Being among living immigrants was a relief after starting the day among dead ones.
I stood in the basement of a Methodist church in Tucson, Arizona, where the Inn Project had just received another group of immigrants recently processed by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. We were witnessing an unusual arrangement: after local Methodist churches protested conditions in ICE’s detention centers, ICE told them they could house immigrants themselves. Everything I was seeing — a large kitchen, a playroom, bathrooms, showers and cots — was evidence of how the Methodist church was doing just that.
This group of immigrants, like most others, would only stay for a day before traveling on to meet family members or making other arrangements. As I looked around, it was strange to wonder what each person may have been through in getting to that point. It was strange to think, too — listening to their musical Spanish, returning their shy smiles, seeing both exhaustion and hope in their faces — that the words “undocumented immigrants” meant people like this. They seemed so much more real than those two words convey.
The immigrants were in stark contrast, too, to what I had seen that morning at the Pima County Office Medical Examiner’s Office, where bodies of those who die in the surrounding Arizona desert are brought. Many of those bodies are believed or confirmed to be people who were attempting to enter the United States, and the medical examiner’s office spared no detail in telling us how often and in what condition these bodies are typically found.
The pictures and statistics were as gruesome as they were heartbreaking, but nothing could have prepared me for standing in that fridge, body bags stacked around me, the smell of decay as nauseating as the realization that every bag held the remains of someone who once walked, breathed and lived as I do. Those were people who likely died in horrific heat and were lost in harsh terrain — desperate, terrified and alone. And only because I was born on this side of the border was I not in circumstances that may have ended with me in a body bag, too.
The Inn Project and the medical examiner’s office were the first of several sobering experiences I had throughout our trip, from standing in the place where a Mexican boy was shot by a border patrol agent to attending an immigration court hearing where a man was ordered to voluntarily leave the country by a certain date or be deported. These experiences solidified in my mind that the term “undocumented immigrant” means a person who is impacted in real and lasting ways by the decisions our leaders make, and those decisions influence each of us. There’s much left for me to explore regarding immigration issues, but this trip was the best start I could have hoped for.