ASU Religious Studies Assistant Professor Leah Sarat talks about the relationship between religion and migration in Mexico and the United States.
Jose Cardenas: Earlier this month, the ASU school of historical, fill -- philosophical and religious studies hosted an event called, "my grants, or refugees, the crisis in Central America and the response in the United States. ASU assistant professor Leah Sarat was the moderator, and Sarat is the author of "fire in the canyon, religion, migration, and the Mexican dream. The book provides a look at the relationship between religion, any immigration, and ethnicity across the U.S.-Mexico border, and here now is Leah Sarat. Before we talk about the book, the panel discussion that you, you moderated took place at the time that there was such a, a hubbub in the media about what some described as a flood of my grants from Central America. Talk a bit about what was discussed by the panelists and, and why, although the media is not talking about it, it's an important issue.
Leah Sarat: Yeah, they brought the people together from ASU to talk about this issue, and also to bring together members of the community. During June, the month of June, we had witnessed about 1,000 Central American women and children who have been brought to the Phoenix greyhound station, and we had witnessed an outpouring of support from the community. Really, the flood that they talk about that we saw was the flood of support and help for the people. But, after the media spotlight was off of Phoenix, really, people stopped talking about it, and I wanted to, to draw upon that empathy and that interest, and in order to have a, a deeper discussion, and to draw upon some of the, some of the strengths that we have with the faculty and the humanities and social sciences and talk about the roots of the migration situation. And to try to understand why, why, although we might see it as a crisis today, the roots go deeper and if many human beings, the crisis has been much deeper and ongoing to many years.
Jose Cardenas: And what were some of the key points made in the panel discussion?
Leah Sarat: Well, one thing that we brought up, my colleagues, in particular, spoke about how we have not seen the media discussing as much how long-term U.S. immigration policies have shaped patterns of family migration that have shaped the dynamics that we have seen today. Particularly, of unaccompanied minors coming, and she spoke in particular about the temporary protective status, that's extended to various central Americans. It leaves them and the United States in legal limbo for years, and many parents have been here without the ability to, to petition or send for their children to be reunited, many are facing the difficult decision, if my children do not come here, will I see then again.
Jose Cardenas: Right, motivation to get their children here, despite the dangers.
Leah Sarat: Right, absolutely. So, as a person interested in religion and migration, I am interested in, in religion, as a lens, to understanding the depth and the difficulty and the complexity of the migration decision, and particularly, among undocumented communities, and those from Mexico, those from Central America.
Jose Cardenas: And that, that's the area of your study?
Leah Sarat: Right.
Jose Cardenas: The root of the book, and the panel discussion and, and, and the, the numbers have diminished significantly. In terms of the people coming here, and you mentioned an outpouring of support, and there is also an outpouring of opposition.
Leah Sarat: Right.
Jose Cardenas: And special people think that there is a tube, the possibility of having immigration reform, because there was so many people outraged, but, why should we still be concerned about it? It seems to have gone away.
Leah Sarat: It seems to because it's no longer in the news, or most of the headlines. But, many of those people are still here. We have stories coming out of, of a family detention center, and there is, there is the detention centers in Texas, that are being developed to keep women and children, so, although the less numbers are coming, there is some in limbo, and in the process, right and, and the, concerning response is that, is that that, that notion that there is a crisis, that notion that there is, there is floods of people arriving lead to a pushback saying we need security, and we need to build facilities to hold people secure, and protect the public from the people and protect them from the public. So, we have the escalation of actually private for profit prison companies, that are now capitalizing on this. Looking at it, as an opportunity to make a buck. All right, and to put people up in detention facilities. So we need to be concerned about the public discourse and how we speak about people as migrants and as refugees, and how the shapes are going to continue treating them in the present day.
Jose Cardenas: And let's talk about the research. I have seen the book described as, perhaps, one of the first of its kind, if I'm not the only book of its kind, that looks at the influence of religion as a motivator, or, or as some how a part and parcel of the immigration decision. So, talk to us about that.
Leah Sarat: Well, I would not want to say -- first, it builds upon other scholarship, but what I am I'm trying to look at is, is the complexity of the migration decision, involving religion, both on an individual level and also, on a collective level. People make decisions to come to the United States, if they are an undocumented, across the U.S.-Mexico border, they don't in a vacuum, as individuals are going to calculate the cost and is benefits and say I will go, they make decisions as people who are embedded in the family networks, and social networks, and as, in many cases, people who are embedded in communities of faith, that, that shape their notions of the possible and shape their idea about what it means to be in a body in this world and what sort of suffering can I endure and encounter and how will I transcend that?
Jose Cardenas: And your research focused, focus is based on, on the study of the, people, of the people, a small town in central Mexico, called, call Alberto?
Leah Sarat: Yes.
Jose Cardenas: That's my middle name.
Leah Sarat: Ok.
Jose Cardenas: I have the connection, and we have got pictures and, and at least I think that we do that we're going to put up on the screen. Tell us about the town and, and what the connection is it. We have got a picture here. As I understand it, that reflex a connection to Arizona. The Grand Canyon.
Leah Sarat: Yeah, this is a community of about 2,000 people. And growing, and they have many migrants in the United States, and it's an indigenous community. They have a language, depicted there, says welcome. And, and actually, there are a good number of migrants from this community who live right here in Phoenix, also in Las Vegas. So, through the course of their own work, lives, and the United States, they have come in contact with, with the Grand Canyon of Arizona, so one thing they have developed in recent years since the early 2000s is an eco-tourism project seeking to generate the migration alternatives by drawing upon the rich national, natural resources that they have, and one of which is a beautiful canyon which they nick-named the Grand Canyon and, and this is a site of some tourism projects. This is the canyon, a beautiful place and, among these tourism projects, is one known as the coming up of the night hike. This is, this has been mentioned on the news often, with brief season bytes but is a simulated experience of crossing the border as an undocumented immigrant.
Jose Cardenas: And, and you mentioned somewhere, I think, in the introduction, in that you thought this was just kind of a tourist gimmick.
Leah Sarat: I was offended. Here's some people capitalizing on the experience of migrants and making a show out of it and charging a buck. Then I learned that it's a community, grassroots' project staged by indigenous people who themselves were migrants to the United States, and many undocumented, so they live there, and they are saying what can we creatively draw upon? We're going to draw upon our own experience, put tourists, who may be facing better options in life, may never have to cross the border. We're going to put them in the flesh and blood of a migrant farmer for a night.
Jose Cardenas: And this is the image.
Leah Sarat: Yes, because the hike, it lasts for four or five hours, very rigorous and not a fun, a fun show, it ends at the base of a canyon.
Jose Cardenas: And these are people carrying torches?
Leah Sarat: Yes, with a show of torches representing people who died while crossing the border, so someone on the boundary of ritual and pilgrammage, and also tourism.
Jose Cardenas: And this is another image from that.
Leah Sarat: Right.
Jose Cardenas: What's the message that they are trying to convey?
Leah Sarat: The message has several parts. But the core message is they are calling, for the Mexican dream, and they are saying, look what we have gone through, and we have struggled and we risked our lives trying to cross the border and we have gone through this difficult thing, and now, they are trying to, to transmit the message both to the youth within that town, and for the public, as a whole, look, we can suffer trying to achieve a dream, right, but we can also turn that around and, and strive to achieve that dream back home. So, they are calling upon politicians in Mexico, and calling upon the international public, so join them, and in fighting for a world in which people, will not only have the right to my great, but also have the right to make a viable living at home.
Jose Cardenas: And the image on the screen right now, this is not Arizona. This is, this is the replication of that exhibit.
Leah Sarat: There is in central Mexico, and which is what the ground looks like after, after thousands of tourists have passed through, so one lost their cell phone, and a water bottle, so, it's, it's really showing with that.
Jose Cardenas: Let's talk about the connection of religion.
Leah Sarat: When I first got to the community, I had no idea, about half of the community's members are evangelical Christians. And this is a religion with roots in the town before people migrated to the United States. And conversion was grounded very much in the, in the materials, the desperation people faced, right so this, this very strong salvation religion offering a new hope. Then it became intertwined with the migration experience to the United States, as protestantism. But what I found is that although people were drawing upon their tourism, and striving for the Mexican dream, the long-term future in which people can make a living at home, in the meantime, the lack of viable options for employment was still so strong, that many people drop on their faith when they are contemplating the migration decision. And not only the Pentecostals but catholic, well. The choice was difficult, a choice between ongoing poverty at home, versus risking your life. Possibly never seeing your loved ones again.
Jose Cardenas: People really do know how dangerous it is.
Leah Sarat: I would say, not in all communities. Some of the newer ones like in places in Central America where not so many have migrated, but, in this community, definitely. They have heard, and in recent years, I think it was in 2008, a man from the community, from a neighboring community died and another one was in an accident at the border and paralyzed from the waist down, and was in a coma during that time. So, they are aware of this, and actually, when that happened, when the other person died, his body was brought home, they lit the torches, in that same scene --
Jose Cardenas: And that's part of what motivates them? We'll have to end the show on that note, but it's a fascinating topic and thank you very much for joining us.
Leah Sarat: Thank you for having me on.
Leah Sarat:Religious Studies Assistant Professor, Arizona State University;