The Long Wait for Spring

Three weeks ago I spoke with a woman via my computer.

She was Haitian, with a name so sprinkled with vowels that it sounded to me like a springtime melody.


This was November, though, and Guernais had been in a Mexican border town named Reynosa since way before last spring. She had travelled a very long way to get to Reynosa. From her home in Haiti (burned down by the local gang), to Columbia, on foot up through the deadly Darien Gap, and up through Central America and Mexico.  

She was alone, living on a sidewalk under some sort of plastic tarp rigged up like a lean-to. Guernais was 8 months pregnant, hungry, thirsty, and scared that something might happen to her and her unborn child in this, one of the most dangerous cities in the entire world.

Her daily affirmation of that fear came with the strangers with guns or knives or just nasty attitudes who passed by on the sidewalk and laughed at her.

She told me this when I asked her if she could give me an example of the racism she said she experienced in Reynosa.

“They called me a black, ugly woman and would spit on me…I am black and I am a beautiful woman. But they spit on me anyway.”

This question was part of her application for the kind of administrative relief that would allow her to cross into the United States. She would then live with a sponsor while her application for asylum was processed by the US government.

I am living in Washington DC, far from that border space. I know Reynosa and the Texas/Mexico border, though, having lived there for many, many years. Reynosa is a place of horrors for migrants. Simply that. Horrors.

The woman with the April-like descant for a name had come to this border to apply for political asylum. She intended to live with her aunt while the US government attended to her immigration case. US  government officials, however, had bent over backwards to keep migrants like her out of the country. Under the previous administration, the US pulled off a political stunt with the application of “Title 42”, a public health rule that can be invoked to protect the American people from contagious disease. Under Title 42, migrants who showed up at a bridge to request asylum were turned back immediately. Many of those migrants would swim the river and turn themselves into the border patrol. The agents would ignore their requests for asylum, load them up into their trucks and drive them to one of the bridges between the US and Mexico, leaving them to their fate.

There were some exceptions to the rule, amongst them, like Guernais, women who were far along in a pregnancy. But the migrant needed someone to interview them, someone to explain how this process worked, and take down their information: name, name of their sponsor, and what was the situation that might merit them a more human response than the brutal “No!” of Title 42.

There also needs to be another individual to review the interview notes, confirm the basic facts of the case with the migrant, and be sure that they understood that this was a request for an exceptional permission to enter the US, and travel to the home of the person who would care for them while they pursued an asylum claim.

In the case of Guernais, I was that person.

Through the grace of God and the hard work of so many people, especially a fellow who has figured out a way to get these requests considered by US government officials, Guernais got permission to enter the country. She would live with her aunt in some town in Florida, one more poor person in the US, one more person who brings to her new community all the gifts that an individual with the grit and courage to migrate carries with them.

In a few weeks the application of Title 42 to these migrants will be halted. The normal flow of asylum applicants will begin again. There will be many asylum seekers, a reflection not of a US failure to control our borders as much as a living commentary on the failed states to the south of the United States (with so much of that failure due to US interventions as well as the plundering of the countries by international business interests).

It seems that many of these asylum seekers will not enjoy the relatively good luck of Guernais. The minutes from a private prison corporation’s recent shareholders’ meeting demonstrated a profiteer’s delight at the removal of Title 42. “We are back in business,” a company leader noted to the stockholders.

Indeed. The policy of holding asylum seekers (who are not criminals) in private prisons while they await the outcome of their applications is a tried-and-true money maker.  The prisons’ care for those placed in their institutions is a well-documented abominable form of abuse. In most cases, asylum applicants (repeating, who are not criminals) are held in isolated institutions, far from those few immigration attorneys who would work for them pro-bono or low-bono. The failure of the United States to create a just, accountable immigration process has created an enormous backlog of asylum cases. People can literally spend years in prison after asking for our nation to save their lives.

The institutionalization of a system in which people searching to make a buck are allowed to manage the detention of desperate people trying to escape misery creates a self-perpetuating evil loop of a Biblical sort.

It puts off, indefinitely, the springtime of hope for these people.

Guernais sent me a final text the other day. She was with her aunt, she was safe. She was due to give birth any day now.

She told me that she would name her child for me.

I thanked her as profusely as I could in a text message, and told her that there was no need for that. She texted back, in a Creole that I had to have translated, “It is a very small way for me to express my gratitude and my relief. God bless you.”

Guernais is settling into her new community, looking forward to spending a first spring with her new born.

God bless, indeed.


No Sanctuary Here

June 22, 2022

Many years ago I spent a long afternoon with a Jesuit priest on an isolated road in the mountains of the state of Chihuahua in Mexico. We had been traveling from one mission to another when we came upon a battered pickup truck pulled off to the side of the road. A man and a woman of the Tarahumara nation were disconsolately leaning up against the truck, the rear tire shredded to pieces.

The priest, Javier Campos, spoke with the man, and learned that the truck’s spare tire was flat and that he did not have a pump.

Fr. Campos reached into the cab of his own truck and pulled out a bicycle pump. This pump however, turned out to be broken. Undeterred, cheerfully, the priest pulled the pump apart, laying out the pieces on his pickup’s tailgate. After figuring out that the pump’s gaskets were no good, he managed to fashion together a fix, using some rubber bands, and, I think, a good bit of spit.

He put the pump back together, and then invited the Tarahumara fellow to use it to fill up the spare tire. The spare was pumped up, and the couple slowly drove off.

Fr. Campos waved goodbye as they left, and then remarked to me, “That was a very good deed. If they were still here after dark, they would have been at the mercy of the local cartel. And those guys have no mercy.”

We continued on our own way; he had Queen playing in the truck’s CD, whose tunes he accompanied with a pretty good voice.

This past Monday, a member of the local Sinaloa cartel shot to death Fr. Campos, and his Jesuit companion, Father Joaquín César Mora Salazar. A man attempting to escape an assassination attempt had sought refuge in the Jesuits’ parish church in the small town of Cerocauhi in the mountains of Chihuahua. The two priests confronted the murderer, and then died on the floor of their church.

Both of the priests had worked for nearly thirty years in the high sierra. They served the Tarahumara humbly, well aware that the church had nearly destroyed the tribe in the years following the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

When Fr. Campos first came to the region, it was simply hard work: the Tarahumara are amongst the poorest and most isolated of Mexicans. The villagers followed the seasons—moving up the high ridges in the hot summers and down to deep valleys during the winter cold. The church leaders had to cover a lot of territory just to keep up with the parishioners.  In the rugged terrain there was not much margin for mistakes. A broken bicycle pump, for instance, could be a big deal.

But they managed in their own way, setting up medical clinics and schools, offering the social services that a proper government would provide and modeling a church along the perspectives provided by a Latin American Liberation Theology.

Javier and his companions learned to speak Tarahumara and worked to appreciate and respect the Tarahumara ways. To their credit, they always felt that they fell short in that regard. “There is too much beauty in these people for our poor culture to appreciate,” remarked Javier once upon a time.

Over time, as Americans’ appetites for cocaine and opiates grew, and as more and more guns arrived from the United States, drug cartels expanded their operations in the region, its isolation ideal for growing poppies, for producing opioids, for processing and setting up cocaine to be shipped across a border that was just a day’s journey a way.

There was and is no mercy. The brutality, the bloodshed, and the lawlessness have gone unaddressed by governments with no particular political interest in indigenous peoples.

The Jesuits, in commenting on the deaths of their colleagues, noted that the priests were just two more of many, many innocents who have suffered death as part of the price of this version of North American free trade, “…sin que su sufrimiento suscite empatía y atención pública,” (“their suffering failing to arouse either empathy or attention from the public”).

“Que descansen en paz” (“may they rest in peace”) will be the prayer of the many people who loved and respected these men.

For my part, I imagine God’s long sigh travelling the length and the breadth of those canyons, a sigh perhaps of exasperation but certainly not the one of peace.

“Help my child”

On Sunday afternoons I interview asylum seekers who are living in Reynosa, Mexico, a city across from McAllen, Texas, and one of the most dangerous places in the world. I am helping a team of attorneys move the asylum seekers along a tortuous legal path to their rightful asylum hearing in the United States.

The stories have an astonishing amount of trauma. This is amplified when the person is from Haiti, and I must depend upon a translator. I understand pieces of the Haitian Creole–the words for “rape” and “assault” and “assassination.” The horrors of those experiences are then amplified in the retelling of the testimony in Spanish (“violación” “asalto” asesinato”). Which, for a third time I am allowed to consider as I render them into English for the report.

What does not make it on paper are the quiet sobs of the 18-year-old who was raped by three men as they made their way through the infamous Darién Gap between Columbia and Panama. Nor the quiet rage of the man whose wife was raped in front of him and his eight year old daughter over the course of a month in a warehouse on the banks of the Rio Grande. Or the desperation in the voice of the mother of an eight year old whose asthma throttles her child, a woman who concludes her testimony with a guttural “please help my child.”

At the same time, it is also hard to capture the powerful hope that permeates the group that has gathered to be interviewed. There is a Honduran physician (also an asylum seeker) working with the translator, a Haitian who speaks four languages with aplomb and a Mexican saint, Lulu, who brings them all together in her small social service center, Casa Lulu. They, too, are clear in their outrage even as they dispense generous amounts of encouragement, of quiet hospitality and simple goodness.

The nearly 1,500 Haitians living in the tenement buildings just across from Casa Lulu have become the focus of much concern over the past weeks. The Haitians have found some solace in living together as a community; this unfortunately has made them an easy target for organized crime in the area, which in turn makes it difficult to find a way to support their families. Somehow many of them manage to make enough to pay the rent, but will have a tough time providing adequate food and even less luck buying medications.

This would be heartbreaking if there were only adults suffering, but the most vulnerable are the many children enduring this daily Calvary.

The Angry Tias and Abuelas would like to provide $2000 per month to keep Casa Lulu’s cupboards full of bandages, remedies for stomach ailments, first aid wound supplies, and over the counter treatments for children and adults suffering from fever, and other ailments. We are also planning to offer each family a monthly bag of oil, beans, rice, powdered milk, salt, pasta and other basics food stuffs.

If you would like to help these children, you can send donations to the Angry Tias and Abuelas Donation page The funds go directly to food and medications; there are no administrative costs.

Any questions you might have can be directed to Jennifer Harbury of the Angry Tias. She should be texted at 512 751 5852. Please put “Mike Seifert” at the beginning of the message to help her prioritize her many calls.

Thank you for your compassion.


Office of Ayudandoles a Triunfar

It takes no time at all to go from a Whataburger fast food restaurant in Brownsville, Texas to an office serving asylum-seeking individuals in Matamoros, Mexico.

The trip requires sticking a dollar’s worth of quarters into a turnstile, a few minutes crossing the bridge over the Rio Grande, and then walking a couple of blocks to the small storefront office of the Mexican-based non-profit called Ayudándoles a Triunfar.

The move from the space of being able to order a hamburger “just the way you like it” to the one of sharing the desperate frustration of people seeking asylum at our southern border is head spinning.

When I went there last week, there were four women and an eleven-year old girl sitting in the office. They were asylum seekers who had offered to volunteer with the non-profit organization.

Me, the white man from America and his niece on a visit from up north, sat dutifully masked, and awkwardly social with the women who were from the Mexican state of Guerrero. The Mexicans had left their homes three months ago, driven away by a violence belonging to its own circle of organized-crime hell.

The women were now in the painful limbo of being asylum seekers stuck between the rock of an American administration that is unwilling to take the right (and legal) decisions on behalf of asylum seekers, and the hard place that is the home that the women do not expect to survive in.

The conversation was broken up by translation, a stumbling over hard to capture turns of meaning, and the small jokes that cover the shared embarrassment of the situation.

I asked what had happened that had made the women decide to leave their homes.

One mother said, “I took my girl and left when some men told me that they were going to buy her. She is only eight years old.”

“Now,” she continued, “I am stuck here because the Americans won’t let me make a case for asylum. They say I will give them the COVID, even though I am vaccinated the two times. I am afraid that I can’t protect her in Matamoros.”

Another woman sighed and said, “Our story isn’t as horrible, but still, we can’t live in my old town. These men showed up at our small ranch and killed our animals and moved into our house.  They assured us that we would be killed if we stuck around. What could we do? But we can’t just stay in Matamoros. And I want my girl to be in school and to have friends. Here she has to hide out in the room we rent. I am not a very good mother.”

Her girl sidled up to her mom and took her hand.

The women then spoke of their frustrated hopes. They told us that they had family in Utah, in North Carolina, and in Los Angeles, where there was a cousin, an aunt, or a husband waiting to welcome them home.

“But we are far, far away from our families. We can’t go back to Guerrero; we will be killed. And we can’t go into the United States either. So we just wait here, afraid. And sometimes we think about going ahead and trying our luck, of swimming the river.”

The director of the office reminded the asylum seekers of the dangers and difficulties of that course of action.

“Even if the cartel members leave you alone,” she said, “The American border patrol will still just sweep you and send you back here. Try to have a little more patience, maybe the Americans will change their hearts.”

But Mexican border cities are crazy places for asylum seekers to practice patience. The area is so tightly controlled by organized crime that it is nearly impossible not to be picked out as an outsider and therefore, judged easy pickings.

The thousands of rapes, kidnappings, and assaults upon asylum seekers in Mexican border towns just over the past year is proof of their vulnerable state.

When I asked if they had known anyone who had had that kind of trouble in Matamoros, the four women became quiet. They studied the floor as the silence drew on.

After a few moments, I turned to the eleven-year-old girl and asked what she wanted to do with her life. She took a few long moments, apparently considering her options. She looked up and said, “I would like to be a lawyer.”

I asked her if she was good at arguing and she glanced at her mother. The mother smiled  and said, simply “Oh yes she is good at that.”

We all considered the young woman sitting in our midst and the future that could be hers.

The heavy moment was interrupted by a knock at the door. A thin man poked his head into the office and in Portuguese asked if someone could help him, that he had a nail in his foot. His story was lost after that opening statement, as while he had three languages, he did not have our English or Spanish. A volunteer whipped out her phone, and there was a flutter of moving between Spanish and Portuguese and then English and Haitian Creole.

With more or less a sense of what was needed (he had been injured some weeks before and was afraid that the wound was infected), two of the women offered to walk him over to a nearby clinic.

After they left, the director walked us outside and we made ready to head back into the United States. She thanked us for coming and I told her I was sorry that we could not be of more help.

Squinting into the sun, she looked at me and said, “Some times it is good to repeat and repeat the story, it is a way of showing respect to our hope and that can only be a good thing.”

“But,” she concluded, “it would be nice not to have to hope so very much.”

I Lost a Boy

September 7 2021

I got an email this past weekend asking for help in finding a boy who had been lost. His parents think that he died, but they aren’t sure of that. The fellow who reached out to me is a good man trying to do what he could to find somebody lost somewhere between the Rio Grande Valley and Houston.

The email request reminded me of the time that I lost a boy.

His name was Lorenzo. Six years after I lost him, he is still missing. Lorenzo slipped out of my reach because I was naïve, and distracted. The attorney I was working with at the time was overworked. And the US government was hell-bent on disappearing this seventeen-just-turned-eighteen year old boy to a city he had never known, a thousand miles from the tiny town he had grown up in and with no way to reach his mom or aunt to let them know that he was, at least at that moment, alive.

I worried about Lorenzo because in the short time that I had known him, I had found him naïve and vulnerable. He was of the Tarahumara people from the Mexican state of Chihuahua. He spoke very little Spanish and he had no experience of cities.

I did manage to find out that government agents had deported the boy to Matamoros, the city across from Brownsville, Texas, and a regional capitol of organized criminal activity. Lorenzo would have been a sitting duck for the people that work that angle of life along a border.

His story is long and complicated and hard. Cartel members had kidnapped him shortly after they had murdered his father. The gang had machine-gunned Lorenzo’s dad while stealing the families’ five head of cattle. The murderers then forced Lorenzo to carry a load of marijuana across the border into west Texas. The border patrol soon caught the boy, and, as he was seventeen at the time, they placed him into a government-sponsored shelter for children.

I had met Lorenzo while working as a volunteer. Over the course of several visits, I learned that Lorenzo was not interested in staying in the United States. All he wanted, he told me over and again, was to find his mother and let her know that he was safe and that he would head home as soon as he could.

This was not a simple thing to do, as his mother had fled her village after the violence inflicted on her family. She had no cell phone and he had no idea where she might have gone. Our little team helping Lorenzo had reached out to the Mexican welfare groups and to the Mexican consulate, pleading the case of this boy.

We were also trying to get Lorenzo a sponsor family, an urgent task as he had been fast approaching his 18th birthday, at which time he would be moved from the children’s shelter to the adult detention center, something which would complicate his situation, as he could be quickly deported, perhaps before he was able to get in touch with his family.

During one visit, I had set out trying to understand if he could apply for a type of immigration relief given to trafficking victims.

I had asked Lorenzo, “So when the men gave you the marijuana to carry, did you push back at all?”

The boy who had seen the bullet-ridden body of his father looked at me and said, “They had very large guns.”

That was our last conversation. A day or so later, Lorenzo turned eighteen. At the time, the staff at the shelter typically gave the kids a birthday cake.

“It is a very strange thing to celebrate eighteen year old birthdays in here,” one of the staff told me, “The boy is turning eighteen, we sit them at the table, we sing “Happy Birthday” and then, sometimes, our little fiesta is interrupted by the sound of the agents clanging their guns into the safe box at the front of the shelter. There is nothing like that sound. There is nothing like that sound on a kid’s birthday. It means that they are going to jail.”

I don’t know if Lorenzo had time to eat his slice of cake on his birthday, but I do know that at noon on that day, immigration enforcement agents went to the shelter and took him into custody.

While I had had a some promising leads on a group that thought that they may have found Lorenzo’s mom, I had gotten distracted with other things and didn’t reach out to him immediately, assuming that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would hold him for a few days. When I did call the prison, the phone operator told me that there was no such person in their custody.

Lorenzo was gone. He had been deported. The boy would have been walked across the International Bridge in Brownsville, probably with fifty or so other immigrants, penniless, friendless and lost. Perhaps someone took pity on him, and took him in; more than likely a gang grabbed him and put him back to work smuggling.

What breaks my heart is wondering how his mother must have felt—a recently murdered husband, a kidnapped son, and then, the horrifying silence of a disappeared loved one.

What shatters my heart is knowing that just a few days after he was deported, a Mexican welfare agency contacted us to let us know that they had found Lorenzo’s mom.

Soon after we had lost his son.

Civilized in Texas

The young man’s name was Juan. He was seated across from me in the airport terminal in Harlingen,Texas.

Harlingen is a city in the Rio Grande Valley, along the Texas southern border. Once upon a time, Ronald Reagan stoked the national fear for those living on the other side of our southern border by noting that Harlingen was “just two days’ driving time” from Managua, Nicaragua.

This, like most everything believed about the southern border, was a wild exaggeration. But the idea of Managua as “a privileged sanctuary for terrorists and subversives” who were just a road trip way from the United States managed to scare a large part of the American public willy-nilly and enormously helped the US sponsored terrorism in Nicaragua known as the contra war.

I knew Juan’s name because it was printed in large font on the front of a brown envelope. Recently released asylum seekers carry these envelopes like a shield of protection—the envelope contains the papers that certify their legal presence in the United States.

Juan was thin, and from the ready smile he offered anyone who glanced his way, seemed to feel very much alone.

An older, kindly looking woman was sitting next to him. She leaned over to him and said “Hello.”

“Hello,” Juan responded.

She asked him in English if he was o.k. To which question Juan simply smiled. The woman then got up from her seat, went over to the small airport shop and bought a bottle of water. She came back to her seat and offered it to him, which he accepted, with a slight bow of his head.

After a bit, I also greeted him, and asked him where he was from.

“A place called Huehuetenango in Guatemala,” he said.

“Ah,” I said, “I have been there. It is a beautiful place. In the mountains, and nice and cool.”

A little later, I asked him where he was headed. He told me, “A city called Georgia.”

“Georgia is beautiful,” I said, “Although a little warmer than your home town.”

“Are you going to be with a family member?” I asked him, and he told me that he was going to live with his uncle, who had been in Georgia for eighteen years.

“That is great,” I said, “So helpful to be with someone who knows the area.”

I asked him what his uncle did for a living and Juan told me that he installed roofing. I thought for a while about this skinny kid from the cool highland climes of Guatemala and what kind of damage the Georgia sun did to roofers.

We travelled together to Houston, where I helped him find his departure gate. I bought him a hamburger, gave him a card with a phone number that he could call, should he ever need any help, and wished him well.

This simple, pleasant encounter between travelers cost me $6.45 (the hamburger) and a few minutes of my time. I think Juan felt welcomed, and I was glad to share a meal with someone who was hungry.

My time with Juan was on my mind when, about a week later, Texas Governor Greg Abbott declared that the state was being invaded by illegal aliens. Abbott announced that he was going to build a Texas border wall, that anyone coming into the state from Mexico would be arrested, charged with trespassing and jailed.

Abbott subsequently emptied out a Texas prison in preparation for these mass incarcerations. The Governor also commanded units of the Texas Department of Public Safety to patrol the Rio Grande Valley and arrest anyone they judged to be illegal. Unwilling to leave children out of this spew of hatred, Abbott set into motion a plan to remove state child welfare licenses from places that take care of children who cross alone into the United States.

The governor doubled down on this unpleasantness and committed $250 million of state monies to his wall project, not to mention the millions that he was costing the state by clearing a prison and assigning state troopers to the job of enforcing federal law (the state already spends more than $400 million a year on state troopers securing the border).

He announced all of this at a press conference held near the border. The governor seemed thrilled at his  idea of saving Texas from people like Juan by building a wall, pulling children out of facilities contracted by Health and Human Services, and jailing people for “trespassing into Texas.”

This is all “hot air” (as the ACLU of Texas’ David Donatti put it), and has nothing at all to do with securing the border or protecting Texans, and everything to do with Abbott’s political fortunes. The shamelessness of this kind of posturing by someone running for office is no longer surprising, although I remained puzzled at the naiveté of my fellow voters.

After all, the border is secure. It really is. There are indeed a lot of people crossing the river, but they are picked up by the border patrol and sent back across the river (illegally, but that is a story for another day). I have met hundreds of migrants and each encounter has been a lesson in goodness, in hope, and in graciousness. I have no worries about migrants, and, I believe neither should any other Texan.

Migrants, of course, should worry about the Texans who might inhale some of the governor’s hot air and buy into building walls, punishing children, and filling a state prison with innocent asylum seekers.

On the other hand, there are those Texans who would bother to greet people like Juan, offer him a drink of water, or a hamburger. “Civilized”, I believe, is the term for those kinds of people.

The little bit of that decency that I enjoy was given to me by, among others, my dad, who encouraged me to never be afraid to respond to another person’s need and who to this day goes out of his way to make friends with strangers.

I like that political platform. Thanks, dad.

Foot Washing

Many years ago, while serving as a Catholic priest, I was invited to celebrate Holy Week with some men who were being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Port Isabel Processing Center, located outside of Brownsville, Texas.

When I asked the men which way they would like to pray, one of them asked if we could do “that feet-washing prayer.” The feet-washing prayer comes from the Holy Thursday liturgy in which, following the Gospel of John’s narrative of the last supper, the church reenacts Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet. The community is reminded, in this way, of Jesus’ remonstration that no one is above the obligation to care for each other, however humble that service might be, and whomever it is that is in need of that care.

That was the prayer service these men wanted during that particular Holy Week. And so, on that morning in the midst of a federal prison, we managed to round up a bucket, some warm water, soap and a couple of towels. The men—there were about thirty of them—removed the flipflops the government had given them, and became quiet.

I knelt on the floor. I took the first man’s feet into my hands. I rinsed them, soaped them, rinsed them again, and dried them. I moved onto the next man, and then the one after that. I remember the distinctiveness of their feet—some were swollen, some were thin. They were all calloused and scarred, however, and one fellow still had bandages from the cuts he had gotten from the cacti that lined the trail that he had been following through the desert before he was caught.

I remember being profoundly moved by the intimacy of the moment, of having held in my hands feet which were maps of the journeys these men had suffered. I also recall being struck by the irony of it all. In that prison, on that morning, we had ritually recalled a moment when the social tables were turned, the honored guest acting as a servant during his last meal with his friends. Just a few hours after that meal, this innocent guest would be hauled up the Calvary Hill and then executed as a capital criminal, all of this in order to keep some sort of political peace.

The foot washing took about an hour. We finished with a benediction, a prayer and a hymn. One of the men came up to me and quietly thanked me for the service. “In this place, it is rare that I feel like I am treated as a human being. Today, though, I did feel that.”

We went our separate ways: the men back to their prison pods, and me into the freedom beyond the prison gates.

In that ICE detention center, on that morning, there were no tables turned. The men may have enjoyed a bit of spiritual solace, but nothing really changed. Most of them, indeed, would be sent back to the violent mess of their own cavalries, to the misery that had set them on their journey north to begin with. Their similarity to the plight of Jesus was keen, as the only reason that they were in this prison had everything to do with keeping political peace and next to nothing to do with any actual threats to our social order that these men could have posed.

The latest alarm in the national news is all about the threat to our social order that the children coming to our southern border represent.

The arrival of Republican senators and their usual boat ride along the Rio Grande (replete with 50 caliber machine guns) fulfilled my cynical expectation of politicians lining up for an easy photo opportunity that requires no sensible much less humane response to the actual moment at hand.

These news stories and the frantic responses by elected officials are peaking, however, during these weeks’ celebrations of Passover and Holy Week. I was reminded again of Biblical foot-washing and of Passover meals as a number of faith leaders from across the nation reached out over the past week to migrant advocates along the border. They quite simply, and generously, asked, “how might we help?” One pastor told me, “We can absolutely take care of these children, however many there are. I mean, this nation can come up with the resources to build aircraft carriers; children are much easier that that. What a great moment to be church!”

One group wants to send the families immediately back into danger; the other group wants to take care of them.

Thus as Senator Ted Cruz, cruising the Rio Grande in a Border Patrol boat, portrays the children as threats to national security, Methodist pastors from North Carolina, see the migrants as families in need of some warm clothing. Once again, the biblical obligation for hospitality runs up against the politician’s wish to terrorize constituents. This is not a fair fight, as most of the time fear and complacency trump courage. It is though, a just, proper and holy struggle, with the lives and well-being of innocent men and women and children in the balance.

Blessed Holy Week, chag pesach sameach.


Twenty-five years ago I got a call from someone asking if a young woman could stay at our parish rectory. “Meribel has suffered horrific abuse, someone who wants to kill her has tracked her to the Rio Grande Valley, and our group cannot find a safe place for her.”

Meribel in her new home

Meribel moved into our guest room. Each day that she was with us, she would arise before dawn. I remember passing the guestroom door (which she left open) and seeing her kneeling in prayer. In our daily interactions, I had kept in mind that she must have had demons that had taken up residence in her heart and soul. For all of her troubles, she was gracious and kind, but clearly suffering.

Fortunately, at that time, several places of refuge had been set up for survivors of torture, places where they could rest from their demons, and, perhaps, over time, exorcise them. Meribel went to one of these places in Ohio, where she met another survivor of torture, Sister Diana Ortiz.

Surrounded by friends, Sr. Diana Ortiz quietly died this past Friday, after suffering with cancer. “Peaceful” was the word used to describe her death. In the context of her life, this was a well-deserved way to pass away.

Sr. Diana was a kindergarten teacher working in Guatemala. In the words of the Washington Post’s obituary, “on Nov. 2, 1989, assailants Sister Ortiz identified as Guatemalan security forces abducted her from a convent retreat-house garden in Antigua and drove her to a detention center in Guatemala City.

Targeted for working with the Indigenous community — which the military had long brutalized for presumed left-wing sympathies — she said she was blindfolded and raped by three captors.

They burned her with cigarettes as they demanded names of Indigenous subversives, she said; a doctor who later examined her counted 111 burn marks. She was lowered into a pit with rats and decomposing bodies and later forced to dismember another captive with a machete. She was told the killing was photographed and videotaped, to be used as blackmail if Sister Ortiz attempted to seek redress. About a day into her imprisonment, a fourth man, called Alejandro but whose accented Spanish led her to believe that he was American, entered the torture chambers and ordered the others to stop. He said Sister Ortiz’s disappearance was making headlines in the local and American media.”

While being driven to another site, Sr. Diana escaped her captors, and made her way back to the United States. For the next thirty years, Sr. Diana dedicated her life to exposing the United States’ involvement in the terror wreaked upon indigenous people in Guatemala. She was publically ridiculed by some of the highest authorities in the State Department, routinely threatened by the CIA, and dismissed by the public as someone not quite right in her head. In spite of these troubles, she also offered important leadership in efforts to bring some level of peace to her companions who had suffered torture.

Over the next coming weeks, asylum seekers who have been remanded to the Migrant Protection Program (and many of them tortured while in that program) will begin to be released into the United States. These people face demanding challenges: aside from the burdens of the personal trauma they bring with them from their home countries, they will need to navigate the difficulties of beginning a new life in a strange place, during a pandemic, and in a nation that has told over the past four years that they are criminals and fraudsters.

The new administration, however, has publically committed itself to undoing the harms of the previous president. This new government could exercise generous compassion, and, more importantly, apply the basic concepts of justice to those seeking asylum.

In the meantime—in this moment—the life and death of our sister Diana Ortiz invites us to acknowledge that there are demons at work in our midst, and that many of them share our national identity.

Her life invites us as well to take courage from those who refuse to be silenced about the horrors that these people have wreaked upon the lives of others. She inspires us to live lives in which we welcome the stranger, however needy, into the sanctuary of our own homes.


Last Saturday, a man from El Salvador stood with his 4-year-old son on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. Just across the way, a scant one hundred yards, was Brownsville, Texas, and the promise of safety. He was considering swimming the river with his child, anxious to escape the misery and the dangers of Matamoros, something that he and his little boy had endured for more than a year. The family had been placed into the misery of Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, was trapped in the violence of northern Mexico, and was at the point of hopelessness.

I had spent some time with this father, and I knew that he missed his wife and his daughter, that he was unnerved by the massacre of nineteen migrants just weeks before by Mexican police officers, and that he was desperate.

But he also knew that the river posed an immediate danger. Like this father, everyone who had been placed in MPP would remember the day that another young father and his two-year daughter, frantically seeking safety, had drowned trying to swim across the river.

However, on that warm afternoon last week,  this father took his boy by the hand and at last turned away from the immediate dangers of the river to face, once again, the dangers of living as a migrant in northern Mexico.

Thank goodness he had held back. Just a few days later the Biden administration announced that the most vulnerable people in the MPP would soon begin to be admitted into the United States—those waiting in Tijuana, those waiting in Ciudad Juarez, and those waiting in Matamoros.

The weirdly named “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP) was implemented in January of 2019. In simplest terms, people seeking asylum and crossing into the U.S. from Mexico would be returned to Mexico, where they would end up waiting for more than a year for an opportunity to have their cases heard by an American official. The Migrant Protection Protocol offered no protection to any migrant as these people are forced to live in northern Mexico, in places where the rules and protections of law has effectively ended.

Ending MPP was one of President Biden’s campaign promises. Dr. Jill Biden had personally visited the misery of a camp in Matamoros set up for migrants in MPP. Soon after the inauguration, hundreds of advocates from across the nation began to pressure the administration to make good on this promise.

With the announcement of the rollback of MPP, hospitality teams all along the border have started their own planning. Locally, groups have initiated fundraising and the organization of their volunteers (in the time of COVID). They anticipate welcoming those released from MPP at local bus stations, and sending them on their way with a basic orientation (“when you get to Houston, you will change buses—and it will be a four hour wait. But you are safe, and you are on your way!”), a backpack of travel supplies, and a hearty “welcome!” (If you would like to support these efforts, please visit the Angry Tias website. You can directly donate by going here).

I am concerned about other people who seek asylum and who are not in the MPP (non-Spanish speakers are not in this program). A friend tells me that there are many Haitians and Africans stranded in Reynosa, a particularly violent city just south of McAllen. I worry that many of them, excluded from this offer of protection, will be driven to desperate, dangerous and unnecessary attempts to seek refuge.

This uneasiness is tempered by the hope that this new administration, and we as a nation and a people will once again be a place where those in need can seek freedom, safety, and protection from persecution. President Biden will have to be reminded, over and again, of this promise. There are millions of us who believe in that vision. Let the healing and the welcome begin with each of us in every corner of this nation.

I am relieved that the father and his four year old did not choose to swim the river. I do hope that their journey to their loved ones is without incident. I carry that hope proudly.

Community for Children

December 21, 2020

Dear friends, known, and yet to be known,

I hope this letter finds you and your loved ones safe and well.  No doubt you all have continued to advocate for and take care of those in need in your own communities during these extraordinary times.  Knowing you share our passion for the well-being of all children, we wanted to provide you with an update on our advocacy work on the Texas/Mexico border, our goals for the future, and to ask for your help.  

You have seen the news about asylum-seeking families’ plight and many of you witnessed it first-hand at the border.  Much of the medical effort at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, was supported by a non-profit we started in 2015, Community for Children, Inc.  Community for Children, Inc., board members have responded in multiple ways over the last five years:

  • Organizing medical volunteers like you to provide acute care at the Humanitarian Respite Center
  • Raising funds to hire full-time medical staff at the Humanitarian Respite Center
  • Providing over-the-counter medications through funds supplied by the AAP and CforC
  • Purchasing prescription medications and durable medical equipment for the immigrant families on the border
  • Soliciting funds to support midwifery support for the pregnant mothers arriving
  • Creating a partnership with Stanford, Texas Children’s Hospital and Migrant Clinician Network to develop the first national network of clinics and academic medical centers to connect pregnant mothers and children with chronic medical conditions to medical care in their destination communities.
  • Offering referral services for vulnerable pregnant woman and children to other shelters along the border, including the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, La Posada Providencia in San Benito, Annunciation House in El Paso, The Holding Institute in Laredo, and Loaves and Fishes in Harlingen.   

For 2021, our goal is to raise funds to:

  • Fully fund the salaries of certified midwives to provide medical triage and anticipatory guidance to all prenatal and postnatal immigrant mothers.
  • Continue provision of prescription medications, over-the counter medications, supplies, and durable medical equipment for immigrant families.
  • Advocate for human rights and the humane treatment of immigrant children and families through education and outreach to communities and policymakers.
  • Expand our efforts to other immigrant shelters along the entire southern border from Brownsville to San Diego.

You can help us by:  

  • Advocating for all children and families in your community and in this country.
  • Educating friends, colleagues, and family about the work you did on the border and the work currently being done through Community for Children, Inc.

I treasure all of you who were able to come to the border and recognize the precious time and effort it took to get down here.  I am forever grateful that you joined us on the journey.  Many of you have written emails and letters expressing deep concern for the families and sent donations.  There is absolutely no way we could have cared for these families without you.  A million thanks!  Please stay safe and let me know how you are doing. I would love to hear from you.  

With much love and respect from the entire Community for Children, Inc. Board of Directors:

Dr. Marsha Griffin, President – (956)832-8255;

Dr. Minnette Son, Vice President – (210)326-1280;

Dr. Stan Fisch, Treasurer – (956)345-7954;

Dr. Judith Livingston, Secretary – (512)288-6522;   

Warmest regards,