When I encouraged members of Wildflower Church to cross the border for their annual church service education trip, I never dreamed that we would end up detained, deported, and banned from Mexico. I am the interim minister at Wildflower Church in Austin, Texas. I have always found these person-to-person delegations energizing for justice work and profoundly moving spiritually.
It was supposed to be an easy trip, just across the border to Piedras Negras and Acuña, to talk with workers, mostly the women workers, about their experiences in the factories (the maquiladoras) that are run by multi-national corporations on the Mexican border. We felt it would inform our immigration work at home.
We first heard from the women. There is an assumption that maquiladoras women are docile, but these women had proved them wrong. Conditions such as working more than a decade for fifty cents an hour, ten hours a day in a facility with no windows and undependable sanitation organized them to change. After a ten hour day, you earned only enough for a gallon of milk.
I was particularly moved by fifty-year-old, Juan, who told us how he had grown up working on the family farm in the outdoors he loved, only to have to emigrate to the maquiladoras from Southern Mexico when farm prices were driven down after NAFTA. Now he worked just as hard, for less, without the healthy air and open skies he had loved as a young man. This he will do for the rest of his days, far from home. The aspect of NAFTA requiring fair labor practices is not only being ignored, but conditions for unions are getting worse.
After several morning visits, we went to the small meeting room of The Border Committee of Workers (CFO) to have a lunch prepared for us by our hosts. Shortly after we arrived, the building was surrounded by police with large automatic weapons and four immigration officers entered the building saying they had an “anonymous tip” about a large gathering which included foreigners. Eight of the eleven of us (the other three were Latino) were asked for our papers and told we didn’t have the correct papers and we would have to be taken down to the office to remedy the situation. Our Salvadoran-American companion told us later that this was the first time brown skin had ever been an advantage for him with police! We spent eight hours in custody during which we were asked to sign documents we couldn’t read. At first we were denied access to the consulate and later to a lawyer. At one point we were threatened with a two week stay in detention in Saltillo. We finally agreed to sign a short document saying we didn’t have a tourist card (not normally required near the border), we got finger printed, and we were deposited in El Rio, Texas with nothing but the purses we had with us. We were never given a credible reason for our deportation but headlines in the Mexican papers suggested we were political organizers. Through all our detention and the night that followed, the Mexican workers including some of their friends from the miners’ union, stood outside the building in which we were being held and then made sure we were safely across the border. Three of the eight detained were UUs from Austin.
It was clear that it was not us, but our hosts, who were the true target of this action. Multi-national corporations are crushing independent unions in Northern Mexico and this was another attempt to cut them off from friends and to intimidate both workers and allies. Most of us left Mexico truly inspired by the courage and friendship of these Mexican workers and I hope to return if and when the ban on my return is lifted. From Julia, Angelica, Javier, and many others I learned the meaning of the word corazón which means both heart and courage in Spanish. They taught us that to truly Stand on the Side of Love you need corazón and you need it for a long time. We had come to stand with them. Instead they stood with us.
If you would like to show solidarity with the workers, sign the petition online for the reinstatement of people we met who were fired for organizing.