“Here in society there are so many people that we do not see and the migrant community that comes through this part of the world is one that is not seen.”
Juanita Molina is the Executive Director for Border Action Network in Tucson, Arizona. Throughout her career she has advocated for LGBTQ communities and offered support to people with HIV/AIDS, those with terminal cancer and others facing domestic abuse and sexual assault. Her current role allows her to work for the rights of immigrants and while she often is responsible for holding immigration enforcement agencies and government officials accountable, she also serves as a bridge between activists and the law enforcement community.
“When I first started meeting with border patrol, it was terrible. I mean, we would have these meetings that would just completely go in circles. Because there was no trust, no communication. They didn’t trust us. We didn’t trust them.
It’s kind of the military shutdown that happens in conversation. Where you get people who you could tell just aren’t listening to it all, but are being very polite about it. Yes, ma’am no ma’am. It didn’t matter what I said or how it happened. And so I walked in there with the kind of the communication work that we do so much in social change work. Where it’s almost like selling a car. It’s like, what do I need to give you today to have you walk out with this car?
And we do this in so many different facets. Even like domestic violence. What can we talk about today that will help you turn away from your abusive partner today? This kind of guided and super informed kind of aggressive, assertive communication style. And that’s the way that I went into it with border patrol. Like, here’s our charts, here’s where people are dying. This is the ways that we think that you should change your law enforcement, blah, blah, blah.
And the reality is that these people were just totally shut down to us and they did not care what we had to say. And it just got worse and worse, every meeting that we went into. So I finally had this one meeting with one of the sector chiefs, and it just became really apparent that he wasn’t going to listen to us.
And so I just started making jokes. I just started going off the wall because it didn’t matter. I was like, this is the last time I’m going to be coming into the center anyway. I might as well say whatever I want. And it was so funny because all of a sudden it just kind of broke the ice a little bit. And they laughed.
Because here’s the thing, the more that I puffed myself up with information and how I was going to logically get them to understand these things, they weren’t there, the essence of who they are wasn’t there.
It wasn’t until I just shut up…and instead of walking in there with a chart saying, this is where people are dying and this is where your law enforcement is making this happen. I just started to say, “Okay, what do you need? What do you think is the most dangerous thing out there? So what are you worried about? What do you think is going on in our organization?” It just started to open up that whole conversation with people.
And then that started to open up the whole thing of training people. Because we started to talk about the importance of de-escalation. You know, there’s all of these layers of suspicion. There is no complete truth in the situation. Everybody’s lying, everybody’s telling the truth. And it’s just a whole continuum that needs to happen in the universe of communication.
And so that’s where we started to talk about de-escalation techniques, understanding more about what the humanitarian aid groups are doing and just providing that bridge. And one of the primary concepts we started to talk about was listening without agreement. I committed to listen to them without agreement. And I asked them to listen to me without agreement.
And it started to be really interesting to just have passive time with people. This is where it’s great to have ride alongs or projects or things that we worked on together because passive time is the best communication time. You start to hear people’s stories as to why they became border patrol agents, what their relationship is to things. And so then it starts to create a much clearer picture of what’s going wrong. And, and the problems that exist.
With Mexican officials, there are similar dynamics because people don’t want to talk about what’s going on. This is true on both sides of the border. People don’t want to talk about the absolute carnage. You know, countries talk about collateral damage. And people don’t really understand the actual physical toll, the emotional toll, the individual toll for every single person who dies and is lost.
Here in Tucson, we have the equivalent of a plane crash every single year in just migrant deaths. We lose about 150 people every year and we aren’t even looking for them. You would think with the rate of death that we have here in Tucson, we would have groups of hundreds of volunteers going through the desert. We only have a few volunteer organizations that are even actively looking in the desert. We’re not even talking about some kind of federal response of looking in the desert. So in a strange way, it’s almost to say that we stumble upon 150 people every year, 150.
And so what ends up happening is that governments don’t want to have this introspection of talking about our dead. Talking about where people die, how people die, what are the circumstances that support their death, all of those things. And all of this is happening with invisible communities, mostly indigenous and poor communities that are migrating to the United States in the middle of wilderness areas.
Many of these migrants are tackling these wilderness areas that just push the limits of human survival. Whether you’re talking about heat, lack of water, lack of resources, lack of everything
It’s part of the horror, because when we talk about all sorts of things in political and governmental structures, and we talk about collateral damage, that sounds so distant. We don’t think about what that means. But when you have a weeping mother at your door, you know what that means.
We’ve seen the deterioration of paramilitary structures along our borders and the deterioration of what that has meant for our emotional life, both in the United States and in Mexico. Everything that we do is seen as suspect. And as people of color along the border, there’s a tremendous amount of racism and racial profiling. Once I was working on an abuse documentation project with the Tohono O’odham tribal members, and one of the tribal members said, “Look, if we break the law, we’re used to the idea that we’re going to see an officer. Like if I’m speeding or I steal something at the store, I’m going to have an officer confront me. But here, now, it’s just because I exist. You know?”
And that’s because we are stopped, our cars are searched. All of these things happen because our rights are different along the US-Mexico border. And so for me, for example, I move back and forth across the border and also in the 90 mile perimeter that exists, the checkpoints that exist. I’ve had my car partially disassembled. I have no criminal record whatsoever. No felonies, nothing. It’s because I was Brown.
I think part of the reason people look at [Border Action Network] as being radical is because we’re just talking about the issues. The reality is that we’re working directly with affected communities. And so part of why people see us as radical is because we participate in radical acceptance.
Sometimes in society, you want to have innocent victims. It’s like you want that person who is the victim to be exactly a certain kind of person. The way that we look at it is we’re here to protect everyone’s rights. So say for example, there was one case where a group of kids were running marijuana across the border. And one of the kids was trying to get back into Mexico when border patrol spotted them. And they were trying to crawl back over the border wall to get back into Mexico, to try to evade border patrol. And border patrol shot him eight times in the back. And of course, this young man fell off the border wall and he died.
Everything about that whole process, the crime scene, the way that his body was treated, it just all lacked dignity, respect, and process. And unfortunately any case against the US government, it’s a David and Goliath kind of moment because you can sue the US government, but they have a million attorneys that will come back and challenge it over and over again. So even from a criminal or civil liability perspective, it’s very difficult to have any form of justice or even admission from the US border patrol that maybe this was not an appropriate action or shouldn’t have happened that way.
And so what tends to happen is people are looking at us, accompanying this family, and they’re just like, you’re accompanying the family of a known drug dealer. We get a lot of flack and a lot of hate mail and sometimes threats around it. But the reality is, that was a poor process.
And so we will stand with people all throughout, whoever their identity is. We don’t need just innocent victims and sometimes cases like that start to really push the limits and it helps us to understand on a whole other level, how to interpret the laws and how to really see what the color of the law is meant to implement in those situations.
One thing that I found in society in general, with my whole adult life doing community activism around everything from AIDS to cancer, to immigration, to sexual violence and domestic abuse. You know, we in society like to blame the victim. If we can assign some level of blame, then it’s like, it creates a different little pocket of information for us. Just kind of like, “Oh, well she was raped because she wore that dress. Or because she went out late at night. Or, oh, she didn’t know her husband well enough before she married him and so, you know, that’s what caused that.”
And so here, there is a high incidence of death in migration, because of all of the vulnerable factors of malnutrition, extreme weather conditions, physical movement, all of these different things contributed people’s deaths. These are situations that are so extreme, people can’t imagine. What I’ve heard a thousand times talking to thousands of migrants through the years is I’d rather die trying.
People aren’t perfect. But that does not shape their validity in this world, their worth in this world, their contribution to this world.
And I think that social change, whether you talk about liberation theology, or you talk about feminism or anti-racism, or the work with the civil rights movement, that motivated me the way that some people have a spiritual awakening. And those guiding principles, I believe are the pathway to joy. And I wish that people understood that just the general acceptance and the knowing that we don’t know, and being able to embrace all of those concepts, creates a profound opportunity for healing and joy in our community.”
-Who are the people who are not seen and not heard in your community?
-Are there ways you could be an ally or an advocate for them?
-When have you experienced a communication failure?
-How have you built productive working relationships in contentious settings?
-Have you ever been on the receiving end of profiling?
-Have others viewed you as suspicious?
-Do you consider the work of Border Action Network as radical? Why or why not?
-When have you seen a victim blamed for their situation? Has it happened to you? Have you done it yourself?
-How do you describe Juanita’s notion of an “innocent victim?”
-Talk about your ideas around advocacy for a ‘criminal?” Should our advocacy and our kindness be reserved for those we deem worthy?
-Respond to this quote of Juanita’s: “People aren’t perfect. But that does not shape their validity in this world, their worth in this world, their contribution to this world.”