Three-year-old Enrique’s favorite toy—a plastic helmet with a dark face shield, emblazoned with the word “POLICE”—was parked on his head. As he toddled up to our burly, 6-foot-8 county sheriff, with his mother Rosita watching nervously, the irony just about did me in.
For three hours every week a group calling ourselves Mujeres Unidas en Fe (Women United in Faith) gathers at a church just over the mountain from my home in Western North Carolina. A dozen Spanish-speaking women and an equal number of us English speakers share Bible study, exchange language lessons, and enjoy a potluck lunch. Fear has been running high since executive orders out of the White House targeted North Carolina as a state for increased action against undocumented immigrants, and recently our group’s activities have included the heartbreaking work of getting legal papers in place for the care of their children if any of the mothers are deported.
Understandably, when faced with such a terrifying threat, many people choose to lay low and keep to the shadows. But a few weeks ago Carmela announced over lunch, “I think the best way to keep from being sent back is to introduce ourselves to local law enforcement—let them see our children and get to know our families.” It seemed to me audacious and brave—and very frightening for my friends.
Indeed, when the sheriff and nine of his deputies, the chief of police, and the head of campus security at our local university showed up for an event we called “Lunch with the Law,” the fear was evident on the faces of the women. Only Enrique in his toy helmet stepped right up to the towering sheriff, who bent down to shake his hand. Then the handshakes continued around the room, and smiles slowly began to replace fear.
The mujeres had prepared a huge feast of tamales and empanadas, rice and beans, tortillas and salad, flan and sweet dulce de leche caramel cake. As we ate, they found their voices. Rosita, in tears, spoke about her beloved nephew who was kidnapped and murdered by a gang in Mexico. With Enrique perched on her lap, she voiced her terror about the possibility of being torn from her children and sent back to violence and poverty.
As she spoke, I recalled my visit across the Mexican border a few years ago. I had walked down the dusty, rutted roads of Nogales, among dark, dilapidated shacks without running water, where children with the distended bellies of malnutrition begged for food. I sat in a tiny home constructed entirely of worn-out car tires and heard stories about life for the workers in the maquiladoras, the U.S. production and assembly plants located on their side of the border. One million Mexicans are employed in more than 3,000 factories, earning on average 70 pesos per day—that’s about eight dollars and fifty cents.
They endure these oppressive and exploitive jobs because they feel that they have no choice. Many migrated to the border after NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, went into force in 1994, opening the way for U.S. corn and other heavily subsidized staples to flood into Mexico, undercutting and destroying their livelihoods as small farmers. U.S.-based transnational corporations began taking over land that had supported families for generations, forcing more than two million Mexicans to leave their farms. One-fourth of the Mexican people now lack access to basic food, and one-fifth of the children suffer from malnutrition. Increased poverty has led to the breakdown of communities and the rise of gangs, organized crime, illegal drug activity, and domestic violence.
So, when we wonder why so many people are risking their lives, paying dangerous smugglers exorbitant fees, crossing deadly desert land to get here—we have to look at ourselves, at own country and its policies. The White House proposes spending an estimated $21 billion to build a wall on our southern border. Imagine how much better off and more secure we all would be if we took those billions and instead paid a living wage to all the workers in the maquiladoras, allowing them to live with dignity in their own country. Or, better yet, how about returning the land to the farmers we’ve displaced? And while we’re at it, maybe we should consider giving back Texas, which we stole from Mexico in 1845.
The law officials listened to the women and responded in ways that made them feel heard and safe. The word we got that day was that immigrants are welcome in our county and local law enforcement has no plans to cooperate in deporting them. The sheriff pointed out that federal money isn’t exactly pouring into our rather isolated pocket of North Carolina, and the U.S. government has little leverage here to tell him what to do. The chief of police swept his eyes around the room and declared wryly, “I can guarantee to you ladies that I’ve put more members of my wife’s family in jail than Hispanics.”
I recognize that relational dynamics with folks in power in our small, poor, rural mountainous county are somewhat different from those in typical urban centers. And we don’t know what new directives or pressure may be in store. But the fact that the meeting took place, and the open and gracious spirit that prevailed throughout it, felt near-miraculous to me. I was convicted again that, like the bold mujeres of my county, we all need to step across boundaries, face down our fears, and open ourselves to being vessels of transformation. These audacious sisters remind us that we have more power than we imagine.