Preserving Community Along the Mexico Border

The City of Las Cruces, the second largest city in New Mexico, lies about 40 miles or so north of the Mexico border. It sits in the high Chihuahuan desert at an elevation of about 4,000 feet. The 9,000 foot Organ Mountains loom over the city. The cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez on the Mexico side appear to form one seamless metropolitan area. Together with nearby Las Cruces there are about 2.2 million people.

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Organ Mountains and irrigation canals

I had never been to this part of New Mexico before. We were visiting cousins who operate a small pecan farm in the Mesilla Valley that’s irrigated by the Rio Grande, when it isn’t dry. (This is desert, water is scarce and pecans are a big business.) They have 3 dogs and a bunch of large, friendly goats who enjoy eating the pecan husks.

Not surprisingly, the influence of Mexican culture and Mexican immigration is quite prevalent here. But Las Cruces is very American and prosperous from all appearances. Just over the mountains is the White Sands Missile Range and Spaceport America, the first commercial space port in the US.

My cousin, Anna, has worked for the Las Cruces Public Schools as a school nurse for many years and still fills in. Both she and her husband are retired air force officers.

In the course of our conversations around their kitchen table I was surprised to learn that Las Cruces has been a sanctuary city for many years and that the folks here were not actually aware of it. They weren’t aware of the terminology.

The “sanctuary city” thing, while not official, has emerged as a function of public schooling and aspects of Federal education regs that provide reimbursements to public school systems based on the population of eligible pupils. 

For a long time members of families who reside in Mexico have migrated back and forth across the border to go to school (and no doubt jobs too). Their kids attend school while living with friends and family members on the US side during the school year and going back home to Mexico during the summer. Enrollees typically provide proof of residency, birth certificate and immunization records. Apparently the Federal regulations do not distinguish whether a child is documented in determining eligibility for federal reimbursements. The enrollment of Mexican kids benefits the schools with increased federal dollars. In return, many youngsters from Mexico and other undocumented kids benefit from an American education and, as it happens, medical care available to students, as well as learning English and American culture.

The local school system doesn’t have a need to query students about their citizenship status. That’s actually no big deal. There’s nothing unusual about this. I’m no expert on this, but even in Maryland, schools do not ask about documentation. All that a public school needs is an address of record for the pupil. 

Today, with the national brouhaha over sanctuary cities being fomented and wholly mischaracterized by the Trump Administration and the U.S. Attorney General, the folks in this part of New Mexico realize they are providing sanctuary. 

Sure, I guess one could make the case that American taxpayers are being ripped off or the taxpayers of Las Cruces are being burdened in some way. That’s not how Anna sees it. She says it is a privilege to be able to help these immigrant youngsters who she’s gotten to know in a personal way. 

My cousin’s husband flew tankers in Desert Storm and now volunteers as a pilot for the local Civil Air Patrol. He loves to fly. He does this work to assist the U.S. Border Patrol to both help interdict illegal drug trafficking and to find and rescue border crossers who are lost and stranded in the desert. He takes pride in his work. 

On top of this, he also goes to Ciudad Juárez from time to time to meet with community leaders on the Mexico side to address immigration and social issues. Juárez has seen a drastic drop in crime over the past eight years.

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pecans ready for harvest

Whether my family members would label themselves as conservatives or progressives is really not important. Those terms seem rather meaningless here. The reality is that they live in one large community made up of Americans (however one defines the term) together with Mexicans living, working and getting educated together.

The difference between where we live in the greater Washington area is that we have state boundaries; here they also have an international boundary. Imagine building a wall along the DC/Maryland border. Imagine the chaos, inanity and stupidity of such a thing.

Yes, there is illegal immigration along the border, probably a lot of it. It needs to be minimized. The Border Patrol is trying to do its job. But, it’s abundantly clear there is no room or need for Trump’s wall to be built along this border. All it would do is destroy a community and cripple a viable economy. 

We were in the El Paso / Las Cruces area three days. It was a family visit, not a fact-finding mission. So I can’t pretend to offer more than these simple observations. It didn’t take long, however, for nuances of a cross-border community to become apparent.

I do know that a border wall will not help matters, and that a wall will never be built along this border because the two million people here won’t stand for it. 

I find myself wondering why Las Cruces feels like Takoma Park, despite the obvious differences. There’s the sanctuary aspect, the rich diversity of residents, a strong sense of community, a spirit of openness and welcoming, the heightened awareness of sustainability due to the scarcity of water, and a reverence for the land and its ecology. Maybe also because New Mexico is a “blue” state in a part of the US where there’s not a lot of blue.

Selma 53 Years Later

The term “The Black Belt” has two different meanings in Alabama. One is historical; the other socio/political. But both are important in understanding the possible outcomes of elections in the Deep South. And, as the Deep South goes, so goes control of Congress, as many have said.

Historically and originally, The Black Belt refers to the color and fertility of the soil in a crescent shape area that extends over parts of several southern states. It covers a huge section of the middle of Alabama, that is,18 of the state’s 67 counties. Familiar places like Tuskegee, Selma, Marion, Demopolis, Montgomery (the state capital) and Greenville are there. Except for one county, all these counties are over 40% African-American and most well above 50%. The dirt really is black here.

In the Antebellum era, the Black Belt’s soil produced the best cotton and so plantation owners brought in a huge concentration of slaves to exploit this agricultural advantage. The area boomed economically.

For perhaps obvious reasons The Black Belt obtained its second definition, referring to this concentration of African Americans in this part of Alabama. The 12 most African-American counties lie in this part of the state. The City of Selma’s population is 81% black and it is also cited as the poorest city in Alabama.

CNN and other other media argued that The Black Belt vote made the difference last year in Democrat Doug Jones defeating Republican Roy Moore for the US Senate.

When you see the abject poverty in places like Tuskegee and Selma, and across the countryside, it is impossible to imagine any African American in Alabama ever voting to support a national candidate like Trump and far right candidates, like Roy Moore and and other extremist Republicans for Congress.

I talked to an older gentleman, Mr. Hewitt, who was manning the Selma Visitors Center the day we visited. He moved from Michigan to Selma in the 1960’s and managed a business there. He said back then almost none of the Black people in Selma knew how to read or write. Now most do. This has obvious implications for political involvement and voting. The scale of inequality in living standards between races is stark here. Yet the folks in The Black Belt probably aren’t going anywhere, however. This has been their home for generations.

Donald Trump, by publicly demeaning and insulting African American people and their ancestral countries, has done this part of the Deep South a big favor. These voters helped Doug Jones win. They were able to do so despite Alabama laws requiring photo IDs to register and vote.

The dominance of White supremacy in Alabama is losing its strangling grip. Alabama is 28% Black. With strong liberal enclaves in Montgomery, Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville, things are changing in Alabama.

The Edmund Pettus Bridge spans the Alabama River at the entrance to Selma. Heading west on Route 80 toward Selma the bridge rises steeply, blocking the view of the town on the other side of the river. At the crest you suddenly find yourself looking down into the length of the town’s long, main commercial street lined with antique buildings. It sort of feels like a view from a movie crane.

Edmund Pettus was a Confederate brigadier general and a Grand Dragon of the Alabama KKK. Considering its place in history, the bridge seems a place out of time. It’s notoriety is a powerful reminder of a violent conflict 53 years ago. Yet, at the same time, the current resurrection of White supremacy in our country suggests the name on that bridge and the poverty and inequality in this part of Alabama aren’t going to change anytime soon.

But the times they are a-changing, as the saying goes, and the people who live in The Black Belt are having something to say — perhaps for the first time — about how fast it’s going to change. Their votes truly mattered in the recent Senate race. Having now tasted from the cup of victory, I’m betting they will be ready to vote in big numbers in the upcoming mid-term elections this fall. There may be no going back.

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A Crushing Good-Bye to 110 Years of Healthcare

  By Frederick Schultz

You are probably not likely to meet a finer, more decent, friendly and dedicated group of leaders than the folks who represent the Seventh Day Adventist community in Takoma Park. This is especially the case with Washington Adventist Hospital, based on my many years working with them.

So how do we reconcile this picture with the reality that in January, these same folks plunged a dagger into our hopes and expectations of a future “health village” delivering a range of reliable health services to our residents?

Services that were to be especially targeted to lower income residents in this corner of the Washington region. An area replete with many thousands of immigrants, people with limited mobility and modest incomes. Medical care sustained for 110 years since the hospital’s founding, severing once and for all what seemed like an immutable bond; and discarding years of thoughtful mutual consultations between the City Council and the hospital’s top people. I remind myself that this is where my big sister was born in 1933, and where I have been an inpatient more than once.

You can read here the City’s official press release on this matter: https://takomaparkmd.gov/news/hospital-considers-leaving-fewer-health-facilities-in-takoma-park/

Last month I met with Robert Jepson, Vice President for Business Development for Washington Adventist  Hospital (WAH). He said they expected to file in a week or two with the State of Maryland’s Health Care Commission their formal request to move certain facilities out of Takoma Park. Their removal would effectively vacate the hospital campus. Meanwhile, the hospital, pending State approval, has already begun negotiating the sale of their entire 13-acre campus to Washington Adventist University.

So, how did this happen? Why so suddenly? Perhaps the most important question is what does this mean for the future?

First, to be clear, I do not believe that the hospital leadership negotiated with us (the City) in bad faith. I realize there is lots of room for disagreement on this point, not to mention anger, disgust and disbelief. For one thing, the Mayor, City Council, city staff and attorneys have spent a lot of time and expense fighting for the best deal possible to preserve the Adventist’s health services in our city.

Is the WAH decision a total loss cause? I can’t answer that question. Politics can play a role in these sorts of situations. But, I am assuming for now the hospital’s decision is irreversible.

Second, let’s understand the hospital is fundamentally a business. Notwithstanding its mission statements and piety to the contrary, it has to be profitable in the long run to sustain itself.

Third, hospitals in Maryland operate in a competitive environment fighting to fill beds, to be efficient, and to comply with Maryland regulations governing hospitals, which are unique in the United States, and which obligate all hospitals in Maryland to operate under fixed global budgets. Layer on top of that the political chaos in Congress enflamed by the Trump Administration that generates confusion and uncertainty for insurers, for Medicaid and Medicare programs and for ObamaCare enrollees.  Plus, add another layer of rapidly changing medical technology and science; the role of third party physician practices and imaging services all of whom are trying to make a buck off their affiliations with hospitals, and “big pharma” affecting costs. It gets complicated.

With this as context, here’s my interpretation of what happened. Think of dominos falling.

We know that in December 2015 the MHCC (Maryland Health Care Commission) approved WAH’s Certificate of Need (CON) application with provisos that WAH had to staff and operate a 24-hour walk-in urgent care center and must keep its inpatient behavioral services in place for a minimum of four years.

WAH’s president Erik Wangsness publicly committed to a list of eight medical services that would either remain in situ or be added to the medical campus including its inpatient behavior (psychiatric) services and its physical rehabilitation units. The City argued strenuously to the MHCC to mandate WAH to sustain all of these other medical services in Takoma Park. The MHCC didn’t agree with our position. The loss of that argument in 2015 seems to have been our Achilles Heel in this saga.

The City leadership trusted the hospital’s commitment to maintain a medical campus here. Mr. Wangness’s predecessor as president, Joyce Newmyer,was also wholly committed to this goal through their first CON application, which was denied, and the second CON that was approved. The second CON greatly strengthened WAH’s long-term commitment to and stake in its Takoma Park campus.

According to Mr. Jepson, WAH’s plans for Takoma Park changed in late 2017 when WAH figured out that it could reduce costs and increase revenues by merging its Takoma Park behavioral unit with a similar unit at Shady Grove Hospital. That unit had been losing money. In turn, the relocation of the behavioral health unit led to the realization that maintaining its rehab unit by itself in Takoma Park would no longer be cost effective with regard to security and property maintenance costs. These beds will  therefore likely be moved to the new hospital in White Oak. As the dominos fell, it apparently followed that maintaining the other medical services, including a possible free-standing emergency room made no financial sense at all.

Why it took the hospital more than two years since CON II was approved to figure out these cost saving maneuvers is anybody’s guess.

So what of the future of the campus?

Assuming the MHCC approves WAH’s changed plans, should we say to WAH, in effect, “Good bye and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” Yes, I am dismayed by the hospital’s breach of faith. But maybe we should look at it another way.  We can instead consider this misfortune as an extraordinarily unexpected opportunity to address other serious needs our city has. Like a new MCPS elementary school for our mushrooming school age population (if the School Board is willing); or perhaps a site for a high quality, year-round aquatic center? What about the need for more affordable housing and some small retail amenities? Also, shouldn’t there be something in this for the enhancement of Washington Adventist University? Or perhaps a combination of the above.

13 acres means not only room to preserve and protect woods, green space and the Sligo Creek watershed, but also nine acres for demolition of old buildings and for developing uses the City desperately needs. Imagine, 10 years down the road, maybe we will be adjusted to receiving care at Holy Cross Hospital; having our kids walk to a new public school, the City benefitting from an increased tax base and others of us enjoying new housing and amenities we never imagined. Maybe we can turn misfortune into our lucky day.

Bruce Baker, president of CHEER, probably has more grass-roots familiarity than anyone with the health care needs of our community. I asked him his views.  “We as a community need to think about the best uses, something that will help make us all healthier.” He meant healthier in the broadest sense of the word. He added he “hopes for some sort of process” to be set up to figure this out.

WAH will move into its new building on Plum Orchard Drive in the summer of 2019, says Mr. Jepson. That’s not long. We are already well into planning the move, he added.

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