It’s called the Inn Project because it was near Christmas in 2016 when the request came from ICE. No longer able to hold minors with their parents in detention centers, ICE asked the UMC Desert Southwest Conference to set up transitional housing for asylum seekers who have entered the U.S. with their kids. The church looked around and said, “yeah, there’s room at the inn.”
I spend Wednesday mornings at this Inn, the basement of a church next door to the University of Arizona campus. The morning volunteers are responsible for cooking a hot breakfast and writing down the confirmation numbers for the guests' Greyhound bus tickets. Plus there’s always laundry to do -- an astonishing number of sheets to be washed as people come, sleep, and go again.
Today I’m putting the intake papers from January in chronological order by date of arrival so that I can do some math. Flipping through the papers I see changing names, ages, places of origin; and the repeating handwriting of a small group of volunteers. In January, 2018, this church basement received 155 families, a total of 329 people. Only one day of the 31 in January passed with no ICE van making a parking lot drop-off.
Since December, 2016, hundreds of people have stayed in this Inn each month, resting on their way to the friend or relative who will sponsor them while their asylum case is considered. Sleeping on cots, eating meals prepared by volunteers or other guests, passing information to family back home in Spanish, Mam, Papti, K’iche’, Romanian, Georgian, Farsi, and Portuguese. All those here are asylum seekers. All have traveled thousands of miles.
Magdalena (name changed for privacy), sitting across the table from me, came from Guatemala. She’s headed to Tennessee, a long distance still to go. “No, I don’t have kids,” I answer when she asks. She looks over her shoulder to check on her own two kids.
“That’s good,” she says, “it’s good you don’t have kids. Kids make your life more complicated. I have suffered so much on this trip, my kids have suffered so much, and I know it’s my fault.”
There’s no good response. I try anyway. “Sufriendo en busqueda de algo mejor?” She nods a little, and shrugs. In search of something better, sure -- but suffering all the same.
In the well-meaning work of service, any of us can easily slide into the idolization of those we seek to accompany. You see it in the rhetoric that calls for “the good kids” to stay and throws “criminal immigrants” out the window. So many volunteers I talk to, hearing the stories of people who sacrifice so much for their families, put migrants on a pedestal of heroic, superhuman sacrifice. It’s true that in pursuit of something better, Magdalena became a migrant; easy to see her just as a martyr, sacrificing for a better life for her children.
Of course, the truth is much more complicated. Migrants are people, selfish as well as self-sacrificing. Real accompaniment that connects us with real people requires questioning the system instead of following the demarcation of value the system lays out. We are called to ask why we have decided that migration is a crime, not just protect those who we decide are not “criminals.”
Magdalena is a criminal immigrant in the eyes of the law, with an electronic tracking anklet to prove it. Magdalena is a mom who, maybe, thinks fondly of the simpler days in her life before she had kids. She’s also a mom who has sacrificed much in search of something better, for her and for those kids who complicate her life so much. She carries guilt along with her toddler and the bag of peanut butter sandwiches we give her for the bus ride. Magdalena’s not a martyr, a saint, or a synecdoche for all those who migrate -- she’s a real person.
Migrants aren’t just one thing.
That same sentence, written a different way: People aren’t just one thing.
There are three kinds of work I do at the Inn Project. The service work of meeting basic needs, preparing food and fresh laundry. The accompaniment work of sitting with people and listening to whatever they share. The internal work of facing and uprooting my unconscious racism by retraining my subconscious into seeing “the other” as human beings. Which do you think is hardest?
The white supremacy that raised me says that non-white folks, indigenous folks, and folks from Latin American countries are not whole people. Their immigration status and fluency in non-English languages makes them less, here in this country, and less in the subconscious place that yet exists inside me where white supremacy shapes my unconscious instincts and gut reactions. I hate this in this culture. I hate this in me.
White supremacy dehumanizes non-white people and white people alike, though in different ways. Because I am committed to breaking my addiction to white supremacy (h/t Hannah Bonner) and the privileges afforded to my whiteness, I am forced to constantly learn and re-learn on a cellular level that people who are not white are actually people. My subconscious racism needs to be noticed with intent and retrained with consistent, conscientious effort.
So I make scrambled eggs, because it's breakfast time. I sit next to people and wait for the bus. And I look Magdalena in the eyes, and listen to what she’s willing to share, try to really see her -- not as an object or mechanism of my redemption, but as a whole person with whom I am grateful to share space.
I try to force my subconscious to see the wholeness of all the guests and repent,
because I want to be a whole person, too.
Author, Alison Wood
queer, white, cisgender, U.S. passport-holding, Presbyterian, church-employed, challenged by faith, imagining something better.
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