Migration is not a crime

I’ve had migration much on my mind these days – up close personally, through the media with the Trumpian wall hysteria, watching the crisis in neighboring Venezuela sending many migrants to Ecuador, and with two excellent fiction books I’ve just finished, Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, about African migrants in Germany (and so much more). And Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, which begins in an unknown country in the Middle East.

For the up-close and personal, I want to tell a Cañar migration story, (with names changed).

At 4:00 AM on a October morning we received a call in Portland from an acquaintance here in Cañar, Alejandro, an older man who had worked on our house construction and who became a “compadre de la casa, which means we are considered near-family. He called to say his son – I’ll call him Rafael – had left Cañar in September with his wife, Mariana. Both were picked up crossing the border and were recently found held at the Eloy Detention Center near Phoenix, Arizona. His son wanted to be in touch with us. Could we help?

This was the beginning of many collect calls from Eloy, and many letters on my part for Rafael: one saying we knew him as an honorable man who would not be a threat if released, another to a judge at Eloy, another to the lawyer who was “helping,” saying we would provide some support to the couple in getting settled if released (I don’t think Rafael ever realized we were in Portland, Oregon, not New York or New Jersey.) Meanwhile, I took an online tour of Eloy Detention Center by a local Fox10 TV station in Phoenix, showing a modern clinic, an exercise yard and a in-facility courtroom. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHsM2XADlSQ But make no mistake: this is a prison, a private prison owned and operated by CoreCivic, under contract with ICE.

Some quick facts on Eloy: 1,500 men and women are presently being held for various immigration violations, and after the Trump administration’s controversial zero-tolerance policy in 2018, the facility housed roughly 300 mothers separated from their children. People die here, primarily through suicides but also for lack of timely medical attention; since 2003, Eloy alone represented 9% of the total inmate deaths in all 250 detention facilities in the United States.

In our calls, with urgency on Rafael’s part, asking for yet another letter addressed to yet another official at Eloy, we didn’t talk much about his personal situation. But I learned later from his father (once we were back in Cañar) that he is an engineer by training, and that he and Mariana left four children with Alejandro and his wife, Leonor. Grandparents in their 70’s who thought they were done with child rearing, grandparents who surely sacrificed to send their son to university, grandparents who are really very poor, left raising four children, two of them still in primary school? I found this hard to comprehend, but asked no further questions the one time Alejandro came to visit – tired and worried – so as not to reveal my true feeling: How on earth could his son and wife leave their four children, knowing it will be years before they see, or care for them, again?

Fast forward to last week, when I ran into Rafael’s sister, Clemencia. As we walked down the road together, I asked if there was news of her brother and sister-in-law. “They were released last week!” she said. I asked if they had to pay bail (thinking of the letter to the lawyer)? “Oh yes,” she said, “they had to pay $15,000 for Rafael, and $20,000 for Mariana.” And on top of that, I thought, add the cost of paying coyotes to get them from Cañar to the U.S.: right now up to $12,000, probably more for a couple. “They are both in New York and working,” Clemencia said, “and They have a court date in three months.” (Or not, I thought. It’s common enough for migrants from Cañar to sacrifice the bail, be no-shows at court, and continue an existence as illegales, working for years to pay their debts.) A quick calculation on my part puts Rafael and Mariana’s debt, with bail, at about $50,000. I didn’t ask what their work was, but it is most likely construction and hotel cleaning. How many years will it take?

MIGRATION IS NOT A CRIME. The crime is a system of coyotes, money lenders, ICE, private prisons, lawyers, courts, bail bondsmen, draconian laws that will mean years before Rafael and Mariana see their children, and years that Alejandro and Leonor, grandparents too old for parenting, will be caring for young children.

OK, on to less fraught, domestic, news: We took a long hike a week or so ago that was the first serious walking test of Michael’s new hip. We hired a taxi to take us to the top of a mountain that looms over Cañar, called Tayta Bueran, then we walked down – about 3 hours. The tough part was wading through the paramo grass that grows above tree line – dense, knee-level, grabby and clinging, full of hidden holes,. But once through that – about 45 minutes – it was (sortof) smooth sailing, with picnic lunch and slipping and sliding on steep gravel road to the Pan American highway.

So far so good, so then yesterday, we tried it again, but on another mountain (taxi to top, walk downhill) and with our goddaughter, Paiwa, on vacation and spending a few days with us.


Lots of great book suggestions came in from my last blog, and I was interested to see how many relate to migration in one way or another. – maybe it’s on all our minds. I’ve already revealed my recent reads, but I have to mention The Past, by Tessa Hadley, which I’m presently loving. And I’ll include another reader’s mention of Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck because Susan G. of Portland makes such a good summary: “Takes place in Berlin and portrays a retired professor’s encounter with the illegal immigrants there. Sounds like nothing but grimness, but it shows the transformative effect of empathy, and much more, and left me with a positive feeling.” She also liked Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan and The Paris Wife by Paula McClain, two titles I’ve put on my wish list.

My sister Sher in Santa Fe is reading Tana French’s new book The Witch Elm – “love her writing!” (Tana French can do no wrong.) Carole from Portland is reading Leavers by Lisa Ko – “hard read for me but thought provoking.” Suzanne from Cuenca suggests Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue, “a fictional story that embodies so many aspects of the modern immigrant story. And of course Becoming by Micelle Obama. Such a personal look at her life from childhood through the White House. I have even greater regard for this woman and her family, and she takes on the issue of race that is strangling this country.”

Pat from Bend is reading Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver, “a novel about two families living in the same shelter (a brick house) in two different centuries.”

Son Scott in San Francisco suggests Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, which Michael is presently reading and liking very much. Also, by same author: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

Janice in New Jersey writes that she loved Charming Billy by Alice McDermott (in response to my reading of The Ninth Hour, her new book).

Judy in Batavia, New York is reading Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles (of A Gentleman in Moscow fame) and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. (One of the saddest books I’ve ever read.)

Finally, Rick – great reader and writer from Portland – recommends Valeria Luiselli, “born in Mexico, raised in South Africa, lives in NYC, writes in English and Spanish, worked as a translator for the juvenile courts for migrant kids and now teaches at Hofstra. The English book, Tell Me How It Ends, is an essay about the plight of migrants, what they overcome by leaving Central America,and their difficulties getting into the US.  It’s short, and so powerful that I bought a dozen copies for our political group. The Story of My Teeth, originally published about three years ago, got terrific reviews. It’s hilarious, and great fun to read.”

This virtual Cañar Book Club might be one of the best ideas I’ve ever had! I love all my fellow club members, and please keep your reading suggestions coming for the March blog!

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14 thoughts on “Migration is not a crime

  1. Oh how I wish I’d seen the book club suggestions before my trip to the book store on Friday! I bought yet another Maggie O’Farrell (my go-to when I can’t think what else to read. I’m going to run out soon) and a new book Tangerine by Christine Mangan which was strongly recommended by the cashier. But at the same time, I’ve just started The Capital by Robert Menasse. Jury’s out on that one not least because I fall asleep before getting very far and promptly forget who everyone is. Off on a week’s holiday tomorrow so I shall report back!

  2. Great title for this blog, Judy – such a hard process for all concerned.
    So glad to hear Michael’s hip is working well.
    Appreciate the book club members reading suggestions – several with which I concur, particularly Unsheltered!
    Take care both.

  3. Such a beautiful but heart-wrenching story!
    Wish we could do a Kickstarter or Go Fund Me for them!
    So Impressed by Michael.doing back to back hikes already!
    Only six months, or less! Wow!
    Love you guys xos

  4. Congrats to Michael on his hikes. I remember one of those downhill jaunts with Michael–I tripped and fell into the mud. Some nearby kids thought it was hilarious.

    Also congrats to your indefatigable and compassionate efforts on the behalf of migrants caught up in the relentless meat grinder of the US legal system. Given the criminal human rights violations committed by a malicious US president who cages children and injects the venom of racism into the human heart, your good work exemplifies Adlai Stevenson’s famous remark that it’s “better to light one match than to curse the darkness.”

  5. I’ve got your titles for the next blog. Let me know if The Capital keeps you awake in the end. Which Maggie O’Farrell did you buy? I love her too. What ado you think bout Tessa Hadley? I’m really enjoying “The Past”. BTW: we are going to Valencia in May and I’m reading up on Andrew’s research. Could you send the name of your hotel, if you liked it.

  6. ha – I read your comment to Michael and he remembers that moment well. (I too tripped and fell – twice on that downhill hike – but no kids nearby to laugh.)

  7. I wanted to make a reading comments. I finished a book: The Sixth Extinction, an unnatural history by Elizabeth Kolbert. It is well written, technical, I learned a lot, and the arguments it makes are thorough. I can’t find any arguments with its conclusions. I wanted to, but the author convinced me. Some of what it says is devastating. I was reading about efforts to save the Sumatran rhino when I saw a new article that the species is now extinct. The book brings us serious questions about our role in the disasters befalling the Earth and what we’re going to do about it. These are questions that even our farming innovations in Cañar have to answer. Can we do anything to reverse climate change? (Yes, a little at a time.) Can biodiversity be restored to a healthy level? (That is a goal of our program.) How can new varieties of plants and animals be introduced or excluded so that we can be responsible to environmental balance? (Carefully, not like rabbits in Australia.) The Sixth Extinction is a smooth read, not too technical, and a real thought provoker.
    Where have the Neanderthals gone? Extinct, but my Neanderthal ancestors left me unable to benefit from human pain meds. (OK, partly my theory) Where are the dinosaurs? Well the blue heron that hunts in the pond behind the beaver dam next to the post office looks like a dinosaur taught him how to walk. Everything that was, still is with us. And how are we going to manage what is here now?
    That’s my thought.

  8. Great commenting, Alan. and thanks for book suggestion for next blog (and for my book list for next year). A book like Kolbert’s needs to be read, alternately, with a good novel. There’ll be lots of ideas for those too at next book club meeting. And You’ve given me an idea of a blog about Cañar, climate change and the endurance of agriculture and animals (or something related…)

  9. Hi Judy and Mike,

    Glad to hear adventures with good endings. Not all, of course, for your friend, and others that we hold in hope. What? Why? So many questions.

    A Saudi woman who suffered the culture of her country tries to answer. She worked to reform the treatment of women, ended up in prison for awhile, and eventually emigrated. Her answers are ambivalent; she loves her country, but her country’s culture brutalizes women.
    The book is “Daring to Drive” by Manal Al-Sharif.

  10. Thanks for recommendation Pat. I’ve seen reviews of that book and it’s going on my list for Portland (and in next book club post). Hope all is well with you and Scott…

  11. Sister Jude, what a great blog, as usual. Eloy detention center broke my heart and
    chilled me to the bone, as do all the privately owned prisons in the US. It’s a business and needs a constant flow of customers. Drugs are becoming legal, now they need
    immigrants? Loved your photos of the walks in the grass that grabs you, and seeing
    the beautiful vistas of Cañar. My favorite new book is Figuring by Maria Popova.
    It will take me all year to read it, but every page is wonderful. I’m also reading
    The Wife by Meg Wolitzer (haven’t seen the film, but Glenn Close, up for an Oscar)
    which is well written with a sense of extraordinary observation. I like it.

  12. I second the Sixth Extinction suggestion from Alan, though it had a bizarrely apathetic effect on me (“seems like we will inevitably blow ourselves up – and earth will most likely recover – but we won’t”).

    I don’t know if you and Michael listen to the NYTimes “The Daily” podcast, but there is a series of podcasts on the border w/ Mexico published recently that goes “behind the scenes” in a very illuminating and distressing way.

  13. HI Allison – yes, we’ve discovered The Daily and listening to the border series. In fact I’m about to join Michael near the fire and see what Michael Barbero has to say about Michael Cohen’s testimony today.

  14. Thanks dear sister – your book suggestions will be brought up at the next book club meeting. The film, The Wife, is a must-see. Somehow it snuck into American theaters under the radar – perhaps because it’s a Swedish production? We caught it before we left Portland, barely noticed. Glenn Close should have got the Oscar, for sure.

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