Monday, January 5, 2015


Photoessay by David Bacon
Oakland, CA  (12/18/14)

For the nine days before Christmas people in Latin America celebrate Las Posadas.  They recall the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus, where they looked for a place to stay.  The ritual of the pilgrimage from place to place, looking for shelter, has roots in many religious traditions, as does the tradition of welcoming the stranger.  Over the years immigrants and immigrant rights groups in U.S. Latino communities have adopted the posada's symbols as a way to talk about the experience of people in migration, and their search for a new place to live.

One of the days that falls in the period of Las Posadas is December 18.  This day was chosen in 2000 by the United Nations as International Migrants Day.  It celebrates migrant families, and comes on the anniversary of the day the UN adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families in 1990 (still not ratified by the United States).  International observances on this day acknowledge the contributions made by migrants to the economies of their host and home countries, and call for respecting their human rights.

As night fell in Oakland, California, on December 18, immigrants and supporters gathered at the Hispanic Presbyterian Church in the Latino Fruitvale district to celebrate Las Posadas.  A small crowd moved from place to place, or station to station, through the yard outside, recreating the journey of a family from Honduras to the U.S.  The first station symbolized the home community from which the family fled.  The second was a detention center on the U.S. border, where in hunger and desperation they turned themselves in to the Border Patrol.  The third station was the church itself, where the community of Oakland welcomed the family, giving them sanctuary as they were about to be deported.

At each station people sang as Francisco Herrera, the movement's local troubadour, played the guitar.  Adults and children held candles in a vigil for all those still imprisoned in detention centers throughout the U.S.  They spoke especially about those from Central America who will not qualify for the recent deferral of deportation for undocumented parents of U.S. citizens.  Many commented bitterly that at the same time that some families will get temporary legal status, others will not.  In fact, the Department of Homeland Security has just opened a new detention center in Dilley, Texas.  It will hold up to 2400 women and children, most from Central America, housing them until their eventual deportation.  Speaking to the people of Central America at the opening of the prison, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson warned, "It will now be more likely that you will be detained and sent back.  Frankly, we want to send a message that our border is not open to illegal migration, and if you come here, you should not expect to simply be released."

While Pope Francis has declared these children must be "welcomed and protected," the Obama administration has been fast tracking deportations.  "Obama's administrative relief has left out the most vulnerable group of people: the children, and others who face danger and death if they are deported.  Faith communities and people of conscience are calling on the President to safeguard the lives of migrant children and families who have been left out of his action," said Rev. Jeff Johnson of University Lutheran Chapel in Berkeley.

The participants in the Oakland Posada spoke about the widespread street actions that have taken place throughout the city for weeks, protesting the failure to indict police for murdering Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City.  Art Cribbs, the African American director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, urged people to connect these protests to those against deportations.  "Events of the past few weeks have once again painfully reminded us that in our nation, all people, and black people in particular, do not have equal opportunity to breathe, live and thrive," he said.  "We extend our support and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and encourage you to engage in local activities promoting the message that black lives, indeed, do matter and deserve dignity, respect and justice.   We are also reminded, that this deep social inequality and expression of racism and violence extends to many parts of the immigrant community as well.  Immigrants, especially those who are black or brown, are also told that their lives do not matter."

After going inside the church, immigrants were invited to relate their own experiences of migration.  One young man faced the people assembled in the pews and described the beatings he suffered as a gay activist in Uganda, after the government there declared homosexuality illegal.  He then related his efforts to gain asylum and come to the U.S. as a refugee.  Rev. Deborah Lee, director of the Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights-CLUE-CA, embraced him.  The growing migration of African people to the U.S., she said, is helping people in the Black Lives Matter protests and immigrant rights activists fighting deportations see the commonality of their efforts.

"Christians remember that after Jesus was born, the holy family had to flee to Egypt for safety and protection of the newborn child," Lee reminded participants.  "Today, families from Central America cannot get to safety.  Baby Jesus and his parents, are getting turned away at the border.  Baby Jesus is getting detained.  Baby Jesus is having to appear before the judge without an attorney, and is at risk of expedited deportation and death."

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