On Oct. 11, I spent the morning under the front wheel of a bus filled with shackled immigrants. I joined this action with other community members to stop the two Homeland Security buses (operated by private contractor Wackenhut) from making it to the Operation Streamline proceedings at the Tucson federal courthouse. The buses were held and the front gate of the courthouse blocked for more than four hours, and Operation Streamline was ultimately cancelled for the day.
As my arms were locked around the wheels of the bus, I felt baptized into a deeper spirit of solidarity than I have ever known. Every one of the more than 70 immigrants on board those buses was shackled around their wrists and ankles. They were treated as if they were the biggest threats imaginable to our national security. During the action, the immigrants on the buses lifted their chains up to be seen through the darkened windows, and some of them put their palms together in front of their faces in a gesture of prayer and recognition of the meaning of the action. Other protestors at the scene had made signs in Spanish to communicate with the immigrants, with messages of: "Your struggle is our struggle;" "We are here defending your rights; ""You are not alone;" "We are with you, keep fighting;" "To desire a better life is not a crime."
Operation Streamline began in Tucson in 2008, and in other key border cities the program has streamlined more than 200,000 people. This set a new precedent for harsh criminal prosecutions and extended prison-time for "entry" or "re-entry" into the country without documentation, which were previously treated as civil and administrative cases. In these 90-minute proceedings en masse, federal criminal misdemeanors and felonies are given out like candy with a concerning lack of due process. After their sentencing and before deportation, the immigrants are then sent to private prisons for months, where the Corrections Corporation of America makes tremendous profit off of mothers, brothers, and workers criminalized just for the act of migration to return to their families in the U.S. or to work.
This injustice that occurs in the purported halls of justice has gone on day after day in our community, condoned by President Obama and most members of Congress. In fact, the approved Senate immigration bill (S.744) specifically seeks to triple the capacity of the Tucson Operation Streamline and double the mandatory incarceration time.
I prayerfully took part in this action because I believe strongly that Jesus stands with and gives his life for the migrant and anyone society labels an outcast or criminal. We must turn the tide that allows the hyper-criminalization of migrants. Too many families have been torn apart from endless and historic rates of detention and deportations. Too many people have died in the desert of Arizona trying to return to their families and homes in the U.S. after going through Operation Streamline.
Sometimes good people let injustices go on because their privilege or state allegiances have blinded them to the realities of their neighbors who suffer, and actions like this provide a spark of awareness. And sometimes powerful people let injustices go on because it is politically beneficial and profitable, and confrontation is needed to "open the door to negotiation," as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail:"
"Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue … the purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation."
I have never known before the experience of shackles or the fear of imprisonment, but I am willing to stand and resist with those who have. Instead of the immigrants on those buses being charged with felonies that day, it was us who received those charges. Most of the immigrants were immediately deported to Mexico border towns with the criminal charges and prison time avoided.
Oct. 11 would have been just another day when white unmarked Homeland Security buses with dark tinted windows drive through downtown Tucson full of immigrant detainees. As a community, we said not today, not one more.
Maryada Valletworks with No More Deaths, a humanitarian initiative on the U.S.-Mexico border that promotes faith-based principles for immigration reform.
Image: Operation Streamline protest, photo from AFSC Photos, Flickr.com