Every month we feature a classic PeaceSigns article from the archives. Enjoy this great piece from the October 2008 issue.
The subversive act of a handshake
by Anton Flores-Maisonet
“Excuse me,” the young Border Patrol agent interjected, “but did you give or receive anything through the fence [sic]?”
“Yes,” and then pausing I replied, “I gave and received a handshake.”
“Well, my supervisor would like to speak with you. You’ll have to wait right here.”
“Right here” was alongside the segregation wall of exploitation and fear built by my government so as to divide a section of God’s earth–to the north lies Douglas, Arizona and its displaced sibling is Agua Prieta, Sonora. As I waited, I reflected on what had happened just prior to this fraternal act; this act that was now being viewed with suspicion.
I was spending this December weekend in Douglas, Arizona with other lovers of migrants. Together we were seeking to discern how God might be calling Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), a violence reduction ministry, to be a nonviolent witness for Christ and for suffering migrants while “getting in the way” of unjust acts and policies that dehumanize and perpetrate acts of violence and oppression against our poor neighbors from the South. This particular morning I had the desire to both exercise my body and exercise my right to move freely within my own country and so I commenced on a seven-block walk from the house where I was staying to this politically constructed border.
Upon arriving at the border, I came across a Border Patrol vehicle with its engine running. Was the engine running because the officer needed to be ready to drive at a moment’s notice in order to apprehend “dangerous terrorists and illegal aliens”? Was the engine running because the Department of “Homeland Security” doesn’t see that a more likely threat to our nation, even more than so-called terrorism, is our insatiable appetite for non-renewable energy sources like oil? There was a biting wind and a chill in the air so, perhaps, the agent was allowing the engine to idle so that it would provide heat to his prison-on-wheels? Well, I wish I could tell you I found out the answer but I never had the chance to ask this border patrol agent because as I walked by his running vehicle I found him on duty and asleep.
As I continued my journey towards the wall it didn’t take long before a second agent took notice of my presence. Perhaps he was dispatched by the central office after I was observed on the number of mounted video cameras that dot “la linea,” because within a matter of minutes after reaching the wall I was approached by this second border patrol agent in a quickly moving white pick-up truck.
The agent emerged from his vehicle and asked me the reason for my presence at the wall.I informed him that I was visiting Douglas, had wanted to go for a walk, and noticed that this area had many well-worn paths. The agent warned me that I should be fearful of walking near the wall because folks on the “other side,” he claimed, often throw rocks and bottles over the wall targeting Americans.
“I disagree with your viewpoint of the folks on the other side of this wall and, furthermore, I also disagree with our country’s policies that lead to the presence of this wall,” I instinctively retorted. I then pointed to two men standing at a corner on the Agua Prieta side and I asked the agent if anything in U.S. federal law that would prohibit me from approaching the fence so as to speak with them. I was informed by the patrol agent that nothing could legally prohibit me from speaking with the men so I approached the border and motioned for the men to meet me there.
Not surprisingly, the nonverbal reaction of the men seemed to imply a level of suspicion toward me! I mean, why would a man from the United States who just got through conversing with a Border Patrol agent want to speak with two working poor men of Mexico? After a short moment, the younger of the two men did approach the fence and that is where the first of two subversive acts took place. As the young boy approached I did what I would do anytime I was about to engage in dialogue with another person–I extended a handshake. The only difference this time was that the handshake crossed a(n in)security fence and international borders.
As we conversed the teenager named Francisco would share with me how he was an internal migrant. He had relocated to Agua Prieta from the Mexican state of Sinaloa but stated that he had no plans to try and enter into the United States without authorization because he had a job in Agua Prieta working at an American factory. When he told me that this U.S.-based employer only paid him 60 Pesos/day (about $6/day) I told him that I could understand the economic pull that would bring so many unauthorized immigrants into the United States. We lamented that the ideal would be for every person to be able to provide for one’s family in one’s home culture and that, if migration were necessary, that the receiving country should be much more hospitable than is the United States presently. After all, it is unauthorized migrants and poor Americans who do much of our low-wage work to keep our debt-plagued high standard of living at an illusionary low price.
As we said our farewell we, again, engaged in the subversive act of humanizing the “other”–we shook hands. At this I received a stern warning from the Border Patrol agent, his now-arrived supervisor and an additional agent. I was informed that such an act would always raise eyebrows on the border. As we spoke, three migrants used my “distraction” as an opportunity to return back to Mexico unapprehended; getting through the fence about as easily as my hand did with the boy named after Saint Francis.