Monday, October 21, 2019

An Interview with Gena Thomas, Author, SEPARATED BY THE BORDER


Gena Thomas/IV Press
Gena Thomas has been married to her husband Andrew for 10 years. They have two children.

From 2009 - 2013, Andrew and Gena were missionaries in northern Mexico where they started a coffee shop ministry, 
El Búho (The Owl). The shop still serves the local and international population near Potrero Chico, a climbing hot spot outside of Monterrey.

During their time in Mexico, Gena began her graduate studies in international development through Eastern University. She graduated with her masters in the spring of 2014. After Mexico, she worked at a crisis center, wrote her first book, and did content creation for a web accessibility company that directs businesses and government agencies in making their websites more accessible to people with disabilities. She now works as an instructional design specialist at a nonprofit that equips local churches with a theology of holistic development.

Gena has written for several Christian publications, and published her first book, A Smoldering Wick: Igniting Missions Work with Sustainable Practices in 2016. Her book, Separated by the Border: A birth mother, a foster mother, and a migrant child's 3,000-mile journey unpacks the story of reuniting her Honduran foster daughter with her family after separation at the US border. Separated by the Border comes out October 29, 2019.




Your book, SEPARATED BY THE BORDER, chronicles your involvement with the US immigration system. Can you help explain the practical consequences of the ‘zero-tolerance’ policy in regard to families seeking asylum in the USA?

Sadly, on April 6, 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new zero-tolerance policy where the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice would partner for the sake of prosecuting illegal entry into the United States. “If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It's that simple,” said Sessions. “If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border.”[1] Six weeks later, almost 2,000 children had been separated from their parents at the border after the new zero-tolerance policy took effect.[2] These were not necessarily all asylum seekers but could have included some. The Administration said this would be a deterrent to families coming to cross the border, and that was its reasoning behind it. But the policy broke international humanitarian laws, and while the U.N. urged Washington to stop separating families on June 5, it wasn’t until after a lot of pushback from constituents (including an evangelical women-led Twitter campaign #NotWithoutMyChild) that Trump signed an executive order on June 20, 2018, allegedly ending the separation of families at the border.

However, that executive order also directed the attorney general at the time, Jeff Sessions, to promptly file a request with U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in the Central District of California to modify the Flores Settlement[3] — a 1997 settlement that has since been expanded upon by federal judges and now means that all minors (whether alone or with parents) cannot be held in detention for more than 20 days — and allow detained migrant families to be held together “throughout the pendency of criminal proceedings … or other immigration proceedings.”[4] Essentially, the Administration pivoted course because of the public outcry about family separation by working to change the Flores Settlement (something it is still working to nullify) so it could then detain families together for longer periods of time. Additionally, the executive order didn’t seem to push the Admin to reunite families. Enforcement of reunification took a court order by Judge Sabraw of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California on June 26, 2018. This ordered the federal government to reunite children under 5 within 14 days, and all other children within 30 days.[5] A month later, however, there were still 700 children in federal custody, including 431 whose parents had already been deported.[6] Now, in 2019, reports are saying that the practice likely started in June of 2017 and continued past the court order of June 26, 2018.[7]
 

[1] Department of Justice, “Attorney General Announces Zero-Tolerance Policy for Criminal Illegal Entry,” April 6, 2018. https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/attorney-general-announces-zero-tolerance-policy-criminal-illegal-entry
[2] Tom Dart, “2,000 children separated from parents in six weeks under Trump policy,” The Guardian, June 16, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jun/16/children-separated-parents-border-trump-administration
[3] The Flores Settlement Agreement was reached in 1997 and required the government to keep unaccompanied minors no longer than 20 days in detention and to keep them in the least restrictive setting possible, among other stipulations. In 2014, the courts ruled that the Flores Settlement should be applied to all children, including accompanied minors.
[4] Richard Gonzales, “Trump’s Executive Order On Family Separation: What It Does and Doesn’t Do.” NPR, June 20, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/06/20/622095441/trump-executive-order-on-family-separation-what-it-does-and-doesnt-do
[5] Ella Nilsen and Dara Lind, “A federal judge just ordered the Trump administration to speed up family reunifications,” Vox, June 27, 2018. https://www.vox.com/2018/6/27/17506698/aclu-lawsuit-trump-administration-injuction-family-reunification-separation
[6] Elliot Spagat and Colleen Long, “700 Kids Still Separated from Their Families After Government Misses Reunification Deadline,” Time, July 26, 2018. http://time.com/5350788/kids-separated-from-families-july-26-deadline/
[7] Julia Jacob, “U.S. Says it Could Take 2 Years to Identify Up to Thousands of Separated Immigrant Families,” NY Times, April 6, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/06/us/family-separation-trump-administration.html




How about the significance of the terms we use in discussing immigration, i.e. ‘undocumented’ person vs. ‘illegal alien’ or ‘ex-pat’ vs. ‘foreigner’? In SEPARATED BY THE BORDER you write: “These semantics bring to light that classism exists even within the labels we call ourselves.”

That quote is specifically about expat vs. foreigner. Expat is a label I have heard often among other Westerners living outside their home country. Interestingly, "immigrant" is not something I’ve ever heard other Westerners call themselves. My own identity as the granddaughter of Italian immigrants always gave me a positive connotation to the word immigrant. Still, as an immigrant living in Honduras and later in Mexico, I thought of myself as an expatriate, though the difference came upon me unconsciously. The semantics bring light to the classism that exists even within the labels we call ourselves. Most people agree that immigrants plan to live in a place permanently, while expats plan to live in a place temporarily. But the truth is: expats are privileged in a way immigrants aren’t. And for Americans like me who have lived in other countries, ‘expat’ is our preferred label.

As far as undocumented vs. illegal — the word “illegal” is often used and argued as a valid way to describe an immigrant with unauthorized status in the United States. In all other cases, illegal is used as an adjective to describe an action, not a human. That term, beyond being immoral, also lends to more confusion about the topic as many people assume that one’s legal status is black and white. But the reality is much more nuanced as immigration is fluid. Jose Antonio Vargas said, “In a country that believes in due process of the law, calling an immigrant illegal is akin to calling a defendant awaiting trial a criminal.”[8] Vargas asks if why we do not call drunk drivers illegal drivers or underage drivers illegal drivers. “In what other contexts do we call someone illegal?”[9]

[8] Jose Antonio Vargas, “Immigration Debate: The Problem with the Word Illegal.” Time, September 21, 2017. http://ideas.time.com/2012/09/21/immigration-debate-the-problem-with-the-word-illegal/
[9] Ibid.


Your book tells the story of Lupe, a mother from Honduras, who travels, with her daughter Julia, through Mexico to the US border. They are fleeing violence in their home country. What do you wish people would understand about conditions in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador? 

It’s important to note a few things about Lupe’s story: first, she didn’t come to the U.S. fleeing violence in Honduras. She came for short-term economic opportunity in order to pay for medicine for her grandfather. The violence she experienced was in Mexico. (This is especially important to remember as the Department of Homeland Security’s program known as Remain in Mexico “has returned tens of thousands of asylum applicants to violence-plagued Mexican border cities to await hearings scheduled weeks or months later.”)

Secondly, the push factors for why people come to the U.S. vary. In some cases, it’s economic opportunity, for others it’s economic survival, for some it’s fleeing violence, for others it’s preempting the need to flee for violence. But it is true that Honduras is an especially violent-prone country in that “75% of homicide cases are not investigated and 88% never reach a judicial resolution.” For most people, the decision to leave or stay is deeply difficult. Most people don’t want to leave their homes, their culture, their neighborhoods. For Lupe, she never intended to stay in the U.S. for very long; for her, she wanted to stay for a few months and save up enough money for her grandfather’s medicine and then return to her family in Honduras. She loves her hometown, and doesn’t ever want to leave it if she doesn’t have to. I think it’s important to understand how nuanced and difficult these decisions are, and just as important to have actual empathy for the decision itself.




What about income inequality in Honduras? You point out that fifty percent of Hondurans live in poverty. And the amount of US aid ($3 billion in 2012), which the current administration in Washington is threatening to cut?


Back in March, the Trump Administration said it was going to cut off U.S. aid to the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala). However, a few months later, it changed its mind again. In June 2019, the Associated Press reported:

The Trump administration said Monday it is easing previously announced cuts in hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Central American nations of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala but will not allow new funding until those countries do more to reduce migrant flows to the United States. The State Department said that after a review of more than $615 million in assistance that President Donald Trump ordered in March to be cut entirely, it would go ahead with $432 million in projects and grants that had been previously approved. The remaining amount will be held in escrow pending consultations with Congress, it said.

And according to the New York Times, “American aid to Honduras is mostly focused on security, the justice sector and violence prevention, according to the Washington Office on Latin America, with $65.5 million in aid going to those types of programs in 2017. An additional $116 million went that year to projects that supported education, sustainable farming and business development.” This administration has shown over and over again that it does not want to care about immigrants from Central America: separating children from their parents, shutting down asylum, and cutting off aid. Our collective public outcry for a baseline of humanitarian treatment toward Central American migrants is sadly a necessary protest in the current state of our nation.




You mention the United Fruit Company as an example of the impact that US companies have had on Honduras’ economy. It seems like the relationship the US has with Central America is complicated and quite often one-sided to the benefit of the US. You write: “Reading through the history of what multinational corporations – many of which are American – have done in the name of capitalism to the economies of Central and South America must make us recognize that our own complicity in maintaining the American (US) status quo has led to creating this immigration crisis.” Why do you think there’s such a blind spot in the US towards this issue?

This is a great question. In many ways our privileges blind us. We don’t have to know what we’ve done. Whatever the reason for this blind spot, I think it’s the same reason for the blind spots we have for racism in our nation. At least one factor is that the stories we tell ourselves, the history we teach our children is not a full picture of what has actually happened. We don’t like to admit our faults, our sins, our need for lament as triumphalist Americans. And for the most part, those of us who are privileged benefit from capitalism that only seeks a profit. We are seeing more and more social businesses sprout up—those that seek a profit but also seek the social good, like Certified B Corporations—but by and large our economy is so successful because of economic colonialism. When the highest value we place on companies is their profit, we give them leeway to dehumanize.



You also write about your experience of teaching English in Honduras as well as conversations with your friend Monique, and how each helped you and your husband Andrew when you decided to become foster parents to Julia (Lupe’s daughter). Your mindset during this time wasn’t one of charity. You wrote: “I can’t do what I’m called to do because I’m better than, or because I have more than, or because I can be a good example to ‘those’ people. Biblical justice doesn’t let me get away with motivations that set me on a pedestal.” Could you go a bit deeper with this thought?

In my first book, A Smoldering Wick, I talk a lot about the difference between justice and charity. Justice is a two-way relationship, while charity is top-down. Mutuality isn’t just important in the Christian life, in many ways, it is the Christian life. In my opinion, the gospel calls down all hierarchies, which means that we work to knock down the pedestals we and others have created. Biblical justice is a life of right relationship, and right relationship recognizing the inherent dignity in other human beings and sets no one above another. Romans 12 speaks to this within the body of Christ, and Genesis 1:26 speaks to it within the whole of humankind. No one is without sin, therefore we all are in need of a savior every moment of every day. And by that, I don’t mean that we all need to be worried about our salvation day in and out, but rather than we need to be made more whole every moment of every day.



You write about the deep pain that Lupe experienced because of the horrible abuse done to her on her way to the US/Mexican border. When Lupe was deported back to Honduras, without her daughter, she received more shame and guilt from neighbors who criticized her. Yet Lupe’s faith in God remained. What did you learn about your own faith from Lupe’s story?

I’m still learning from this experience. I still cannot believe that Lupe would have gone through hell again to get to her daughter. Lupe showed me a side of God I had never seen so clearly before: the mother love of God. I use a female pronoun for God at the end of my book, and it’s not because I believe God is a woman. But rather because through Lupe’s story, I saw an aspect of God that cannot be seen when God’s pronouns are only ever masculine. But I also talk in the book, in very vulnerable depths, about how I struggle with believing in God after listening and wrestling with Lupe’s story. It’s one thing to theoretically talk about the existence of God in the midst of a deeply suffering world. It’s a whole different thing to hear your friend tell you she was raped several times and held hostage and thought she was going to die after being separated from her daughter by greedy people. My faith tells me that no human is beyond God’s love, but I really struggle with that now when thinking about Lupe’s captors. I have to actively believe in the humanity of those people. I also have to actively believe that God is love even though Lupe suffered in the ways she did. My faith is different now, for sure: deeper and less scared to doubt, but more complicated too because the God I grew up learning to love was more theoretically loveable. The God of Lupe’s story is more real, but some days I’d rather not have the real God.



You mention the importance of documents (birth certificates, etc.) in both Lupe’s and your own son’s case. Would you comment on the VISA or asylum process and how complicated it can be?


I don’t actually know a lot about the process of seeking asylum. I know that Customs and Border Patrol Agents determine individually (they have individual autonomy) if the person seeking asylum has an actual fear of persecution back in their home country. If it is determined that the individual does, then the asylum seeker will undergo a credible fear interview. Oftentimes, the person is asked to produce paperwork to back up his/her fear to make it more credible in the court hearing: like police reports and such. However, in a country like Honduras, the police force is quite corrupt, so going to the police to report domestic violence or gang violence is often worse for the individual than not going at all, especially if the gang that was violent against the person is in partnership with the police. It seems vital that social workers be the ones who determine credible fear potential rather than homeland security officials. As my friend Sarah Quezada says, we are addressing a humanitarian crisis with a national security response.


SEPARATED BY THE BORDER includes an Appendix section, with A Note to Foster Parents. Of all the tips you offer to potential foster parents, is there one that stands out?

Going back to the concept of mutuality, enter foster care because you believe the process and the people will teach you things you need to know to grow. Enter foster care because you’ve thought through the process and because your whole family is on board. Enter foster care because you care about the whole family, including and especially, the biological parents. Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly. Don’t do charity, love self-exaltation, and walk pridefully about what sacrifices your family is making.


Your book also includes an interview with a friend, Eli Romero, who is undocumented. He talks about the ‘severe and disagreeable’ laws for undocumented immigrants. He mentions distance, sadness, persecution, threats, anxiety, depression and anguish that such individuals and families face. At this moment in time, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is scrutinizing many organizations that help these folks, resulting in many undocumented individuals avoiding getting the help they need. Eli mentioned if there were one thing he could change about US immigration policy it would be, “stop separating families…Separating parents from children [causes] tremendous and irreversible damage, specifically because the children’s concept of love in human form – their parents – is ripped from them.” Could you go a bit deeper with this thought?

I interviewed Elí while the Zero Tolerance policy was still happening publicly, so his thoughts here were specific to that sad moment in American history. Elí himself knows the hardship of being separated from his children. He personally feels the trauma of that every day. But he chose to come to the US. To be physically forced into that separation is incredibly inhumane, and we all knew this at the time, but reports are now showing how this government-inflicted trauma is affecting long-term PTSD for the children and the parents.



Is there anything else you’d like to mention?


A list of other books to read on the topics that come up in my book:

·         Enrique’s Journey, Sonia Nazario

·         In the Country We Love: My Family Divided, Diane Guerrero

·         Lucky Boy, Shanthi Sekaran

·         Christians at the Border, M. Daniel Carroll R.

·         The Distance Between Us, Reyna Grande

·         Tell Me How It Ends, Valeria Luiselli

·         The God Who Sees, Karen González

·         Love Undocumented, Sarah Quezada

·         The Line Becomes a River, Francisco Cantú

·         Three Little Words, Ashley Rhodes-Courter

·         To the End of June, Cris Beam

·         Welcoming the Stranger, Matthew Soerens and Jenny  Yang.

For more about Gena Thomas click here.

[1] Department of Justice, “Attorney General Announces Zero-Tolerance Policy for Criminal Illegal Entry,” April 6, 2018. https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/attorney-general-announces-zero-tolerance-policy-criminal-illegal-entry.
[2] Tom Dart, “2,000 children separated from parents in six weeks under Trump policy,” The Guardian, June 16, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jun/16/children-separated-parents-border-trump-administration.
[3] The Flores Settlement Agreement was reached in 1997 and required the government to keep unaccompanied minors no longer than 20 days in detention and to keep them in the least restrictive setting possible, among other stipulations. In 2014, the courts ruled that the Flores Settlement should be applied to all children, including accompanied minors.
[4] Richard Gonzales, “Trump’s Executive Order On Family Separation: What It Does and Doesn’t Do.” NPR, June 20, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/06/20/622095441/trump-executive-order-on-family-separation-what-it-does-and-doesnt-do
[5] Ella Nilsen and Dara Lind, “A federal judge just ordered the Trump administration to speed up family reunifications,” Vox, June 27, 2018. https://www.vox.com/2018/6/27/17506698/aclu-lawsuit-trump-administration-injuction-family-reunification-separation
[6]Elliot Spagat and Colleen Long, “700 Kids Still Separated from Their Families After Government Misses Reunification Deadline,” Time, July 26, 2018. http://time.com/5350788/kids-separated-from-families-july-26-deadline/
[7] Julia Jacob, “U.S. Says it Could Take 2 Years to Identify Up to Thousands of Separated Immigrant Families,” NY Times, April 6, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/06/us/family-separation-trump-administration.html
[8] Jose Antonio Vargas, “Immigration Debate: The Problem with the Word Illegal.” Time, September 21, 2017. http://ideas.time.com/2012/09/21/immigration-debate-the-problem-with-the-word-illegal/.
[9] Ibid.


  

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