Isabel Garcia knows there is work to be done. And from the sound of it, she’s not stopping any time soon. Having been retired nearly five and a half years after spending 22 years as the Pima County Legal Defender, she says the only real difference is now she doesn’t go into the office. But the work is still there, and nothing, not even the occasional threat on her life, seems to be able to stop her.
“I never get afraid of the threats. It’s weird. I’ve been threatened a lot in my life, you know.”
When measured against the work that she does for the migrant community, it’s understandable that she can let these words fall on deaf ears. Her time working in human and civil rights encompasses over forty years of field experience locally, federally, and internationally, and focuses primarily on the brutality that has been wrought on immigrants through the militarization of our southern borders. And here in Arizona, where the conditions were perfect for what she describes as “a mega corridor for goods and products, and obstacles for people,” she says this upward trend in militarization has been coming for a long time. But in the beginning, people didn’t want to hear that.
“When we talked about the militarization of the border, you would not believe how people would almost spit at us.”
The we she is speaking of in this moment includes Guadalupe Castillo, one of the four women who, with Isabel, made up the Manzo Area Council, a group formed in the 70s in the wake of President Linden’s “War on Poverty” movement, and who she affectionately refers to as her political family. (Members also include Margo Cowan and Raquel Rubio Goldsmith.) The group’s original function was simple, assist refugees and immigrants in filling out forms. But after their offices were raided by the US Attorney and Border Patrol marshalls, the group’s trajectory towards radicalization, and to their new title, las Mujeres de Manzo was set into motion.
Isabel’s legal career was in motion as well. Graduating from the University of Arizona College of Law in 1978, she took a Reginald Herbert Smith Lawyer Fellowship placement in Del Rio, Texas. Two years later, she returned to Tucson to spend a year as the Pima County Public Defender, and then the Federal Public Defender for six years before becoming the head of the Pima County Legal Defender’s Office. Even though she didn’t want her civic duty to be her work, she always wanted to be a public defender.
But Isabel knew she was facing a general public with a lack of awareness. So, after the Manzo group disbanded in 1986, she and her colleagues went on to help form Coalición de Derechos Humanos and No More Deaths, both of which work to increase public awareness of the magnitude of human rights abuses, deaths, and assaults at the border resulting from U.S. policy.
“We are one of the few countries that criminalizes migration. On top of the fact that the United States has had the biggest addiction for two things, cheap labor, and drugs. And we criminalize them both for some real purposes. It’s not just accidental. And we can prove it historically how we’ve attracted all these immigrants and continue to do so. And people have no idea.”
It’s understandable why this work weighs so heavily on Isabel. Much of what she has done with Coalición de Derechos Humanos centers around the casualties of our border policy, recording the number of bodies recovered and attempting to identify these people. This month marks the 20th anniversary of the Coalición de Derechos Humanos first Community Vigil at El Tiradito Shrine, to honor the more than three thousand men, women, and children who died and/or disappeared in their journey across the US-Mexican Border in that time. First held weekly, vigils are now the first Thursday of every month. Why does Isabel do it?
“First of all, to say, we remember you. Then to bear witness also to our society to say, don’t think we’re not mirroring what we’re doing here. Don’t try to act out of sight out of mind, right? We are doing this. And thirdly, we said, you know, we’ll be here until the deaths stop.”
Isabel admits it is difficult not to be pessimistic at times, but this next generation, the Dreamers as she calls them, give her hope. “I called them all the Dreamers and it’s a whole generation, I’m just using a broad term, but Lina Hidalgo, for instance, in Harris County, she single-handedly set up what we want to do here in Pima County.” She is referring to the recent creation of an immigrant legal defense fund in Harris County, Texas, by Judge Lina Hidalgo.
“I love the young people. They’re incredible. I mean, I’m telling you it’s electrifying just to hear them and see them because our political class really was such a failure. And the Dreamers have lived the injustice. So that’s what gives me hope, these young people that make us not look so radical anymore.”