If you had to live in the city dump, wouldn't you try to flee, too?

Friday, Jul. 05, 2013
If you had to live in the city dump, wouldn't you try to flee, too? + Enlarge
More than 100 people live in the city dump in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico.
By Jean Hill
Director, Diocese of Salt Lake City Peace and Justice Commission

Last week, the Senate passed an immigration reform bill that, if enacted by the full Congress, will provide a path to citizenship for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living and working in the United States. Before that can happen, the House of Representatives must pass a bill as well. As the bill wends its way through the process, a key question continues to be ignored: why people risk arrest, detention and deportation to come across the U.S.-Mexico border.

As the Senate engaged in its policy debates, I had the opportunity to travel with Catholic Relief Services for a few days in Nogales, Mexico. On Monday, I visited a maquiladora (factory) and a city dump, two of the very limited employment options for many Nogales residents.

The dump is not only a workplace, it is home for more than 100 people who live in shacks cobbled together from the garbage that surrounds them. It is a neighborhood with men, women, children, grandmothers all working the same job – sorting garbage for materials to sell. There are no shifts, no benefits, no minimum wage. There is also no electricity or running water, no nearby grocery store or school, no indoor plumbing. It is dusty, dirty and toxic.

While there, I spoke (through an interpreter) with Jose, a 30-year-old man who has lived and worked in this "neighborhood" since he was 4. His 76-year-old mother, Doña Petra, has been there since she was 15. Jose shares his home made of plywood, cardboard and tarp with his wife and three children, ages 9, 7 and 4. Upon seeing us, Doña Petra invited us into her kitchen – a spot in the dirt where she has an open-fire pit topped by the used rack of someone’s discarded barbecue.

Meanwhile, a few miles away, the U.S. is finalizing what looks like a cattle chute for humans. This is a fenced-in tunnel for deportees. When the chute is complete, the buses from immigration detention centers will drop the men and women off at a turnstile that leads to a "walk of shame" down a metal tube in the hot Nogales sun, to a second turnstile on the Mexico side. The tube is fully fenced, though the deportees can see out on one side. On that same side, a path runs along the outside so that tourists can walk beside the deportees, gawking at them as they bake in their metal cage.

Before visiting the dump, my group stopped at a maquiladora – a U.S. factory built in Nogales to take advantage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The factory we visited had, in March, closed its doors without notice to its 134 employees. The employees left work for the weekend and found themselves locked out and jobless when they returned the next week. They are owed back pay and severance, but are thus far unable to compel the U.S. owner to recognize their rights. A 54-year-old woman keeps vigil at the maquiladora. She has not been able to find other employment, so waits for someone from the company to fulfill its contractual obligations to the employees.

The next day, we met with some deportees. Three were women who had lived in the U.S. for 10 or more years. All three were deported without an opportunity to say goodbye to their children. I met one of the woman in a soup kitchen. This kitchen is the first stop for many deportees upon arrival back in Mexico. Few of the deportees are actually from Nogales, but they have no money to return home, and home is often a place of gang violence or extreme poverty. The woman I met, who had nothing but the clothes on her back, first offered me a share of her meal before she even knew who I was or what I was doing in the soup kitchen.

All of the women crossed the desert seeking better lives for their children.

One woman, Cecilia, talked of her journey across the desert, walking for eight days only to be left behind for the border patrol when she injured her knee.

These women shared unbelievably painful stories with a group of people from a country that used them for cheap labor, then turned them away.

As I visited with each of the individuals we met on this journey, I had to ask: Aren’t these the kind of human beings we want in our country? People who, no matter their own circumstances, still care about the comfort of others? Individuals who would walk through a desert for eight days to better their families’ lives? Or do we want to be a nation that sends desperately poor individuals back to lives of abject poverty, and treats them like cattle in the process?

After a week of immersion in life at the U.S.-Mexico border, I am certain of at least one thing: As long as whole families have no other options but to live and work in dumps, and as long as U.S. companies are allowed to further impoverish an already struggling nation, no amount of fencing or cattle chutes will make our borders secure.

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