Friday, January 20, 2012

Del Rio, Texas and Cuidad Acuna,Coahuila

After a couple relaxing holiday weeks in San Antonio, we finally got back on the border, right where we had left it. We didn't have many contacts in Del Rio, Texas and Cuidad Acuna, Coahuila so once again we turned to and thus we met Mandy and Liliana.

Couchsurfing in Del Rio, Texas!
Katy, Mandy and Eric

We hitched a ride into Del Rio (population: 45,000) and arrived at the beautiful home of Mandy, our couchsurfing host. She was busy making a big dinner and she had invited a bunch of friends over to meet us. It was great chatting with folks from the area and they were quite a diverse bunch--border patrol agents, national park rangers, meteorologists, and more!  We ate quite a feast of delicious Mexican cuisine and Mandy sent us to bed with a handdrawn map of Del Rio and a list of the top ten things to do!  What hospitality!

In chatting with the BP agent at dinner, we realized that Operation Streamline happens in Del Rio, so armed with our top ten list, the first thing we did in the morning was go to the courthouse to see if we could observe the proceedings.  We arrived just ten minutes before they started and though it seemed like they rarely had observers in the court, we talked our way in.  I posted previously about Operation Streamline in Tucson, so we  really wanted to see how it was different in Del Rio and we did find a variety of difference--some better, some worse than what we had seen in Tucson.

First of all there were only 37 people on trial this day in Del Rio (compared to 62 the day we observed in Tucson), but the capacity for Del Rio is actually 80.  All the defendants were shackled, as they were in Tucson, but they each also wore a surgical mask, which I thought added an additional element of dehumanization (agents told us it was due to TB).  There were 9 women and 28 men, and a greater percentage were from Central America: 9 from Honduras, 4 from El Salvador, the rest from Mexico.

What I found most shocking was that there was only 1 public defender for all 37 people on trial!  In Tucson, the public defenders could represent several people, but there were at least 8-10 of them in the courtroom.  Here there was only one, and she had not been able to speak with the defendants yet, so after processing the 7 felonies (they appear to be a bit harsher in Del Rio and do not drop everyone down to a misdemeanor if they agree to the plea agreement), everyone had to leave the courtroom while she spoke to each person.

During this break, Eric and I had the chance chat with the Border Patrol agents from the courtroom who are doing a rotation in the prosecutor's office. They handle all the paperwork for those involved in Streamline and they assist the governmental prosecutor during the trial.  They were really interested in our bicycle trip (a couple were quite jealous and spoke longingly about watching Into the Wild and wanting to rid themselves of their material possessions and go on an adventure!) and we asked a lot of questions about apprehensions in the area and Operation Streamline.  It was good to have a chance to talk with some agents, something Eric and I have wanted to do on this trip, and similar to the military and soldiers, we don't like the job of the Border Patrol, but we aren't going to hold that against individual agents.  (Well, we try not to!)

I think it is important to point out that nearly every agent I have spoke to, in El Paso and in Del Rio, "understands" the plight of economic migrants. They often say "if that was me and my kids were starving, I would jump that fence too..." And I appreciate hearing that, but what gets me is what directly follows it every.single.time. "But it is the people involved in drugs, in kidnapping, in criminal activity, that's why we are here." Agents always go on and on about the illegals who are murdering and raping U.S. citizens and how the we all put fences around our yards to keep out someone who just might want to kill us.  I hate listening to this fear-mongering and I told that to the agent, but really, I think that is the basis of their jobs: fear.

When we were in Douglas and chatting with a Customs and Border Protection agent, he was talking about how dangerous Agua Prieta is and how the supervisors are always showing them videos and pictures of what heinous activities are happening in AP to discourage them from ever going into Mexico. And does it matter that those videos were of no where near Agua Prieta?  They serve their purpose.

It was interested to talk with the BP agents for about an hour, and when summoned, we all went back to the courtroom.  I definitely think that is it unconstitutional to have so many defendants before the judge at the same time, but I appreciated the way the judge handled it in Del Rio much more than in Tucson.  After every single question to the defendants, the judge pointed at each person who then had to individually answer.  And when it came time for the sentencing, each defendant stood up and spoke with the judge, and the public defender included in the testimony why the defendant had crossed illegally.  We heard how many kids each defendant has, how their elderly parents need their financial help, how there just aren't jobs, etc.  Even through the surgical mask, this court let the defendant be humanized, be an individual with his or her own story.

Also, I think the judge did an excellent job of trying to make sure that each defendant understood what was happening and what they were agreeing too.  Several times the judge paused what was going on to allow an individual to speak privately to the public defender.

Most the defendants received 10 day sentences, others who had previous deportations got 30-180, depending on their previous record.  Once again, I struggled to know how to express my sympathy through my eyes as each defendant shuffled out of the courtroom.

Moore Park in Del Rio, Texas
We had tried to connect with the person from the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid who is in charge of the immigration clinics in Del Rio, but she never got back to us, so after Streamline, even though our heads were exploding from all we had seen in court, we ran around downtown, visiting the places on Mandy's Top Ten of Delightful Del Rio.  We got delicious hamburgers, visited an awesome antique/music shop, walked through the downtown shops, had a coffee at the old emporium, and biked by some of Del Rio's historical sights including the Brinkley Estate and Texas' oldest winery, the Val Verde Winery. Then we bicycled along all .75 miles of the bike trail surrounding the lovely Moore Park.

After a nap and some reflection, that night we attended Del Rio's First Friday art and music show.  It was really cool to see the young generation of Del Rio and hang out with Mandy and her roommates.

Lily and her folks
They next day, we packed up our bikes and headed a few short miles over the bridge to Ciudad Acuña (population: 220,000).  We had contacted a young woman, Lily, via and she offered us a place to stay with her and her parents.  They were really wonderful to stay with.  Lily, who teaches psychology at 2 universities in Acuña, drove us all over town and welcomed us as if we were family.

The only other contact we had in Acuña was the Casa del Migrante there. The diocese of Piedras Negras operated the migrant house in Acuña  and in Piedras Negras. We had been in touch with the manager, but had been unable to speak with the pastor to set up a visit. With Lily's assistance, we ran between the church and the shelter and we were able to get a short visit in.

The Casa Emmaus: Casa del Emigrante has operated for the last 20 years and is located very close to the river in Cuidad Acuña in an old school complex.  It is run by the parish and volunteers and they have an average of about 70 people sleeping there every night, about 90% of which are deported.  We were told that Acuña is one of the towns receiving the highest number of repatriations--up to 150 per day, many bussed in from Arizona!  The rest of the guests are heading north and a majority of them are from Central America.

There is space for men and women and each guest is initially given 3 days at the house and more time is granted on an individual basis. The house is open to guests 24 hours per day, which we were happy to hear, especially because of the high numbers of Central Americans they are hosting.  Central Americans are usually traveling illegally through Mexico and are often victimized throughout their journey so it is important they they have a safe space.

We were impressed with the large grounds of the Casa Emmaus which include basketball courts and lots of outdoor space.  We had no idea so many people were getting deported through this area, but it was very good to learn and to see the services the church is offering them in Cuidad Acuña.

On Sunday, we accompanied the family to church and though the service was long, we were very impressed with the priest's homily.  He spoke for a long time about the injustices of the area, ranging from the soaring price of tortillas and basic foods to the oppression of the foreign-owned maquiladoras.  We were happy to hear this message coming from the pulpit.

After mass, the extended family came over and because it was unusually warm outside, we pulled out the grill and had delicious carne asada.

After stuffing ourselves sick, Lily brought us over to the very impressive Lake Amistad dam.

Only days before, we hardly had a contact in this land of friendship, but through couchsurfing we were connected to wonderful, hospitable people, who will remain friends.

And forward we go, looking for signs of true amistad in the politics between the United States and Mexico.

1 comment:

  1. it was a pleasure to have you here guys and we really hope to see you soon again... our home will be always open for you ;)