Drive a Spoke into the Wheels of Injustice
Words of faith and civil disobedience on the US-Mexico border
Earlier this week, a dozen people were sentenced for a 2013 act of civil disobedience in southern Arizona. The protestors were arrested for obstructing a highway and being public nuisance when they locked themselves to a busload of migrants on their way to be criminally prosecuted for entry/reentry through the US-government-run program, Operation Streamline.
Below is the sentencing statement read by our friend Maryada Vallet, who has covered migrant and border patrol issues for us for the past several years. We like how clearly she articulates the fuel for her activism: faith in a God of radical love and justice.
Statement made to Judge Susan Bacal in Tucson, Arizona, on 20 July 2015:
My name is Maryada Vallet. I grew up in Phoenix and was raised as an evangelical Christian with strong values around family and faith. I moved to Tucson 10 years ago, because I felt I needed to do something to address the mounting humanitarian crisis of people dying while crossing the border from Mexico into Arizona.
I joined the volunteer humanitarian group No More Deaths and began putting water out on the migrant trails of the Sonoran Desert. That was a pivotal moment for me. It was my "desert wandering" time, where I found my strong calling to be an ally to migrants and to advocate for human dignity and compassion in these borderlands that have been strategically made into a gauntlet of suffering and death for migrants.
I devoted all of my 20s to this service and activism. I received room and board and $10 pay per week to do this work by living at a local soup kitchen called Casa Maria. In 2006, I started a project of No More Deaths, just across the border in Nogales, Sonora, to provide basic aid to people being deported and literally dumped off by the busload at the ports of entry. At that time there were no other services immediately available for them, so we made a makeshift hospitality tent and clinic space to offer aid to those fresh out of Border Patrol custody, where they had faced medical neglect and abuse. It was an off-shore refugee camp. Like some cruel game, up to 1,000 people a day were arrested in southern Arizona and dumped back into Mexico. As a trained EMT, I washed and bandaged hundreds of sore and blistered feet. I listened to the courageous stories of people risking their lives to escape violence or poverty; like my own father and mother, they would do anything to try and give their children a future.
But after 2008, there was a noticeable shift in the demographic of people that the US was repatriating. We saw fewer people who were crossing into the US for their first time; the economic downturn in the US meant US jobs were scarcer. But at the same time, the new Obama administration ramped up interior immigration enforcement, which meant rounding up people who had lived many years in the US, and eventually bussing many of them to the border. On any given day I was working to reconnect people with their loved ones in cities across the country, even with a simple phone call to say, "I'm alive. I'm coming home." This was also the era of Operation Streamline's cruel design.
Operation Streamline aims to crush people's hopes and dreams of return: I remember sitting with a grandfather who lived 30+ years in Washington, where he had worked in agriculture to provide a home for two generations of his family; I remember a bold and beautiful mother of three US-citizen children who she said were awaiting her return to North Carolina. The US Sentencing Commission recently reported that about 50% of immigrant re-entry offenders have children living in the US. They all said the word culpable (guilty) while shackled in front of a judge, with no due process and little understanding of how that word could forever ruin their chances of legalizing their status to be with their families and continue their lives again in the US. Their determination, despite the injustice they faced that was designed to beat them down, has shown me what it is to be a human being under dire circumstances, and it has inspired and convicted me to act.
I locked myself under the Operation Streamline bus as a true expression of my faith. I believe in a God of radical love and inclusion who sets the captives free. Operation Streamline is a modern-day slave trade steeped with racism, selling shackled migrants to fill the beds of private prisons for 30, 60, 180 days, and years if caught again. My conduct that day may have been a "public nuisance," but for that one day it prevented an unethical and unjust harm to 70 people on those buses, people like those I've met in Nogales. "We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself," as German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said.
We all must do our part.
I currently work as an international consultant for a firm based in Tucson that evaluates international humanitarian and development programs. I'm working on projects, for example, that involve Colombians in Ecuador who fled drug war conflict, Filipinos still recovering from the typhoon, and Somalis displaced from recurrent drought and the effects of climate change. My day job puts the humanitarian crisis here into a global perspective of people on the move who should be welcomed and cared for when arriving at the doorstep of our country. Instead, we greet them with drones, a criminal record, detention, and deportation.
I am a working professional, and I locked myself to that bus in my spare time. We all have a duty to act. It is a shame on our Tucson community that Streamline continues day after day—in fact, it is operating at this very moment, just a few blocks away from this courthouse. It is a shame that the purported immigration reform bill that passed in the Senate two years ago this month (S.744) sought to triple the capacity of the Tucson Sector Operation Streamline, that the unjust program continues to be supported by national leaders, and that our senators—John McCain and Jeff Flake (both R-AZ) in particular—pushed for more criminal prosecutions of migrants in Senate Resolution 104 this past April.
There is indeed much work to do to shut down Operation Streamline for good, and we clearly can't wait for it to be politically convenient to hold our leaders accountable. That includes Your Honor and this court doing what you can to advocate with colleagues against the injustice of Streamline. We must call on the new Attorney General not only to end Streamline immediately but also to erase the criminal records of the hundreds of thousands of people it has churned through its wheels.
Oddly, I was named a local Tucson Hero a while back for the work I did with deported people in Nogales. But the real heroes are those mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers who are determined to be with their families and follow their dreams.
With these charges, I am now a criminal, too, but I am in solidarity with my heroes.
Maryada Vallet stays busy as a humanitarian, public health professional, and evangelical agitator on the border. She is a media coordinator with the humanitarian and human rights group No More Deaths, as well as an avid cactus hugger, based in Tucson, AZ. She can be reached via Twitter at @MaryadaVallet or firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Living Out Faith in the War Zone of the Borderlands," also by Maryada Vallet