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A Common Humanity

Ritual, Religion, and Immigrant Advocacy in Tucson, Arizona

Lane Van Ham

Publication Year: 2011

As debate about immigration policy rages from small towns to state capitals, from coffee shops to Congress, would-be immigrants are dying in the desert along the US–Mexico border. Beginning in the 1990s, the US government effectively sealed off the most common border crossing routes. This had the unintended effect of forcing desperate people to seek new paths across open desert. At least 4,000 of them died between 1995 and 2009. While some Americans thought the dead had gotten what they deserved, other Americans organized humani-tarian aid groups. A Common Humanity examines some of the most active aid organizations in Tucson, Arizona, which has become a hotbed of advocacy on behalf of undocumented immigrants.

This is the first book to examine immigrant aid groups from the inside. Author Lane Van Ham spent more than three years observing the groups and many hours in discussions and interviews. He is particularly interested in how immigrant advocates both uphold the legitimacy of the United States and maintain a broader view of its social responsibilities. By advocating for immigrants regardless of their documentation status, he suggests, advocates navigate the conflicting pulls of their own na-tion-state citizenship and broader obligations to their neighbors in a globalizing world. And although the advocacy organizations are not overtly religious, Van Ham finds that they do employ religious symbolism as part of their public rhetoric, arguing that immigrants are entitled to humane treatment based on universal human values.

Beautifully written and immensely engaging, A Common Humanity adds a valuable human dimension to the immigration debate.

Published by: University of Arizona Press


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p. c-c

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

I am the son of Lee Van Ham and Laurel Johnson, who are the children of children of immigrants to the United States of America. My father’s mother, Wilhelmina, was the granddaughter of Dutch immigrants who arrived in the mid-nineteenth century. The parents of Peter, my father’s father, emigrated from Holland in 1911. My mother’s father, Vernon, was...

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1. Migrant Deaths and Immigrant Advocacy in Southern Arizona

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pp. 1-16

By the time they found her body, four weeks had passed since she had been left behind, and it had already been ravaged by scavengers and the elements. Pieces of her extremities were strewn about, radiating from her decomposing torso, which had released its store of oils and left a stain where they seeped into the ground. Her name was Prudencia Martin Gomez, and she was eighteen years old....

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2. Political Imagination in the United States

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pp. 17-32

Toward the end of his life, Founding Father John Adams reflected on the formation of the United States and advised that despite appearances to the contrary, the American Revolution should not be confused with the War for Independence. “The Revolution,” he wrote, “was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments[,] of their duties and obligations.”...

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3. US-Mexico Border Enforcement and the Emergence of Immigrant Advocacy in Tucson

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pp. 33-55

As Interstate 10 works across the greater Southwest; it bisects Tucson with a jagged line and sprouts Interstate 19 southbound to Nogales. I-19’s main distinction is being the quickest route from Tucson to Mexico, but it is also notable for its signage, which provides distances using the metric system. The signs present a perplexing novelty. Why change the style of measurement,...

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4. Immigrant Advocacy in Tucson Responds to the Gatekeeper Complex

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pp. 56-81

Assisting Central American refugees evade torturers and assassins in their homelands, the diverse strains of immigrant advocacy in Tucson built one of the most impactful campaigns for social change of the 1980s. What were originally fledgling and improvised responses to a crisis cohered and grew into a movement characterized by inspiring leadership, a committed rank and file, and a set of beliefs, terms, and actions flexible enough...

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5. Individual Worldviews: Humanity, Nationality, and Ultimacy

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pp. 82-107

During an informal conversation in the course of my fieldwork, a Humane Borders member named Charli alluded to the time before she joined the group and said of herself, “I was one of the blind people in this city.” Charli’s remark compresses a personal narrative into a metaphor based on two kinds of “seeing.” Most obviously, she once was “blind” because she did not perceive a situation that demanded her attention. But she also...

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6. Collective Expression: Dramatizing the Crisis

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pp. 108-131

Social movement organizations form with the intent of converting scattered, individual discontent into unified action. But their initiatives are accompanied by seemingly decorative and even superfluous flourishes that are sometimes denigrated as “merely symbolic” or “merely expressive,” since they do not in themselves achieve group objectives. Certainly, any group perceived as limited to logos and slogans acquires a reputation for...

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7. The El Tiradito Vigil

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pp. 132-150

On the edge of downtown Tucson, in the historically Mexican American neighborhood Barrio Viejo (the Old Barrio), is a small dirt lot that hosts a shrine known as El Tiradito. The shrine is an arched alcove augmented by a three-sided adobe structure that consists of a main wall some fifteen feet high and thirty feet wide, with two sides that descend in staggered segments. Within the area embraced by the three walls stand a number of...

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8. Memorial Marches

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pp. 151-173

Cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinksy has observed that “as the organizing symbol of [the United States] . . . the flag has preempted the place, visually and otherwise, of the crucifix in older Christian lands” (196, emphasis in original). A casual inspection of most public places would no doubt validate Zelinsky’s thesis. But even as the cross no longer occupies the nave, as it were, of a pluralistic society, it has remained a powerful symbol...

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9. Ritual Transformation and Cosmopolitics in Tucson Immigrant Advocacy

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pp. 174-190

If, as William Blake wrote, “you can see the universe in a grain of sand,” then there are plenty of opportunities to see the universe in the Sonoran Desert. In fact, there are plenty of opportunities to do so with just a footprint in the Sonoran Desert, or a cast-off backpack, or an empty water bottle. For that matter, return to Rick Ufford-Chase’s suggestion, noted in chapter 1, that the best place to ponder the question “Who is my neighbor?”...


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pp. 191-202


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pp. 203-212


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pp. 213-218

About the Author, Back Cover

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pp. 219-bc

E-ISBN-13: 9780816501212
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816529650

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2011