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.




Central American Woman mapThis past Sunday, around noon, I was sitting across from a woman named Erica at a table in a shelter in Brownsville. It had been “twenty-six, no, twenty-seven days” since Erica had fled her home in Central America. I was helping her figure out the complicated bus trip between Brownsville and southern Florida where her sister lived.

“You will have a layover of four hours in Houston,” I told her, tracing the route on a small map. “Then you will get on a bus that will take you to a place called Mobile…yes, it is difficult to pronounce in Spanish. There you will only have a half hour before you take your next bus to a place called Tallahassee. You don’t have to pronounce that, just show them your ticket.”

She processed that information for a bit, and then she said, “I am very worried about my twelve year old (daughter).”

I asked her why, and she said, in a low voice, “Well, just in the past six months everyone in our family has been murdered by a gang. They killed my dad and my mom. Then my two uncles. Then they killed my girl’s father. Now all that is left is me, her, her little brother, and my sister in Florida. They killed our entire family…and she saw every last murder. My little girl is not doing well. If she sees a policeman with a gun, she throws up.”

Erica then called her daughter over and introduced me to her. The girl was thin, and shivering in the air-conditioned room. Her mother took one of her hands and said to me, “Look at her fingers.”

Her daughter had chewed her fingernails down to the cuticles. The girl snatched her hand back from her mom and went to another place to sit down.

I said to her, “Well, about an hour and half’s drive from here there is a border patrol check point, and an armed agent will get on the bus to look at your papers. So you need to know that. But, in any case, she will be fine—you have very good papers. And you then are going to be in a big city that has many resources. You will find someone who can help her with her trauma.”

The woman got very quiet. Then she said, “Thank you. You have been kind to us.”

This particular family had left Central America three weeks ago. They got to the border where they crossed the river in a rowboat (as there are 752 people waiting on a list to cross over the international bridge, and, as the US is only letting in two or three people a week, most people take their chances crossing the river). Erica’s family surrendered to the first Border Patrol agent that they could find. They spent five days in a processing center, where they were given a cold ham sandwich in the morning, another one at noon, and a third one at 8pm. The family was separated from each other by hurricane fencing. They slept for four nights on a cement floor under the glare of overhead lights that were never turned off. They were each given a mylar (foil) “space blanket” to keep warm with.

I asked Erica if she wanted to register a complaint about her time in custody, and she said, “No, the food was horrible, inedible, really—and we were hungry! The water had so much chlorine that it was hard to drink, and the guards were rude—but we were safe. That is all that matters, right?”

I rummaged up a thin sweater and a blanket for the twelve year old. She took my offering, her head still down.

This morning I heard on the news that Kirstjen Nielsen, the Secretary of Homeland Security, was resigning. The president apparently did not find her tough enough, and, in the interim, has chosen Kevin McAleenan, the head of Customs and Border Patrol, as her (standing) replacement.

The president apparently likes McAleenan’s suggestion of a “binary” approach to families seeking asylum. Upon apprehension by border patrol, a parent would get to choose between being incarcerated with their children, or having their children taken from them. If Erica had arrived a month or so from now, she may well have been faced with this 2019 version of Sophie’s Choice.

But on Monday, Erica boarded the bus that would take her to Florida and to her sister. Erica was concerned to know about her court date and the next steps in the asylum process. She believes that her sister, and her sister’s larger American community can save her and her family.

When I left the shelter on Sunday, I looked back and waved at Erica. Her girl was sitting beside her, chewing on her nails. But she looked up me, and she smiled.

It seemed that she had hope.