A Week on the Southern Border

1. Sunday morning, refugee encampment, Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico.

20180627_114530Crossing the international bridge from Brownsville to Matamoros is simple. The pedestrian puts four quarters into a turnstile, and steps onto the passageway. The walk across the bridge is pleasant, even if it is hot. There is a stiff breeze and some shade. The river seems peaceful, even if the view is tempered by an enormous amount of concertina wire recently added, purportedly to protect the United States from Central American parents and their children in case they attempt to rush the armed border guards.

Mexican customs agents wait at the bottom of the bridge for visitors,  and they are busy, as there is a steady stream of people crossing into Matamoros from Brownsville. On a Sunday morning, many of these people are headed to Mass with their relatives, others are going to shop, and dozens of people are bringing breakfast to the five to six hundred people who have come to the border to ask the United States for asylum.

Once through the Mexican customs, a walk across the avenue brings you to the refugee encampment that the United States began to create a little more than a year ago.

The camp sits right at the entrance of the international bridge, the one you take to go into the United States. The space is about a third the size of a football field. Aside from the occasional port-a-potty or two, there is no access to a restroom. Aside from bathing in the filthy and dangerous Rio Grande, there is no place else to wash clothing, or a child. Aside from a tested faith in God, there is no public safety. That is, no protections from sexual assault.  Thus, routinely, the women ask volunteers for emergency contraception and condoms to protect themselves.

Pita Gamez Escuelita

There is, of course, no school, which is striking, because the first thing I notice, and re-notice, every time that I visit, are the children. Of the six hundred or so people hanging out at the foot of this bridge, half of them must be between four and eight years of age.

On this particular Sunday, as for the past month or so, teachers from the Brownsville area have set up a “sidewalk classroom.” There is someone teaching basic English, someone else leading the children in song, and yet another teacher handing out books from her “book burro.”

Several of the children come up and give me a hug. They don’t know me, but associate me with the teacher, I suppose. This is not normal behavior, but neither are the multiple sores on their skin, no doubt from either bathing in the nastiness of the Rio Grande, or living for days in the horrid heat of the border.

Recently when my wife, a pediatrician, visited the children held in border patrol detention, she called child protective services to lodge a complaint. Now the child abuse has gone international.

2. Monday, Catholic Charities Respite Center, McAllen, Texas

Since 2014, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Brownsville has been offering hospitality to the families who are released from detention by the Border Patrol and left to make their way to families and friends elsewhere in the United States. Up until two weeks ago, the Respite Center in McAllen was receiving between 600 and 800 people every day. They were offered a hot meal, a shower, a change of clothing and a traveling packet that would take them from the Rio Grande Valley to Boston, or Miami, Los Angeles or Seattle.

Today, there were four people, a mom and her toddler-aged child, a dad and his eight year old. The other 796 or so people? In Mexico. After the families cross the river and surrender to Border Patrol, after they state their intention to apply for asylum, they are supposedly given a court date, and are returned to Mexico, where they must live in a camp similar to the one I visited yesterday.

3. Tuesday, Social Media.

There are probably a hundred people in Brownsville who have busted their hearts and souls offering solace and aid to the  immigrants who have crossed into our community over the past year. There is no one in charge of the group; it is a self-organized set of volunteers who have nonetheless fed and sheltered and cared for thousands of people in the most difficult of circumstances. Much of the organization happens through social media.

Opening a facebook app requires a deep breath and perhaps a stiff drink.

Today’s concern is about a woman who had crossed into Brownsville, had gone into labor, was taken by border patrol to a local hospital where a doctor was told to “stop the labor.”

The woman received an injection, her contractions stopped, and she was returned to Mexico, where she was to continue to await her asylum proceedings.

Once in Mexico, a day later, she went into labor in the midst of the 600 people at the bridge. She was taken to a Mexican hospital, where she gave birth.

Social media expressions range from disbelief to outrage. Who is the doctor that would do this? What is border patrol up to now? Why is it that they continuously target children—and now the unborn?

4. Wednesday, Federal Court, Brownsville, Texas

The finest attorneys in the Rio Grande Valley go to court to request that the judge stop the border patrol from long-term, abusive detention of immigrants. The border patrol admits that their own standards place a 72 hour limit on the amount of time that they can hold immigrants in their detention centers.

Throughout the testimony, witnesses were reminded of the particular horrors of border patrol detention. Worse than jail, for there are no phone calls to family allowed, little access to showers, no change of clothing—and all of this for up to a month. The cells reportedly have more than double the capacity of people in them, in which case the detainees take turns sleeping on the floor, or relieving themselves in the single, open toilet.

The meals have fewer calories than a starvation diet—a cold (frozen) piece of bologna stuck between two pieces of white bread.

The agent in charge explained the meal preparation: “Shortly before serving, the frozen sandwiches are taken from the freezer and put in a refrigerator to defrost.” Thus the ice on the meat that many immigrants have reported.

They are given this, twice a day, for as long as they are in detention.

Tomorrow, another agent will be put on the witness stand. He will swear, so help him God, that detainees were served “three hot meals a day.”

5. Thursday, Port of Brownsville Entry.

We find out, late on Wednesday, that court proceedings for those immigrants placed in “Migrant Protection Protocols” will begin today at 8am. About thirty of us agree to show up and to see if we can gain entry to the proceedings.

The first three to attempt entry are immigration attorneys. The Border Patrol police tell the attorneys that they cannot get into the court unless they have a “G-28” as well as the name of a detainee whose case is being heard. One of the attorneys asks the officer if he  knows what a G-28 looks like. He says, “You are asking me technical questions that I cannot answer.” She responds, “But you are in charge of screening us. How can you do that if you don’t even know what to look for?”

The officer doesn’t respond.

Two by two, the citizens approach and are turned away. Afterwards, we stand around for a bit, as if this tune has ended on a 7th note and needs resolution.

There is none of that, not today.

Later on we discover that inside the hidden court, only two of the six people who had a hearing scheduled showed up. No one knows what happened to the other four. Did the asylum seekers even know that they had a hearing? Had they been kidnapped, had they been killed?

All four were ordered deported, in ausencia.

6. Friday, Good Neighbor Settlement House

A colleague of mine and I interviewed a woman who had crossed the river, gone into labor and given birth in a local hospital. She told us that the (male) border patrol agent who had apprehended her stayed with her through her labor and birth. He was with with her in the recovery room until a shift change brought  a new nurse who looked at him once and, owning her authority, kicked him out of the room.

We went over the woman’s many documents with her. They were all in English, documents  that stated how the government chose to legal consider her. It was an endless gobbledygook of information critical to her status in this country.

When we finished, she looked up suddenly, and asked, “And where are my baby’s papers?”

“Ah,” I told her, “She is an American citizen. She doesn’t need any papers.”

The mother smiled, in relief, and pressed her daughter to her heart.

A good end to a complicated week.