Living with Border Patrol violence

My parish sits in the rugged foothills of the Tucson Mountains, in Arizona. The terrain is both unforgiving and breathtaking in its beauty. Just 60 miles from the Mexican border, we live with checkpoints where Border Patrol officers search our cars without probable cause.

We are stopped by officers on our way to work or the grocery store and asked if we are U.S. citizens, almost always when we are traveling with a brown skinned companion. We live with an unprecedented use of force perpetrated against community members. Guns are often used to retaliate against alleged rock throwers, hardly a proportionate response.

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There have been multiple incidents of violence perpetrated by Border Patrol agents resulting in serious injuries and death. It now appears to be standard agency protocol to employ tasing, shooting and beating against unarmed civilians. More than 40 people have been killed since 2005, among them Jose Gutierrez Guzman, who was unarmed and passing through the San Luis Port of Entry when he was tased and beaten into a coma. And 16 year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodrigues was shot seven times in the back because agents believed he was throwing rocks at them.  He was in Nogales, Mexico at the time of the shooting.

Border residents regularly experience interrogation, illegal searches and detention at Border Patrol checkpoints.  A border community recently petitioned for the removal one of the three checkpoints that surround their town, claiming it deters tourism and hurts local businesses. Community members cite numerous incidents where people of color experience greater scrutiny and longer detentions. I see this in my community as well,; a neighbor of mine was recently detained for 20 minutes without any explanation.

As a young seminary student in Washington D.C., I marched for civil rights and demanded the president send troops to Selma. As Dr. King so famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I knew from an early age what injustice looked like; I grew up in a town where African Americans were not allowed to spend the night. It has been a long, hard fight to ensure justice and equality for all, and my faith has inspired my commitment to defending and protecting the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalized.

I am a member of the Society of the Divine Savior because this is where I believe I am called to be, and also because the Salvatorians believe so strongly in advocating for peace and justice. We stand with the poor and the marginalized in the ongoing fight for equality. Our core principles avow that we are called and sent in mission to proclaim the gospel message to all people everywhere and at all times, and through whatever ways and means the love of Christ inspires.

After Arizona’s anti-immigrant SB 1070 passed, faith leaders from a number of denominations came together to discuss ways in which we could advocate for immigrants’ rights.  We have lobbied our city and county to pass immigrant-friendly ordinances, we leave food and water on the migrant trails where so many people die, we visit those sent to prison and we offer sanctuary to fathers and mothers facing deportation.

Each Monday, I go to the federal courthouse to witness Operation Streamline, the Department of Homeland Security program that requires federal criminal prosecution and imprisonment of all unlawful border crossers. Each week I witness dozens of migrants shackled and sentenced to serve up to 180 days in prison before they are to be deported. They are quickly processed through the court, often without time to consult a lawyer, and funneled into prison. Their crime? Trying to return to the United States to reunite with their families.  I wear my collar and offer smiles and a thumbs-up in hopes they will know some of us care. I want them to know that these actions do not represent the intentions of all Americans.

We should be able to trust in law enforcement officers’ ability to abide by the law and the Constitution as well as their ability to treat everyone with dignity and respect, regardless of skin color or national origin. My commitment to the immigrant community in Southern Arizona is grounded in the Scriptures’ constant call to welcome the stranger and in my Church’s strong stance in favor of comprehensive immigration reform.  We need it today, not tomorrow.  For me it’s a matter of faith, not politics.

Remmel is a member of the Society of the Divine Savior and a retired priest in southern Arizona, active on behalf of immigrant causes.