Last weekend, friends of mine came from the east coast to southern Arizona for the School of the Americas Watch Border Encuentro. Over three days and dozens of miles, hundreds of people gathered to witness against “border imperialism” and speak for the voiceless and disenfranchised. I joined them one evening for a vigil outside the Eloy immigrant detention center, an hour north of Tucson.
We gathered on the edge of a dirt field as the sun was setting in fiery beauty. People met and mingled, a band started playing, friends took photos of each other holding signs. The stage was the back of a white pickup truck, flanked by large speakers. At our feet, incongruously nestled in the dirt, was a scattering of small, white seashells, evidence perhaps of the ancient seabed upon which we were standing.
Behind us, across a two-lane roadway, a tall fence topped with loops of razor wire separated us from multiple multi-story concrete immigrant detention center buildings. One speaker told us that this detention center, which can hold almost 1600 people, is the deadliest in the country in terms of immigrant deaths. Certainly it is a massive facility, built in a sparsely populated county, far from “civilization.”
As the twilight deepened, volunteers distributed glow sticks—a safer alternative to candles. We joined Poets of the Revolution in bilingual call-and-response chants. We turned toward the detention center and repeatedly shouted, “No estás solo,” meaning “You are not alone.” We heard personal stories of people who had been traumatized by incidents with border patrol and ICE agents. We took photos of candlelit signs and videos of the chants, posting the images on social media.
I left before the vigil ended, assisting my friends in getting an elderly woman safely to her car through the dark across treacherous sand (I had remembered to tuck a flashlight in the back pocket of my jeans). I took a few moments to walk closer to the detention center property—though not close enough to engage with the guards—and thought about all those people behind each of the windows.
I thought about their fears, which had driven them to leave their homelands to seek safety and prosperity elsewhere. I thought about their hopes and dreams, which are probably similar to those felt by so many of our ancestors, who entered the US a century ago through Ellis Island, or two centuries ago in fragile wooden boats, in search of religious freedom. I said a prayer for all those people behind all those windows, cut off from the sandy earth upon which I stood, protected from the elements, but not from political battles over their status and their future.
Ultimately, the answer to stopping the flood of refugees seeking a better life in America is complex and would require massive structural changes. The wars of a century ago in Europe fueled much of the Ellis Island traffic. The drug wars of today in Latin America are fueling much of today’s immigrant traffic—and those combating cartels are funded by Americans’ insatiable desire for illegal drugs. It is a very vicious circle and none of us can fully stand outside of it. We are all complicit, in the way we treat one another. If someone feels they need drugs to cope with life, the rest of us are doing something wrong.
I do not have answers. At this point, I only have prayers. Will you join me in praying for these people, detained in the Eloy detention center, and for our strife-torn, beautiful world?
P.S. Less than two weeks after this vigil, my east-coast friend who invited me to join them for this vigil died from complications after heart surgery. Do your part to speak up and make a difference while you can….