highlights several reports made that outline and highlight issues in detention centers. These grievances that are persistent but often ignored.

Hearing about these stories from DMSC makes the first activity on Wednesday difficult for many of the students. The group found themselves at the Border Patrol museum where they hear from Erika King, a U.S Border Patrol agent. King has been an agent for over 15 years. She shares her experience of growing up in El Paso and how she found herself going from Computer Science major at University of Texas–El Paso to joining Border Patrol after they tabled at a career fair there. King describes her frustration with how, in her opinion not enough people are working in Border Patrol. She also assures that Border Patrol is terribly misconstrued, in her mind. “I’m not a monster,” she says. When Superior Murphy asks King how she is able to continue detaining individuals despite the way they are then treated by ICE, she smiles, shrugs and says, “What do you mean? We treat them very well.”

Erika King does not expand much on the complexity and critiques of Border Patrol and immigration. She expresses admiration for the new administration but understandably, as a representative, does not delve too deep into her job. Instead she sticks to boasting about her shooting accuracy, her pride in being a female in a male-dominated organization, and her descriptions of how she deals with “criminals.”

The group leaves frustrated although they take some time to laugh and observe the gift shop in the museum that offers hats, sweaters and keychains with the Border Patrol logo for sale.

The frustration is eased by lunch at Annunciation House but quickly grows again during a large discussion with Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services (DMRS).

DMRS is the only full service immigration legal aid clinic serving low-income immigrants and refugees that are living in the southwest. Meaning, it is an organization often spread thin and facing thousands and thousands of immigrants in desperate need of resources.  Anna Hey, the Deputy Director, and a first-generation American, outlines the near impossible immigration system in the United States. Hey spends over an hour simply scratching at the surface of the various visas and requirements available in the United States. Hey also attempts to dispel some of the myths held about immigrants and refugees in the United States.

Overall, the discussion paints a bleak picture of immigration in the United States. It appears to be a system so convoluted and complex that many of those in the group comment how even they had trouble understanding it. So, how can one expect immigrants–often with little education and limited access to representation and other tools–to try and navigate the system?

The next day was one many were dreading. And for Sam Funk, it turned out to be her “least favorite part” of the trip. The morning was spent touring the Otero County Processing Center. A detention center in New Mexico that receives many of those detained in El Paso.

The group was welcomed by Ray Terry, the Warden of Otero, and Brian Van Dyke, ICE’s Community Relations Officer in El Paso. Ray Terry does not work for ICE. Instead he works for the private corporation that is contracted to run Otero: Managing and Training Corporation (MTC).

Terry has been working corrections or detention for 45 years and explains that the point of detention centers is “to ensure people show up to their court date.” In the case of Otero, MTC has an “agreement with MTC and Otero County to have a place to hold” the “criminal aliens.”

Despite various reports and stories students have heard earlier in the week, Terry also assures that people are held at Otero for a very short amount of time with an average length of stay of 54 days.

Otero is an all male facility with 1,000 beds in the facility with four courtrooms and one sitting judge, meaning detainees often times won’t even leave Otero for some of their cases.

Throughout the tour Terry assured that “we exceed the standards required by ICE.” He pointed to the fact that there are five tablets available for detainees to use to get info or talk to their families for a limited cost, they allow detainees two hours of recreation per day instead of the minimum one hour, and have a barbershop, library and televisions.

They also “exceed the standards” by hosting a “know your rights presentation” by an outside group which all detainees are required to go to.

In short, everything done in Otero is “made in best intention of detainee,” he said.

However, every magazine available in the library was a National Geographic issue from before 1980 and YJ Na discovered a Korean book covered in scrawls from a detainee. Roughly translated, she said, the detainee urged other detainees to keep fighting.

The inmates are color coded in Otero, blue jumpsuits mark individuals as low-risk and with no to limited history of violence, orange (either dark orange or light orange) marks someone as mid risk with history of violence and a red jumpsuits marks a detainee as violent. Those with a red jumpsuit and tag are barred from working at Otero.

Terry also assured that the “SHU blocks”, as he called them, are not solitary confinement but instead are just another feature to help detainees. Nonetheless, an audit last year found that Otero often performed unjustified solitary confinements. “ICE detainees are held in civil, not criminal, custody, which is not supposed to be punitive,” the Inspector General’s office states in its Dec. 11 report. “The problems we identified undermine the protection of detainees’ rights, their humane treatment and the provision of a safe and healthy environment.”

The same audit also found non-working telephones, unsanitary bathrooms, moldy food and unjustified lockdowns.

None of these problems were observable or mentioned during the careful tour students received. Instead, Van Dyke ended the visit by stating, “all things considered it ain’t bad.”

On the van ride back various students talked with the volunteers about Annunciation House about some of the overt lies told by Terry and Van Dyke. Volunteers disputed Terry’s claims that international costs do not cost detainees more money than domestic, recalling that last they had checked international calls had a $2.00 flat rate plus 65 cents per minute. A hefty price considering inmates are paid $1 a day maximum.

Additionally, Terry also claimed that Otero hadn’t received a single grievance or complaint in years and that not a single sexual assault had occured “in the last decade” a bold claim considering sexual assault and abuse runs rampant in America’s immigration system.

Fortunately, dinner was prepared by the group of Beloit College students that night. Students weaved past one another in the small kitchen of Casa Vides and argued amongst one another good naturedly trying to prepare enough enchiladas, guacamole and horchata for the entire house. Gabe Perry laughed off the offer to be taught how to flip tortillas by himself while Dulce Saenz and Alondra Guzman took over preparing horchata from scratch.

The trip concluded, unfortunately, with another sad and all too visible display of the criminalization of immigration. The last couple of hours in El Paso were spent at the Federal Courthouse where two proceedings were observed.

The cases were not for immigration court. Instead, five detainees were brought out as once, chained by their ankles and wrists to face criminal charges for illegal entry. A charge that can lead to longer and longer times in jail or prison the more times an individual is caught doing it. It was hard to control emotions as mostly men with often times middle school education pled guilty to charges that have been prosecuted at a higher rate during the Trump administration.

Most were sentenced to six months in prison. Upon release, they will be deported or face a new battle for asylum in immigration court.

While the trip forced students to hear many tough stories and was often discouraging, Eva Haykin was glad to have participated. After all, she wanted “to learn about how immigration policy affects human livelihood” and wanted to “learn about the contrast of opportunities and liberties that are available to people from either side of the..border.”

Sam Funk agreed, adding that while it was often difficult learning and hearing about the “terrible conditions undocumented immigrants are placed in just for searching for a better life” she loved “getting to experience…human sacrifice” and “meeting pregnant women, children, families…[and hearing] all of the people and things they have gone through.”

Laura Savage hopes that Beloit College students will continue having the opportunity to experience trips like these. Students are welcome to visit Annunciation House’s website and learn more about the various ways to help and perhaps even apply to volunteer over the summer.

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