Wednesday, February 23, 2011

No More Deaths! Why We Help Deportees


While a great many Arizonans have compassion for undocumented immigrants, those most outspoken on the issue are a ruthless bunch. Their venom includes those like us who work for human rights, but it's primarily directed at the immigrants themselves. Of course, most of them have little or no contact with the real situation of immigrants.

A few weeks ago I was working with a friend from No More Deaths in Nogales Mexico when I met a recent deportee whose trouble has become ever more common. Several months before, Antonio had driven to the neighborhood grocery store to pick up some food for his family’s supper while his wife was cooking dinner. A police officer stopped him, but wouldn’t say why. He asked Antonio for his (immigration) papers.; knowing his rights, he told the officer he did not have to answer that question. Then the officer informed him that he had an outstanding warrant, which turned out to be false when he got to court, “an unfortunate case of mistaken identity.”

By the time he had his day in court, however, he had spent more than 60 days in detention. Not for any crime. Simply because he refused to provide the officer with proof of his legal status. When threatened with deportation, he insisted on a hearing. He was told he would probably spend 60-90 days in detention. The unspoken threat was that, unless he would plead guilty and accept deportation, he would be unable to to help his family for the next two months.

Then he was transferred to a holding prison in Eloy, Arizona -- too far from Phoenix for his family to visit. No prior conviction and no priors, for a misdemeanor!

The Eloy facility houses 1500 immigrants awaiting judicial hearing. If detainees have not been convicted of any crime, they are not supposed to be kept in prison, cut off from their families. So why are they imprisoned at Eloy? Therein lies another issue that I will address at another time. Let me simply point out that this is a private prison and that the per diem cost to the federal government is just short of $70 a day. For 1500 prisoners, the bill is over $100,000 per day. What is the logic of this, you ask, in this time of huge government deficits. No logic is money. However, what drives this process is the rising political influence of the “prison-industrial complex,” led by CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) and the Geo Group (formerly, Wackenhut). I'll explain this in an upcoming blog.

The day I met Antonio in Nogales, was one day after he had been deported. He was hoping to get a ticket to Mexico City, where he had a cousin and was able to obtain employment. NMD helped him to call his wife so she would know where he was. She hopes to join him once he gets established in Mexico City, even though she and the children are all American citizens. NMD also assisted him to get some of his clothing transported from Phoenix to Nogales, to find a place to eat and sleep for a few days and to document his treatment by the police, the Eloy prison, and his 10-minute deportation hearing in court, without a lawyer. The ruthless critics say, Why bother? They’re illegal!

Antonio had been steadily employed for the past 12 years; he felt his job was secure. His English, while not from a book, was easily understood. His children were all in school and progressing nicely. He wondered why he was stopped, and jailed, and deported, and what would happen to his family. Since then, I too have wondered about each of these questions.

The part of Antonio's situation that gnaws at me the most has been a breakup of his family. I freely admit that being a recent first-time grandfather has altered the way that I think about his situation. I suspect it would have the same effect on most grandfathers…if they allow themselves to think about it.

Our grandson Pedro is 11 months old now. He and his mother have lived with us since his birth. He is the dominating reality of our lives, just like our daughter and her brother were when they were growing up.

Our everyday highlights are the changes in Pedro's life, any new achievements, any new awareness of what we can do to help him to have an additional opportunity in life. I imagine myself as an immigrant like Antonio, and ask myself how far I would go to give him the opportunities he now has.

Like all grandparents, I worry about all the crazy things that might happen that would take him from us, or us from him.

Fortunately, I don't have to worry about the one thing that all immigrants have to worry about – the fear that Jean or I, or his mother Barbara might, at the whim of a police stop for no reason, suddenly disappear from his life. And while my first thought is probably about my own loss, my most persistent thought is about his. Because I know it would be incomprehensible to him, and would undermine the trust that now makes him so joyful.

So, when I think about why we do what we do to support deportees in Nogales, I think most of all about Antonio’s family. I have no doubt that he will spare no effort to be reconnected with them, even if it means they must move to Mexico City and face a more difficult situation than they face in Phoenix. I worry about the days and months ahead. When his three children will wonder every day, what happened to Papi? And I worry about whether they will even be able to reconnect in Mexico City due to the cost. And I ask my self, what are we trying to do!? What is our political "leadership" thinking about, other than their own political futures?

This is a question that weighs on me every day when I read the Daily Star in Tucson. In a later blog I will try to describe what is happening in the Arizona Legislature. Meanwhile, I ask you to think about Antonio too. And think about your own child or grandchild, and the impact this kind of a justice system would have on them. And think about how you would try to explain it to them. And think about what you would do to try to protect them. And think about how you would act politically to change the political climate that is deaf to the pain of these children.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

No More Deaths! #2: Keeping Immigrants Alive

During the college spring break period, as during the summer, college students and other volunteers, mostly in their 20s, live in NMD’s rugged desert “camp,” for a week, or occasionally for 2 or even 3 weeks. They get up before dawn, and fan out across miles of known migrant trails for hours, leaving basic foods and gallon jugs of water at resting places. They use GPS maps updated regularly with information from our NMD volunteers and our sister organizations, Samaritans and Humane Borders.

Occasionally volunteers actually see a group of migrants led by a hired guide (“coyote”) hurrying along the trails. At other times they directly encounter a migrant, usually because s/he has been separated from the group, and needs medical assistance, or is just too sick or exhausted to continue. If the migrant fits that description, we ask if he or she wants us to call the Border Patrol for help, and more often than not, the answer is Yes. Hired coyotes rarely have a relationship with their clients, and generally insist on forging ahead, leaving the injured behind with nothing more than a bottle of water and an vague promise that help is not far away. In the desert, an injured ankle is often a death sentence, and a volunteer who comes upon an injured immigrant is literally fulfilling the mission of No More Deaths.

Other volunteers work in Nogales, Sonora (Mexico) or other border towns, helping deportees with needed supplies or to get in touch with their families. These deportees usually have been stripped of their money, identification, cell phones, prescriptions, and all other possessions before being deported. They are often in need of medical attention because of severe injuries suffered in the desert, or sometimes at the hands of the Border Patrol. Documenting abuse has become an important part of our work along the border.

Jean and I don’t do much of our work in the desert. Those who do that work are either young single volunteers who live in desert or other sites for a week or more, or volunteers who live in Tucson and drive 100+ miles roundtrip to the desert, once a week or more, then spend the rest of the day walking the trails. That is harder for us because of the circumstances of our lives.

5 years ago when we bought our house 20 miles north of downtown Tucson, we didn’t know much about No More Deaths. Now we know that we are 20 miles further from the desert than our fellow volunteers and we drive thousands of extra miles in our 6-8 months here. But the collapse of housing prices makes it difficult to move. So, we do support work.

Much of our work is logistical. Jean has taken on the lead responsibility for feeding the 150+ college students who come to Tucson every year during Spring break to learn about and to participate in NMD’s work. What Jean does, and I support, has given me a new respect for logistics units in the army. It reminds me of Napoleon’s aphorism: “An army marches on its belly!” (Translation: without sufficient good food, not only morale but also effectiveness plummets.)

But the biggest challenge in our schedule is that we are blessed with regular care for our 11-month-old grandson Pedro. Our daughter Barbara is a case manager with Catholic Community Services. We could claim that we have to provide for his care two days a week, but every grandparent knows that would be a lie. If we weren’t fortunate to have Pedro living with us, we would happily be driving across town or across the country for the opportunity to be with him! In future blogs you will inevitably get better acquainted with Pedro.

So we do other support work. We try to attend the Monday night strategy meetings every week, to track the effectiveness of NMD work with the migrants, and to strategize what to do in the highly polarized political environment -- primarily in Tucson and Arizona, but also nationally. We give talks about the situation in Tucson when we are home in Detroit.

And now with this blog, we hope to share with you our perceptions of the
situation here in Arizona – and hope you will share your views with us and oth

REMINDER: Jean and I will be showing part of a new film, “The 800 Mile Wall” and sharing our experiences with No More Deaths! In DETROIT

TOMORROW, Thursday Feb. 17 @ 5:00-6:30pm
University of Detroit Mercy, Livernois at McNichols (6 Mile Rd)
310 Briggs (classroom) Building

Sunday, February 6, 2011

No More Deaths! - INTRODUCTION

Hi! I’m Charlie Rooney, a longtime Michigan Coalition for Human Rights (MCHR) board member and former chair. In this blog, “TROUBLE ON THE BORDER,” I will be sharing impressions about the human rights and general political climate in Southern Arizona. Jean and I have been living here in Tucson six months or more every year since 2005, and it feels like it's time to share some thoughts.

I decided to start with an overview of the work being done by “No More Deaths!” (NMD), the human rights group we work with to save immigrant lives. In upcoming weeks I will be flushing out the outline below, and hope that this will keep you abreast of what's happening here in Arizona.

FYI---On the following dates Jean and I will be in Detroit, explaining our work with NMD and showing a recently released film. “The 800 Mile Wall” is a documentary about the U.S. strategy to funnel undocumented immigrants into the most dangerous areas of the border.

Thursday, Feb. 10, 7:30 pm at Gesu parish community house, 17180 Oak Drive, Detroit, MI
Thursday, Feb. 17, 5pm at the University of Detroit Mercy, 310 Briggs (classroom building)

Originally Jean and I migrated to Tucson during the coldest months in Detroit because of her health. Before long, we became involved in the work of “No More Deaths!”

Understanding our new environment has proven to be quite a challenge! Increasingly during this period, Arizona has become a national proving ground for the most extreme elements of the anti-immigrant movement. In this blog, I will try to explain some of the issues here in Arizona of greatest concern to human rights advocates everywhere. I will begin with an outline of some of the issues that I will be explaining further in upcoming blogs.

I hope this will be more than a report from a distant land. It seems to me that the same problems we are facing here in Arizona affect, and infect, the rest of the country, and indeed, the world. The most important way to demonstrate those connections is for you who read the blog to add your point of view. Please respond! Add, challenge, illustrate, ask about things you read about Arizona. Let us know how you see the issues relating. Help me and your fellow readers too “Connect the dots” between Arizona and Detroit.

If this was emailed to you via Constant Contact, it’s because we at MCHR thought you might be interested. If you want to read it regularly after this short ‘trial period,’ use this link:


No More Deaths! focuses its efforts primarily in several areas: 1. Rescue Work in the desert north and west of Nogales (twin border cities: Arizona/AZ and Sonora, Mexico); 2. Medical Relief and general support for deportees arriving daily in Nogales, Sonora. 3. Human Rights treatment of immigrants. 4. Legislation, especially by the Arizona authorities; and Enforcement policies of the federal authorities (mainly Border Patrol and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE)

1. Rescue Work. Traditionally, this has been the specific role of NMD. We are one of seven or eight human rights groups involved in one way or another with protecting the rights of immigrants in the border area. I'll explain how this work has become more complicated since 2000 by the federal policy of "funneling" immigrants into the most dangerous areas of the desert in southern Arizona.

2. Support Work with Deportees. Though the number of deportees has ebbed and flowed considerably in the past several years, during the past year the numbers have been lower than recent years. In the last few months, however, the numbers are ballooning. When migrants are deported from this area, they usually wind up in Nogales, Sonora, with no money, often significant medical problems, no documents, and almost no resources for contacting their families.

3. Human Rights Treatment. There are a great many abuses that NMD has been documenting through migrant interviews for the past several years. These were published in a sizable book about two years ago (“Human Rights Abuses of Migrants in Short-Term Custody on the Arizona/Sonora Border.”), and an updated version is expected to be published soon. The number of migrant deaths in the desert last 10 years is staggering; most readers are astonished the first time they hear the facts.

4. Legislation/Enforcement. Legislation by the Arizona Legislature has become notorious in the past year with the passage of SB 1070, which opened the door to a flood of anti-immigrant proposals across the USA. Fortunately the ruling of the federal judge in response to the federal government's challenge to 1070 has put the brakes on the most extreme legislative proposals in other states. But here in Arizona, where the extreme right wing holds sway in the legislature and to a lesser degree in the governor's office, extreme legislation is proposed routinely. The most remarkable recent one is a a direct contradiction to the 14th amendment of the Constitution, threatening to deny citizenship to children born in the United States to undocumented immigrants.

Enforcement. In some important respects, Enforcement policies have improved under the Obama administration. In other respects, they have worsened. The number of deportees has increased. The focus has changed and is now focused more on prosecuting businesses who employ illegal immigrants. The bottom line however is that our work has become slightly less menacing for human rights workers, but not so for immigrants. Much of the problem starts here in the private sector, the "prison industrial complex."

All of the foregoing needs to be explained in much greater detail. For those not very familiar with the border problems I'll explain in blogs to come, and at the same time highlight the human dimension, how all this affects immigrants. Stay tuned.