Cry, the Beloved Border

This column appeared on the UPI Religion and Spirituality website on October 23, 2006

Last week I came across an email addressed to “minutemen and supporters,” that appeared to have been written by the director of Arizona Border Watch, an organization affiliated with the California-based Minuteman Project, whose motto is “Americans doing the jobs that Congress won’t do: ‘operating within the law to support enforcement of the law.’”

The congressional inaction referenced in the minuteman motto is the perceived lack of attention to the issue of illegal immigration, particularly along the two thousand mile US/Mexico border (that it is the job of Congress to make laws and not to enforce them betrays a certain inattention to constitutional detail on the part of the Minuteman Motto Department, but it sounds tough, and that’s probably the intent). Eager to do their part in what they believe to be nothing less than the defense of our Nation, the minuteman movement is made up of people who travel to the border’s more desolate areas to watch for illegal immigrants and, upon spotting them, to report their movements to the US Border Patrol.

The minuteman email caught my interest because it wasn’t what I had expected it to be. My perception of the minuteman movement was that it was made up of zealous xenophobes, red of state and of neck, who travel south because they dislike anyone who eats tortillas.

But this email contained two stories about minutemen feeding, applying first aid, and providing jackets for undocumented migrants suffering in the Sonoran Desert.

It made me curious, so I set off on a journey down the information superhighway, googling the minutemen to see what they had to say for themselves.

I didn’t find much more about the minutemen as dispensers of mercy. In my perusal of the minutemen’s electronic universe I found some political discourse that struck me as cynical and paranoid, I found offensive tee shirts, and I even found women’s thong underwear bearing the logo of a minuteman organization (evidently, narking on desperate people as they cross the desert in an attempt to improve their lot in life can be a real turn on).

But more than anything, I found fear. The various communities of minutemen seem to be scared by the idea that America is changing. In the words of one minuteman website,

[our nation is being] devoured and plundered by the menace of tens of millions of invading illegal aliens.

Future generations will inherit a tangle of rancorous, unassimilated, squabbling cultures with no common bond to hold them together, and a certain guarantee of the death of this nation as a harmonious “melting pot.”

The result: political, economic and social mayhem.

Historians will write about how a lax America let its unique and coveted form of government and society sink into a quagmire of mutual acrimony among the various sub-nations that will comprise the new self-destructing America.

I have a mixed reaction to such sentiments. The progressive, lover of all things multi-cultural in me wants to denounce these thoughts for the right-wing paranoia they most certainly are, but the pastor—and perhaps, even the parent—in me wants to soothe what probably is a genuine, if unreasonable, fear.

For much of my adult life I have lived in communities that are a realization of the fear expressed by the minutemen. I live in East San Jose, across the street from Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic church and around the corner from Cesar Chavez’ childhood home.

Most of my neighbors are part of immigrant families from Mexico, Central America, Viet Nam, and the Philippines. None of the children in my eldest daughter’s kindergarten class are Caucasian, in fact the only white kid I’ve ever seen in the neighborhood is my son (his two older sisters are Chinese). Taquerias outnumber fast food restaurants by an overwhelming margin. Cold Stone Creamery is next door to a panadaria; Target shares a parking lot with a record store called Ritmo Latino.

And we’re dong just fine. We’re happy. People get along in my neighborhood as well as they do anywhere. I don’t know anyone who wants to freeload off the system. I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t at least trying to learn some English. This neighborhood is not a scary place, and the future it represents is a bright one.

Nonetheless, there will remain those who feel a need to traipse into the desert to keep watch over the border. As they go, I’m glad they’re bringing medical supplies and a knowledge of first aid. Perhaps as they venture into the wilderness, meeting and tending to the human beings they encounter along the way, they also will find some kind of spiritual balm that will pacify their fear.

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