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.