A Christian Border Patrol Agent’s Reflection on The Border Wall

Now that Donald Trump has been elected president, immigration as a topic of Christian concern has re-surfaced—or, in some cases, simply surfaced.

My mind often wanders to this encounter I had with a deeply reflective Border Patrol agent on an airplane between Tucson, Arizona and Guanajuato, Mexico in 2011. I had gone to the area on the US/Mexico border to shoot footage for my migrant justice documentary, The Second Cooler, narrated by Martin Sheen.

My cinematographer, Adam Valencia, and I had been in the Sonoran Desert with Mike Wilson, a tribal member of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Mike, a former Special Operations military officer in El Salvador and Presbyterian lay minister in Sells, Arizona, had long defied tribal elders’ prohibition on putting water in the desert for migrants attempting to cross through it into the United States. This despite the fact that the brutal desert had already taken the lives of at least 5,000 migrants.

Photo by Alejandra Platt. Used by permission.

Photo by Alejandra Platt. Used by permission.

Mike has four stations among the rattlesnakes and cacti where he sets out water: St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John. He arranges them in the shape of a cross so any passing migrant will feel confident the water has not been poisoned.

As we were heading back to Tucson after shooting, while still on the reservation, we encountered a young, indigenous migrant from Oaxaca in southern Mexico. He name, oddly enough in this deathtrap, was Eulogio—eulogy. He was eighteen years old and had been wandering with his party in the desert for ten days. The previous three days he had neither food nor water. He was weak and asked us to call Border Patrol so he could turn himself in. Eulogio did not want to die in a foreign desert. He wanted to return home to his wife and seven month old son.

After Adam and I boarded the plane to journey on to Guanajuato, I called my husband to tell him about our encounter with Eulogio. When the call was finished, the young man sitting next to me on the plane asked me, “What kind of work do you do?” “I’m a filmmaker,” I said. “What kind of film?” “Immigration.” “What kind of work do you do?” “Border Patrol.”  We were delighted at the coincidence and laughed.

The agent told me his name was Steve. We chatted a long time.

Originally from the Dominican Republic, Steve and his three brothers had been abandoned as young children by their parents in an orphanage where they languished for years. They had become so mentally disturbed that they used to urinate and defecate on one another. Eventually they were rescued by an American Mennonite couple. Over time, all recovered from the traumas of abandonment and abuse.

The brothers grew up on the principles of peace and non-involvement with the military. When Steve told his mother he was going to join the Border Patrol, holding to her faith principles, she objected to his decision.

Adam Valencia and Eulogio

Adam Valencia and Eulogio

When we met on the plane, Steve had been with Border Patrol for only about a year, but had turned in his resignation. He said he had decided to become a BP agent because he wanted to work outdoors and because he wanted to help stop drug trafficking. Steve learned, though, as he said, that being a Border Patrol agent really was about destroying people’s dreams. The dreams of people who were just like he had been earlier in his life. When he would find migrants wandering in the desert, they would beg him for their lives. He said they were as dependent on his mercy as he and his brothers had been on the mercy of strangers in that miserable orphanage in the Dominican Republic.

I asked Steve, “What is the youngest migrant you have ever captured in the desert?” He pointed to the baby daughter in his lap, dressed in pink frills and just beginning to stand. “About her age,” he said.

Painting by Guadalupe Serrano, used by permission.

Painting by Guadalupe Serrano, used by permission.

“I can’t do this any more”, Steve said. He reflected on the long, heavily militarized border wall called El Muro by many Latinos. “When we build border walls,” he said, “we act like we don’t believe in God at all. Our security is not in walls and Border Patrol agents. Our security is in God. We say we believe in God, but we act like we don’t believe in Him at all.”

Steve would not let me interview him on camera, although I asked him several times. I have no idea where he is now or what he is doing. His reflection on what it means to believe in God, however, will remain with me forever.

Are We Native Americans Your Pets?

Photos, Bios, Mike Wilson @ San Xavier, Mission - Dia de los Muertos Pilgrimage, by Hyatt 10-31-09

Photo courtesy of Michael Hyatt

Last week I had the pleasure of having Mike Wilson and his partner, Susan Ruff, in my home for a few days. Mike is a tribal member of the Tohono O’odham Nation in southern Arizona. The reservation on which the nation is situated straddles the United States / Mexico border. I got to know Mike and Susan when I was filming my documentary, The Second Cooler, in which Mike appears.

Mike is an original. He is a Native American who joined the United States Army and trained at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He became a member of its Special Forces. Sent to El Salvador in the 1980s, his duty was to “win the hearts and minds” of the Salvadorans. That means that he was to encourage Salvadorans to assent to US domination.

While there, he had what in Christian circles is sometimes referred to as a Road to Damascus moment during which he encountered who he was and what he was doing. He concluded he was a “North American imperialist” in El Salvador.

He says that he was “called” out of the Army and into seminary, then called back out of seminary “by faith”. He was prompted by his conclusion that the Church had become an instrument of imperialism. He spent a year as a lay pastor, however, at the Presbyterian church in Sells, the capital of the Tohono O’odham Nation. For those who do not understand the idea of being “called”, it refers to a belief that God has placed a special task on a believer’s shoulders.  Today, Mike says, everything he does is because of his faith in God.

One of the issues which Mike, Susan, and I discussed at length under the cool arbor on my deck was Mike’s frustration with white people who will not confront tribal leadership on life and death issues. In this short clip from The Second Cooler, Mike talks about the running conflict he has had for years with tribal leaders of the nation. The context in the clip is the criticism he was receiving from his Presbyterian Session in Sells.

Mike With water

From The Second Cooler. Adam Valencia, photographer.

The conflict has to do with the fact that Mike puts water on tribal lands for migrants crossing there illegally. The migrants, who come from Mexico, Central America and elsewhere disproportionately are indigenous. Tribal leadership forbids him putting out water because they believe it encourages migrants to cross through their lands.

Part of the problem is that the militarization of the US / Mexico border, especially at the Arizona border, has been deliberately designed to push illegal immigrants into the vast, treacherous Sonora Desert which makes up much of the Nation’s land. Figures are difficult to come by, but estimates range from a very conservative 7,000 to approximately 21,000 since 1997 when records began to be kept.

Mike also has had a running conflict with immigrant advocates in Tucson. Advocates there, who are white or Latino, work day in and day out to rescue migrants, call attention to their deaths nationally, and keep records of deaths. Yet, they will not tell tribal leadership that they are wrong to contribute to migrant deaths by refusing to give them water.

Mike wants white and Latino advocates to stand up to tribal leadership arguing that human beings are suffering and their lives are hanging in the balance.

White and Latino advocates will not. They argue that to do so is a form of racism: “White people have told Native Americans what to do for too long.” And so, Mike not only is persona non grata among tribal leadership, he is persona non grata among the non-Native advocates in Tucson.

While we talked, I remembered a remark he made at the screening of The Second Cooler in Tucson at the Arizona International Film Festival in 2013 during the Q&A. A number of those whom he had tried to persuade to support him by standing up to tribal leadership were in the audience that evening. I recalled him having said to no one in particular, “What do you think we Tohono are? Your pets?”

Mike believes, and I agree, that preferring to let migrants die rather than stand up to the people who could help save their lives is, in and of itself, a particularly toxic form of racism. As Mike pointed out while we talked, refusing to stand up to people who hold other people’s lives in their hands because of their racial or ethnic identity is applying a different standard to their actions or lack thereof. I believe that a separate standard is necessarily a lower standard reflecting a lingering belief that Native Americans are too emotionally delicate, too childlike, to take criticism. And, because they are Natives and made fundamentally different from Whites, according to the logic, they are inherently incapable of racism.

Or, as Mike asks in the clip from The Second Cooler, rather than stand up to tribal leadership or wrestle with the nuances of racism, is it just “easier to let the migrants die”?

This is the racism which we can deny by taking the moral high ground of ultra sensitivity to Native Americans’ feelings.  We can deny our and Native racism while colluding in the brutal deaths of thousands of Mexican indigenous. Applying any moral yardstick, how can we justify this? Do migrant deaths really matter? Are Tohono O’odham tribal leaders full grown men and women?

Or are Native Americans our pets?


How Nuns On The Bus Get It Wrong On Immigration Reform

Serrano, Sin Título, with dog 1

Border Wall, by Guadalupe Serrano. Used with permission.

Like Sr. Simone Campbell I am a clergy woman. I also am a full time advocate for illegal immigrants, guest workers in the US legally with an H2 visa, and domestic labor. She is a lawyer; I am a historian. I am a film maker whose migrant justice documentary, The Second Cooler, narrated by Martin Sheen, has won awards on the festival circuit. I have won awards for humanitarianism. Sr. Campbell has been praised by Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, and Bill Moyers and has become the subject of a documentary in the making, Nuns on the Bus, directed by Sundance Award-winning film maker, Mellisa Regan.

It would appear we have much in common. In fact, we are miles apart when it comes to both a starting point for and an analysis of immigration reform. Sr. Simone promotes S. 744, the so-called Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill which passed in the Senate but failed in the House last year [2013]. I vehemently oppose it.

The Wall, Sasabe, fence and barrier

Photo by Bill Schweikert for the Huntsville Immigration Initiative, LLC. As seen in The Second Cooler.

Her vocational starting point appears to be that clergy people must negotiate with power and accept the parameters established by military contractors, corporate employers, the for-profit prison industry, big, well-funded activist groups, and confused politicians. My starting point is that clergy must tell truth to power. We must say “No!” to Caesar and the national security state, not become apologists for them.

More importantly, Sr. Simone does not appear to understand the content of the bill. It is in no way a good bill stymied by Republicans on the wrong side of history. It is far from being a bill which would offer immigrants a reasonable “path to citizenship” or stop deportations. This is, however, precisely the message she conveys. As the subtitle of her article which appeared in faithstreet.com on May 9 puts it, “Because Congress has failed to pass immigration reform, mothers will be separated from their children throughout America this Mother’s Day.”

Aizeki, Prohibido cruzar la linea

Photo by Mizue Aizeki. Used with permission.

Reality is that the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act would, if passed, make a bad situation much worse. It calls for further militarization of the US / MEX border which inevitably will put more pressure on border communities, environmental systems, and migrants. Deaths will increase. It will expand the consignment of poor foreign workers to indentured servitude by expanding the inherently abusive and highly exploitive Guest Worker program, a program which has been condemned by the Southern Poverty Law Center as being “Close to Slavery.” The program inevitably will work to the advantage of employers and to the disadvantage of domestic and foreign laborers.

Militarization and guest worker visas are not incidentals hovering around the edges of a “pathway to citizenship” bill. They are the keystones of the bill. Deportation? Not even addressed in the bill which should surprise no one since the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, the two powerful for-profit prison corporations which have contracts with the Federal government to fill their beds with immigration detainees are helping pay for the bill. And that “path to citizenship?” To the degree that it exists at all, it is a punitive, 13 year long path which cannot be begun until after the border is fully militarized and it is so filled with fees and exceptions that those who live long enough to start out on the path will never make it to the end. Surely, even those inured to the rough and tumble of politics should agree that it is a poor exchange for other people’s lives and other people’s servitude.

The Wall, Crosses 30

Border Wall art installation, by No More Deaths.

When I wrote Sr. Simone a letter last July [2013] encouraging her to reconsider her position on S. 744 she replied, “if you have a magic wand, please use it.” I have no magic wand.

What I do have is an ability to speak truth to power and propose justice alternatives. Instead of expanding militarization and increasing migrant deaths, we should de-militarize the border. We should create a visa allowing poor people without significant amounts of money and title to land to come to the US legally. We should abolish the Guest Worker visa. We should immediately confer a legal status on those without it. We should halt deportations altogether until they can be detached from the Department of Homeland Security and the for-profit prison system. We can support a good alternative to S. 744 which already exists, the American Families United Act, HR 3431.

In other words, we clergy can insist on justice not deals.

This article originally appeared in The God Article, with Mark Sandlin on Patheos.com on May 19, 2014.

Comparing Politicians to Christ: Facts, Please



Dr. Russell Moore

It is not often that Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention [SBC], and I agree. He opposes same sex marriage and abortion, for example. I support same sex marriage and a woman’s right to choose. When I officiated at Madison County, Alabama’s first same sex wedding, that started a chain of events that led to the church with which I am associated to be “disfellowshipped” by the SBC. Typically, Moore and I do not agree on much.

However, prominent Christian pastors on both the left and right have publicly supported their favorite politicians – comparing them to Christ. Here is where Moore and I agree – if you are going to compare a politician to Christ, you need to back up your comparison with facts.


Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr.

Several days ago, Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University endorsed Donald Trump. He gushed, “In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment”.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Moore demonstrated that Falwell’s praise is at odds with the facts of Trump’s life. He wrote,

[Trump] revels in the fact that he gets to sleep with some of the ‘top women in the world’ [and that Trump] is a casino and real estate mogul who has built his careers off gambling, a moral vice and an economic swindle that oppresses the poorest and most desperate. When Mr. Trump’s casinos fail, he can simply file bankruptcy and move on. The lives and families destroyed by the casino industry cannot move on so easily.

Similarly, Michael Brown, a Messianic Jew and conservative host of the popular radio show, The Line Of Fire, wrote this op-ed for the Christian Post. In it he quoted a colleague:

I just don’t understand how a true Christian can so easily dismiss all this … wife posed nude, married three times, nasty, crude, cruel, proud, dishonest, manipulative, casino owner and promoter, bankrupted several companies, ‘hates’ abortion but agrees to make it legal, gutter mouth … and on and on and on.


Donald Trump

Citing Trump’s attacks on those he happens to dislike at the moment, Brown asks,

be it Megyn Kelly or Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush or Rosie O’Donnell – attacks in which he behaves more like a spoiled, petulant child than a presidential candidate, how [can Falwell] point to his Christ-like character?

In other words, Moore and Brown are addressing the facts of Trump’s life and career. These facts fly in the face of claims that Trump is the embodiment of Christ from a conservative Christian, personal morality point of view.

There are equally extravagant claims being made by progressive Christians. John Pavlovitz, a pastor and blogger with millions of followers, recently said in the Huffington Post that President Obama has “in effect out-Jesused many of his Conservative Christian critics”. Obama, he wrote, has “championed justice, equality, and the inherent dignity of all people in a way that closely resembles the stated mission of Christ”.


Rev. John Pavlovitz

Among other claims, Pavlovitz said that Obama

has vigorously defended the civil rights of all human beings, has challenged us to be hospitable to refugees and immigrants, and has called out corporate lobbyists and big business special interests that have crippled the middle class and widened the income gap between the richest and poorest.

These claims are factually inaccurate if not downright preposterous. The most cursory glance at his policies should make that clear.

Despite his campaign promise, for example, Obama did not close the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base where some prisoners have been held for decades without being charged. Among the detainees’ basic rights, which Obama has failed to champion in any meaningful way, are the rights of habeus corpus, a US and international principle providing the right to challenge the legality of one’s arrest, and the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution which provides the right to a “speedy and public trial”.

Then there is the matter of Obama’s foreign policy. Jeremy Scahill, a national security correspondent for The Nation and for Democracy Now!, traces the expansion of covert wars in countries ranging from Somalia to Pakistan. He says that

particularly in the Obama administration . . . . we’ve returned to the kind of 1980s way of waging war, where the US was involved in all these dirty wars in Central and Latin America, in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and beyond.

For example, he says, the US and Obama are “using proxies, that effectively are death squads, in Somalia to hunt down people the US has determined are enemies . . . . [and] mercenary forces in various wars, declared and undeclared, around the world.”


King Hamad bin Isa Al Kahlifa

Similarly, Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of the Washington Post, wrote “Obama’s Troubling Counterterrorism Allies: Dictators”. Hiatt detailed Obama’s alarming embrace of Syria’s Bashar-Al-Assad, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Kahlifa, and Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov. Hiatt calls Al-Assad the “bloodiest butcher of this young century”.

He goes on to say that Al-Sisi has “killed and imprisoned opponents with a brazenness Hosni Mubarak never dreamed of,” that when Al Kahlifa “cracks down on peaceful dissidents, the United States barely notices”, and that Karimov “presides over a closed society of prison camps and forced labor.”

As for being “hospitable to refugees and immigrants”, as Pavlovitz asserts, that has been anything but true of Obama with the exception of his recent welcome of Syrian refugees. Obama supports further militarizing the United States / Mexico border which was militarized to prohibit Mexicans and others displaced by the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA] from coming to the US. Militarization has taken a minimum of 6,000 migrants’ lives.


President Barack Obama

Obama has earned the derogatory nickname “Deporter in Chief” among Latinos because under him deportations sky-rocketed, ripping some 2.5 million people from their families. Deportations have left over 5,000 children stranded in foster care and forced other US citizens into exile to be with their deported husband or father. He has deported asylum-seeking Central Americans which has cost 83 their lives, according to London’s newspaper, The Guardian. And, according to the Washington Post, his administration failed to protect thousands of other Central American children, placing them in the hands of human traffickers or abusive caretakers in the U. S.

As for Pavlovitz’s claim that Obama has “called out corporate lobbyists and big business special interests” one needs only to look at his support for free trade agreements [FTAs] to know that is inaccurate. He signed FTAs with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea and has been negotiating vigorously for the Trans-Pacific Partnership [TPP]. As I demonstrated in my film, The Second Cooler, NAFTA not only pushed some 2 million Mexican peasants off their lands and into migration, it allowed good-paying jobs in the United States to be sent overseas. Displacement of peoples is inherent to FTAs which push people off their lands and out of their jobs in order to fulfill the goal of “opening up markets.”

Economic researchers with Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute have projected that the TPP would likely lead to the loss of 448,000 US jobs and cause labor’s share of income to decline by 1.3%. This necessarily would increase the gap between rich and poor and widen inequality. The researchers found that while the US job market will suffer the most, the TPP would lead to 771,000 job losses over the next 10 years in the member nations.

FTAs, however, are about more than opening up markets, displacement of peoples, and the offshoring of good paying jobs. Lori Wallach, Director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, has called trade deals “backdoor financial deregulation,” a “power tool to demolish financial stability policies,” and part of the establishment of an “investor-state” system. She concludes that the TPP and other FTAs are mainly about “new rights for corporations and new constraints on governments’ non-trade regulatory policy space”.

Gretchen Morgenson, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who writes about markets for the New York Times, voiced similar concerns. She wrote that “trade agreements might well be read as an invitation to fight financial regulation”. She points out that Ecuador in 2011 asked that World Trade Organization to allow it to preserve its ability to create regulations to ensure “the integrity and stability of the financial system”. But the proposal was rejected by trade representatives in the U. S., the European Union, and Canada.

You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in economics to surmise that it is the middle class that suffers the most from these deals.

Christian pastors and bloggers have the right to endorse or support any candidate and any president they wish, but Russell Moore and I agree on this: when Christian leaders compare the president or a presidential hopeful to Christ, they must backup their claims with facts. We may disagree on which facts are or are not critical, but they must be backed up. Other people’s lives are hanging in the balance.

Giving Tuesday: Charity or Justice?

The Second Cooler Main Graphic, KilpatrickToday is Giving Tuesday. I don’t know who started this but I’m willing to jump on board.

Each of us who give portions of our discretionary money has to make a decision. Do I give in ways that help change unjust systems?  Or do I give in ways that meet immediate needs? Justice or charity?

There is a story that illustrates the problem. There once were some people standing at the edge of a river. One of them noticed a baby floating down the river. She scooped the baby out of the water. She and her friends located a warm blanket, warm milk, and a warm home for the baby to live in. Meanwhile, another baby floated down the river. And another. The friends formed a committee to find warm blankets, warm milk, and warm homes for the many babies who were floating down the river.

Finally, someone asked, “Who is putting all these babies in the river? Why are they doing it? How can we stop the putting of babies in the river?”

Charity or justice? Meet immediate needs or change the system? How do we choose?

This is a fundamental problem artists, including filmmakers, face every day. How do we convince people who have limited amounts of discretionary income that justice is worth investing in?

The Second Cooler, my immigrant advocacy documentary narrated by Martin Sheen, helps pull back the curtain on reality. It helps give people interested in justice for unauthorized migrants as well as domestic laborers targets: the ending of free trade agreements, the need for a visa which would allow people without title to land and / or  large sums of money to come to the U. S. legally, the abolition of the guest worker program to name a few.

I made the film because I believed that if enough people bought the film, watched it, and absorbed the message, it would help bring about changes to an unjust system.

But what about the immediate life and death needs of displaced human beings — the illegal immigrant in the Sonora Desert right now, the child in foster care now because his parents were deported, the guest worker being robbed of wages as I write this post? Who helps them while the wheels of justice grind slowly?

I would like to suggest that this does not have to be an either / or decision. I would like to suggest that you buy a copy of The Second Cooler, watch it, and carefully think about the ways in which the system needs to change. And, just as importantly, that you think about what Comprehensive Immigration Reform as it was spelled out in S. 744, really is.

You can buy The Second Cooler and The Second Cooler Soundtrack, either in the DVD/CD format or as a digital download here: www.thesecondcooler.com.
I also would like to suggest that you make a contribution to one of these organizations which helps meet immediate needs. I don’t have a good opinion of many of the advocacy groups which are asking for a portion of your discretionary income, but I have a very good opinion of these. Those marked with an asterisk are also The Second Cooler partners.

Border Angels

Coalición de derechos humanos *

Detention Watch Network

Farmworker Association of Florida

Florida Legal Services

Humane Borders

New Mexico Faith Coalition for Immigrant Justice *

No More Deaths / No Más Muertes

North Carolina Justice Center *

Student Action With Farmworkers *

Toxic Free North Carolina *


In Memory of Leigh Anna Jimmerson: The Second Cooler

Anyone who has seen The Second Cooler knows that on the night of April 17, 2009, my daughter and her boyfriend were killed by a drunk driver in Huntsville, Alabama. Leigh Anna was 16 years old. Her boyfriend, Tad Joseph Mattle, was 19. The driver was an undocumented man from Mexico. I want to explain here why I included a “postscript” in the film about what happened that terrible night.

1913710_1173850593255_5670788_nBecause the film advocates for undocumented immigrants, there were people who felt the film would have more impact on audiences and help me achieve my purpose with the film if I made her death a bigger part of of it. Or, rather, making more of the fact that I forgave the man who killed her would help my purpose in making the film.

Others, after seeing an early version of the film wondered if it was a good idea to include any acknowledgement at all. They wondered whether it might appear self-serving or, worse, negatively affect the ability of the audience to reflect upon the content of the film itself. I, too, worried about both these things.

Yet, I felt I had no real choice but to acknowledge what happened. There were two reasons. The most important reason was that as an advocate, my mission is to pull back the curtain on reality, to expose reality as fully as I can. I concluded that I could not, in good conscience, suppress this piece of reality.

Taken April 17, 2009

Taken April 17, 2009

The second reason was that I believed that if I did not acknowledge her death in a way I thought might be helpful, that others would in ways that would not be helpful. Not 48 hours had passed after their deaths before some people were calling me “the worst mother ever” for forgiving the driver and Tad and Leigh Anna a couple of “stupid kids”.

Needless to say, her father, sister, and I grieve every day of our lives. And we miss, Tad, too, whom we absolutely adored, every single day. We miss the married couple they might have become. The children they might have had. But we cope and try to honor them in ways we feel they would have found meaningful.

Why am I telling you this now? Because on this coming April 17, the sixth anniversary of her death, I will be putting The Second Cooler into distribution. I do it in memory of LAJ and Tad.