Solidarity

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Photo by Melba Lucio, teacher.

A year ago, in the aftermath of the release of the audio tape of the anguished cries of children separated from their parents and being held in border patrol custody, thousands of people from across the country called the offices of nongovernmental organizations on the border to offer all manner of help to the people caught up in the war on immigrants.

I received a voicemail at that time from a woman from out-of-state, asking for help in locating an immigrant who was in a shelter in Reynosa, Mexico (Reynosa is just across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas). She told me that she was worried about him, as “he has come from Honduras and through Mexico on his bicycle…I want to help him.”

I thought of that phone call over the past month as story after story came out about the war being waged not only upon immigrants, but also upon the good people daring to offer a hand to them. There was, for instance, the shameful moment in July when the federal government decided to re-try Scott Warren for his attempts to save the lives of immigrants crossing a remote wildlife refuge. (For those tempted to dismiss Warren and his group (“No More Deaths”) as simple “do-gooders,” Warren notes that since his arrest, “at least 88 bodies were recovered from the Ajo corridor of the Arizona desert”).

Then, just a couple of weeks ago, on August 2nd, Stephanie Leutert, Catherine “Ellie” Ezzell and Jake Dizard, three researchers with the University of Texas, were walking a sixteen year old boy from El Salvador across the international bridge that links Piedras Negras, in Mexico, with Eagle Pass, in Texas. The boy, recently orphaned, was trying to enter the United States where he had hoped to enter a plea for asylum.

When the group reached the international boundary line at the middle of the bridge, a Border Patrol agent, breaking US law, international accords and the Border Patrol’s own internal protocols (“every CBP agent (is) to let unaccompanied children enter the port “without problem”) refused to allow the boy into the United States. A bit later, a border patrol supervisor arrived. The Mexican officials had surrounded the academics and were threatening the scholars with arrest for “human smuggling.” The border patrol supervisor refused, then, to allow the US citizens entry into the United States, so that the academics would be taken into custody by the Mexican authorities. As the Mexican officers walked the researchers back down the bridge into Mexico, one of them remarked, “Things have changed under Trump…the United States just denied entry to American citizens.” (Jay Root reported this story for the Texas Tribune).

Eventually, the US officials allowed the Salvadoran boy and the three US citizens into the United States, but only after some hard work by the ACLU, and an intervention by Congressman Will Hurd’s office.

The following day, Saturday August 3rd, the Reverend Aarón Méndez, a much-loved pastor from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, disappeared. Or, more precisely, “was disappeared,” to use a term common in Latin America for kidnapping that leads to murder. The Reverend Méndez had been operating a shelter in Nuevo Laredo for immigrants seeking asylum in the United States. He had recently blocked drug cartel members from kidnapping some of the immigrants who were staying at his shelter, and his disappearance is most assuredly tied to his action on their behalf.

The prosecution of a human rights worker for attempting to save lives, the threats exercised against three US academics, and even the probable death of a pastor, pale in the face of the more than eighty-eight people who recently perished in the Arizona desert, of the Walmart slaughter in El Paso, or of the fates of the tens of thousands of immigrants suffering the daily terrors of “remaining in Mexico.”

All the same, the persecution of the human rights’ workers, whether by US government policies or by organized crime, is a serious attack on our sense of solidarity, that practice of making manifest, in concrete ways, the nature of our common fate. The three researchers practiced solidarity as they walked with a sixteen-year-old boy lost along the border. They recognized the boy’s vulnerability and refused to ignore his plight. Solidarity was the basis for the moral conviction of so many people that other human beings should not die of thirst in a desert. Solidarity rooted the practice of Reverend Méndez’s biblical hospitality, one radicalized by death threats.

The exercise of solidarity serves as a powerful defense against all manner of social evil. Under its rules of engagement, solidarity refuses to accept the abuse of anyone—but especially of the innocent and vulnerable—as a price of doing business. This tactic plays out well, whether the persecutions take place in the name of progress (i.e. greed) or in the name of national security (i.e. greed), for the actions make clear those choices that politicians have taken and would prefer to keep under wraps. The screaming of babies caught on tape, for instance, is a powerful argument against the notion that these children are “threats to our national security.” Apart from shame, there is, quite simply, no other response to the anguished cries of those children.

The very nature of the exercise of solidarity creates a self-selecting pool of participants, who themselves form a powerful community of activists. Although immigrants have been national scapegoats in every political era, the response to the Trump administration barbarities have created a “doubling down” of efforts on behalf of immigrants, bringing new players and new energy to fortify the usual players in this age-old struggle. I was delighted, for example, to see a group of Alabama churches band together to create an entire network of sanctuary communities. An extraordinary internal strength must be at the center of the group of people committed to hiking together for miles through the desert in search of destitute immigrants, as is the moral force of the group of the elderly nuns who recently protested the actions of immigration enforcement in our nations capital.

I don’t think that the kindly woman who phoned in an offer of help last year was ever at risk of being persecuted by our federal government. I do believe, however, that the government considers her sentiment as dangerous, and I agree with them. The practice of solidarity is wildly contagious and is by no means limited to nuns and clergy. I have certainly seen that in my town. Just last week a group of people got together and created a school project for the refugee kids stranded at the international bridge. Every day, they cart school materials across the bridge, clear out a spot in the blistering heat, and teach children.

We are all of us called to respond to the cries of children. One group of Americans chooses to cage them; another group chooses to teach them.

This, alongside our border.

Hope

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List of people waiting at the Matamoros/Brownsville Bridge

Last Saturday there were 2,732 people on a waiting list posted by Mexican authorities just at the entrance to the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros. The people on the list were immigrants who were waiting for their chance to explain to an American official why they desperately needed asylum in the United States.

Many of the people had been waiting there for months, essentially living on the streets of a city so dangerous that the State Department counsels American tourists to avoid the area all together, due to the threats of “murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault.” As most of these immigrants had loved ones waiting for them in the United States, the local gangs have figured them for valuable ransom opportunities. The women in particular have become targets for harassment and assault.

For the first time in a year, Brownsville citizens who have been providing food and basic needs to those waiting have started receiving requests for condoms and morning-after pills.

One of the people waiting there at the bridge last week was a twenty-year-old Central American that I will call Katia. Katia, unfortunately, did not have her name on the list. Katia had crossed into Mexico near Tapachula, where a Mexican immigration agent took all of her documents. The man wanted Katia to give him $200 to get her papers back, but Katia is poor, and so left Tapachula without her documents. When she got to the Matamoros/Brownsville bridge, Mexican immigration authorities refused to put her name on the waiting list, because she didn’t have papers.

Katia was traveling with a two year old and suffers from a chronic illness. When I met her, she had been waiting to cross the bridge for over a month. It had been a difficult time for her and her little one. Things only got worse when the United States announced its decision to apply their weirdly named “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP) to those seeking entry into the United States from Matamoros. In simplest terms, most anyone crossing into the U.S. from Matamoros and seeking asylum will be returned by U.S. agents to Mexico, where they will have to wait yet more weeks and months for an opportunity to have their cases heard by an American official.

As has been seen in San Diego, Calexico, and El Paso, the Migrant Protection Protocol offers no protection to any migrant. To the contrary, it puts innocent men, women and children in grave danger. The program’s judicial process lacks any semblance of protocol or due process. MPP is, quite simply, a federally sanctioned kangaroo court, even though it boasts a host of court officials participating in the sham.

As if this wasn’t enough, at the same time that the MPP was implemented in Matamoros/Brownsville, acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan announced a new asylum rule that would– with limited exceptions — prohibit migrants who have resided or “transited en route” in a third country from seeking asylum in the US., therefore barring migrants traveling through Mexico from being able to claim asylum.

All of this confused and alarmed Katia and her fellow travelers, many of whom abandoned their well-intentioned efforts to enter the USA “the right way.” Instead, they headed to the banks of the Rio Grande and entered the river, often with children in their arms, to swim to the United States. Nearly all of them were aware that just a couple of weeks ago, a father and his two year old had drowned precisely at this same spot.

By Tuesday of this week of government attacks on immigrants, Katia and her child had disappeared from the group at the bridge. No one could say what had happened to them, and I worried about this very young woman with a child and nowhere to go to be safe.

Two days later, on Thursday, I was trying to figure out how to speak in a useful way about the confusing border situation to a group of church people who had come to the Rio Grande Valley to see for themselves what the immigrants were facing. I had prepared a powerpoint slide deck, but the room that we were using was at a migrant shelter and there were a couple of Central American families who had just crossed the river waiting in the same room that the presentation was to be given. I scotched the powerpoint, realizing that the photo of the drowned father and his daughter would be a terrible thing for those folks to look at.

I was headed to the back of the room to say hello to those families, but was interrupted as the church visitors had arrived. After they were seated, I launched into a semi-sermon about reading the Bible through the lens of the migrant—“the spirit of God went forth” (Genesis 1), Abram and Sarai “went forth to Egypt as aliens” (Genesis 12:10), and other examples. I noted how these sacred migrations were taken in hope, but that perhaps we church people would do well to reflect on all the different ways that this hope was tempered by enormous suffering. I pointed to the back of the room, to the table of newly arrived people and said, “While these folks, for instance, have come here with hope in the promise of America, their suffering as a result of that hope—and a lot of that our fault as a nation–creates a moral and ethical challenge for us, those who receive them.”

I took some questions even as I was distracted by my own speech. If the thousands of children who had crossed the Rio Grande had not been able to convince our national community of the sacred nature of this moment, then what was the point of yet more homilies on the issue?

The church people left and I went back to chat with the immigrants. I was happily surprised to discover Katia and her child seated amongst them. We chatted. She was quiet and seemed nervous, but she did now, for the first time in a while, have some official documents, even if only a strangely-drawn up Notice to Appear in court (there was no date or time for this appearance and no clear way for Katia to discover that vital information).

She and her child were here, amongst us and should be able to enjoy the protections of the United States Constitution, which should mean much more than “thoughts and prayers”.

When she arrived at the shelter, Katia had no place to go, as her entire family had been wiped out by the violence in her home country, and she had lost the contact information for the one person she did know in the US. But Katia had made a friend at the shelter, a woman a bit older than she, who seemed kind and whose relatives had agreed to purchase airline tickets for Katia and Katia’s child. I was nervous about this arrangement, for who could tell what these people were going to be like. Katia however, seemed hopeful, even in the midst of such difficulties. “God cares for me,” Katia said to me.

Scripture, can be manipulated to confirm all kinds of ideas, but I had taken some quiet satisfaction that day thinking about how the Bible uses immigrants to offer so many insights into the the mind of God, beginning with the obvious stories in Genesis and Exodus (“exodus!”) and ending with the book of Revelation, believed by many people of faith to have been composed, with great hope, by a man who had been put into exile.

Not all of us are fortunate enough to have met people who have suffered exile. There is an extraordinary grace in those encounters, for there is great peril in seeking a new heaven and a new earth, and there is much to learn from those who have suffered the consequences of such a decision. My brief moments with Katia, and with the woman who opened her new home to this young woman and her child reminded me of the power of their hope, a virtue, which, at least for that moment, and for this young woman, had helped her overcome a bureaucratic torture machine with its lists and decrees and armed guards and protocols and its calculated meanness meant to humiliate the immigrant.

Katia’s journey had led her and her child, if not to a new heaven and a new earth, at least to a new home.

So, in the name of God, I hoped.

 

 

 

Hanging on for Dear Life

Before we learned to swim, my brothers and sisters delighted in hitching a ride on my dad’s broad back and hanging on for dear life as he swam out into the deeper end of the local public swimming pool. It is a memory as fresh as yesterday, perhaps because of the terror that lay at the heart of the experience—it was hard to hang onto to his slippery skin, and the water was deep and I didn’t know how to swim.

Two weeks ago, that memory came back in a different way. On June 26th, Oscar Alberto Martinez, a father from El Salvador, and Valeria, his little girl, drowned as they tried to swim across the Rio Grande. The United States would not let them enter the country by crossing a bridge, so the family decided to give the river a shot.

One can understand the temptation, for the Rio Grande is relatively narrow as it passes between Brownsville and Matamoros. It is a river, however, that carries a deep and strong current, a river that has claimed victims in the past, and one that now took this dad and his little girl as well.

A photo surfaced of two drowning victims. They are lying facedown on a bank of the Rio Grande, Valeria’s arm around her father’s neck, Oscar’s shirt holding her fast to his back. The image touched hearts from around the world, causing many to compare it to the iconic photo of Alan Kurdi, the three year old child whose body washed up upon a Turkish beach nearly four years ago.

The deaths of Valeria and Oscar, however, did not take place in a country far, far away. They died just a little ways away from where I live. Indeed, many of us have acquaintances that spoke with the family, some of whom tried to convince the father that swimming across the narrow Rio Grande is a dangerous proposition, for the river can be deceiving.

For a brief time, Oscar and Valeria were our neighbors.

In Brownsville, soon after their deaths, there was a Sunday evening vigil. A hundred or so people gathered at a spot that overlooks the river in which Oscar and Valeria had drowned. There were earnest prayers and speeches, but it was a moment that demanded either profound silence—or unending shrieking. The unnecessary death of an almost two-year old pokes holes in the hearts and minds and imaginations of anyone with a scintilla of sensibility, and the words that fall out of those holes are   inadequate, the thoughts insufficient and the rage unfocused. But that evening we formed a community as we stopped for a moment to gaze at the river, and to acknowledge, formally, the evil that caused these deaths. And then, necessarily, we went back to attending to our duties, amongst them, in a now literal way, working feverishly to save the lives of these who are our neighbors.

Father’s Day

border wall handprints 2Last week I was at a shelter in Brownsville, Texas visiting with a group of Guatemalans who had recently crossed the Rio Grande into south Texas. After five days in detention, the Border Patrol had released them, and they were now getting ready for a long bus ride to join family members near New York City.

We chatted for a while, and then I asked them about their time in Border Patrol custody.

“What was the most difficult moment for you?” I asked.

A thirteen-year-old girl told me the worst part for her was at the beginning, when a detention center guard had separated her from her father soon after the agents had picked them up.

“It was a woman guard and she told me, you come with me, and then she took me to another cage in the room,” the girl told me.

“Did the guard tell you that you would see your father again soon?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “And I didn’t see him again until about three days later when I spotted him walking to the restrooms. He was way over there (on the other side of the building). I shouted loudly, but he didn’t hear me.”

I thought a bit about what that would be like, to be thirteen and to be in a strange place, with guards, and to have your dad taken away from you, and then know nothing about him, or really, what was going to happen to you, for three long days.

I also thought about how, one year ago, during the Trump administration’s implementation of the practice of family separation, the same guard could have taken her away and she might well have never have seen her father again, nor he, her.

I said to her, “Those must have been three long and hard days for you.”

She glanced up at me for a brief moment, but said nothing.

Her father looked up at her and said, quietly, “I missed you.”

One of the volunteers from the shelter called out her family’s name, announcing that they were to be leaving soon for the bus station. She and her dad quietly said to group, “Con permiso,” got up from the table, each of them taking the small backpack that contained some water, a snack and a blanket. That, the clothes on their back, and their traveling hopes were their provisions for this new chapter in their lives.

That night I was texting with an old friend from Guatemala. I told her that I had met a family that day from her part of the country. I told her that they seemed to me to be worn out by the journey. She responded that she had known many people who had tried to make the trip to the US, but who had been deported back to her region.

My Guatemalan friend is a spiritual director, and so I was not surprised to hear her say, “We worry about these people. It is as if they have lost a bit of their soul along the way. They are not the same people as they were when they left, especially the ones that have lost their children.”

“But,” she continued, “Guatemala is complicated and very dangerous and they have no choice but to leave. But their souls keep leaking away. I so worry about my people.”

I thought about that father and his daughter, about what they had left behind, what they had lost along the way, and what they still carried with them.

I was happy that I had gotten to see them leave the shelter, his hand lightly on her shoulder, her face looking up at him with the gift of a smile as they stepped through the door into the bright light of a Texas afternoon.

 

 

 

Mothers

Esperanza 01Over the first couple of weeks of May, a time when so many of us celebrate mothers, I kept running into moms in different places here on the border. Two of them struck me in particular ways. The depth of one  mother’s sorrow, and her ability to express pain left me speechless. The hope of another mother reminded of there is so much of life that escapes me. Lessons for me, by mothers.

The first mother I met on the first Saturday of the month. She was from Honduras, and someone had called me from the local shelter concerned that the woman could not seem to not stop weeping. The woman was seated at a table with her two teen-aged daughters. They were waiting for their bus would start to Minnesota. The mother had left Honduras a couple of weeks ago, with the two teenagers, and as well as a two-year-old nephew that she had raised since the day that he was born.

Now, however, the mother was without the boy she had raised as a son, and she was bereft.

“My sister lives on the street,” the woman said by way of explanation, “and so she gave me the little boy at birth. She knew she could never take care of him. But when I was in immigration, even though I have the papers giving me custody over him and everything, they still took him from my arms. I knew that your government sometimes separated families, but I thought that they had stopped,” she said.

As she recounted her tale, she began weeping again, the two girls on either side, trying to hold their mother’s heart together. I called a friend of mind who has dedicated her life to healing, or, lacking that, at least to holding together broken hearts. I asked my friend, herself a mother, to come sit with this woman’s grief for a while.

My friend dropped everything, came over to the shelter and sat with the small family for a good two hours. After a while, the tears dried up, although it was hard to know if was therapy, or exhaustion or that wonderful elixir of care shared between strangers.

When I finally left them at the bus station, the mother had dropped into a deep sleep, laying across her daughters’ knees, ever so much a pieta, clearly deeply missing her baby. The daughters, young teenagers, had again taken their places on either side of their mom’s prone figure.

I met the other woman on the following Wednesday, when I went to visit a shelter for immigrants in Matamoros, the Mexican sister-city to Brownsville, Texas. Our team of immigration advocates had been looking forward to the visit, as there are very few shelters for immigrants in Matamoros, and we wanted to get a sense of what the existing ones looked like.

The refuge was extraordinary in every way. Located in the middle of a poor neighborhood, the program managers for years had offered hospitality for the abandoned and the dying. On the day that we visited, there were several elderly women with what appeared to be dementia, a middle-aged man bed-ridden with paralysis, at least four people confined to wheel chairs—and about fifty Central American and Cuban refugees. “We had our hands full with our sick, but no one else was helping these people (the immigrants), so we opened up our doors to them,” the kindly director told me.

The immigrant women stay in a dormitory on the second floor. While most of them were waiting at the international bridge for the unlikely chance that the US would respect its own laws and allow the asylum seekers into the country, there were two women who had just arrived. One of them, Natalia, from El Salvador, told me that it had taken her a year to cross Mexico.

Natalia had sad eyes and a worried air. “I am not sure that my cousin will even allow us to live with her,” she told me, “It has taken me so long to get even this far.”

The windows were open and we could hear the sound of children playing at a playground that was part of a primary school next door.

“That is a happy sound that they make, all those children” Natalia said, and I nodded in agreement.

Her son, a long-legged thirteen year old, had a sweet smile that told me that he knew of his mother’s love for him. “Happy Mother’s Day, a little bit early,” I told her, and she looked at her son, and she said, “Yes, I am happy to be his mother.”

Her son gently took her hand. The wind blew through the windows, the sound of children’s play rising above us.

We could have been anywhere. The children’s laughter was contagious, the breeze was warm, and the hope in these mothers’ eyes still visible.

“It is a very long walk from hell to wherever it is that we are going,” the woman said, referring to what forced her to leave behind all she had.

“Do you think we will make it?” she asked me.

I said, “Of course you will, and you will be fine.”

It was Mothers’ Day, after all, and that gleam in Natalia’s eye was not illusion. It was a mother’s hope.

A Rock and a Hard Place

Way of the cross and border patrol April 9 2004

This past Sunday, Christian churches throughout the Rio Grande Valley celebrated Palm Sunday, a commemoration of the time Jesus of Nazareth led a convoy of people into Jerusalem. The civilized Roman authorities responded to this non-violent action by having Jesus executed, and the gripping drama of those moments continues to be relived in churches some two thousand years later.

There is considerable scholarship dedicated to the notion that Jesus’ crucifixion was the logical, violent conclusion to a process of scapegoating. At the time, people were restless and the authorities needed someone to blame, and Jesus fit that bill to a “t”.

It is fitting to have this liturgical moment front and center these days, in our small part of the world, as the nation’s contemporary scapegoats are gathered just across the river from Brownsville, some five hundred immigrant families peacefully awaiting entry into the United States. Unfortunately for them, politicians have once again chosen the immigrant as the national scapegoat of the moment.

Jesus’ crucifixion, for all of its horror and injustice, was a politically justifiable action.

I had Jesus’ crucifixion in mind when I learned last week that Customs and Border Protection agents had gathered on the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville. The agents dressed in riot gear, launched what appeared to be smoke bombs, and pulled out their weapons. The incident was caught on video by passers-by who were astonished and confused by this exhibition of law enforcement drama.

The confusion is understandable, as the only conceivable reason for such activity was  the 150 or so immigrants awaiting just a few blocks away on the Mexican side of the bridge. These people were families waiting their turn in line to cross into the United States so that they could begin their asylum process. Despite having had to live on the Matamoros, Mexico city streets for two and three months before being allowed their (legal) entry, none of them had rushed the bridge and none of them had threatened violence. Indeed conversations with the immigrants revealed, over and again, that they were fleeing violence, not looking to incite it.

This was not the first time that US Federal agents have put on this kind of show of force. In San Diego the “practice” became a shameful reality when CBP agents launched tear gas at women and men and their children. This was not the first time such a practice had taken place at the Brownsville bridge. But for a year now the federal government has exercised a series of aggressive actions against these immigrant families. A sensible person watching last week’s “practice” on the international bridge  would reasonably wonder if the next steps might be some US authority sanctioning agents to fire upon unarmed, nonthreatening men, women, and children. This may sound like an outrageous consideration, but just a couple of months ago it was unthinkable that the US would fire tear gas at children, and, as a matter of fact, US courts continue to entertain arguments about whether or not it is permissible for US agents to shoot people in Mexico with impunity.

The immigrants themselves, then, are in a horrific situation, trapped on a sliver of land between the narco-violence of northeastern Mexico and the state-sponsored, threats of violence of the United States.

Armed federal agents, however, are not the only ones who prepare to respond to the presence of immigrants waiting at our ports of entry. In our community, Brownsville and Matamoros civilians continue to bring the immigrants food and clothing, an effort that requires its own type of coordination and planning. As a part of the preparation for this work, first-time volunteers are reminded that the immigrants “are people who may have suffered unmentionable trauma,” and the volunteers are encouraged to be sensitive to this, with an emphasis on having a kind, quiet disposition. This they do, and this they have done, for nearly a year now, working in their own way to soften that space between the rock and the hard place that these families live in.