A conversation with Rev. Alison Harrington, pastor at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, AZ

Rev. Alison J. Harrington became the pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson in January, 2009 bringing with her a passion for Christ and for social justice. She attended the University of California at Berkeley, where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Peace and Conflict Studies with an emphasis in U.S. Race Relations. After graduation, she became a community organizer in the San Francisco Bay Area organizing around issues such as the prison industrial complex and the criminalization of youth of color. Seeking to approach issues of social concern from a faith perspective, she left community organizing to attend San Francisco Theological Seminary. In 2010 she was named one of Tucson’s 40 under 40 and in 2011 she was awarded the Beatitudes Society Brave Preacher Award.

When President Obama calls for the “toughest border enforcement plan America has ever seen,” what is the real impact at the border?

A lot of suffering. Senator McCain has called for defense better than the Berlin wall. We see a huge amount of death in the desert caused by the militarization of the border. When you close down the ports of entry, you force people trying to migrate from Mexico into vast expanses of dangerous desert. The deaths we see in the desert are actually used as a deterrent to other immigrants. These deaths are part of the policy. There have been 2,666 deaths at the Arizona border. With the billions being thrown at the border, we are also seeing an increased militarization in our communities. One of the concerns is that border agents operate with limited oversight. In the past 10 years, they have shot and killed at least 20 people.

The goal of the Clinton-era Operation Gatekeeper was to shut down ports of entry and force immigrants into the desert. The goal of the new Immigration Reform Bill before congress is to shut the whole thing down with drones and a whole lot of other war mechanisms in our community. Personally, I don’t think this will be a deterrent to people crossing the desert. If you have a child who is hungry and can’t feed her in Mexico, you are going to cross the desert to make a better life for your family. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has decimated economies in Mexico.

For many national groups, one of the key factors is looking at the root causes of migration. For example, if you took the money being spent on militarizing the border, it could be better invested it in coffee cooperatives in Mexican towns to equalize the economic disparity between the US and Mexico.

The people who are advocating for border militarization are in the game for profit. The war in Iraq has ended and the war in Afghanistan is winding down. They are looking at their next vehicle for making money. Organizations like the Corrections Corporation of America have been part of lobbying for draconian laws like Arizona SB 1070 which allows law enforcement to stop anyone who they suspect may be an immigrant. This creates a profitable funnel into detention centers run by the Corrections Corporation of America. Every aspect of the policing of the border produces corporate profits including buses and now drones.

Border Deaths

There have been 2,666 deaths at the Arizona border.

The Tucson Samaritans are part of the justice work of Southside Presbyterian Church. Tell me more about their work in the desert.

The Tucson Samaritans were founded in 2002 and just celebrated their 10 year anniversary. After the 1994 implementation of Operation Gatekeeper, they were part of the trajectory of humanitarian response. In response to the deaths in the desert, water tanks that were not mobile were placed in the desert. Based on work with the medical examiners, they soon realized that migrant trails shifted. Now the Samaritans track where deaths are happening and have a GPS system to understand what trails are being used. When they go out into the desert to provide relief, they also look for where trash is being left and water is sitting for a long time. This information informs where humanitarian aid is delivered.

The Samaritans hike into difficult places and leave water and food. They also look for migrants in distress. When they find a migrant who has been lost for a couple of days, they do their best to get them hydrated. If their medical needs are severe, they consult with the migrant to determine what he or she would like to do. This may involve calling in a border patrol medical unit. Generally, volunteers cannot transport migrants or they risk getting charged with a crime. Sometimes a migrant wants to return home and the Samaritans call border patrol. If a migrant wants to keep crossing, the Samaritans leave that decision with the migrant. They are not there to police the border, but to provide humanitarian assistance.

The Samaritans hike into the desert to provide humanitarian assistance.

The Samaritans hike into the desert to provide humanitarian assistance.

The Southside Worker Center is housed at Southside Presbyterian Church. How did your justice work among day laborers start and how has it evolved?

The Southside Worker Center was founded in 2006 as a response to the tension between the police and day laborers in our neighborhood. The center provides a safe place for men to wait for work and to negotiate fair and just employment. Since that time it has grown in some big ways. Employment remains the primary focus of our work, but we also have a leadership academy to train immigrants as leaders and organizers. In addition, the center provides English as a second language classes, sexual health education, and classes on healthy relationships.

Since the passage of SB 1070, the center also provides a protection network. The law has increased the harassment and detention of immigrants. The protection network provides immigrants access to know your rights training, legal representation, visits while in detention and a bond fund to get them out of jail. It allows cases to be fought from the grassroots community. Most immigrants who are arrested don’t have legal representation and don’t know how to represent themselves in bond hearings.

What happened in 2010 was the recognition at the national level that undocumented people needed to be at the center of this justice struggle. A huge mobilization occurred and many leaders are being developed to be at the forefront of this struggle. One of our day laborers rode on the UndocuBus last Summer and ended up at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. They were so brave. All of them put everything on the line and got arrested. Fortunately they were all released. It is one of the things that has inspired me the most. In communities, schools and organizations, immigrant communities know their rights and lay it on the line to defend those rights.

Tell me more about the anti-oppression commitments at the Southside Worker Center.

The overall political orientation of the center is that all oppressions are linked. You can’t fight for the liberation of one people if you not fighting for liberation of all people. The Civil Rights Movement is a great example. Bayard Rustin fought for racial justice while being marginalized based on his sexual orientation. Women lacked a voice in the movement. Groups now are learning lessons from the past and all of our struggles are being linked together. We need to fight for liberation and justice for everyone. We addressed this head on at the center. We provide regular training and ask laborers to sign an agreement that respects the fact that the space is free from patriarchy, transphobia and homophobia. We struggle with these issues because the space is largely for men, but we really lay it out there and link all oppressions together.

Southside Worker Center

Advocacy work by day laborers from the Southside Worker Center

How do immigration and border issues impact LGBTQ people?

I think there are two ways LGBTQ people are uniquely impacted. First, LGBTQ folk are impacted when they are in detention or incarcerated. It is really hard to be LGBTQ and in detention. It is rife for all kinds of abuse and degradation and LGBTQ people need extra support in detention. Second, we often see people are fleeing their country of origin because they are LGBTQ. They come to the United States to seek asylum. Some flee because of persecution, others because of the danger posed by their families.

What can PC(USA) congregations do to make a difference in immigrant communities?

First and foremost, we need to educate them on the current Immigration Reform Bill being discussed before congress. It is being heralded as the answer to prayer and it is not. People need to look at the principles laid out by the Interfaith Immigration Coalition and use them as a tool to analyze the current bill. Then they need to contact congress and advocate in ways they feel called to do. We believe the current immigration bill will cause a great deal of suffering as I have already mentioned. We need to look at the principles that people have worked hard to put together. It is an approach that seeks to address the root causes of migration, not erect more borders.

“No More Deaths” also has a set of faith-based principles for immigration reform. They meet at St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church, the host congregation for the MLP National Conference.

Second, we are all seeing increased militarization in our communities through the policing of immigrants. PC(USA) congregations need to understand the situation in their particular communities. It is important to take a stand against the current direction of the immigration system. If there are immigrant detention centers near you, it is important to visit and write letters to those in detention. The PC(USA) Office of Immigration Issues website has a section on how to reach out to immigrants in detention. You can also work to mesh immigrant communities with your congregation by creating Family Care Plans in case a member of an immigrant family is detained. For example, if an immigrant is on the way to pick up their child and they are put in detention, who has power of attorney to care for the kids or sell the car to raise bail money? The PC(USA) Office of Immigration Issues has a Family Care Plan that we have adapted at Southside Presbyterian Church.

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