A tale of two bridges

Opinion: Columns

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BETTY ALZAMORA

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This is a story about two bridges.

The first, Circle Avenue Bridge, brings the northern and southern portions of our village together, a busy span over the Eisenhower Expressway. On a spring day in May 2017, a cross-section of our community gathered to work on "Cover Our Rust", a public art project designed to beautify a functional structure that had in recent years gained more notoriety as an ugly eyesore. 

On that day, business owners, community leaders, families, children, and visitors came together in happiness, anticipation, and energy, to work on a shared vision. The result of this communal effort is a joy-filled array of panels depicting the vibrancy of Forest Park. 

One panel in particular, created by a group of young people of color, celebrates inclusiveness and diversity; located on the east side of the bridge, the panel's central image is a dove, representing peace. Surrounding this dove are silhouettes of people breaking through walls while holding signs with universal themes: Build Bridges, Not Walls; Families Belong Together; United We Stand, Divided We Fall.

No Human Is Illegal.

A striking panel, stunning in its design and inspiring in its messages of peace and solidarity. Simple truths, irrefutable and universal, that are borderless and travel in multiple directions, across bridges, spans of roads, water, and air. 

Made all the more powerful by the knowledge that the creators are students, our next generation of leaders and visionaries. These young adults assert with certainty that all of us have inherent worth and dignity, going beyond the vitriol that passes for discourse today in political spaces and the digital confines of social media.

This panel has been the subject of particular attention by a vandal: since January 2019, it has been defaced a total of ten times, with the latest incident taking place on the evening of January 4. And working in partnership with the Village, a team of local activists (full disclosure: you bet I've been a part of the rapid response efforts) continue to monitor the mural, and clean the messes left by someone who is bent on making bad mischief with the good work of young people.

We do this on the premise that this particular act of vandalism is tantamount to an act of hate. Defacing these panels, attacking these words, in today's overheated and dangerous environment of exclusion, is an affront to the Village values of inclusion reflected in our Welcoming Resolution enacted by the previous Mayor and Council.

It was heartening to see the Village's show of support in late November, displaying "No Human Is Illegal" on the digital billboard at the Howard Mohr Community Center. Mayor Hoskins and the administration went a long way in making so many of us proud and resolute, by reaffirming who we are and what we stand for in this village. This is not a political act or message; it is a statement of support for residents within Forest Park and beyond. We exist as humans, we are here, and so-called legality is not defined by arbitrary human-made borders, lines in the sand that shift with geopolitics and who happens to hold the all-powerful upper hand at a given moment.

As a woman of color, the resounding wave of community affirmation, love, and support for this action moved me deeply. Because there is a second bridge I have become well familiar with in the last four months. 

This second bridge spans the Rio Grande (or Rio Bravo), between Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico. The Matamoros International Gateway Bridge is a designated port of entry into the US, and I have traveled there three times since late August. This bridge is a somber and forbidding structure, fortified with barbed wire and concrete barriers.

I have crossed into Mexico as part of volunteer efforts -  twice with PASO, and once with Team Brownsville - to provide direct service to a growing community of asylum seekers. These migrants are trying to enter the United States to escape conditions of violence and poverty that in very large part were created by American interventionist activities in Central and Latin America over the last century. 

The asylum seekers are impacted by a policy known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also referred to as "Remain in Mexico", which was announced at the beginning of 2019. Mexican border towns such as Matamoros are now the ground zero of the Trump administration's migration deterrence strategy at the southern border, and emblematic of the wider effort to curtail immigration to the US.

One great irony of this cataclysmic policy is that the right to seek asylum is legally upheld in the US through both international and federal law. The US signed the UN Protocol to the Convention Related to the Status of Refugees in 1967, and created the Refugee Act of 1980. The current effort to stigmatize asylum seekers as "illegal" is, in and of itself, illegal.

Far more tragic is the humanitarian crisis we have created at the southern border, where we now are holding back 57,000 asylum seekers across the southern border. I have witnessed the refugee camp in Matamoros grow from 600 migrants to over 3,000, in the space of four months. The conditions are abysmal: there is minimal infrastructure for all of these people who claim shelter - if they are lucky - in small day trip tents, which are obtained through donations channeled through nonprofit groups. Migrants battle the elements daily, whether extreme heat in the summer, or torrential downpours and chilly conditions in the winter. For the most part, charitable donations fund two meals a day served at the camp. Malnourishment and dehydration are common, and gastrointestinal and bronchial illness is rampant. And while organizations such as Team Brownsville and Global Response Management are doing incredible work in setting up some infrastructure to provide basic medical care and desalination systems to provide drinking and cooking water, this is not nearly enough to meet the urgent needs of a group of people placed in a situation that should have never existed in the first place.

The refugee camp is a dangerous place: our administration is retaining asylum seekers in a location that the US State Department classifies as a Level 4 Risk Area for US citizens, unsafe for travel and on par in violence with places such as Afghanistan and Syria. On my last two trips to Matamoros, I met several people who had been kidnapped by local cartels - and who managed to escape through sheer wits and absolute courage.

And for some, who traveled with children to the southern border and are now living under abysmal conditions, they have made one of the most difficult of choices imaginable: they have walked as a family to the Bridge, and with a firm push, handed their kids to Customs and Border Protection, with a real risk of never being reunited.

Two bridges. I cherish the connection that the young people of Forest Park have made between them both, in affirming that No Human Is Illegal. 

As American citizens we take for granted the privilege and protection that a US passport may afford - and we should acknowledge that a piece of paper designating us as a citizen or resident of this country cannot define our status as human beings who exist. We are all entitled to universal human rights.

Lack of possession of a document should not be the pathway to detention, criminalization, persecution, exploitation, abuse, and discrimination. It should not force parents to give up their children, for families to be separated, or for babies to be held in cages or detention centers.

It is entirely possible that the Circle Avenue Bridge vandal may not share the same insight as our young people. The vandal might believe that undocumented people should simply "get in line" and adjust their status - with no real understanding that in the US, there is no line to get into for that privilege. Perhaps they do not believe that this country has thrived through ingenuity, intelligence, and willpower of immigrants. It may be unfathomable for them to connect with the anger and fear in the eyes of friends and grassroots leaders in the immigration justice space, who wonder daily if this is the day that ICE will detain them and start deportation proceedings. Or understand the relentless urgency of people that have dedicated their lives to social justice causes that drive equity and inclusion for all of us. 

I know that someday the vandal will be found, and I want to believe that despite our differences, we can still sit together to speak. Because I have hope in the transformational spirit of that spring day in 2017, when Forest Park affirmed there is more that brings us together than tears us apart.

For now, my friends and I will continue to keep watch over the mural at Circle Avenue Bridge. We stand in solidarity with the young adults of Forest Park, with the undocumented community in our part of the western suburbs. 

And we stand with asylum seekers everywhere.

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Leah Ann Shapiro from Forest Park  

Posted: January 27th, 2020 11:17 PM

Insightful and brilliant Betty.. The St. Louis coming from Germany was turned back in 1939 by the U.S. Those who survived the trip back were sent to death camps such as Auschwitz. Families and children are welcome here. Thank you for this enlightening article.

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