Standing at the Border: Experiencing Xenophobia Through My Wife’s Skin

April 15, 2021

Monday was harder than I thought it would be. We’re on a cross-country family road trip, driving from Atlanta to Portland, via Savannah and New Orleans. Part of our route was designed to skirt the Mexican border to find the spot my wife crossed into America when she was a child. Andi is a brilliant writer, working on a book on the immigrant experience so that stop was crucial.

While it was nice to see the Trump signs gone, whenever you drive through the South, there’s always racial tension. Andi got a death stare from a white woman in a Waffle House in southern Alabama who was probably also triggered by the fact our six-year-old daughter was wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. We probably fooled ourselves into thinking we left that bigotry behind when we crossed from Louisiana to the formerly Mexican territory known as “Texas.”

We started Monday in a Red Roof Inn in El Paso, awoken when a white guy drove his Toyota through a wall in the room below ours and then calmly drove away. I’ve made it a habit on my cross country drives to stop by famous crimes scenes that I lecture about. (In 2009, I made an entire Portland to Atlanta to Portland trip based on over 40 crime scenes.) But this wasn’t about me. It was about Andi and how she experienced the day and all the people that didn’t live to experience the day. That’s why our first stop was one of the worst crime scenes of all.

On our way out of El Paso, we stopped at the Walmart where a 21-year old white supremacist went on a shooting spree, killing 23 people and injuring 23 others. After posting an anti-immigrant manifesto that referenced the xenophobic rhetoric of President Trump on 8chan, he drove from Dallas to El Paso with the express purpose of killing Latinx people. Semi-automatic rifle in hand and activated by Trump’s alarm about an “immigrant invasion,” he began firing in the parking lot and then walked into the store, shooting every brown person in his path. It became America’s worst hate crime. It was in 2019 and you probably haven’t heard much about it since it happened. After all they were only brown people.

I walked into the Walmart and asked a police officer (whom I was glad to see) if there was a memorial to the victims of that day. She said it wasn’t much of a memorial, but it was on the far side of the parking lot, facing I-10. Andi, Cozy, and I walked over to what was a large metal candle, with a plaque in English and Spanish. It was stark but effective and brought Andi to tears. The names of the victims were the names of her people, including one who shared a name with her father who passed away a few weeks ago. She couldn’t go into the store itself because it would be filled with people who looked like her, like the people who were killed that day. It was a superstore-sized reminder of the hatred of hispanic people. And Walmart still sells guns.

I could feel the pain in Andi’s body and, as a white person, all I could do is say I was sorry for the hate and ignorance of white people and pledged to do this work on bias crimes with more fervor.

Then we hit the road for New Mexico and got off I-10 in Arizona to take backroads to Douglas, which is across the border from Agua Prieta, the place Andi crossed from in 1998. As soon as we got off the highway, we began to see Border Patrol trucks, La Migra, on the hunt. There was even a lonely National Guardsman, shirt on his head to protect himself from the sun, leaning against a vehicle holding up a giant surveillance camera. The news had just come in that President Biden was working with the Mexican government to “strengthen” border security. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Andi crossed in the middle of the night so this daytime view gave her another perspective of the harsh nature of the land she walked across as an 8-year-old. It also began to trigger memories of sage brush branches cutting her skin. I could see her body change as we got closer to the border, the hard journey coming back to her. We reflected on the thousands of people who died trying to reach a better life, 7,000 since since Andi crossed. (2020 being the worst year on record for migrant deaths, but that’s what Trump and his people wanted.)

Douglas is a quaint little town that appears out of the vast desert, full of franchised America, like McDonalds and, of course, Walmart, and completely populated by Latino-Americans who probably long for the days when the open border was a reality and nobody (including white people thousands of miles away) cared about it. We stopped by a playground so Cozy could stretch her legs. The wall with Mexico was a hundred feet away. I just watched Andi smell the air and look at the faces of the people living their life in a border town.

After picking up some tacos, we headed west to try to find the exact spot where my wife entered the country. We found a road off of Highway 80 called W. Paul Spur Road that took us to a dirt road simply called Border Road. As we approached the border a massive wall emerged. The Trump wall. We stopped on the side of the road to have our tacos and let Andi walk in the brush that she made her way through when she was a child. I took a video of Cozy standing in the wind has her mother felt a flood of emotions. She became nervous about being there as Border Patrol helicopters and planes flew over our heads. Her first night in that place she and her group were captured by the Border Patrol, detained and taken back across the border. She was unsure of going any farther, but I urged her to make it to that point, the eternal return.

We drove all the way to the newly constructed wall, with it’s erection date written on it, 10-10-20. Trump’s last act of anti-immigrant violence, less than a month before election day. How many more would die because of that wall? Slow painful deaths. Children dying without water, in the cold desert night. Parents who just want to work and find a better future for their families, alone, to become bones in the sand. I watched Andi reach through the slats in the wall to the Mexican side, touching the air of her home. She placed a picture on herself on the other side. On the back of it she had written, “Yo crucé” (I crossed). “I just want to give hope to someone like me,” she said.

We stood at the wall for a while, taking it in, taking pictures, including one of Andi and Cozy that seemed to bookmark the night Andi and her mother crossed. The weight of it all was on her. The weight of all those who died alone in the desert and the weight of a hateful nation that chanted “build a wall.” I thought about all the amazing people who would not be adding to American culture because of that wall or because they died trying to make it to their American dream. Andi just said, “If this had been here then, I probably wouldn’t be here now.”

The Border Patrol helicopter must have become suspicious that we were going to smuggle some migrants in our Prius and became more present, so we put the border wall in the review mirror. About 500 miles later we were in Las Vegas, where the water dances in fountains and the deaths on the border and in El Paso Walmarts are never thought of. But we will think of them and more.

Watching America die, I sent a Statue of Liberty to Donald Trump

June 20, 2018

My wife crossed the border from Mexico into Texas when she was 8 years old. She was on foot with her mother in the middle of the night. An old man carried her across the desert because she had lost a shoe on a railroad track. Within 15 minutes of entering the country, her and her mother were picked up by a U.S. Boarder Patrol van. Welcome to America.

She was never separated from her mother, who was trying to lead her to a better life in the United States. But spending a night in jail together in a new country must have been frightening enough. The men were kept in one cell and women and children in another cell. After processing, the Border Patrol dumped them back at the Mexican border. Fortunately, the father of the coyote (the people that ferry migrants across the border) felt guilty that his group got caught and tried again the next night. He waived the additional $3000 per person price which was a good thing because my future mother-in-law barely any pesos left in her pocket.

Because of a provision in the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (authored by Senator Joe Biden), Andrea was awarded a green card in 2010.  The section allows the victims of domestic violence visas and a path to residency. It’s sad that women have to experience excruciating abuse to feel safe in this country. It’s also sad that Republicans tried to have the provision removed in 2012.

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As my wife and I watch the news stories of Donald Trump’s new “zero tolerance” immigration policy that has resulted in thousands of children and babies being stripped from their parents’ arms, we wonder what happened to the country that passed VAWA 24 years ago. A father from Honduras Marco Muñoz, after having his 3-year-old son taken away from him by Homeland Security agents in Granjeno, Texas, was so distraught that he hung himself in his cell. These children look so much like our 3-year-old daughter and the thought of ICE agents taking Cozy from us to God-knows-where is unbearable. It’s like watching an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale but it’s the evening news. Even seasoned journalists are in tears. How is this happening in America?

This policy, created by Trump’s favorite in-house racist Stephen Miller and deemed “Biblically justified” by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, has disgusted even Conservative voices like Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan. In a recent op-ed for the Washington Post, former First Lady Laura Bush compared Trump’s policy to the U.S. internment of the Japanese during World War 2. Even Tea Party rocker Cherie Currie (once of The Runaways) posted, “Bottom line is you don’t separate a helpless child from their parents. No matter what. Not ever.”

Beside the fact that somebody is making a lot of money off these private shelters that are now housing children and babies, including converted Walmart stores, the trauma these kids will face because of Trump’s irrational policy will last a life-time. Children screaming for their mothers won’t deter this White House from its “zero tolerance.” The majority of Americans oppose this draconian action as inherently counter to our values, but what can we do?

It’s not “your” country.

At the root of this problem is this binary thinking of “us and them.”  A lot of white people think this is “their” country and they have some sort of divine right to decide who gets in and that, somehow, their family came to America the “right way.”  There is so much ignorance here to unpack, it hurts. Before the The Immigration Act of 1924 (the Johnson-Reed Act) , there was no legal or illegal immigration into this country (unless you we coming from China). People just showed up. My great grandfather, Michael Blazak, arrived in 1891 from what is now the Czech Republic. He just got off the boat and started his life as an American. The 1924 law restricted immigration from non-European and non-Protestant countries (Only WASPs allowed) and has been praised by Jeff Sessions as a policy that was created to end “indiscriminate acceptance of all races.” My Catholic ancestor wouldn’t have made it in and Jews trying to escape Hitler in the 1930s were turned back.

When my great grandfather came into New York Harbor, he passed the very new Statue of Liberty (dedicated in 1886). He might have missed the poem at the base of the statue. “The New Colossus” was written by Emma Lazerus who had been aiding the refugees from the anti-Semitic pogroms of Eastern Europe, looking for safety and freedom in America. I hope someone translated the sonnet for him as he contemplated his uncertain future in this new land.

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Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The world looks to America for that freedom and but the golden door been shut and the lamp has been extinguished. It’s now a false promise of America as a baby is literally taken from its immigrant mother’s breast. I would like to point out that you will not see any undocumented immigrants from Russia, Ukraine, or Canada in any these Trump camps (and there are plenty undocumented whites in America). I have a friend from Ireland who over-stayed their visa but has no worries that ICE agents will come knocking. This is the great clampdown on brown people because it is not “their” country. Make America 1924 again.

We have been here before

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I have the privilege of having a friend who has been through this before. George Nakata was 9 years old, living in Portland, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. President Roosevelt signed an executive order ordering the “evacuation” of every Japanese person, alien or “non-alien” (aka U.S. citizen) on the West Coast, to be rounded up and placed in internment camps. 120,000 people, most American citizens, were ripped from their homes, losing everything. Young George spent the summer of ’42 in a converted animal stable on the outskirts of the city. The Oregonian proudly declared my town to be the first “Jap Free City” in America. George was then shipped off to a camp in arid Idaho where the soldiers pointed their guns in, not out. He rightly calls it a concentration camp.

No Japanese-Americans were ever found guilty of engaging in espionage or colluding with the enemy. In fact, the 442nd battalion, made up of all Japanese American soldiers, liberated Nazi death camps and is the most decorated battalion in U.S. military history. In 1988, President Reagan formerly apologized for the mass internment but as George is fond of saying, they never put a Statue of Liberty on the West Coast.

If you ever get the chance to hear a holocaust survivor speak, please do. There aren’t many left. I’ve heard several and inevitably someone will ask, “When Hitler was first elected, why didn’t you just leave?” The answer is always the same. People thought it was a temporary bout of political madness. That it would be corrected at the next election. But then there was no next election. A policy was instituted here and a new law was passed there. Like the frog in the slowly heated pot, all of a sudden there was no escape. Democracy seamlessly transitioned into authoritarianism.

This is where we are. We are in it. America is dying.

We have a president, not elected by the people, but by the electoral college who is having a love affair with dictators right before our eyes and we are unfazed. It’s as if we are watching a reality show and as long as the kids behind the chain-link fences are not white, it’s just a show and not reality. But these people are slowly raising the temperature and at some point there will be no escape. Childish Gambino might think this is America, but it won’t be on my watch. Trump has described undocumented immigrants as an “infestation” and hinted that legal immigrants who receive federal benefits could be next. If they will do this to babies and toddlers, what makes you think they won’t do it to you? Because you’re white?

There is much we can do. I’ve called my senators and asked them to make the security of these children a priority. We can appeal to the decency of the Trump supporters in our circles. The emperor has no clothes! Remember your values! We can make November 2018 a massive referendum on these lunatics who are trying to hijack this country. I envision a Revenge of the Jedi wave striking down Trump’s evil space force. But there is one thing that might be more direct.

Send Trump Lady Liberty

I’m not willing to let these “America first!” nutzis define the values of this country. Not while the Statue of Liberty remains above ground. Maybe Mr. Trump needs to be reminded of what this country stands for. We don’t tell immigrants that their children are being taken for “a bath” and then place them in “tender age shelters.” Does that sound revoltingly familiar to you?

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I just sent a miniature Statue of Liberty (that I bought for 12 bucks on Amazon) to President Trump at the White House. I have a dream that, in the spirit of Abbie Hoffman, every American, conservative, liberal, or otherwise does the same. I want the White House mailroom to have boxes and boxes of statuettes to deliver to the president. And maybe a few thousand copies of “The New Colossus” as well. Here’s the address:

President Donald Trump

c/o The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20500

 

And if that goes well, maybe we can commission statues of Lady Liberty to be erected in San Francisco Bay and the stretch of Texas desert where my wife crossed the border, missing one shoe, many years ago. Let’s lift our lamp beside the golden door.  Por favor. #LadyLibertyforTrump

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