Faithful Action for Border Justice

CONOCIMIENTO: Becoming Aware
Journal by Jim Burklo of a week on the borderlands

Alternative spring break interfaith border justice experience for USC students in southern Arizona, 3/15-22, 2014 – Sponsored by the Office of Religious Life, University of Southern California

Saturday, 3/12: We left campus at 7:30 am: myself and four USC students: Daniela Madrid, graduate student in Social Work and Public Health; Robby Mack, senior in International Relations; Ivette Ortiz, freshman in Gerontology; and Olivia Ceja, freshman in Health and Humanity. We drove through the town of Ajo, AZ, a copper mining town where we stopped to take pictures, and then through the Tohono O’odham Native American reservation, which is about as big as the state of Connecticut. That road took us through spectacular Sonoran Desert scenery at sundown. We made it to Sahuarita, AZ, south of Tucson, by 8 pm and set up “camp” at Good Shepherd United Church of Christ – a church with showers! We got there in time for the last few performances of a concert series called “Common Ground on the Border” – a three-day social-justice-themed event at the church.

Sunday, 3/13: We woke up to a beautiful day and started it with 9 am worship at Good Shepherd. Then we went to San Xavier, the ornate Fr. Kino mission church on the Tohono O’odham reservation near Tucson. It’s a place of serene beauty: a brilliant white masonry church with original Spanish colonial art on the inside walls. We climbed the volcanic plug hill next to the church compound for a view of the mission, of Tucson, and of the surrounding mountains.

From there we went to Old Town Tucson. We shopped at the Old Town Artisans compound, with its tiendas facing a quiet courtyard. Then we went to Sabino Canyon, a huge park on the northeast edge of the city against the mountains. The dramatic landscape is studded with saguaro cacti. We hiked out to the creek and waded in the water in a shady spot for a while. With us was Dr. Kendra Gorlitsky, with whom I serve as a mentor in the Professionalism course at our USC medical school. She joined us for Sunday and Monday’s activities.

That evening we visited the convent of Benedictine nuns of in Tucson on Country Club Rd. It’s a beautiful old 1930’s Spanish-style church and compound. We arrived for vespers – a liturgy in plainsong. The nuns then fed us a pizza dinner and they arranged the tables so each student could meet with a different group of sisters for conversation. I sat with Lenore Black, the sister who has published some of my writings in the Order’s “Spirit and Life” magazine. After dinner we filed into a side chapel for “compline”, a simple liturgy of music and plainsong. The nuns opened their gift shop and the students chatted eagerly with the sisters. As we drove back to Sahuarita, the students expressed their fascination with the monastic way of life.

Monday, 3/14: We were met at the church by Fr. Ricardo Elford, a Redemptorist priest who has been working with migrants for four decades in the Tucson area. He was one of the leaders of the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980’s, which smuggled Central American refugees into the US and housed them in churches and temples, until the government changed its policies and stopped deporting them and gave them refugee status. He gave us a history of that movement and an overview of current interfaith border justice work in southern Arizona.

With Ricardo, we visited the home of Valarie James in Green Valley. She is an artist of note in the Tucson area who has created many works that focus on migrants. In her home she maintains a “santuario” of artifacts that she and her art partner Antonia Gallegos have found on the migrant trails: water bottles covered in cloth or burlap, chidren’s backpacks, women’s bras and other clothing, shoes, torn clothing, food, toiletries, letters and mementos from loved ones left behind south of the border. (A similar exhibit prepared by Val and Antonia is now in my charge: I’m circulating it for display in churches around Los Angeles.)

From there we kept going south to Nogales for a visit to the border. We got a good look at the vast trucking complex at the port of entry. We went downtown to look through the tall border fence at the site in Nogales, Sonora, where José Rodríguez was killed by Border Patrol agents in 2012. He was suspected of throwing rocks over the fence and was shot in the back by a Border Patrol agent through a gap in the steel pilings. At this spot our students called to a woman walking by on the Mexican side. She came to the fence and we had a friendly chat with her. Then we all shook her hand, one at a time, through the border fence. It was an emotionally touching moment – as if the two countries, through our hands, had made a sign of friendship and cooperation in stark contrast to the event that had taken place there a few years before.

From Nogales we drove back north to Tumacacori Mission, another of the churches founded by Father Kino in the late 1600’s from what is now Sonora, Mexico through southern Arizona. Father Ricardo once said mass in the old church, which has been partially restored. The site is controlled by the National Park Service and next to the old sanctuary is an excellent museum with displays and dioramas depicting the dramatic events in the mission’s history.

Tuesday, 3/15: We drove in the morning to Forever Yong Farm, where organic farmers John and Yong Rueb grow garlic and greens and other crops. John spent about an hour with us, describing the impact that migrants and border enforcement has had on their lives and the lives of their neighbors in nearby Arivaca, AZ. John is active in a new local community group called People Helping People, which has overwhelming support from Arivaca residents. This group is pressuring the Border Patrol to stop operating a checkpoint on the Arivaca Road that has become a nuisance and an insult to local people who refer to the area south and east of the checkpoint as the “constitution-free zone”. “Americans should not be subjected to police routinely asking them where they are going or who they are,” said John. After our chat with him, and nibbling on muffins and freshly harvested mild radishes offered us by his wife Yong, we volunteered to do a bit of farming. Ivette and Olivia worked in the greenhouse, while the rest of us weeded a patch of the garlic field.

Then we drove through the town of Arivaca – population roughly 700 – to the west several miles and then walked on a migrant trail just inside the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge to the site where, a few years ago, one of the Green Valley Samaritans on water patrol found 64-year-old Alfonso Salas lying dead, face up, on the ground. Alfonso was headed back to the U.S. where he had lived for years to reunite with his children.

Thousands of migrants pass through this area annually, despite the new iron walls put up to deter them, despite the huge increase in border patrol agents and higher chances of being apprehended, despite the increase in migrants convicted in court of immigration violations, despite the increasing danger from drug-cartels who now control the “coyotes” who lead them across the border, despite the fewer jobs available in the US after the recession, despite the rapes and robberies suffered by migrants, despite the “funneling” of migrants between the areas with border walls into the harshest, most dangerous parts of the desert. In the fiscal year ended Sept 30, 2012, 179 bodies of migrants were found in Arizona near the border. Though the number of migrants successfully crossing has greatly declined in recent years, the same cannot be said of the number of migrant deaths in the desert. As migrants choose harsher and more remote routes into the US, the relative danger of the crossing has greatly increased. Still, the evidence of migrant journeys abounds in the desert: empty tuna cans, empty water and elecrolyte bottles, clothes discarded to lighten the load.

Across the road we hiked up another trail to the site of a Humane Borders water station. A blue plastic tank on its side, filled with water for migrants to access, was marked by a tall metal conduit pipe with a blue tarp flag waving from its top. From there we hiked up a trail dotted with abandoned migrant belongings along an arroyo. We dodged the barbs of cholla cacti and mesquite branches to put water jugs on the trail for migrants who might not want to get caught near the water tank.

Back in Arivaca we visited the office of No More Deaths and People Helping People. Katherine of No More Deaths gave us an overview of the current state of migration and border enforcement. NMD maintains a year-round camp south of Arivaca where its volunteers monitor human rights concerns regarding migrants and the Border Patrol. NMD volunteers go out on the trails to leave water jugs and to provide emergency medical attention to migrants. None of the humanitarian aid groups – NMD, Humane Borders, nor the Samaritan Patrols – engage in transporting migrants to their destinations. These groups have a mostly respectful mutual relationship with the Border Patrol, which has a policy against molesting their water stations. Though there are exceptions, generally the policy is respected. At the office, the students bought buttons and bumper stickers advocating change for justice at the border.

In the evening, we were hosted for pizza dinner by Lyn and Mike Nowakowski, who are Green Valley Samaritan volunteers. “Snowbirds” from Wisconsin, Lyn is a retired teacher and Mike is a retired judge. They showed us a film, The 800 Mile Wall, which came out in 2008. It is a documentary about the humanitarian crisis resulting from increased enforcement along the US-Mexico border.

Wednesday, 3/16: We were picked up at the church by Cynthia and Peter Dean, another retired couple active in the Green Valley Samaritans. In 4-wheel drive vehicles, they took us up the Chavez Siding Road south of Green Valley, and we bounced on the dirt tracks for a couple of hours, deep into the mountains. The scenery was spectacular: rocky buttes, blooming ocotillo cacti, lots of wildflowers blooming after a recent rain. We stopped at the No More Deaths camp and met students from all over the US, including a German social work graduate student, who volunteer there. One student was digging a cholla cactus spine out of another student’s big toe as we spoke.

From there we drove on to the head of a migrant trail and walked to a spot where the Samaritans make a regular delivery, and there we placed gallon jugs of water. Moving on, we went to a site by the dirt road where a migrant was found dead by Samaritans a few years ago. Apparently the ailing migrant believed, mistakenly, that “migra” would soon pass by him on the road. For all the massive presence of “migra” at the border, the desert is vaster than any force could monitor completely.

Further and higher, we got to a very steep hill where Peter’s truck could not maintain traction. With great difficulty and the use of shovels to dig the back tires out of the rough, we got the truck turned around. At that spot we had lunch, enjoying a dramatic view of Baboquivari, the holy mountain of the Tohono O’odham tribe, and the country between. Migrants use the sight of the distinctive volcanic plug of Baboquivari to orient them as they move north through the relatively less vertiginous landscape between Arivaca and the reservation.

The Deans then took us to Green Valley to a trail leading uphill from a rural neighborhood. About a mile up the trail are two sites marked by crosses memorializing migrants whose dead bodies were found there.

Back at the church, in the evening, we lit a campfire of mesquite branches, admired the Milky Way, and told ghost stories.

Thursday, 3/17: In the morning we heard Randy Mayer, pastor of Good Shepherd Church, talk about the work of his congregation for border justice – it’s the main service focus of this lively church. It includes mostly retired people, but for being located in a retirement community it has more young families than many other local congregations. Over 70 of the members go out into the desert regularly to drop water on the trails: the church is the fiscal agent and host for the Green Valley Samaritans.

We then went on a hike up in the Santa Rita Mountains above Madera Canyon, a completely different ecosystem from the desert below: pine trees, Arizona oaks, rare birds flitting in the trees. Then we drove south to Tumacacori to visit the Santa Rosa Chile Company. Pungent aromas wafted our way before we even got out of the car! All of us eagerly purchased chile powders and sauces to take home.

After some exploring and shopping in Tucson, that evening we had dinner at El Minuto Café next to El Tiradito in the barrio south of downtown, where Fr. Ricardo led the vigil for migrants who have died. He’s led it weekly for about 12 years, gathering border justice advocates and activists. It has the function of a meeting of people from many organizations in Tucson concerned with the needs of migrants. There were prayers, announcements of events, and the lighting of the memorial candle for the dead migrants. Veladoras twinkled on the old adobe wall of El Tiradito (The Castaway), a long-time folk shrine centered on a ruined adobe wall, dedicated to the memory of lost love.

From there we went to Clinica Amistad, hosted by Father Ricardo, who manages it. It was packed with patients who don’t have any insurance. It’s a once-a-week, all-volunteer, integrative clinic offering basic medical care as well as counseling, Reiki, and acupuncture.

Friday, 3/18: First thing in the morning, we drove to Southside Presbyterian Church, Tucson – a hub of immigrant justice activity. It’s a church in the barrio with a sanctuary that is built in the manner of an Anasazi Indian ritual kiva – circular, partly below grade, with wooden “vigas” and saguaro-spine “latillas” in the ceiling. In the courtyard is a terracotta panel made by Valarie James, imprinted with the soles of shoes left by migrants on the trails, as a memorial to those who cross the desert. We talked with the jornaleros (day laborers) at Southside’s Day Labor Registry, while people swirled in and out of the courtyard for the twice-weekly breakfast for the homeless that the church provides. After the breakfast, where our students worked in the serving line, we met with Mike Wilson, a member of the Tohono O’odham tribe who has been placing water stations on the reservation despite a ban by the tribe on doing so. Mike expressed his frustration with the tribe as well as with border justice activists who refuse to criticize the tribe for its intransigence in addressing humanitarian concerns. We then met with Alison Harrington, the pastor of the church, who gave us the history of the congregation’s involvement in border justice, dating back to its work in founding the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980’s.

We then went into downtown Tucson to wander the 4th Street Fair – booths up and down the strip selling Southwest-y stuff of all kinds.

In the afternoon we went to Tucson’s US Federal Court to witness Operation Streamline. About 70 migrant in chains, wearing the same sweaty clothes in which they were caught crossing, sat in the upper level of the courtroom, waiting to be tried for the crime of illegal entry into the United States. This proceeding happens in several border cities as a way to criminalize them in an attempt to deter them from entering the US immediately after being deported. “Culpable… culpable… culpable…” they said, pleading guilty, and then walking out in chains to be jailed and then deported. Students from around the country, also doing spring break border justice programs, were in the courtroom with us – many of them in tears as they witnessed the silent parade of misery before them. Also present was Phil Torrey, professor of law at Harvard. Outside the courtroom, he and I considered how Streamline can be stopped. The process is “by the book”, in legal technical terms – but to him and to me, the aggregate of those technicalities was morally unconscionable. He was appalled by the inhumanity and injustice of the process. (We also talked about the “civil initiative” legal concept developed by the late border justice activist Jim Corbett, who was the nearest thing to a “guru” in my life. Phil was aware of Corbett’s work.) Phil spoke to our students briefly about his view that the migrants are not afforded adequate representation when they only have about 15 or 20 minutes with an attorney to make the life-changing decision whether or not to plead guilty to a charge that will result in their inability to benefit from any future immigration reform that could give them legal status as residents of the US.

It was time for a break from this emotional intensity, so we went to El Charro, an old Sonoran-style Mexican restaurant in Old Town, for a final feast. “Carne seca” is the signature Sonoran-style dish of the restaurant – dried, shredded, tasty beef.

Saturday, 3/19: We got on the road by about 7:30 am – an achievement in itself! As we rolled through the desert, Ivette, Daniela, and Olivia sang along to Mexican corridos – including the hilarious and poignant “Los Mandados” by Vicente Fernandez. The song’s protagonist is deported 300 times, through every crossing on the border:

Through Mexicali I entered
And I came out at Rio Colorado
I crossed through all of the borders
As contraband and as wetback
But I never cowered
I came and went to the other side

I know all of the border crossings
Paths, rivers and canals
From Tijuana to Reynosa
From Matamoros to Juarez
From Piedras Negras to El Paso
And from Agua Prieta to Nogales….

At 4:30 our desert crossing ended as we pulled up to the University Religious Center at USC….


“Mojados in the Promised Land”, a song modified from a poem I wrote several years ago and dedicated to the interfaith border justice activists around Tucson, is based on the beautiful vision in the book of Revelation of an international, multi-ethnic, heavenly city coming down to earth. My late singer/songwriter friend, Lisa Atkinson, turned my poem into a beautiful Mexican-style waltz on her CD, “Connie’s Songbird”. (You can get the song at . ) Below are the words:

Mojados In the Promised Land
(Revelation 21-22)
Tune by Lisa Atkinson and George Kincheloe
Words by Jim Burklo and Lisa Atkinson

We are all mojados in the promised land
We’ll cross that bright river today
All our backs will be wet when we finally stand
At the throne of God someday

Nobody’s thirsty in the promised land
Coyote can’t steal your soul
Buzzards don’t glide over desert sands
There is no border patrol

There are no migra at the pearly gates
No fake ID’s to buy
They don’t take your money and leave you to fate
You can’t get caught in a lie

You won’t get deported from the promised land
You cross over there, you are home
It’s our place to build and our place to stand
Heaven to earth, kingdom come

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