It may be noticeable that things have slowed down a bit here this summer… The good news: I’ve been hired for a project with JCCF. The bad news: I have to put this blog on an indefinite hiatus while I work on it, as I just can’t keep both going at the same time.
When I get back, one thing I’ll be doing here is exploring ways in which the material for the two projects, immigration and domestic violence, overlap. In the meantime this recent article, Top Immigration Court Hands Huge Win to Battered Women Seeking Asylum, on a recent Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) decision regarding asylum is one example.
While I’m gone, everything on the blog will stay up as is. Comments can still be submitted. Resource links and other suggestions are very welcome and will start being added again when I return. Thank you for your patience!
Recently, the blog received a cheery request to post a link to a site that promised help with immigration paperwork. The site looks official and trustworthy, both in the name of the site. It even comes up first in a google search on immigration forms.
The site does disclose that the forms can be downloaded for free from the government and that the government may charge additional fees. So what does this site offer? They say that they will make your application easy and error free.
Sounds good? Sure – which is why it’s important to double check if the site is legitimate. Unfortunately in this case, there’s many complaints that describe the site as a rip-off and a scam at the site’s Consumer Affairs page. Entry after entry notes that they have paid fees for what would be free directly from the government and gotten little to nothing in return. Clients report that the company is unresponsive to complaints and unwilling to give refunds.
Here are a few of the comments:
“I thought I was on the legit site for the Immigration Dept. Their company is the first one that comes up when you search for Immigration. Their site looks exactly like the legit Immigration site. When I paid, I thought these were the fees for getting my citizenship. They charge you for using a form on their site that you can get for free from the legit Immigration Department. They charged me $189.00 for nothing.”
Signed up for a green card for my wife and self. They charged us 2 x $159.00 because of separate filing. Did not know that these same forms are available on the Govt. website without having to pay the Immigrationdirect.com website. Try to call and complain without getting any credit for these credit card fees. Besides, paying 2 x $450.00 each to the official U.S. government immigration service. We did not know that we were had until our interview last week by the US Immigration Service when we ask why we also had to pay www.immigrationdirect.com. They advised us to file with the state of Illinois legal aid to recover the excess fees paid. Fraudulent use of the false U.S. website is falsely having been charged.
How is this possible? This looks just like the real thing… This must be against the law or something.. This people have my SSN, my ALIEN # and almost my credit card #. I said almost cuz I wasn’t ready to file it yet… I filled up the app. Was asked to pay $149 for my green card. I went to put my money into my bank then I got a phone call from Immigrationdirect… I didn’t answer but I got voice mail :-/ very strange: Like since when immigration will call you back ha? Well this voice on my voice machine offered 25% off the original $149 fee for my green card… Now this is when I stop doing anything and start to put things together… Don’t fall for it, it’s not real website. Go directly to immigration in your town but just to be clear, something has to be done with this website. This is not good!!!!
When a site seems official and offers a much desired short cut, it can be all too tempting to skip the due diligence we’re likely to do when we ask friends about a new brand or read reviews about online merchants. Yet when the stakes are high this double checking is even more important. That’s when you have the least to lose to people who are trying to take advantage of you for their own profit.
Though this particular site does include a fine print disclosure that the forms are available for free elsewhere, the small print is for their protection – protection from lawsuits and refunds – and not for yours.
And when it comes to official U.S. government forms, look for “.gov” websites – they’re not always easy to navigate and there may be fees when you file – but the forms themselves are nearly always available for free.
Also, a huge thanks to Ellen Kroeker for the initial background on this site and then working all the way through this post with me!
Community participation. It’s become such a catch phrase that making it solidify when you stop to really look at it can be tricky, like trying to see synergy or social networking. Yet it was an excitingly tangible part of the event I covered Saturday, the official launch of the Colibri Center for Human Rights which included the Tucson premiere of Who is Dayani Cristal?
More than 400 people showed up – more than double the number that attended the award winning documentary’s New York premiere. But a crowd alone doesn’t mean community.
Here’s the thing: many of the 400 + people who were there last night are active in the community about these issues; many were featured in the film or interviewed as part of the background research. Since many of the people at the event have been working together, or at least known each other, for years, the evening was full of familiar faces greeting familiar faces.
For more about the film, check out the trailer below and for more about Colibri’s official launch event, check out my coverage for Tucson Sentinel article here:
• Colibri Center launch puts human faces to border issues – Tucson Sentinel on 6 May 2014
“It’s gonna be a tough week or two,” Robin said. “I just can’t believe it’s been two years.”
Two years ago – that’s how long Robin has been trying to find out what happened to her coworker-turned-friend-turned-sister.
Maria Dorantes, better known to her friends and family as Chayo, was last heard from on February 25, 2011. Family had made arrangements with a smuggler to help her cross the U.S.-Mexico border in the next few days. From the border town of Altar her route likely lay west through the Sonoran countryside and then, after crossing the border onto the sovereign land of the Tohono O’odham, north up the Baboquivari Valley. Hopefully a few days of walking would end by waiting at Hwy 68 for a vehicle that could take her to Phoenix in a matter of hours.
Chayo’s ultimate destination was Los Angeles – she was devoted to her three teenage sons and worried about how they were doing in her absence, said Robin*.
“I just know in my heart that Chayo would do anything to be with her boys,” Robin said.
When they first met Robin and Chayo discovered they had much in common including losing parents at an early age. Over years of friendship the two women went from being friendly at work to practically sisters and Robin was asked to be the godmother of one of Dorantes’ three California born sons.
The one thing Chayo had hidden from Robin was a secret that daily threatened the life she was building with her family in Los Angeles: Chayo herself was living in the United States illegally because she’d stayed after her visa expired.
“The boys were born here, she had an established life here, she worked while she was here,’” Robin said.
Dorantes was arrested on January 14, 2011 and, after being hospitalized for skyrocketing blood pressure, was deported to Tijuana.
Her ex-husband helped gather funds and make arrangements with a smuggler while she stayed at shelters run by Catholic Charities.
“She wanted to come back to US as soon as possible to be with her kids, she was worry about them all the time and of course that is the love of a mother,” he wrote for her missing persons flyer. “She was the best mom to her kids always kissing them and telling them she love them.”
Chayo knew the journey could be dangerous but, after losing her mother to cancer when she was seven, she was determined to be there for her three sons, Robin said.
“You couldn’t tell Chayo what she could do and what she could not do, like if they said, ‘oh this is hard crossing, this is far,’ then she’d be like, ‘I can do it,’” Robin said last July. “Chayo had a personality that she could do anything.”
But what happened next remains a mystery.
And without resolution Chayo’s friends and family have only her painful, inexplicable absence.
“There’s so many things that could happen to her that I just don’t know,” Robin said. “I can’t believe that this happened, it’s like some stupid lifetime movie.”
She listed the people she’s talked to, hoping for clues, and the organizations she’s called, looking for traces of Chayo.
And for Robin, this week especially, not knowing is the worst part.
“I’ve lost people in my life and you know of course people say, oh it gets better with time and it usually does,” Robin said last Friday. “I don’t know what’s wrong this time, I don’t know if it’s the circumstances of how this happened but it’s really not getting easier.”
Adan Flores Becerra, 57, is one of 10 kids in his large family. He usually talks to them every day since moving to Lomas de Arena, Chihuahua, Mexico. But now he hasn’t answered his phone since they last heard from him on February 17th.
Earlier that day Becerra told family members he was in Ojinaga where his girlfriend owns a bar. But that evening calls began going straight to voicemail even though Becerra usually carries extra cell phone batteries.
“It’s not like him,” a family member told KWES. “Tuesday we were kind of worried, then came Wednesday and that’s when I spoke to his friend.”
Becerra is between 5’5″ and 5’6″, wears his hair to his waist and walks with a bit of a limp, his family said. He also has tattoos on his left arm including El Santo Niño and several names. His 1995 avocado-colored Ford F-150 was last spotted outside of his girlfriend’s house but when local police acting on the missing persons report went there to look for it the truck was gone.
One niece, who said her family wants only Becerra’s name be public, asked to include Becerra’s description and story here on the missing persons page.
“We have filed missing person reports and we are not sure where or how to go from now to find him,” she wrote. “I heard there may a website that coroners post pictures of unidentified people.”
They’re also distributing flyers and talking to local media organizations in English and in Spanish.
“Family is super worried they’ve got no new news and have heard nothng from him,” she wrote. “We don’t know what else we can do!”
Becerra’s family is asking for anyone with information to contact Ojinaga Police or call Sara Rodriguez at 575-390-9809.
(a post event coverage from The Tucson Sentinel 16 October 2013 piece Border activists declare victory after protest at closed Phx ICE HQ)
Protests, rallies, marches – they’re all different ways of describing a big public event with passionate people. And that means a big, loud, exciting mix of challenges and opportunities for reporters trying to cover what’s going on.
Sometimes there’s also the people who disagree so strongly they’ll come out and counter protest. This can be a great way to get a mix of viewpoints – or to get caught between two groups shouting.
As my professor for 20th century media and entrepreneurship (real class) says, someone yelling from one side and someone yelling from the other side doesn’t make balanced reporting, it makes two people yelling at each other.
Immigration rallies in Arizona are definitely no exception. The most vicious political exchange I’ve seen in person so far was outside an event where Maricopa Sheriff Joe Arpaio was speaking.
Some groups rely so heavily on talking points that talking to 20 people gets you the same handful of words no matter what you ask.
These events also draw people who care deeply about their cause. Some will summarize everything in a few, perfect well thought quotes or draw such a fresh new connection that you trade contact information for follow up and open your computer to an email full of links to research or contact information that helps you drill deeper into the issues and the groups behind them.
Whether they’re vibrant with energy or have more journalists than participants, there’s a balance between trying capture the moment (did you get a good description of the atmosphere, catch the speakers’ best line or see when the federales arrived?) and keeping everything in context (is this protest larger or smaller than the last one on the same issue? more or less extreme? nearer or further from a place that has food, water and internet so you can start to file?).
Anyway… Monday’s march to shut down U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices in Phoenix was no exception.
Well, it was a little odder than usual – because the building was already shut down. So as the minutes and then hours after the appointed start time ticked by, we wondered: with the building already closed, would the protesters have anything to do?
• Border activists declare victory after protest at closed Phx ICE HQ – Tucson Sentinel on 16 October 2013
Manuel Cortez Rodriguez was born in Moroleon Guanajuato, Mexico and he was 31-years-old when he contacted his family on November 3, 2011. Rodriguez was planning on crossing the U.S.-Mexico border very soon somewhere between the states of Arizona and Sonora.
November came and went without either his arrival or any further communication.
So did the months that followed.
Today Rodriguez’s family is still trying to find out what happened. They’re reaching out to organizations like the Mexican Consulate and the Pima County Missing Migrant Project for information and advice. They’re asking questions. And they’re waiting.
Earlier this summer his niece Maria shared his story in the comments section of the blog, joining a steady trickle of reports. Till now they’ve been scattered between the blog’s email at email@example.com, Facebook page, Twitter twitter @MissingFmMexico and comments on its posts and pages. Those reports are now gathered and centralized at the More missing page.
This post contains extra reading material, articles and other resources, related to recent blog posts including Planning for the unexpected: community advocates urge immigrants to prepare for raids and Faith and Phoenix: Convening in Arizona after SB1070 (a series about how faith based groups with national conventions scheduled in Phoenix responded to Arizona’s image crises during and after the passage of SB 1070. Check out Part 1 and Part 2 for the full story.)
Articles on Sheriff Arapio’s immigration raids
• Arpaio raids Car Wash – on 14 June 2009
• Joe Arpaio Arrests Four Cleaning Ladies in 74th Immigration Raid – Phoenix New Times on 9 August 2013
• Arpaio Fires Up Hispanic-Hunting Raids, Going After the Smallest Fish He Can Find – Phoenix New Times on 25 July 2013
• As Feds Slow Deportations, Arpaio Continues Ariz. Raids – New America Media on 23 July 2013
• Joe Arpaio Retaliates Against Katherine Figueroa, Hits Uncle Sam’s with Immigration Raid – Phoenix New Times on 18 July 2013
• Joe Arpaio B-Day Bomb: Judge Wants Monitor in Melendres – Phoenix New Times on 14 June 2013
• Judge Finds Violations of Rights by Sheriff – The New York Times on 24 May 2013
• Melendres vs. Arpaio Decision – Judge Murray Snow via Fronteras Desk on 24 May 2013
• Federal Judge Rules Against Arpaio’s Agency On Racial Profiling Issue – Fronteras Desk on 24 May 2013
• Cut ties between Maricopa County and ICE – Politic365 on 20 March 2013
• U.S. Finds Pervasive Bias Against Latinos by Arizona Sheriff – The New York Times on 15 September 2011
• Arpaio raids Car Wash – on 14 June 2009
Articles on the August federal raid at Danny’s Family Car Wash
• Former Danny’s Family Car Wash employees say company violated labor rights – ABC15 on 22 August 2013
• Danny’s Family Car Wash Raid by ICE and Minuteman Richard Malley Doing Same Job? – Phoenix New Times on 20 August 2013
• Former Danny’s Family Car Wash employees say undocumented workers stole their identities – ABC15 on 20 August 2013
• Car-wash managers accused of rehiring illegal immigrants – The Arizona Republic on 20 August 2013
• Carwash Managers Held in Immigration Raids – The New York Times on 19 August 2013
• Dreamers growl at Obama – The Arizona Republic on 19 August 2013
• Danny’s raid won’t inspire confidence – The Arizona Republic on 19 August 2013
• Feds: Danny’s Family Car Wash helped fake ID’s, rehired illegal workers – ABC15 on 19 August 2013
• ICE agents raid Arizona car wash chain – CNN on 18 August 2013
• Danny’s Family Car Wash locations raided by federal agents – KTVK on 17 August 2013
• Feds: 14 arrested in Phoenix-area car wash raids – KPHO on 17 August 2013
• Federal agents raid Phoenix-area Danny’s Car Wash locations and photos – The Arizona Republic on 17 August 2013
• Federal agents raid 16 Danny’s Family Car Wash locations in criminal investigation – ABC15 on 17 August 2013
• ICE Raids Danny’s Family Car Wash – Arizona Dream Act Coalition on 17 August 2013 (also United We Dream Condemns Massive ICE Raid in Arizona, Demands Release of Those Unfairly Detained and End to Out-of-Control Immigration Enforcement)
• Joe Arpaio-Fave Danny’s Family Car Wash Raided by ICE – Phoenix New Times on 17 August 2013
Articles on separated families & Katherine FigueroaBoth of Katherine Figueroa’s parents were working at the same Peoria car wash when it was raided in October 2009. Katherine, 9-years-old at the time, made a personal plea to President Barrack Obama for her parents’ release. Without her aunt and uncle stepping in, Figueroa’s custody would have been in limbo as well as her daily life. Advocates say that some immigrant parents often find themselves fighting to keep their children as well as avoid deportation – and sometimes losing both battles.
• Illegal: life and death in Arizona’s immigration war zone by Terry Greene Sterling: a nuanced look at politics and immigration in Phoenix including personal stories. (and Facebook page for Illegal)
• Joe Arpaio Retaliates Against Katherine Figueroa, Hits Uncle Sam’s with Immigration Raid – Phoenix New Times on 18 July 2013
• Arizona Couple Among Dozens To Get Deportation Relief – Fronteras Desk on 18 July 2013
• Along With Dolls and Stuffed Animals, Making Time for Immigration Activism – The New York Times on 17 July 2013
• Girl, women describe discrimination in Arizona – Associated Press via The Arizona Republic on 10 June 2010
Articles on SB 1070 and the Arizona boycott
• Arizona’s tourism sector rebounds to pre-recession levels – Phoenix Business Journal on 11 July 2013
• S.B. 1070: In Plain English – SCOTUS Blog on 25 June 2013
• Appeals Court To Hear Arizona SB 1070 Harboring-And-Transporting Provision and infographic – Fronteras Desk on 2 April 2013
• Phoenix: Convention slump tied to SB 1070 – The Arizona Republic on 2 January 2013
• Asian-American says Latinos not only ones hit by SB 1070 – The Arizona Republic on 25 November 2012
• Border roundup: 1070 in effect, corruption in Mexico – Tucson Sentinel on 28 September 2012
• Latino Voters Less Enthusiastic About Romney After Hearing His SB 1070 Views – The Huffington Post on 23 July 2012
• ACLU: Pearce e-mails prove SB 1070 was racially motivated – Arizona Republic on 19 July 2012
• Arizona Businesses Brace for Pain Over Immigration Ruling – Bloomberg News on 27 April 2012
• With More Mexican Immigrants Leaving Than Entering, Does SB 1070 Still Matter? – Fox News Latino on 25 April 2012
• SB 1070 Boycott Over? NCLR Says, “Yes,” Sal Reza Says, “Hell, No!” – Phoenix New Times on 10 September 2011
• Arizona immigration advocates change tactics – Trans-Border News Blog on 6 July 2011
• Immigrant advocates plan ribbon, protest against all-star game in Arizona – The San Diego Union-Tribune on 1 July 2011
• Sound Strike organizer talks SB 1070 boycott – Arizona Republic on 1 June 2011
• Union calls off Arizona SB 1070 boycott – Phoenix Business Journal on 23 September 2010
• Latino Baseball Fans Reluctant to Join Arizona Boycott – La Prensa San Diego on 27 August 2010
• Mapping the SB 1070 Boycotts – ColorLines on 2 August 2010
Articles on The U.S. Mennonite Church’s 2013 National Convention in Phoenix
• Was Phoenix worth it? – The Mennonite on August 2013
• Is’nt God for everyone? – The Mennonite on July 2013
• Pink Menno demonstration calls for repentance, inclusion – Mennonite World Review on 22 July 2013
• Phoenix lures conventions despite heat – The Arizona Republic on 7 July 2013
• An unfortunate teachable moment on Race and Public Witness – The Houston Chronicle on 5 July 2013
• Over 100 Mennonites cross border into Mexico during convention – The Mennonite on 1 July 2013
• Avoid Getting Crushed While the Dividing Wall Falls – Blog from the Belly on 26 June 2013
• Phoenix: A Cry of Lament – Houston Mennonite Church: The Church of the Sermon of the Mount on 10 January 2011
• 2 Mennonite groups planning to merge – Chicago Tribune on 1 July 2001
For even more, check out the MFM News pages:
The MFM News page
A partial listing of articles, photos and videos about border issues, forensics and reporting.
The MFM News and research resources
Links to academic, government, non-governmental agency and ongoing news coverage resources.
* ETA: Politic365 & SCOTUS Blog articles on 9-1
These are articles and resources related to Faith and Phoenix: Convening in Arizona after SB1070, a series about how faith based groups with national conventions scheduled in Phoenix responded to Arizona’s image crises during and after the passage of SB 1070; check out Part 1 here.
He told the local congregations and advocacy groups, “I need for you to invite us; that will break the boycott.”
And they did, allowing the 2012 Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations convention to take place from June 20 to June 24.
“That’s what made the whole thing work because of what we did because it was clearly the most effective public witness we’ve ever done was on this issue, that we committed to working in close partnership with local people. So our local people worked locally, at the national level we worked with national staff of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, groups like that.”
For Morales, the issues are larger than a particular state’s current political climate.
“I kept saying Arizona is not really about Arizona; immigration isn’t even about immigration for us,” Morales said. “I mean it’s really about the human rights and national issues and if we just go and have a terrific demonstration outside the tent city and congratulate ourselves and go home we will have done nothing at all.”
Unitarians often partner with organizations from other religious backgrounds including the United Church of Christ, the Catholic Church, evangelical congregations and Jewish organizations.
“It speaks to the common values of all the faith based institutions,” Morales said. “It goes to a commitment that so many faith based groups have around respect for human dignity, the core value of compassion and openness and in treating everyone as having inherent worth and dignity.”
When it comes to working with Mennonites, they’ve got tremendous record of on the ground kind of involvement, really hands on,” Morales said.
Now the Unitarians partnered with local groups like Promise Arizona to incorporate education and advocacy events into their convention program,.
“One of the big emphases of our conference was to not only demonstrate how it could happen but to instruct people on how to make alliances locally,” Morales said. “So churches working cooperation with grassroots organization and there’s been a lot of that going on around the country. The way we phrased it is ‘it build capacity.’ All indications are that it did.”
The partnership between local advocacy groups and the Unitarians also led to an ongoing immigrant rights issues project run by the Arizona congregation including Unitarian Arizona Immigration Ministry organizer Sandy Weir.
“What’s gratifying is that we work in preparation with some of the congregation and ministers did and it work is continued on immigration and in other issues, because the issues will change,” Morales said.
And that ongoing work is visible to Garcia.
“I see her with some regularity now because she shows up to these coalition meetings,” Garcia said. “They’re very active on that stuff. So that was the conscious thing on their part that they are going to essentially just, you know, we are going to deal with this as part of our convention and they put that right on the table.”
Weir also participated in a discussion with the U.S. Mennonite Church about their convention decisions as they too worked their way through tough decisions about their congregation members, their ideals and their 2013 convention location.
The U.S. Mennonite Church is the largest Anabaptist organization in the U.S. There are nearly 1000 US Mennonite church congregations in the US and about 1.7 million Mennonites in 83 countries worldwide, including growing congregations in Central and South America.
Immigration and the convention location are a few several contemporary social issues that are playing out in federal courts and small towns across the country – and triggering internal conflicts within the the U.S. Mennonite Church. These internal conflicts intensified after an official 1999-2003 merger between the General Conference branch, perceived to be more liberal, and the Mennonite Church branch, perceived to be more conservative. Additional debates during lead-up district conferences included whether Statements of Faith should exclude female pastors and disciplining member churches for performing same sex marriages.
The highly anticipated U.S. Mennonite Church convention events usually blend tackling tough topics with worship and church governance for members, who to outsiders are often indistinguishable from other Anabaptists branches in the U.S.: the Mennonite Brethren, the Church of the Brethren and the Amish.
The church’s official position on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer issues led to the formation Pink Mennos in 2008. Frustrated that they felt their issues weren’t being heard, Pink Mennos compared themselves to Lations in the congregation who felt marginalized and staged civil protests during the 2013 convention asking for their issues to receive equal recognition – an additional sign of changing dynamics and growing pains within the traditionally tightknit ethnic population of the church.
Garcia also noted that the changing makeup of the country’s population is affecting organizations.
“The demographics have permeated these groups,” Garcia said. “They’re large and a lot of them have sort of national reach, and a lot of them have been sort of actively recruiting minorities here either naturally or organically or you know consciously because of the changing demographics around the country.”
And that impacts how decisions are made.
“What inevitably happens is that they have board members now who’re Hispanic, or they have constituents,” Garcia said. “People have booked conventions because they’ve booked conventions three or four years ago and so they’re stuck internally as an organization with all the questions that you just outlined is it something philosophically that that group opposes, is not something that our membership that the people on our board opposed?”
News stories about SB 1070 seemed like a warning to many Latinos: “don’t come to Arizona because you’re going to get arrested,” Garcia said.
“I’m oversimplifying but not by much,” Garcia said. “That’s the message that’s being sent out and you’re Latino and you’re in Pittsburgh or you’re in Atlanta or in San Antonio and you’re a member of the board of one of these groups here and you’re thinking, ‘why are we going to go spend our money there, and being harassed and, you know why don’t we show solidarity with these folks?’”
In the Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference, the district which includes Arizona, California and Nevada, Anglo Mennonites are actually a minority now. The majority of church members are first generation immigrants who come from all over the world and represent nearly a dozen languages, wrote Tucson’s Shalom Mennonite Fellowship Pastor Bryce L. Miller.
“As such migration and the consequences of it are primary for us,” Miller wrote in an email exchange. “They don’t always get called immigration issues– sometimes they come under names such as worship style, governance, cultural sensitivity, and theological assumptions, but ultimately they are immigration issues in a way for us that is not common for other more traditional conferences.”
With his state at the center of controversy for both his church and his country, Miller found himself in a unique situation as the pastor of a border congregation.
“Mennonites have long held that our citizenship is primarily that of the Kingdom of God, and that our calling as Christians calls us to live intentionally and sometimes critically within the national citizenship that we hold,” Miller wrote in an email exchange before the convention started. “Phoenix is a test of that conviction.”
Miller and his congregation witness and sometimes feel the effects of border security and humanitarian issues firsthand.
“This is not an academic issue in Pima County,” Miller wrote. “Hundreds of people die in the desert here. We live among the most militarized environment in the country.
Miller believes that his congregation has a responsibility to not take sides and to try to work with everyone involved.
“Our church is called to serve a community that houses both the undocumented on one hand and the border patrol and the other,” Miller wrote. “They are both our neighbors; how do we love both?”
Arizona pastors had a wide range of opinions similar to national leaders, Miller wrote.
“We are attempting to walk the line between solidarity with those hurt by our state’s policies, and our responsibilities as hosts,” Miller wrote. “We do not have the option to boycott our own state’s policies– not cleanly–despite our discomfort with them. So we are finding ourselves in the middle.”
Some leaders argued that the event could be “an opportunity for social witness and denominational learning,” similar to what the Unitarians had done.
There would also be serious financial consequences to canceling. According to the Mennonite Church USA website page discussing the 2013 convention decision, they faced losing estimated $500,000 which “would likely require significant reduction of our current staff and would make it very difficult to move ahead with the 11 commitments we have made to help us become a more anti-racist church and to work at the immigration problems in our national context.”
Significant arguments against supporting the state by coming were also made. Some Hispanic church members didn’t think they’ll feel personally safe at the convention.
“It is unsustainable for us to meet as the whole body of Christ in a place where some of our members could be harassed and perhaps persecuted for the immigration status,” Miller wrote. “We also take it seriously to commit denominational resources to a place where injustice is practiced.”
“There was a large and extensive re-processing of the decision with passionate debate on all sides,” Miller wrote. “This was a painful decision to those who are most affected, and continues to be.”
Some delegates pulled out and a few congregations like Dallas based Iglesia Menonita Monte Horeb officially decided not to send representatives. There’s no official tally of how many people stayed away, but several delegates cautiously estimated that convention participation was down by about 25% for a variety of reasons.
“Some of this is boycott,” Miller wrote. “Some of this is churches not wanting to/not able to expend the money to come to a western site as has been seen in previous conventions. Some of this is ‘Phoenix? July? No thanks.’”
Delegates said that discussion of a secondary meeting site with video links to Phoenix died because of either from lack of interest or concerns about creating a “separate and unequal experience.”
Now those attending from July 1 to July 5 faced the challenge of how to balance the competing views of the church and the local community they hoped to reach out to.
“While I respect the boycott, I just struggle with the impression that, that’s the only way to be in the solidarity and even if I want to, and sometimes I do, want to boycott my state, I can’t,” Miller said when I asked him about his observations during the first few days of the convention. “I’m here and this is where I am supposed to be.”
Yet the issues were kept by empty chairs on the worship stage that made a visual reminder of church members that had stayed away because of personal fears or support for solidarity.
“They are saying, these are the Hispanic brothers and sisters who don’t feel safe to come; these are the people who in conscience are absent in themselves; these are the people of all races and creeds who are made afraid by the environment that has developed here,” Miller said. “And as painful as that it is to hear as an Arizonan, it is something I understand.”
In a week with temperatures well over 100 all day and all night, Miller said he was watching many people who’d never been to Arizona get to know the state.
“Just the geography is completely unlike anything, anywhere else,” Miller said. “Then to overlay that foreignness with the circumstance of the immigration and all of that they’ve heard mostly good and bad about Arizona; it’s an interesting mix.”
In addition to lectures, plays and experiencing temperatures over 112 degrees for most of the week, nearly 200 people signed up to participate in border learning tours through Borderlinks.
“Inside the all air conditioned convention center is not all that real, relative to what’s out there either,” Miller said. “But I mean it is encouraging to have people that are really engaged in the conversation, engage on what’s there, I mean really willing to talk.”
Enjoyed the company of an Ohio Mennonite Church Youth Group as they visited my office while in town for a convention. pic.twitter.com/MQn1jyIgNc
— Joe Arpaio (@RealSheriffJoe) July 2, 2013
That willingness to talk extended past local advocacy groups to include local officials law enforcement, including the youth group from Ohio’s Kidron Mennonite Church who met with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Afterwards Sheriff Arpaio tweeted a photo where he posed with the smiling teenagers identified as convention participants and the image led to backlash from other delegates and local advocacy groups.
Some saw Arpaio’s actions as exploitative and were uncomfortable with the church being linked to any law enforcement group. Others were concerned about how it could be perceived by Latinos within the church who were already feeling alienated – and to the outside community.
Houston Pastor Marty Troyer pointed out the that elements of racial privilege were involved fact that while some church members felt confident meeting with Arpaio and other local officials, other church members feared even entering the state and said that both issues should be part of the continuing discussion on racial issues within the church.
On the last day of the convention, Friday, July 5th, final worship services culminated in a peace walk.
The participants gathered at dusk, some surprised to find the building ringed by Phoenix Police vehicles. The officers provided traffic control as two groups of marchers led by church leaders carrying prayer banners left the Phoenix Convention center, one northbound and one westbound, who met again at the Civic Space Park. There they joined in hymns and prayers for their home congregations, the convention delegates and all those affected by the issues they’d tackled during the week.
The convention, which also included African, African American, Native American, Hmong and Indonesian delegates, celebrated the church’s diversity said delegate Jocelyn Graber from the Topeka, Kansas Southern Hills Mennonite Church.
“Tangential to the topic of immigration, there was also lots of conversation about assimilation not being a good thing, but that holding onto that which is significant to one’s culture is important in also shaping one’s faith,” Graber wrote afterwards. “There is gift in that, not only to the individual or to that cultural, but to all others who can learn from it and be in relationship with it.”
However the effects of Arizona’s much publicized tensions on the state’s image were also tangible. Due to the under representation of Latino congregations among the delegates, the 2013 convention did not produce a U.S. Mennonite Church denominational statement on immigration, Graber said.
“The subject of immigration was discussed, and somewhat put on hold because the people most affected by it were not able to be there,” Graber wrote. “It was agreed upon that we need their voices to complete the work of writing a more suitable statement on which we would then vote for or against.”
It’s a situation that could be as rich as it is challenging, according to Miller.
“We are in this position because we are in the west where the emerging patterns of our culture begin, and change is at its apex,” Miller wrote. “We are trying to translate what has been a somewhat monolithic denomination into the reality of multicultural reality and that is challenging, wonderful work.”
It’s all part of an figuring out who the church is and what its role should be in contemporary issues, especially at the state and national levels, wrote former University of Kansas instructor Ellen Kroeker who was grew up in the Mennonite church.
“The Mennonite church is still coming to grips with an emerging identity, from predominantly rural and small towns with a more homogenous identity, known by a set of common last names, to the reality of a rapidly changing, multi-cultural society,” Kroeker wrote. “The church is sorting its way through the issues of how much are they going to keep themselves separate from these changes and how much they are going to address them.”
The years of debate and decisions behind holding their 2013 national convention in Phoenix included discussions of religious, racial and economic issues. These issues are also being tackled by the Unitarians and by many other organizations – and families – across the state of Arizona and the rest of the country.