Category Archives: 2016 Arizona and Mexico

Operation Streamline

PC: hrw.org
PC: hrw.org

There has never been a definitive, defining moment in my life where I thought, “Yes, this is it. This is why I want to be a lawyer.” I’ve just always sort of known.

Although we had been prepared for what happens during Operation Streamline, I still felt a familiar feeling of excitement when I entered the courthouse. I find law and the idea of justice to be intriguing because visiting courts is like taking a peak into my future.

When I entered Operation Streamline, however, I felt shame. There were about 60 captured migrants in chains and headphones. They were quiet and they looked scared. Despite how angry I felt when I saw the chained people, that anger didn’t compare to what I felt when I saw their lawyers. They looked carefree and comfortable.  They were standing around casually chatting with each other and laughing while their clients sat alone. These were the people I was supposed to look up to?

Now, the moderator in me has to be fair; I have no idea what the lawyers said to the clients before entering the courtroom. They could have been kind and compassionate, I don’t know. What I do know is that if I were in a new country, surrounded by a language that I didn’t understand and waiting to hear my fate, I wouldn’t want the person who was supposed to be fighting for me to look like they were on a lunch break.

My inner optimist would like to believe that these lawyers are good people. They are defending one of the most vulnerable populations, after all. But  I want the migrants to feel respected. I want the process, despite it’s regularity, to be respectable.

Although the whole Operation Streamline process, not just the attorneys, disturbed me. I don’t want it to scare me away from my chose career path; I want it to inspire me to be better.

I guess you could say that it was my definitive, defining moment.

More to come,

Natalie

The Grey Shirt

The Endless Desert PC: CUbackpack
The Endless Desert
PC: CUbackpack

I started writing this blog when our group took a desert walk with the infamous Lil’ John. I was about halfway through it when I found myself holding down the delete button. All 237 perfectly crafted words were erased in a matter of seconds. That was the problem. They were perfectly crafted. They were artificial. It wasn’t me.

I wasn’t prepared for how the desert walk would affect me. Even today, I feel an ache in my stomach when I think about it.

Let me start by saying that I am not much of a hiker, so my first thoughts as I walked through the “moderate to easy “ trail were negative. Our usually silly group seemed more serious as we slipped and stumbled on the path. We were wearing athletic gear, sunscreen, had water and were well rested. But we were all struggling. My selfish, negative thoughts subsided when we stopped to hear Lil’ John talk about the migrants.

For the first time, it was easy to understand the migrant reality. I could imagine why people twist their ankles, run out of water, get lost or lose their life in the desert. It was hard for me to believe that anyone ever made it out.

Even though I was on the border, talking and serving the migrants every day, I couldn’t really comprehend that this was real. For some reason, I didn’t understand what I was seeing until I walked the path in the desert.

The moment that will stick with me for the rest of my life was when I first spotted a shirt. It was long sleeved, grey and looked like something one of my brothers would wear. It was proof. It was a reminder that this was real. That it belonged to someone.

It hurt when that reality hit me. It hurt that I would never know his name or his fate. I wanted to save him and knowing that I couldn’t and knowing that there were thousands out there was crushing. I think about that shirt and the man who left it all the time.

I want people who are against migration to understand that no one would want to walk that desert trail unless they had to. I want those people to think of their families and what they would do to save them. I don’t want them to step into his shoes, I want them to wear the grey shirt.

More to come,

Natalie

The Best

I cannot believe this is my final post. It’s weird that this officially means it’s all over and it’s really weird to reflect on the experience and consider what it all means to me now and what it will all mean to me in the future.

There was so much I learned and I think I covered a lot of that but one thing I haven’t really talked about it how grateful I am to have been a part of such a wonderful project with such a wonderful group. I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the deeper aspects of the project, but we had a lot of fun too.

Living in a small house with 16 people can either be really fun or just the worst and it was really fun. We danced while making dinner, we danced while doing dishes, we played ridiculously specific rounds of mafia.

We also met so many incredible and interesting people. One night we went for dinner and margaritas in Mexico with a lawyer who was prosecuting for a family whose 15 year old son was shot on Mexican soil by an American guard on the border. His son and his son’s friend were there as well, both had family in both the Nogales, Arizona and the Nogales, Sonora side. The level that these two cities and their cultures are intertwined is truly astounding, especially when you see this massive iron structure sneaking between the two.

We also met a priest named Father Peter Neely who had been living in Nogales for some time and was extremely intelligent and well versed on the issues. Some of my most profound understandings came from talking with him. He introduced to some ranchers who own a massive ranch right on the border and have hours of footage of cartel members carrying huge packs of drugs through their land.

There were just so many layers and so much to take in, but having people there going through the same experiences who you could laugh with and cry with was something truly special.

One of my favorite times spent with everyone was when we went to a lake in Arizona, near Nogales. We spent the day swimming and A.J. (aka the group’s “dad”) cooked us all burgers and hotdogs (burgers and water–my two favorite things).

Later that night, some of stayed to fly the drone and play soccer. John called us over, saying he was going to teach us to meditate. So, approximately 10 of us sat down on the ground in a classic meditative position (legs crossed, hands palm-up on your knees) facing the water. At this point, the beach was still pretty crowded; people were boating and swimming, and it was probably a pretty funny (or super creepy) sight to see 10 people sitting in that position, dead still and dead silent, eyes closed, for 10 minutes straight.

That didn’t really occur to us until we heard a little kid in the water yell, “Mom, what are those people doing? They look so creepy!”

So, yeah, there were a lot of those funny moments throughout the trip which just made it so enjoyable and I feel like, right now, that’s what I’m holding onto. The profound experiences I had and the things we learned are things that will take more time for me to process, but I have no trouble saying I had the best time with the best group at the best school.

Getting tacos together for John's birthday.
Getting tacos together for John’s birthday.

Trying to Make Sense of it All in a Very Scattered Way

I think the best way to describe the way this experience altered me is by what something Nico said during our final reflection. He said something to the effect of “We’re not just putting names and faces to the issue, we’re putting real, actual people to the issue,” and he could not have been more right.

It wasn’t just seeing these issues firsthand that got to me, it was learning about these issues and then meeting and become friends with the people these issues affect that really changed me I think.

And I’ve said this a million times, but I think it’s so special and so important that we have the ability to share these stories and these people with an audience. I think that’s an incredibly powerful tool and has led me to appreciate and love journalism and all its many facets and capabilities so much more than I already did.

As far as the issue itself, I think the biggest thing is that it makes me wonder what else is out there that I don’t know or that is so largely misunderstood. It just blows my mind that all of this is happening right under our noses and people, including myself, have been able to remain so ignorant about it. Again, I think that makes me appreciate the importance of journalism and makes me want to discover and share more.

It also blows my mind, from a political standpoint that there’s such a lack of knowledge. I would love to see politicians visit Kino and look at these issues firsthand before passing policy and legislation. This is an issue that cannot be resolved from afar, because the bottom line is that things aren’t working because there isn’t a concrete enough understanding of what the issues are.

I guess, to that extent, I find myself getting frustrated by our political system and by the backwards structuring of it all. But overall I think this trip has helped me understand how incredibly powerful journalism can be.

Literally, trying to make sense of everything we've heard.
Literally, trying to make sense of everything we’ve heard.

White Noise

Before I came on this trip, I knew that my goals were to be present and to soak up any information I could. I didn’t know much about immigration, besides the headlines I hear in the news.

These days it seems as if the news has just become the white noise to our daily lives.

The Drump

Trump
Mass Shooting in Orlando
A wall to stop illegal migration
Hilary Clinton
ISIS
Obama’s Final Year
Trump
Syria’s Civil War
Hilary Clinton
Police Brutality
ISIS

I had become numb to these daily reminders of the state of our world. Everything has become repetitive. Shootings here. Bombings there. Dehumanization. Grown ups bullying each other. I thought that was supposed to end when you become
an adult.

During our interviews we asked everyone where they found hope amongst all of the sadness. We heard a variety of answers, all were thought provoking. A new goal emerged for me: how to find something that sparked hope within me in order to inspire others.

I’m still working out the big goals, and I probably will be for awhile. But in the mean time, I’m setting smaller goals for myself. I’m trying to be more present with everyone I encounter. I’m trying to stand up to the bullies. I’m trying to show that all life has value.

I know I can’t change the whole world. But maybe I can change people’s worlds.

Tying it all Together

Pulling the last few weeks together I’ve learned quite a few things. I can officially say I know how to operate my camera fairly efficiently. I’ve learned to cook a few more meals and laugh a little harder. The trip was nothing short of complicated but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

The people I traveled with became my good friends. Nights of mafia and golf/garbage made sure that I would never be able to forget them. And honestly that was probably my biggest fear going in, not being able to make friends. I’m both shy and introverted. I have a few close friends and I rarely stray out of that group but all of the amazing people on this trip made it easy to reach out. Sure they made jokes about one another but the jokes were never said in a cruel fashion and I think that made it safe to open up.

My highlights were the evenings, at least the ones where we were awake enough to hang out. I’ve never seen so many dance parties while doing dishes or people willing to create a feast big enough to feed 16. I can now say from experience that from the outside it’s interesting to watch a group grow closer but from the inside it’s amazing.

Group photo of Backpack Journalism and two vans
 Photo by Nico Sandi and drone

I only had one real lowlight: Operation Streamline. That’s not to say that the information we were constantly receiving wasn’t hard to process or that it wasn’t devastating to see people at their lowest but neither of those things calcified in my mind as much as Operation Streamline did. The callous court room and general disregard for the migrants’ humanity burrowed under my skin. How could I look at our justice system, which was supposed to be just and humane, and not feel like it was missing the mark in a brutal way? I’ve known for a long time in the form of statistics that the justice system was failing but seeing it played out before my eyes took that knowledge to a new level.

The reality of Operation Streamline led me to think about what I can do. And to be honest I still don’t have an answer beyond advocate and agitate. I know that if I remain silent I am choosing the side of the oppressor, therefore each time the opportunity comes up to discuss these issues I must not remain silent. Beyond that I know there will be opportunities to continue cultivating change, I am just not aware of them at this point.

I know that I have been changed by this trip and I look forward to seeing how those changes take root. I am grateful for the opportunity to have attended this trip and I am glad to call everyone in this class my friend. I am also thankful to you, the readers, for keeping up with this blog and supporting us on our journey.

Journalism, Success, and the Border

I’ve always tried to live according to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote “To know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” It’s a simple quote but a high order. To me it means putting aside worldly things like money and consumerist success in favor of holding myself to the standard of helping others, even if helping is just being present with someone.

When I was very young I realized that my general fear of blood and distress in the field of mathematics meant that I would never be a doctor or a nurse. But when I went to Guatemala in tenth grade I learned that there are many ways to help that don’t require a medical license. It was there I decided to become a journalist.

A shrine for the migrants.
A shrine for the migrants.

While in Guatemala I read a book called Never the Hope Itself: Love and Ghosts in Latin America and Haiti by Gerry Hadden. The book opened my eyes to the world of journalism and the realities of Latin America. Realities that paralleled what I was seeing in the community I was living with. For the first time I felt like there was something I could do to help: write. Visiting the border has only reaffirmed that calling.

The border for me serves as a reminder of what happens when the media capitalizes on fear. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is an old journalism adage. I think it is an outdated motto that has unfortunately taken over the journalism world in an effort to keep afloat in an era of citizen journalism. The border reminds me of what happens when journalists fail to report on people. When we dehumanize people because they don’t come from our country, we overlook the human rights violations in favor of supporting our own interests. I hope to be someone who helps change that or who at the very least manages to remind people that there is a world outside our individual bubbles. A world that is crying because of the death and destruction we choose to ignore.

How to Tell a Story

With interviews that often lasted longer than an hour, editing the documentary down to just 25 minutes was a significant challenge. The writing team had its work cut out for them initially; scouring the transcribed interviews for quotes that beautifully summarized everything we had just learned to create a coherent narrative.

Before splitting into our groups as editors and writers, the class built a rough story outline based off Kino’s goals to humanize, accompany, and complicate the issue of immigration.

Joanna was the first person to introduce us to the idea of humanizing, accompanying, and complicating the issues on the border.
Joanna was the first person to introduce us to the idea of humanizing, accompanying, and complicating the issues on the border.

It was such a natural outline I began to think about how that framework should be used in each story we tell. For example when I talk about my little sister as someone with a disability rather than as a disabled person, I am humanizing her. Her disability is a part of who she is but it is not all that she is. In the same fashion when talking about someone who has been deported, it’s important to remember that they have inherent human dignity, which should be implicit in any retelling of their story. They have been deported but that is only one part of their history, not its entirety.

After seriously considering the idea of the humanize, accompany, and complicate framework, I realized that it’s the way all stories about people should be understood. When I was a younger my pastor put a significant emphasis on learning how to listen deeply. Listening deeply implies that the listener isn’t thinking about how they will respond to the speaker but rather the listener is genuinely engaged with the speaker’s narrative.

While the bottom line is that the general audience will get what they want out of a story, its incredibly important to build every story off this framework. Even in fictional writing, telling a tale about a person without humanizing them makes it impossible for the intended audience to reap the message. Harry Potter wouldn’t be much of a story if all we knew about him was that he was an orphan.

Although our documentary veered off this track later in the week, because it was originally built with that outline, the story accomplishes those goals. It tells a story that we as a Jesuit university can be proud of because it maintains the principle of inherent human dignity in all persons.

Celebrating the Bond

The ride home in our van was quiet (and by quiet I mean I was asleep for most of the ride and probably couldn’t tell you whether it was noisy or not). But during the moments I was awake and even the ones where I wasn’t, the camaraderie between everyone was unmistakable. As we sat at Dr. Zuegner’s friend’s house, we told jokes and laughed with one another like we’d known each other for years instead of just a few weeks.

For better or for worse our shared experience on this trip was a bonding agent and I like to think it was for the better. Over the two weeks in Arizona we saw each other through some good times and some hard times. We cried and laughed, we talked about the afterlife and Dr. O’Keefe’s love of Taylor Swift. We’ve practiced meditation beside a lake and learned about some of the terrifying situations migrants face.

IMG_1574
Getting ready to leave Arizona we went to a wild life preserve.

In my experience bonds like the one our class has aren’t built by casual interactions. They are built on the foundation of something arduous. In our case it was immigration. Watching the dehumanization on both sides of the border is difficult to say the least and yet our group handled it by being there for one another. At night we sang and danced. We played mafia and tenzi. We bonded by being vulnerable with one another whether in games or reflections or even just discussing what we had seen and heard that day.

That bond is what makes the trip home so bittersweet. When we get home we’ll be pulled back into our routine. We’ll continue to meet and sing the coyote song until our rough cut is finished and then we will go our separate ways.

There is no walking away from a trip like this without feeling some sadness at the prospect of it ending. When we get home there will be no playing mafia together in the evening or dancing to Dr. Zuegner’s excellent playlists. There will be only the knowledge that we are tied together by an experience inexplicable to those who have never built friendships in rough terrain, so to speak.

I feel close to each and every person in our group. I am glad to have shared the hard times and the good times over those two weeks with this specific group of people. I know that each of them will carry a place in my heart for a long time to come.

Going Home

There is always a question that remains when I leave a retreat, a mission trip, or a pilgrimage: what now? It’s so easy to ponder and pray about these big picture problems when I’m immersed in the problems directly, but then I go home, and I am pulled right back into the old cycle of my daily life. Usually, it is hard for me to adjust.

Obviously, I can’t serve migrants breakfast from Omaha, so I focused on finding something that I could bring back. I’ve touched on this idea before, but I think it’s something that is always relevant, so I will mention it again. Compassion and mercy are not complicated. Migrants are technically breaking laws. Now, they are breaking laws that I don’t think are fair and will hopefully change, but they are breaking laws. If I look at these people as criminals without learning who they are or why they did what they did, I am missing the heart of the example Jesus set for us. He did not find the righteous and pat them on the back. He sought out the sinners, and showed they mercy and compassion. We are called to do the same. This extends past the migrant. This applies to every human we encounter.

I’ve kept this concept in the back of my mind on our journey home, and I hope the more I work at it, the more I can emulate Jesus.

This is an unfinished painting of Mary by a migrant at KBI.
This is an unfinished painting of Mary by a migrant at KBI.