Day after day we watch the desperate journeys of refugees making their way towards Europe and a better life. At home the flow of undocumented children briefly caught media attention last year, but now there’s not much news about our southern border. We don’t hear about these grim statistics—nearly 3,000 people died in the Sonoran desert attempting “to cross” since 2000, and last year alone the remains of 133 people were identified. Advocates at Derechos Humanos speak of “remains,” because they think many more have died in the desert. They tell of receiving frantic calls from family and friends, who have not heard from loved ones, because they lost their cell phone coverage in the desert.
In early October Elisa Johnson and I joined the Loretto (Sisters) Border Patrol. We met advocates on both sides of the border. We spent several hours in Tucson at Derechos Humanos learning about Operation Streamline. Started by President Bush and accelerated last year by President Obama, Operation Streamline speeds up the prosecution of border crossers who have attempted it a second time.
We visited the federal court house in Tucson where 86 percent of the court’s cases are marked, “Illegal Entry.” Humiliated detainees are shackled with a chain around their wrists and manacled at their ankles when, in groups of five, they face a judge. Lawyers urge the border crossers to accept a plea deal in return for dropping a felony charge. In Tucson, 70 detainees (the same number of jail cells in the court house) can be sentenced in under two hours every day. The cost to taxpayers is estimated to be $100 million per year. Deportees receive anywhere from 30 days to 6 months in for- profit prisons and leave with a federal criminal record before being deported.
I was surprised to learn the U.S. pays for a veritable cottage industry of for-profit jails, the largest run by the Corrections Corp. of America and GEO Group. Of the 34,000 jail beds slated for detainees, 62 percent of those are in private prisons. According to Advocates for Human Rights, a nonprofit based in Minneapolis, more than 2,000 Central American immigrant mothers and children are currently being held in remote locations. The children and their mothers are held indefinitely for seeking asylum—a legal right under both international and U.S. law. In an effort to minimize asylum applications, the U.S. is paying the Mexican Government to stop immigrants from leaving Mexico by sending U.S. border agents to train Mexican agents in apprehension and detention.
Elisa and I crossed the border near Nogales, Mexico. She dragged a large red suitcase filled with toiletries and first aid supplies for the deportees at El Comedor. No one stopped us or asked us for our papers.
Started by the Jesuits and run by a Mexican sister and many volunteers, El Comedor was literally dug out of a hillside in sight of the border crossing. I spoke to a farm worker, who had been apprehended one night outside of a Walmart in upper Michigan where he had purchased groceries for his family. The sole support of his wife and five children, he was fearful of a desert crossing to reunite with his family. Before his deportation, he said he had been in detention centers for the past six months. He had no criminal record—his only crime was crossing our border.
That morning at El Comedor, we served soup and tortillas to the men, a few women and one two-year-old boy. Before they ate, the group bowed their heads and prayed, not just a quick blessing but a long prayer for the journey ahead.