On the border between Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico stands a David and Goliath – an emblem of what’s wrong with the immigration system. The Goliath is Border Patrol, the $18-billion-a-year behemoth in an eerily silent, chilled building where agents blankly ask for passports.
The David is a few steps away in a sweltering, tin-roofed shanty where volunteers serve meals and provide clothing and first aid to deportees and migrants. It’s the Kino Border Initiative.
“Our mission is to be a humanizing presence and foster binational solidarity and collaboration on this issue of migration,” executive director Reverend Sean Carroll shouts over the whir of fans feverishly blowing the July heat over sweaty visitors.
This is the border issue in a nutshell. The dehumanizing presence gets 23,000 agents and a budget 24 percent larger than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined. The humanizing presence ekes by on t-shirt donations and a huge helping of heart.
Each day, Border Patrol busses deportees to Nogales and leaves them to fend for themselves, often without their belongings and with their money returned in the form of a check that’s worthless in Mexico.
Until recently, deportees were dropped off at night, when they were more vulnerable to robbery, violence, and sexual assault. “It seems like now there’s an agreement to not deport anyone at night,” Carroll says. “That may sound like common sense, but you’d be amazed at just how much effort it’s taken to make that happen.”
But deportees are vulnerable any time of day. Most are separated from their families. Many have not recovered from the physical toll of the desert journey. Some are Dreamers who are totally unfamiliar with Mexico. All are uncertain of what to do next or what will happen to them.
“For many people, the experience of deportation is one of the most traumatic of their lives,” Carroll says. “It’s a time of great depression [and] confusion.”
They find some solace at Kino Border Initiative, which serves about 80 deportees and migrants each morning and 60 each afternoon.
Volunteers from No More Deaths come here to help migrants call family members to let them know what’s happened to them. Another group helps them cash their useless checks. The Samaritans bring them clothing and toiletries. The Mexican Consulate helps them locate family members in detention, recover belongings, and afford bus fare back to their hometowns.
“It’s all complementary, and it all happens in this tiny space,” Carroll says. KBI is trying to buy land and build a new, improved center where they can offer more services. Until then, they make do in this David-sized building in the shadow of the governmental Goliath.
On this July day, volunteers – migrants and citizens from both sides of the border – chop vegetables and fold shirts by a sign that reads “Todas las personas tenemos los mismos derechos” (every person has the same rights).
In a corner, men paint wooden pictures of Jesus and Mary to sell. It’s part of Kino’s cooperative program that teaches migrants a new skill and helps them earn a little cash. At KBI’s sister shelter for women and children, female migrants make and sell bracelets like the one Carroll wears on his wrist.
“It’s very therapeutic,” Carroll says of the art cooperative. “It may not seem like a lot, but it does a lot for them… Frequently [they endure] the experience of failure and [think] ‘I didn’t achieve my dream, and who knows what will happen.’ But at least they have something as they leave, and it reminds them of their human dignity.”
And in the land of 20-foot walls, motion sensors, night-vision cameras and surveillance drones, a humanizing presence is what they need most.