Shame

Pita Gamez tents at bridge

Asylum seekers shelter in tents, Matamoros, Mexico

Brownsville, Texas
October 30, 2109

Laura is from the highland area of Guatemala, a place with breath-taking beauty and a spirit-numbing history of systematic abuse of human beings. I visited with Laura a couple of weeks ago in Matamoros, the city just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas.

We had sat down beside each other on the curb of the street that runs just in front of the small tent that has been her home for the past three months. Although Laura is in her sixth month of pregnancy, her face seems to me to be too thin, and she found it difficult to sit still on the cement for very long. For all of her discomfort, she was engaging and eager to talk about her experiences coming north from Guatemala, her time in Border Patrol custody, and her hopes and fears for her immediate future.

Laura’s first language is Mam, and my first language is English, so our conversation in Spanish was stripped of subtleties.

I asked her what had happened to her in Guatemala, that she felt that she had to leave. “Oh,” she said, “I had been raped by a police captain and I discovered I was pregnant. He came to our home (she was living with her parents) to kill me, but I was away. So I managed to escape him, but I knew that he would find me and kill me. Because he is police.”

Laura decided to come to the United States because she has a aunt who is a citizen and the aunt said that she would take care of her. But Laura had no idea that things on the border had become so complicated and dangerous.

At the end of July, she paddled across the Rio Grande on a large inner tube, and, as she entered the United States, she slipped in the river bank mud and took a hard fall.

“I knew that I had hurt my baby,” she told me, “and I was glad that the American police (the border patrol) were there to help me. But the officer was rude and told me that if I was faking my injury, that I would be in a lot of trouble…but he drove me to an office and there other officials took my name and my fingerprints and asked me questions…I was hurting a lot and so they took me to a clinic.”

Laura went on to say that at one point during the drive over to the clinic, the border patrol officer, a woman, told her, “You would be better off if you just had an abortion. . .Trump is not going to let people like you have babies in the United States any more.”

Laura lifted her eyebrows as she told me this, as if to say, “How would someone have the nerve to say something like that?”

Laura said that the people at the clinic treated her well, and that after a while, her pains went away. She was then taken back to the border patrol station, where an officer told her that she would be sent back to Mexico, where Laura would be given a “nice room in a shelter over there until her court date.”

“And now look at me! This is the nice shelter I am living in–a small tent on the street,” she said, her composure breaking down for the first time.

“I don’t know what I am to do, who is going to help me with this?” she asked.

I had thought she meant her legal process, and so started to explain about the volunteer attorneys who came to Matamoros.

“No,” Laura said, “I mean, who is going to teach me about being a mother? I have no one to do that here.”

We sat quietly, uncomfortably, for while, and then shared a mutual sigh, and then I took my leave.

I told her that I would stay in touch with her, which I have, although I have not done much for her other than get her some prenatal vitamins.

For her part, Laura made some friends, one of whom a woman from Matamoros who has taken her under her wing. Laura continues to live in her tent, but she likes to visit with the woman.

“She helps me with some natural herbs and she is nice to talk to,” said Laura when I spoke with her last week.

Laura does not intend to have an abortion, but she fully intends to present her case for asylum.

“I don’t have much hope in the Americans,” she said, “But I do hope in God.”

Laura’s court date is coming up this week. It would be nice to be with her in the courtroom, during her hearing, but that won’t happen, as the United States has blocked the public’s access to these courtrooms.

“There are national security concerns,” one of the private security guards had told me the last time I tried to enter.

That comment makes some sense, in its own way. Perhaps, somewhere in our national psyche, there is still a place where shame can function. Perhaps people witnessing the quiet words of a mother-to-be could exercise the power of their moral outrage and our nation could be moved to do the right thing by Laura and the thousands of others living in misery just across our border. The exercise of that power would not a threat to our national security, but an indictment of our national character. These days, our national arrogance will not allow that, and so, as a country, we have resorted to secret courts, to harassment of the vulnerable, and to an abandonment of our own law.

That is a damned shame.

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