Accompaniment Coordinator Alison Wood (right) accompanies a volunteer taking sandwiches and drink to people who are waiting by the US port of entry to petition for asylum. (PPF)

Navigating the dilemmas of unarmed accompaniment on the US-Mexico border

International accompaniers must work to undo the power dynamics they rely on to increase the safety of their local partners and learn when to say "no."
Accompaniment Coordinator Alison Wood (right) accompanies a volunteer taking sandwiches and drink to people who are waiting by the US port of entry to petition for asylum. (PPF)

There is only one migrant shelter in Agua Prieta, a town on the south side of the United States’ border with Mexico. The Centro de Atención al Migrante “Exodus,” or CAME, has offered hospitality to migrants for the past 19 years. With a shift in patterns of migration that led hundreds of asylum-seeking families to Agua Prieta in the first months of 2019, CAME has housed over 150 people at a time in a space built for 50 people — with a wait list of nearly 500 more. At the same time, intimidation from the organized crime group that controls the area escalated to the point of direct threats against CAME’s coordinators. 

In response to the escalating threat, the humanitarian aid community in Agua Prieta decided to request international accompaniment. Sometimes called unarmed civilian protection, accompaniment is a form of peacemaking in which volunteers are physically present in situations of active or threatened violence to represent international attention, to support local peace workers, and to deescalate situations through context-appropriate actions. Accompaniment has been a key tool of organizations like Peace Brigades International, Christian Peacemaker Teams and Witness for Peace since the 1980s in a wide variety of contexts around the world. 

Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, or PPF, was one of the groups (alongside Christian Peacemaker Teams) that was invited to accompany in Agua Prieta. PPF is a U.S.-based national network of peacemakers and activists with a 15-year history of accompaniment in Colombia. In an initial commitment for a three-month trial period — from May-July 2019 — PPF sent a total of 13 people to be present with shelter staff and asylum seekers forced to wait in Mexico by the U.S. government’s metering policies. 

Learning to say no

In August, accompaniment partners met in Agua Prieta to evaluate the work in anticipation of continued accompaniment. Meeting together were five white U.S. citizens and three Mexican citizens; representing CAME, Frontera de Cristo, PPF and Christian Peacemaker Teams. After reviewing the highs and lows of the first three months of accompaniment, the shelter manager (whose name is being withheld for safety at his request) made an emphatic point: “You need to train your volunteers to say no.” 

Behind these gates, 160 people live as they wait in the Centro de Atención al Migrante Exodus for their turn to petition the US government for asylum. (PPF)

A “yes” to accompaniment started this partnership, but now our partners want us to understand that “no” is just as important. The shelter manager spoke about accompaniers and volunteers with other programs who did too much. These volunteers exhausted themselves by working too hard, set precedents for offering services that the rest of the team did not have the capacity to meet, or gave shelter guests the wrong impression the role of accompaniers in Agua Prieta. 

The manager pointed out that accompaniers, who are on the border for only a short time, see no problem with burning themselves out. “Accompaniers who do too much then need to take a lot of time to rest,” the shelter manager said, and I filled in the ending, which he was politely speaking around: “and then they are less useful to us.” The actions of accompaniers also have implications far beyond their term of service. A “yes, we can take you to exchange money” to one traveler sets up the expectation for everyone that changing money is possible. What if the next volunteer has less energy or time?

Volunteers “need to understand the impact of their actions on the rest of the migrants and on the team,” he continued. The bottom line is clear: At the right time, saying “no” protects accompaniers, the local humanitarian aid community and the migrants.

Often a “yes” comes from a place of guilt. All accompaniers with PPF are U.S. Christians; all of us have some oppressor-identities — even though some accompaniers have other identities as well or have done more work to understand oppression and dominance. We are all susceptible to some kind of guilt: white guilt, class guilt, documentation-status guilt. Standing at the wall between the United States and Mexico — with people sleeping on the ground waiting to get into this country that lets us waltz in and out at will — how could we possibly say no to any request? Guilt, especially white guilt, says: “I have all of these resources, why shouldn’t I share them?”

I know this guilt all too well. I am a white, U.S. passport-holding, well-meaning, liberal Christian social worker. While in Agua Prieta last November — shortly after members of the U.S. military were deployed to the border to put up razor wire on the northern side of the wall — I gave my coat to a woman sleeping next to the port of entry. She did not need, want or ask for a coat. I thrust it upon her to assuage my razor-sharp guilt at what my country was doing.

Guilt is a toxic reaction when we allow it to motivate our actions; it is a barrier to building relationships and being led by directly impacted populations. As accompaniment coordinator with PPF, I am responsible for supporting accompaniers in interrogating our first impulses. We work to understand what we have internalized that motivates us to act, and work to both feel our feelings and to de-center them in the pursuit of anti-racist partnership. We recognize that we have been socialized to believe that the Mexicans whom we accompany are less than we are. We acknowledge that we have been trained to believe that we are the smartest, the most correct and the best answer to any question. And we know that all of these things are lies.

A hard part of training accompaniers is helping them understand their location within a wider context: the chronology of ongoing border crises and the social geography of border communities committed long-term to humanitarian aid. The razor wire on the wall last November was new, but exclusion and control of movement at the border are decades old.

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Our national commitment to forcibly halting migration at the border is a chronic illness. It’s the kind of illness that calls for continuous management, not an acute emergency that will blow up once and be over. The severity will ebb and flow, but without a revolution in treatment, this condition will always be with us.

The current U.S. administration chooses to deliberately exacerbate the situation at the border and then to paint “flare-ups” as stand-alone emergencies rather than as part of a larger picture. We are driven from crisis to crisis with no contextual understanding. “This is what that young man in El Paso was about,” said one of our partners in Agua Prieta. She was speaking about the shooting in El Paso on Aug. 3, an act of horrifying violence clearly motivated by crisis rhetoric against immigrants.

Accompaniers sometimes are driven to respond to crisis. But in building an accompaniment partnership, we don’t want to just run to the fire. We have to understand that the circumstances we have been invited into have been under construction since long before we arrived and will continue without us after accompaniers leave.

In this panorama, “no” is often the only rational answer.

Utilizing power dynamics we don’t support

Foundational to accompaniment work is our commitment to following the lead of local partners. As U.S. citizens we are addicted to taking control in international situations. The dynamics of power in this work are jagged and fragile. We deliberately use language meant to equalize, to point away from the inequalities. Here are some words we try to avoid: help, protect and secure. And these are words we move toward: walk alongside, serve, accompany and be with. The intention here is part of an effort to acknowledge in our language that any power we bring into this situation is due to what we embody, not what we do. 

We trust power dynamics we don’t support in order to operate.

Accompaniers represent a source of power. When we send an 80-year-old white woman with a U.S. passport to walk alongside asylum seekers at the border wall, we are deliberately sending her as an emblem of U.S. imperialism, white supremacy and U.S. exceptionalism. At the same time that I encourage that woman in training to recognize and try to move away from the power of her whiteness, I am using her to say to organized crime, “the power of whiteness is paying attention to what you do here.” It is an impossible balance. We are putting her whiteness — as well as mine, and the power that it all represents — at the service of Mexicans from Guerrero, who U.S. whiteness is working hard to exclude. Accompaniers of color are perceived differently, but still represent the United States by virtue of the passports they hold.

Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole — saying, “cool new wheels,” to compliment your friend’s new car.

Accompaniers show up as a synecdoche for the whole of the United States, in all of its messy, militaristic, imperialist, manipulative might. In Colombia, this is why the program works: A pair of young people with U.S. passports, spending a week in a small town in the Colombian state of Urabá, serves as an indication to armed actors (including the Colombian state) that the United States is paying attention to what happens there. In their individual bodies, part of a citizenry, accompaniers represent the whole.  

In Agua Prieta, there is a different dynamic at play. We understand it like this: The organized crime (cartel) that controls the area of Agua Prieta is very good at what they do. And what they do is operate quietly enough to not be bothered by the U.S. border enforcement apparatus as the cartel moves drugs north across the border. Violence in Agua Prieta is constant and contained. The cartel has unquestionable control. Any challenge to that control is dealt with swiftly and fatally. Anything that would draw attention of U.S. authorities to the cartel’s activities is not allowed — it is dealt with like any challenge.

Violence against U.S. citizens in Agua Prieta would, without a doubt, draw the attention of U.S. border enforcement to the area — attention the cartel does not want. This, then, keeps U.S. citizens safer than local volunteers in humanitarian aid work supporting asylum seekers. The security of volunteers from the United States is increased, we believe, by their short tenure in Agua Prieta (a month is standard), taking volunteers who have drawn the cartel’s attention out of their reach. At the same time, the brightly colored vests that accompaniers wear, and the sticker-covered car they drive, indicates that accompaniers belong to a church that is beyond the cartel’s area of control.

We rely on the might of the U.S. border enforcement apparatus, and the certainty that violence toward accompaniers would draw the attention of the Border Patrol — which the cartel specifically wants to avoid — to protect accompaniers from cartel violence and to extend that shadow of protection to our local partners.

We trust power dynamics we don’t support in order to operate. We use the power dynamics we are actively working to undo — the supremacy of whiteness, U.S. exceptionalism, the vision of the United States as moral authority and enforcer to the globe — in order to achieve our goal of nonviolence.

Is this an example of the master’s tools dismantling the master’s house or are we just buying time while the real work of nonviolence gets done?

Is accompaniment a way to change the world, or just a band-aid to ensure survival until the world changes?

I honestly don’t know.

A renewed yes

I do know that accompaniment in Agua Prieta has a positive impact, hearing it directly from the partners assembled to evaluate the program in August.

The shelter manager who is our primary partner feels safer with accompaniers present, saying, “they have been 100 percent helpful.”

The labor of accompaniers, who have taken on some of the most visible volunteer tasks, means that the shelter manager can work from a secure location — materially increasing his security, as well as his sense of safety. Accompaniment is achieving its purpose in Agua Prieta. 

Based on feedback from CAME staff and volunteers, and their continuing request for international presence, PPF has said “yes” again — committing to accompaniment in Agua Prieta into 2020. As we move forward with a renewed yes, understanding when and why we need to say no becomes even more important. It would be too easy to buy into our own hype: to begin to believe that accompaniers are, by our own hands, making the situation safer. 

Instead, we will continue to remind ourselves and the accompaniers we train that — while association with the empire we represent is bringing some small measure of increased safety to our partners in Agua Prieta — the very empire we rely on for personal security had and has an enormous role in the violence our neighbors are running from. Rather than allowing our guilt to motivate us, we will recognize our place in the wider humanitarian aid community and say “no” as our partners direct.

This story was produced by Fellowship Magazine

Since 1918, the Fellowship of Reconciliation has published the award-winning print magazine Fellowship. It is also now online, offering original grassroots analysis, movement research, first-person commentary, poetry and more to help people of faith and conscience build a nonviolent, compassionate world.

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