Reflection on UMVIM/OR-ID MFSA Immigration Immersion Experience​
By Jan Nelson and Karen Nelson of OR-ID MFSA

A long time ago, in another time and place, fifteen people gathered in Tucson, Arizona. It was March 8, 2020 and a United Methodist Volunteer in Mission Immigration Immersion experience was about to begin. This trip was an opportunity to meet with the people on the ground in Arizona, working with immigrants crossing the border.

Our first presentation was from the Border Patrol, two friendly officers who offered the standard presentation and didn’t always answer our questions satisfactorily. It gave us a good background from which to observe what was really happening in so many places during the rest of the week.

Throughout the week we met with various groups.

  • Rocío Calderon, a former detainee, runs the Casa Mariposa Detention Visitation Program. This program works with the detainees at the detention center in Eloy, AZ, helping them work through all of the paperwork necessary to get released, finding legal assistance for detainees as they navigate the process and providing access to the outside world for people who are frightened and locked away often for reasons that make no sense to them. The program also provides commissary funds for detainees to purchase small personal items and snacks, as well as helping with transportation costs when someone is released and dumped at the local bus station. Another important connection is writing cards to those in detention, sharing words of encouragement. People from all around the country are encouraged to get involved in card writing. This program works with detainees at Eloy, where there are 500 women and 1000 men detained. 54,000 people are detained every day in the United States.

  • Prior to the pandemic, Operation Streamline happened every afternoon at the US District Court in Tucson. Here up to 75 people who had been apprehended crossing the border were brought to plead guilty and be sentenced to months in prison or be sent back across the border to Mexico. By pleading guilty, a person gives up all rights to seek asylum. End Operation Streamline monitors each day’s court proceedings and reports to the ACLU. They have also staged protests at the courthouse.

  • The Inn is a friendly face in the midst of great uncertainty. When people are released from detention, they are left at the bus station to make their own way to join family or friends in other parts of the country, often without any funds. The Inn, housed at Tucson First UMC, is supported by UMC churches throughout the district. Numbers here fluctuate greatly depending on how many people are being released. It is a safe place to sleep and eat until arrangements can be made to purchase a bus ticket, which is usually purchased by the family or friends who have agreed to sponsor those released while they wait for the next step in the asylum process. 

  • Two groups from Tucson help to provide water for those who have crossed the border and must travel through the desert. No More Deaths carries water jugs into locations that can’t be reached by vehicles. These locations are chosen by the evidence that people have passed through the area. Tucson Samaritans has more permanent water stations located along known traveling routes. These sites contain large containers of water that are monitored, filled and tested regularly. Tucson Samaritans also work to keep track of what is happening throughout the area and coordinate the work of many different groups. We had an opportunity to go with Tucson Samaritans to two of their sites, as well as visiting some of the memorial crosses that have been put up where remains have been found. We also drove to the border crossing at Sasabo, a tiny place that was quiet on the day we arrived.

  • Arizona Justice for Our Neighbors is a legal aid group that is a ministry of The United Methodist Church. JFON provides all of its own funding from donations. JFON is dedicated to the defense of immigrants trying to obtain documents. It also provides educational opportunities such as our trip to help people understand the complexity of what is happening at the border and get a real look at the situation. Scott Morris, a JFON board member, arranges the various components of these immigration immersion trips.

  • To understand more of the humanity of what is happening at the border, we crossed into Nogales, Mexico, where we visited with three different groups who are working to help the most vulnerable in Mexico. These groups ranged from a small manufacturing company that makes all-terrain wheelchairs and prosthesis for people in Mexico to a shelter that has been run by the same couple for 38 years. In recent months there have been more Mexicans leaving the United States than trying to enter the US.

These are a few of the groups with whom we met and talked while we were in Tucson. There are so many complexities to immigration issues that it isn’t possible to understand all the nuances. And if we can’t understand the nuances, how can people who do not speak English and are looking for a better life for their family understand them? One of the things we did learn in Tucson is that not all immigrants are coming from Mexico and Central America. Coming through Mexico is also a route for people from India and African countries.

This trip was co-sponsored by our MFSA regional community. Coincidentally, we have chosen to emphasize immigration as our primary issue this spring. We have posted lists of resources on our website ( books for adults, books for children, videos, and links to other organizations. Several of these books relate to places and people in Arizona that we were able to visit. We encourage people to use these resources for their own personal work, but also to use them in their local church or with other groups they are part of. We are also organizing online events for all who are interested. We recently hosted the leaders of Casa Mariposa Detention Visitation Program for a conversation and “virtual card-making party” to send supportive messages to immigrants in detention. In May, we will host a viewing and discussion of the short film “Locked in a Box”. We encourage everyone to visit our website and take your own virtual trip through the complexities of immigration to the US.