This week I have the privilege of spending a week on the US/Mexico border representing United Methodist Women. My visit begins in El Paso, Texas, where I am attending a joint meeting of the Mexican Border Mission Network (MBMN) and the United Methodist Immigration Task Force. I am joined by my wonderful UMW colleagues, Cindy Johnson of Rio Grande Conference, a Deaconess and consultant to UMW National Office on our Immigrant & Civil Rights Initiative, and Ellen Lipsey representing New Mexico Conference UMW, and a member of our national Program Advisory Group. I’ll also be heading to Brownsville, TX with Cindy to learn more about the current situation there and church and community responses. I’ll do my best to share with you some of the highlights of this week, as a Northern girl comes to the border zone.
Cindy and I took a mid-day stroll around downtown El Paso. This city was a center of the garment industry in the 1980s. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, 1994) opened trade between the US, Mexico and Canada, and the textile industry packed up and moved to the “maquiladora” zones in Mexico, leaving thousands jobless and decimating the El Paso industry. It’s been a long way back. Despite growth in industry, which has focused on expansion outside center city, much of the downtown felt rundown and somewhat abandoned.
Today El Paso, which is right on the Mexican border, relies on trucking from Mexico as a major source of employment and income (contributing to pollution as trucks idle at the border crossing). Call centers are another primary employer in the city—offering low-wage service sector jobs. Industries include agriculture, food production, electronic and medical equipment. Schools are a major employer, as is the military (Fort Bliss), and US government agencies including Homeland Security. Unemployment was 7.7% as of this summer. Many of the jobs lost to NAFTA have been replaced by low-wage service sector jobs.
Contrast this struggling downtown to a huge El Paso County Detention Facility that we encountered in the center of town, just across from a beautiful historic church. We took a walk around the facility to honor the “Jericho Walk” that members of the New Sanctuary Movement do each week at the ICE headquarters in New York City (sometimes joined by our Deaconess candidates and myself on one occasion). Dressed in white they sound the shofar and silently walk around the walls seven times, as Joshua led his people to do. Their call is for the walls of ICE detention to come tumbling down.
We walked around the massive facility (though not seven times!) and as we rounded the corner we saw about twenty Latino men and women detainees dressed in blue overalls, guided by two white guards. They were hand-cuffed to each other, marching two by two, evoking images of a prison chain gang. It was really inhuman! It hit me in the gut—so dehumanizing! (See my facebook page for photos –Carol Barton UMW). It was my first introduction to border enforcement. We smiled at them, gave them signs of encouragement, and got smiles in return. Handcuffed, the whole group was jammed into the back of a white, unmarked van, and whisked off.
As we crossed the street we saw a policeman on bicycle stopping a young Latina woman’s car. She had to get out, show papers, and he searched her trunk. I went through two Border Patrol check points in New Mexico this past weekend. I was asked if I’m a US citizen, said yes, and was waived on. No request for proof. If I were Brown this would not be the case—what else can this be but routine racial profiling?
So, before our meetings had even begun we got a glimpse of the harassment of Brown folks and incarceration of immigrants here on the border…