by Sue Ann Rybak
Thirteen members of Chestnut Hill United Church, 8812 Germantown Ave. in Chestnut Hill, traveled to the Sonoran Desert south of Tucson Arizona to the Mexico border between the towns of Sasabe and Nogales from July 20 to July 30 to bear witness to the devastating effects of the current border crisis and offer humanitarian aid.
Rev. Linda Noonan, pastor of Chestnut Hill United Church, said the things they saw and experienced were “shocking.”
“We witnessed the inhumanity of fear-driven policy,” she said. “We witnessed the surveillance of border patrol. We found slashed water bottles. We witnessed the weaponization of the desert and the ways our policies let the desert do the dirty work of punishing anyone who tries to cross.”
She said people regularly die of dehydration, heat stroke, injury from desert plants and animals, and drowning due to flash floods. The desert, she said, has become a “vast graveyard” with no way to know or document how many people have died. Temperatures in the desert near the border regularly rise to 118 degrees and drop below 40 degrees at night.
“The borderlands and the people who live and journey there have raised uncomfortable questions,” Noonan said. “Questions like, ‘What if we had been born in a place where we and our children are threatened with torture, violence, insufficient food and no way to make a living? What would we do to save the ones we love?’”
She added that they also “witnessed the power of compassion, of hope, of people who celebrate the beauty of the landscape and of the human connection, and of the conviction that the struggle for justice invites us into partnership with those who suffer.”
Noonan’s youngest sister Diane Noonan Pothast, who works with Tuscan Samaritans and No More Deaths, invited them to do one such act of compassion, by simply carrying water into the desert and looking for signs of life.
The Rev. Dr. Kipp Gilmore-Clough, associate pastor at Chestnut Hill United Church, recalled stopping on the highway in the desert because they saw a memorial cross that had been erected by Alvaro Consisto, a Columbian artist, “who has made it his mission to craft and plant crosses at the GPS ordinances where human remains our found.”
“As we were looking at that one, we saw another one on the other side of the road, across from the highway,” he said. “People had been so close to the road. Clearly, looking for help because the desert had taken everything from them. So, close to a sign of help, but nobody came along and then they died there.”
Sarah Noonan-Ngwane, 22, of Chestnut Hill, the pastor’s daughter, said what really struck her about the trip was the fact that there “is so much irony in the Southern desert.”
She recalled being on the backroads near the border wall in Arizona and finding a small baby blanket and discarded baby diaper lodged in between some cactus needles.
“And right behind us, there was a border patrol vehicle doing drone surveillance,” she said. “What really struck me was the number of children and infant items that we came across.”
A powerful experience for the group was attending “Operation Streamline” court deportation and detention proceedings. Operation Streamline began in 2005 as a joint initiative of the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice. It’s a zero-tolerance approach to unsanctioned border crossing. Migrants move through a criminal system in group hearings. Within a matter of hours, they can be arraigned and sentenced.
Germantown resident Priscilla Tennant, Gilmore-Clough, and Noonan-Ngwane all recalled watching the proceedings. A particularly moving moment was watching a father, who was trying to get a glimpse of his family, before he was sentenced and deported.
Noonan-Ngwane described it as “pretty insane.”
“It’s an impalpable energy,” she said. “Some people don’t know what’s happening to them because they don’t understand the criminal justice system, or they speak indigenous languages. So, their cases are put aside, and they go back to ICE detention until they can find an interpreter that can explain what is happening to them.
And you could hear the clanking of everyone’s shackles next to lawyers chatting about what they had to eat that morning or how long their commute was. There was just so much irony.”
Gilmore-Clough said a particularly heart-wrenching moment was watching someone who was there to see a family member who was picked up trying to cross the border.
“I was sitting two rows behind the mother and a woman I assumed was a family friend, a teenage son, a daughter, who looked to be on the cusp of 13 years old and a boy, who might have been 8 or 9 years old,” he said.
He noted that there were 58 people processed that day and all of them were shackled at their wrists, waists and their ankles.
“The father was in one of the last groups,” he said. “He kept looking back at his family. The little girl was leaning her head on her mother’s shoulder, and the little boy just kept waving at his dad. And as they were leading that group of people back out of the courtroom, the dad sat down in the chair just to steal another moment of eye contact with his family. And I can only imagine that he will be trying to find more ways through the desert to reunite with his family.”
Tennant, 43, who went on the trip with her 12-year-old daughter Pelham, said it was devastating to watch the two young children as their father was taken out. She said she couldn’t imagine what they must have been feeling.
“Happy at finally, being able to see their father – to lay their eyes on him,” said the mother of two teenage daughters. “And yet, he is chained and shackled, and you only have a few minutes to watch him plead guilty before being sent back to a place that is unsafe. It’s just heartbreaking the way families are being torn apart, and the way we are treating human beings.”
For Queen Village resident Beth Logue, 62, another member of Chestnut Hill United Church, the trip has been a call to action. She said that it has motivated her “to research what the United States’ current immigration policy is and what the real capacity of our country and unemployment needs are and develop arguments in order to debunk those who are afraid of immigration and our changing population.”
Noonan-Ngwane said the message that resonated with her from the judge was simple.
“It doesn’t matter what you believe in,” she said. “It matters what you do. So if you are upset with this, go out and vote!”
Sue Ann Rybak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-248-8804.