Feathered Bastard

Tucson Missionary Robert Park, and What Kim Jong-il and Uncle Sam Have in Common

The welcome news that Tucson missionary Robert Park has returned home after being imprisoned for six weeks by the North Korean government has been splattered across the Internet, and rightly so. The 28 year-old crossed over into North Korea from China on Christmas Day to draw attention to what he called the "genocide" via starvation by the North Korean government of its own people.

In a brave, and some would say Quixotic act, Park traversed a frozen river into North Korea with letters demanding that the country's communist dictator Kim Jong-il step down from power and close his nation's concentration camps. Park was arrested by North Korean authorities for entering the country illegally and held for 43 days. Park has yet to speak about his ordeal in captivity, so we don't yet know if he was tortured.

The North Koreans quoted Park making statements about "religious freedom" in that country, but these were likely made under duress.

I was struck by the mention in several reports that Park had done missionary and humanitarian work among the poor in Nogales, Sonora, so he is undoubtedly familiar with the plight of migrants seeking to enter the U.S. illegally, and those who are unceremoniously dumped back over the border by Wackenhut buses under contract with the federal government.

Every day, at the Evo A. Deconcini Federal Courthouse in Tucson, some 70 migrants are given mass trials where they plead guilty to counts of illegal entry into the U.S. If it's their first offense, they often get off with time served, however many days that's been. The second time around, federal magistrates usually hit the migrants with sentences of up to 60 days or more as part of plea deals.

The prosecutions are selective, and the courts -- overwhelmed as they already are -- cannot handle more. Only a small percentage of those collared for illegal entry are tried through the program known as Operation Streamline, which is supposed to have some sort of deterrent effect on those crossing. (Streamline operates in other areas, such as Yuma, and in Texas.) In reality, all Streamline does is further the criminalization of those undocumented migrants unlucky enough to be plucked from the masses nabbed by the Border Patrol.

In 2008, the Tucson group No More Deaths produced a 109 page report on the abuses suffered by migrants, allegedly at the hands of Border Patrol agents. The report documented the routine denial of food and water to detainees, denial of access to medical professionals, inhumane conditions, and the pervasive physical and verbal abuse of migrants in custody.

Some migrants allege they've been sexually assaulted, or beaten with batons. Others say they were forced to walk barefoot, or kicked in the stomach by BPAs.

All things being relative, this situation may not be as bad as detention by North Korean authorities, but it's still pretty obscene for a country like the U.S. that prides itself on the rule of law, and its supposed concern for human and civil rights.

Park was attempting to send a message of conscience to the world. The migrants the Border Patrol take into custody are, largely, economic refugees -- seeking to feed themselves and their families in a foreign land by working their keisters off in low-paying jobs.

Their motives for violating the border policy of the respective nations involved may be vastly different, but both Park and the migrants have this in common: Their incarceration and their unjust treatment. And that means that Kim Jong-il and Uncle Sam have a lot more in common than they might anticipate or desire.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons