Last week I believe I got a glimpse of God.
This happened while with some people who were visiting the Rio Grande Valley. The visitors had wanted to go across the bridge into Matamoros, Mexico. They were disturbed by what they had seen and heard in the news about the conditions that asylum-seeking families faced while having to wait in Mexico for their court hearings. The visitors wanted to see the conditions for themselves.
There is much misery to see there. Even as one crosses into Mexico, a look off to the side of the bridge will reveal wads of toilet paper in the bushes near the river. With only fifteen working toilets for the 2500 people in the camp, choosing to use the bushes rather than endure a wait makes sense. The threat of cholera and other diseases from the untreated human waste, however, could be the price of that choice.
The camp itself consists of a thousand small tents, most of them donated by charitable people, set up on asphalt, or in a small wooded area behind the river levee. There is no privacy, no security, and no running water. It is a chilly time in our region now and the cold adds another layer of misery. Meals are dependent upon church groups and other volunteers, which has fortunately worked out fairly well for the camp inhabitants. There is no school for the children (who are more than half of the 2,500 inhabitants); there is no day-care for those parents who might find some work.
There is a sense of fear that permeates every moment of life. Those in the camp arrived in Matamoros having already experienced horrors that most of us could not appreciate—the torture and murder of a loved one, a constant series of graphic threats, often directed at one’s own children, and a pervasive fear that your family will never, ever be safe. Even as they endured the flight from their homes, and the crossing through Mexico, this last bit is perhaps the most dangerous. Matamoros is prime cartel country, and most of the immigrants who are headed to the United States are doing so because they have family members there. This makes them ripe for kidnapping and extortion, because, even if the asylum seekers have no cash, they do have people in their lives who love them and who would pay a ransom. Just a month ago I had arranged to meet with a young woman a team of us were arranging to present to US officials to get her permission to enter the U.S. She asked us to meet her at a convenience store. We greeted her, and as we began walking toward the bridge, she hung back about a half a block. Only later, after she was safely in the US did she tell us that she was afraid of us, that she had already been kidnapped once and did not want to go through that again.
As of mid-July, these terrified people living in misery had to add yet another category to their suffering. The United States had begun hearing asylum cases in tent courts that had been erected right at the border. Access to the courts is nearly impossible, difficult even for an attorney with the proper paperwork in hand. As the months went by, people would go to their initial hearing. Instead of being released to family members in the United States who could take care of them, nearly all of them—even if pregnant, sick, or terrified—were returned to Mexico where they were to continue living in the tent city until their next court date. The desperation has gotten to the extreme that some parents have begun sending their children, alone, into the United States. “My children will not survive three more months in this place,” one man said.
The visitors took all of this in. They politely visited with some of the camp residents. One woman, seated next to us in an office, was bouncing her little girl on her knee. I asked her how old the girl was, and the mother looked up and said, “She is ten months old. She wants to walk, but there is no place here where she can do that. That makes me very sad.”
There were other people in the office, and one of the visitors addressed them. “This is a terrible situation. Why do you continue to stay in these horrible conditions? Why not go to another country?” Her pointed questions were asked in a quiet, respectful voice.
Another woman in the room answered in an equally respectful tone. “We remain here because we believe in America. We know that once the Americans hear our story, they will give us a safe place for our children. We believe in America.” The others in the room nodded their assent, including the young mother.
“It is a high price to pay, what we have to put up with here,” added another woman, “but it is worth it, we believe so.”
For the Americans in the room, this belief in America disturbed us. We were well aware of our nation’s long, complicated fear and hatred of immigrants. And yet here were some of those very feared and hated immigrants refusing to accept that that fear was real. They still had hope in America.
The visitors and I walked back over the bridge into Brownsville. The barbed wire and the doubled-up numbers of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents guarding the border were a reminder of our nation’s fear of those who come to our border.
As I took my passport back from the CBP agent and walked into my country, I thought of that mother with the baby longing to take her first steps, and of her belief in America. I believe that conversation with her and the other asylum seekers was that week’s glimpse of God—an encounter with someone whose vision of us is so much grander than our own sense of ourselves .
A belief of that category by its very nature demands that we be who we say we are.
That is a tall order. There are a lot of people watching and hoping that we are up to the task. One of them is looking for a space in America where her baby might learn to walk.