#8: St. Frances Xavier Cabrini and Presence

St. Frances Xavier Cabrini and Presence


22 January, 2019

I just got back from Tijuana a little less than a week ago. I thought I'd be going there to help people prepare for their Credible Fear Interviews, which determine whether someone will be allowed to apply for asylum or immediately deported, or help people on the other side do actual asylum applications. I've done this work before, with people in New York. It's hard work--the application asks people to go over deeply traumatic events and describe them in 150 words. If you're good at this work, you can take this horrendous application and make it as gentle as possible, take breaks, ask clarifying questions, get a drink of water. You listen to someone, lighten the burden, sit with them in the container of this I-589 form and help them fill it up with their story, their case for asylum, in such a way that they won't drown. 

What I ended up doing was accompaniment, which means, roughly, just being there. Being there as people wait in line to get a number, to wait in line to be able to cross the border two months from now. Being there as people wait to hear their number called, often one, two, three mornings in a row, always in a plaza some 45 minutes away from the main camp where most people are staying, always with all their things in tow. Being there to play with kids, hand out tamales and styrofoam cups of coffee.  Being there as someone tells me their story, without a form between us, but just because they need to tell someone, anyone about it, before they cross the border. Being there to see scars, to see tears, to see immigration officials shouting, to be a warm hand on the back, or a tissue held out quietly, or a body between them and someone with a clipboard. Once their numbers are called, it means being there as they wait along the white concrete fence for the paddywagon-style vans to pull around, the man with the mustache shouting their name and the order they need to be in. Being there to wave desperately, madly, yelling "Vaya con Dios! Adios! Adios!" as the vans pull around, making out their hands waving back through the bars on the van windows.

Watching those vans disappear down the street feels like they're falling off the edge of the world. While I was in Tijuana, we'd get a call sometimes, of someone resurfacing days or weeks after we had waved them off, sometimes with fewer things than what they went in with, usually sicker. One volunteer who had worked with Border Angels, picking folks up at the bus shelters and McDonalds where border patrol tends to drop people off after detention told me that the one constant for folks getting out of detention was that they always, always looked like they'd been through hell. For every one person or family that reappears on the other side, there are 10, 15, 20 more who don't show up in the ICE locator database, maybe because of the government shutdown, maybe because no one in charge believes anyone cares or is looking. There are 10, 15, 20 more people who haven't called, because they might still be in a detention center in San Diego or in Mississippi or Oregon or Washington D.C., or maybe in a bus shelter where there isn't a rapid response team or waiting family, because maybe they had their papers taken away or lost by cruel or just inept Border Patrol agents and so have no phone numbers to call. 

Every once in a while, when I want to write about a subject but I don't have a lady-saint attached to it, I'll do the lazy thing and google it: "Patron Saint of Immigrants" "Patron Saint of Refugees." The patron saint of immigrants, by the way, is a woman named Frances Xavier Cabrini, ironically the first United States Citizen to be canonized.

She wasn't always, though. Born in Italy, her story is one of regular denial by church officials: she wanted to join a convent, she was denied and told to open a school instead. When she wanted to take her work to China, the pope told her that perhaps New York was a better option for her. So she went, arriving in New York City in 1889, right in the midst of one of the big immigration waves that means that we still are allowed to call this country a nation of Immigrants. Her charism was to work with recently immigrated Italians, setting up schools and orphanages and hospitals and charity houses, doing all the work of creating a community and a soft landing for people who had just taken a leap into the unknown. 

Her name, especially her last name, might be familiar to you--it's one half of Cabrini Green, Chicago's most notorious public housing complex, shorthand for everything wrong with how this country treats its poor. One of St. Frances' many miracles seems to be her nearly preternatural ability to get funding for the people under her care. Beyond this, I don't know much about how St. Frances Xavier Cabrini was in "real life," in what ways she was present for the people she worked with and in what ways she wasn't, and today, for this letter, I actually don't care that much. In an ideal world, I would want her to be there, vividly present to all of it, good at the fundraising and also at dandling a child on her knee and listening to women, because she's a saint and you want her to be a hero, and you want someone to know that in their hour of need, God sent them a literal saint to take care of them. And although she's the patron saint of refugees, her immigrant story represents a kind of hyper-glorified happy ending that many of the people I'm working with won't get to have, stamp upon stamp of official approval from the government of the United States, from the church. Her own immigration a running towards those that need help, not a running away from the wolves at the door. 

Those vans with barred windows left from El Chaparral, the border crossing I used every day, coming across the border every morning just as the sun was rising, crossing back into San Diego after the sun had gone down. The vans were headed, as best we could tell, to the San Ysidro border crossing, some 10 minutes down the road, where they would be processed and usually taken to another detention center, or released after a few days sitting in an overcrowded conference room repurposed into an ad-hoc detention center. 

The San Ysidro border crossing is named after Saint Isidro the Laborer, a Spanish saint that, in life, was a field worker. His story is usually used to extol the virtues of a simple life of hard work, of keeping your head down and working hard, even through deplorable conditions, usually not for yourself. Miracles attributed to him are the rapid ploughing of a field thanks to angelic help, and being able to redouble the amount of food from his meager allowance to feed his brothers in work. He's also the patron saint of La Ceiba, Honduras, which is where a large number of asylum seekers come from. 

Our place names mean something: who we glorify, who we want to set up on a pedestal as a matter of success, who we want to raise up as a model. Cabrini Green matters, as a reminder of how we treat necessary government safety nets as "charity," a kindness rather than a moral imperative, and a meager, penny-pinching charity at that. San Ysidro matters, a subliminal message slung across the largest gates to our country, telling the people who walk through them to work hard and keep their heads down. 

I left Tijuana angry. I'm still angry. When people ask me I've been telling them all of it, the scars and the sick babies and the worst of it because otherwise you don't know, and all of this still gets done in your name. I want to scare people, make them feel bad, make them as unable to forget as I am. I was present for it, I saw it, and I still couldn't do anything. I can't finish fitting it in my head that this exists, that there's a giant engine just dedicated to the regular and steady dehumanization of people, for no other reason than the sheer authoritarian, bureaucratic pleasure of it. Maintaining object permanence for systems of cruelty is difficult and overwhelming: I met the people who were going across for maybe five or six days, but people go across every day, day after day, and will continue to do so, and they will continue to get numbers, to get in vans, to get chewed up and spit out at some dismal Grayhound station on some midnight in January. It's happening now, it'll be happening tomorrow. Another caravan is working its way north from Honduras now, and we might not hear about it again because it isn't as politically expedient this time around, but its there. 

This week has left me exhausted and heartsick but also given me a strange kind of energy. I've signed up to accompany people to ICE check ins and court dates in Boston, (you can also do this in NYC with New Sanctuary Coalition, or if you email me your city, I promise I'll find something for you to do), I've donated (a little) money to organizations of lawyers that are helping people in both Mexico and the U.S. and who are being prosecuted for putting water in the desert so fewer migrants die in the crossing. If you want to give more directly, you can give to this GoFundMe organized by one of the people I worked with to address extra needs she's encountered on the ground--so far she's helped reunite a family and found housing for folks who have been kicked out of shelters--or to this one for a pair of trans women coming to live in Holyoke, MA. The need is vast, and it is unending, and it is designed to be that way.

A friend messaged me while I was gone with a quote from a...Lord of the Rings Extended Edition interview with a Tolkien scholar, discussing Tolkien's themes and ethics. In Tolkien's universe, "despair is a theological sin." And I think that has to be true here, also. The sin here, in the face of all this one, is doing nothing because you believe it won't help.