Boise faith leaders join peaceful protest at border, stand in solidarity with asylum seekers
BOISE — Reverend Sara LaWall from the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship said she could see the faces of people gathered on a hill on the Tijuana side of the border wall — people she had come to stand in solidarity with.
She sang with hundreds of other faith leaders on the beach at San Diego’s Border Field State Park as she tried not to make eye contact with the border patrol agent who stood in front of her who was not wearing a visor like the other agents.
In one heated moment during the two-and-half-hour standoff, as border patrol agents pushed back the line of faith leaders, LaWall fell on top of a “fierce” elderly woman from her Boise congregation who joined her on the protest — their tumble was taken as an act of aggression and were both arrested by border patrol officers.
LaWall was part of the force of interfaith leaders who joined together at the U.S.-Mexico border on Monday, Dec. 10, to protest militarization at the border in response to the caravan of migrants seeking asylum.
“This was a moment in history when the call came down for people of faith to come out and they did,” she said.
Organized by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker social justice organization, the “Love Knows no Borders: A moral call for migrant justice” campaign called faith leaders around the country to action — hundreds answered. The demonstration was held on the 70th anniversary of International Human Rights Day and kicked off a national week of action that ends on International Migrant’s Day on Dec. 18.
According to the Associated Press, 5,200 active troops are stationed at the border in response to the migrant caravan on the other side. Following Dec. 15, 2,200 troops will be withdrawn preceding the holidays, announced U.S. officials the same day as the faith leader protest.
LaWall said she was expecting to be arrested.
“When change needs to happen, sometimes you have to put your body on the line for other bodies,” she said.
Locally and nationally, she said, faith leaders have been deeply concerned by the actions and escalation at the border.
“You don’t have to have a religion to feel like there is a higher moral standard we should hold ourselves to as fellow human beings,” said LaWall. “We don’t tear gas children, and we don’t let them die in detention.”
Her comment refers to incidents in November when border agents fired tear gas at hundreds of migrants — some accompanied by children — protesting near the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana after some attempted to get through fencing.
After only a few weeks of planning, a crowd of faith leaders gathered at Friendship Park — a federally owned park and frequent place of protests against violence at the border — then walked nearly two miles down a road and along the beach, making their way to the border.
Just as the group stepped onto the sand, they paused and held a prayer service, said LaWall. The names of those who have lost their lives at the hands of border patrol and in detention centers were read aloud. All protesters who said they were willing to risk arrest were anointed and blessed.
The stand-off with border patrol lasted for two-and-a-half hours, LaWall said. Video of the early minutes of the protest show armed border patrol officers pleading with the group “please stop we don’t want to hurt anyone today”.
Thirty-two of the protesters were arrested, according to the Associated Press, on suspicion of trespassing. LaWall was not charged after the arrest but issued a citation.
Reverend Duane Andres, from the Cathedral of the Rockies in Boise, said he could not sleep the night before the protest. Even after facing some push-back from members of his church, he knew he had to go.
“Often there are these moments when clergy are called to be present somewhere in the world and usually it’s at times when I can’t get there,” said Andres, “and this was one of those times when I could get there.”
He realized even though he stood farther back in the group of protesters, everyone was at risk.
“We live in such volatile times, it only takes one unthoughtful action on either side,” he said, “which could have been a protester who was a little too zealous, or it could have been a border patrol agent who misinterpreted a command.”
But, when he stepped onto the beach, surrounded by faith leaders from all different religions, he said he was speechless.
“This is what faith is. Faith is present in the hard places,” said Andres. “Sometimes stepping into tension is what faith leaders have to do and sometimes even creating the tension.”
The ordeal was “emotionally, spiritually and physically exhausting”, said Andres, fueled by the need to show asylum seekers that people were paying attention and care.
Andres has been asked how attending the protest helped. He’s had one member of his congregation threaten to leave his church. His response is that he knows he has started a conversation in other churches regarding the issue.
“This wasn’t about illegal immigration, this was organized about basic rights of immigration, seeking asylum and demilitarizing the border and that’s what we were trying to say to our country,” he said. “People need to understand, Idaho doesn’t exist without immigrants.”
For LaWall, the protest was just a first step.
“If I was able to get to the fence,” said LaWall. “I just wanted to look someone in the eye and say we see you and you are welcome here. And our country is your country.”