Monday, August 9, 2010

Just how do we become the change we seek?

“We will not comply! We will not comply!” filled the air in downtown Phoenix on Thursday, July 29th – the day that Arizona’s harshly anti-immigrant bill SB 1070 went into effect. I was co-leading a BorderLinks delegation of faith leaders from across the U.S. who came to be in solidarity against SB 1070. We watched as small groups of people were arrested in an effort to take a public stand against the law. A few hundred people took over one city block downtown to raise their voices in protest; police in full riot gear worked their way into the middle of the crowd and gradually separated them until all protestors were pushed back onto the sidewalks. On one side of the police unit was a crowd of people yelling, “Cops and the Klan go hand in hand!” while on the other side a line of Unitarians spanned the crosswalk sporting their yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” t-shirts. The tension in the air was as tangible as the humidity.

Back in Tucson that afternoon, we joined with a crowd of people who had taken over the intersection between the State Building and the Federal Courthouse. I recognized many faces in the crowd, for this is a community that has mobilized frequently in recent months in response to the constant public attacks on immigrants. In March we organized in response to an ICE raid that shut down the Southside, where many immigrant families live. In May over 7,000 people hit the streets of Tucson for a May Day March in support of just immigration policies. We’ve seen youth leading the actions in protest of SB 1070 and HB 2281 (which bans ethnic studies programs in public schools). The voices of Arizona communities are rising in incredibly powerful ways against the strong tide of racist fears and nativism that have become the public face of Arizona.

Several young adults held signs proclaiming, “Undocumented and Unafraid”, and my stomach churned when I saw them. They may not be afraid, but I am. What if they really are undocumented and they get arrested? Will they be deported, or can they fight for their cases in court? What abuses will they suffer in the process? Do they know anyone in Mexico, and do they even speak Spanish? If they want to return to the U.S., will they cross the deadly Sonoran desert to reunite with their families? It hurts me to even imagine being forcibly separated from my family, and I know people in Tucson who live in daily fear of that happening to them. God of justice and love, we are lost in the wilderness! What have we become, that we ignore hundreds of deaths in the desert every year while our media plays on popular fears about immigrants? What have we become, that we would dehumanize people in the name of upholding bad laws? That we ignore our own complicity in the drug trade, migration, global economics, and the separation of families?

The interaction between protestors and police was relatively calmer in Tucson than in Phoenix, but it was clear in both cities that not everyone agrees on tactics or messaging. While some see the police as enemies, others see them as potential allies. Some want to talk about racism, others want to avoid that word altogether. There is no single, clear path for reaching the transformation we seek. I’ve been struggling with this question a lot recently: Should we push for smaller goals that may seem more practical and attainable, or is that compromising too much? Should we hold out for our ideals, or is that so unrealistic that it prevents any change from happening at all? Let me give you a concrete example: there’s been much debate about the border wall and border security. Some pro-immigrant groups attempt to build alliances by saying “Of course we all want to secure the border. We can all agree that we don’t want open borders.” For border communities, border security has come to mean militarization, destruction of fragile ecosystems, alienation of communities from each other, and human deaths in the desert. The border is much more nuanced than simply “open” or “closed”, and the phrase “border security” doesn’t fully communicate what happens down here on la frontera. Another example: should we be talking about NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) reform on a national level, or focusing only on reforming our immigration policies? I believe that large-scale immigration will continue as long as we fail to address how international agreements and business practices destabilize local economies and force people to leave their home communities. But some would say that talking about NAFTA reform is too big and controversial, and won’t ultimately get us anywhere.

Conflicts over how to push forward and what to push for have already been dividing our movements for immigrant justice, and part of me fears that we’ll never get it together enough to get something done. The other part of me is humbled by the multiplicity of people who are passionately working to transform the U.S.’s policies, public messages, and social assumptions about immigration. I live in this tension between differing approaches to the task before us, and here on the border we both struggle with and celebrate each other’s perspectives. I place my hope in a people who can come to recognize where our shared values meet, who continue being passionate without denying the humanity of others, who see the ripple effects of decisions we make today. I place my hope in a God who is in the midst of all this muck and chaos and beauty that we’re living in. Gracias a Dios que la lucha sigue!

Margi Ault-Duell works as a Program Organizer for BorderLinks in Tucson, AZ. Her work focuses on educating people from across the nation about the U.S.-Mexico border, the causes and effects of immigration, and the ways that power, privilege, and oppression weave throughout our lives. She's a United Methodist young adult and recent graduate from Drew Theologial School.

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