On Wednesday of last week I found myself invited to a fancy picnic at a spot in between the border wall and the Rio Grande. A large tent had been set up on the property of a local farmer, whose fields are stuck in the “no man’s lands” between the wall and the river. I was there with a family from a town outside of Brownsville, and we were sitting at a table and chatting as we waited for the people we had been invited to share lunch with.
Nora, the family’s two year old, was fidgety, but quiet. Her father was nervous. He had agreed to speak to some “very important people” about his family’s circumstances. My ACLU colleague and I were coaching him a little, encouraging him to speak to them as if he were speaking to his daughter. “Use short sentences, go slow, they have no idea of how complicated your life is.” We reminded him to be sure to show them the ankle monitor shackled to his leg, and to be sure to explain how his only crime was living with his family in Texas without immigration documents.
He had been given the ankle monitor because he lacked $9,000 in cash to pay his bond after he had been stopped by a state trooper and, having no driver’s license, was handed over to Border Patrol (back in 2008, Texas Department of Public Safety decided to stop issuing driver’s licenses to people without authorized immigration status).
There were some other families invited to the picnic as well, guests from the Catholic Charities’ Respite Center in McAllen. They, too, seemed nervous, which meant to me that they had a good dose of common sense: what on earth were they doing sitting between the border wall and a river that they had just crossed, at no small peril, just a few days ago?
Eventually the important people arrived—about fifty of them. From what I could gather, they had come from all over the world to visit Texas. They were business people, and so their interests were entrepreneurial in nature. Indeed, they were coming to the picnic having just toured Elon Musk’s Space X project on the Boca Chica beach that was about an hour’s drive from Brownsville. The meeting with the immigrants and refugees was their last stop before they would be leaving the Rio Grande Valley for wherever it is that very wealthy people go.
I was struck by the boldness of the Brownsville mayor who had pushed for this moment on the tour. He had spent most of the day, after all, promoting the opportunities for investment in the area. But here we were, some of the most powerful, financially secure people on the earth sharing barbecue with some of the most vulnerable people in the hemisphere.
I was nervous, too—not due to the presence of the very rich people (or the very poor people) but the extraordinary power gap between the two groups.
At least at my table, where I was translating between a German, an Austrian, two Australians and a family from Honduras, there was respectful, frank, if rather one-way conversation. While the Hondurans had no questions for them, the captains of industry had patient, kind inquiries for the Hondurans. The Honduran father, who just two days ago was shivering in a freezing border patrol holding cell, looked his table partners in the eye as he fielded their questions, each time setting down his knife and fork, and considering his answer before speaking.
It is hard to know what, if anything, would come of this picnic. Many of the group would be meeting the next day with the governor of Texas, a man whose investments in our region have largely been along the lines of sending $1.2 billion worth of state troopers, officers whose job is to hunt down people like Nora’s dad. Perhaps there would be a frank conversation about Texas’ treatment of immigrants.
Nora’s dad did well with his presentation. After he explained his story, one of the wealthy guests said that that was horrible situation, and that he, himself, would pay off the $9,000 bond so that Nora’s dad could be rid of the ankle shackle. Nora’s father was gracious and relieved by the gesture.
As the picnic ended, a slight breeze from the north blew across the field, ruffled the tent, and tickled the river. The families got back into their vans and crossed the border wall for the third time in a week, headed later that day for Boston, for Falls Church, for Los Angeles, and for other parts of the USA where they would weave themselves into the American family.
The other guests boarded private jets and headed off to their business responsibilities.
In Washington, DC, the president’s aids were preparing his national emergency proclamation, citing amongst his reasons, the terrible peril along the southern border and the need for a border wall. For my part, I was left thinking about the remark that one of the Central American mothers at the picnic had made. She said, “You know, it is just so very peaceful here.” And then she laughed, pointing at the border wall and the many police officers, and said, “a pesar de todo esto (despite all of this!).”