Brown at the Borders

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Note: This is a personal experience of a Filipino volunteering for a month at the Kino Border Initiative feeding center for deported migrants in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. I temporarily stay at the Jesuit community in Nogales, Arizona. The one-month experience is part of Tertianship, a formation stage in the life of Jesuits.

Crossing a border isn’t a walk in the park. Especially if you come from Mexico and even when entering with legal papers. They will check your passport, ask you routine questions like, “Where are you coming from?” “Where do you live in the US?” If you’re friendly, they will bring you to a little room, search your bag, and take your passport for double checking; while you stare at dirty walls for 20 minutes! It is what the US Customs and Border Protection calls, a secondary inspection. One day, I approached the inspector with a stoic face and a sparse answer, he swiped my passport and let me pass peacefully! To me, passing without detention was like a pink diamond. Fr. Peter Neeley SJ told me friendliness is considered dubious here.

Moreover, if you’re not a citizen, you are always subjected to racial profiling. If you’re brown, they will suspect you have some shady business in Mexico. Many migrants are brown, with their indigenous blood undoubtedly displayed. How I wish I could tell border guards: “I’m a priest and I volunteer at the kitchen, feeding the migrants YOU deport!” Or, “I am here for a new experience: Where I come from, the islands are hospitable and its people are warm. Our borders are blue-green waters, outlined by palm trees and white sand beaches. Las Islas Filipinas are more worthy of protection, except we decided to share them to the world. We greet strangers with a sunny smile, not with suspicion.”

If I have been subjected to profiling, how much more undocumented migrants? The annals have it that a large part of the United States like California, Arizona and Texas have been part of Nuevo España. Like a landlord who have power over slaves, European settlers have acquired the land with the sword and their offsprings have set up its walls. The Mexicans say that they’re headed to the US to reclaim what has been theirs.

Psychology has it that the greedy have been deprived; those with authority-power issues have been the powerless. A joke about the Parish priest of the University of the Philippines have circulated one time that the insecure have not been a class officer in primary school. These are the types of people who will build walls: true enough, the church in UP which have been built openly is now fenced; and the country which have welcomed immigrants in history is now territorial.

Even the title accorded to discoverers of the New World is a European perspective. The lands have already existed before conquistadores arrived in its shores. Anthropological studies tell us that indigenous people have settled there before the colonizers. Ferdinand Magellan who arrived in Philippine soil in 1521, didn’t discover us: we had flourishing trade with the Chinese and the Malay people before he came with the sword and the cross. All he did was attach us to Spain, record us on paper, and shove into our throats that his culture was far more superior than the pre-Hispanic people. Good we have retained the habit of bathing twice a day. That can never be attributed to Spanish influence.

I enter the US border from Mexico almost every day. And almost every time, I was led to a little room where I found myself in the company of many whose skin was a shade lighter or darker as mine. If you have more melanin, they turn you in. Some of the border officers have been friendly and courteous, but you couldn’t ward the feeling that you’ve been subjected to suspicion and in a way treated you the way colonizers regarded natives. Good, no one had manhandled me. There was a girl at the Morley Gate in Nogales who entered without papers. I saw her handcuffed and heard her being interrogated. She didn’t say a word, but her eyes revealed gripping fear. It was there that I palpably felt a repulsion: this isn’t my country; this isn’t where I would like to breathe my last.

It is a misconception that a large number of the world likes America. And if Arizona is the last place on earth, I’d rather see the Creator face to face ahora mismo!

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer should be stranded on a lonely atoll in the middle of the Pacific, or fed to cannibals, except that cannibals eat the human heart depending on the strength of character of its victim. Hers is not worth the attention.

My point is simple: Treat migrants, undocumented or not, humanely because your ancestors, Jan Brewer, were immigrants. If you’re a Christian, all the more. Jesus was once a refugee in Egypt. But I guess not. That ordinance of yours that exhorts even hospitals to turn in the undocumented makes your territory colder. The implication: Migrants would rather die in sickness than be separated from their families forever.

Arizona law states that the local police can pick you up at the slightest suspicion, ergo, based on one’s look and skin. It is controversial because it is arbitrary and it takes the job from the federal government. Fr. Pete Neeley SJ said that Vincenzo, an Italian didn’t have too much trouble entering the border gates. Many others from Europe were able to pass peacefully. But Justin Mungkal SJ, a Jesuit of Indian descent, was treated like me. And he was an American citizen. I don’t know with Justin, but I can now memorize every single detail of the little room of the border from my daily visits. I want to tell the border police: the people who once own this land have brown skin. And you locked them up in forest reserves.

I am told to carry my passport wherever I go in Arizona because you can be picked up anytime. Last week (April 24-27, 2011 thereabouts), the local newspaper El Imparcial reported around 2,500+ migrants deported. We meet them everyday, and they are brown-skinned Hispanics.

The heart of Arizona’s government is as inhospitable as its desert and as cold as its nights in winter. Many migrants have died under such heart! 2010 recorded its deadliest with 214 human remains recovered from the Southern Arizona desert.

It is a tragedy that the state government’s corazon does not mirror the beauty of Arizona’s majestic sandscapes and its residents. The redeeming factor for my enjoyment are the Jesuits and friends I meet here, whose concern are the least of society. Groups from Tucson donate items for the migrants, and students from the University of Arizona help out either at the feeding center or the small clinic which provide basic medical care. Dan Millis, a citizen, placed water for migrants at the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge and was charged with littering on September 2008. It is all the government could fault him; they have to concoct a crime to undermine a greater humanitarian act! Water on trails taken by migrants cannot be trash, by the very fact of its intention: Water prevents death by heat exposure.

There are more times I realize how lucky and happy I am that I live in a group of islands. Little mounds of land that rise and submerge with the ebb of the tides. When you live with a neighbor, the tendency is to be territorial. When you live separated by water, the tendency is to be relational.

Have you ever noticed, when you bumped into Filipinos in a foreign country, you can enter into a conversation like long-time friends? Then they will take your picture, get your Facebook, and in a few hours, you get a friend request, which you cannot resist to add – without second thoughts!

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