I will never forget standing in Nogales, Mexico watching Wackenhut busses. Tired, hurting, hungry men women and children would make their way- sometimes needing the assistance of a friend, down off the bus, across a bridge, international boarder, and finally to the No More Deaths Aid station where I worked. I would brace myself so that I would be ready (but how could anyone ever be ready), to offer them soup, water, first aide, to hear their stories, and document the abuses that they had survived.
The migrants would often arrive at our aid station in terrible shape. We met people with raging infections, in serious dehydration, with broken bones, in diabetic shock and having heart attacks; none of whom had received medical attention while in custody. They would tell us of the days they spent in the desert, and then even more days in custody often with no food or water. Moving from my sheltered suburban upbringing to the border I was not prepared to hear these stories of people who had sometimes spent 3 days in custody and yet received no food, water or medical attention. Men bore the bruises of physical force abuse, women told of sexual harassment and assault, children cried as they looked for their families from which they were separated. Sometimes this happened in the desert, at the hands of smugglers or the elements. Often, this happened in custody.
We listened. We bandaged. We documented all of this, but that documentation often seemed pointless. When not at the border, I would spend days logging these handwritten documentation forms into our data base. There were thousands- an unending avalanche of abuse. We would try to follow up, but who was going to bring complaints? The migrants who survived the abuse had too much at stake and were too disenfranchised. When we did file complaints it was often difficult to know against whom they should be filled as the migrants were disoriented. After days in the desert, when taken into custody they entered a chain of confusion. Sometimes they would first be stopped by vigilantes, arrested by Border Patrol and handed over to Wackenhut. They could be moved through multiple detention centers, kept up all night. At whose hands then did this abuse occur and where? We didn’t know. What did quickly become evident was that with abuse as pervasive as we saw, there was not one or two individuals to blame. It was clear that what we were facing was a culture in which such behavior was commonplace and accepted.
When we privatize prisons, detention centers and transport; and when we further and further convolute the chain of custody we also make accountability more and more difficult. The year I spent on the border working with No More Deaths as a Young Adult Volunteer with the Presbyterian Church (USA) taught me many things. I learned about myself, about the border and about God. It was also that year on the border that shaped my understanding of the nature of evil more than anything in my life ever has, for it was that year that I so starkly looked into the face of evil.
I had grown up believing that we were called to do good and avoid evil. These choices I thought were simple, and clear cut. I was wrong. Even in the process of doing good we participate in evil. The work I was doing with No More Deaths was good work. We were living out Christ’s teachings in Matthew 25. We were however also trapped in a system of evil and exploitation. We were observers to the abuses that occurred in custody, we were used by the smugglers as we bandaged people only so they could cross again with the smugglers who circled the aid station like vultures. We were aware that we were caught up in this web of sinfulness and exploitation. We were also aware that we were called to be present in the midst of such evil. So we prayed, and we had discussions and we worked with God to discern the best ways to navigate that precarious call. And, we held each other accountable.
The world is not an easy place. The border and our current immigration system are broken. That brokenness causes immense damage to creation, the Kingdom and thousands of God’s Children. We are called to fix that broken system, but that will take years if not decades. We can all disagree on what a fix to that system might look like. In the mean time, however, we can seek to minimize the pain that that broken system causes. One way to do that is to name the pain so that we may all be accountable to the ways we participate.
Through privatization, we incentivize participation in the broken system. We increase the number of people who profit from the victimization of increasingly vulnerable people. In so doing we feed and strengthen evil. We also decrease levels of accountability. The longer privatization of prisons, detention centers and transport continues the more ingrained the culture of abuse becomes. In 2006-07, when I was working in Tucson we saw the beginnings of this privatization and the worsening of abuses as time went on.
When Wackenhut began transporting migrants, we would be allowed to board the busses and provide food, water and first aide. As time went on, cooperation decreased. Secrecy increased, we were no longer allowed on buses. Officers refused to speak to us and would not accept our aid kits. Treatment worsened.
When I sit at home in Pontiac, IL this issue of the privatization of detention centers seems small and remote. It doesn’t seem as though this affects me, or could even effect that many people. But we try not to see the numbers. During my year in Tucson, our Nogales Aide Station served an average of 1000 people a day all fresh off the buses. That’s in one small border town. This issue affects thousands of people every day. This issue causes increased suffering and pain to thousands of God’s Children.
But the migrants aren’t the only ones affected. I pray for them, I get the most upset because their suffering is the clearest to me. We also need to pray for those private prison guards. As they are assimilated into this culture of abuse and dehumanization they too are effected. They too are dehumanized and victimized for the perpetuation of such treatment strips away at them as well.