Civility

20191118_172930I met a very wealthy, very powerful man last week in Matamoros, Mexico. He had come from a very long ways away, at no little expense and bother. The man had wanted to see, with his own eyes, the situation in which the Central American asylum seekers were living as a result of the US government’s “Migrant Protection Protocols” program (MPP). This initiative forces asylum seekers to live in some of the most dangerous cities in the world as their  applications for asylum in the United States were considered.

Matamoros, the city just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, is one of those cities.

As we walked together through the camp, he bent his ear toward me hear my responses to his questions. “How many children are here?” “How do people get drinking water?” “How dangerous is it?”

Mostly, though, he walked and seemed to take care to notice what the people living in the tents were doing. At one point, he stopped at a campsite where a family was seated around a cookstove fashioned out of mud and sticks. He asked if he could take their picture. The father of the family agreed, and after taking some pictures, the man had a short chat with them, asking after their children and their hopes. The conversation was quiet, the father told the visitor that people were afraid to live in the place. “No one is safe here,” said the man.

As we left the family, the father thanked us for the visit.

We then walked to the river bank, having to duck under several clotheslines which were loaded down with children’s wear.  On our side of the Rio Grande were the sounds of life: children playing, women chatting as they washed clothes at the communal laundry station, two men laughing as they used a machete to hack up wood for cooking.

On the other side of the river, only about 200 yards away, were the huge white tents that housed the courts where the asylum cases of these people would be heard. As we stood gazing at the tents, I explained a little bit of the process to him. I told him that I had a friend who had a hearing the next day. I told him that it would be another day of humiliation for her, that she would have to be in line on the bridge at 4a.m. for a hearing that would not begin until 9a.m. She would be checked at the bridge for lice. She would share the intimate details of the horrors she suffered in Honduras over a webcam to a judge who was sitting miles away in a different courtyard. Like her last time in court, she would ask for another hearing, for later on, so she would have time to gather more evidence for her case. She would tell the judge that she had been raped in Matamoros and was afraid to go back. The judge would then send her to some other official who was in charge of deciding who could safely stay in Mexico and who could not.

And that, like nearly everyone who had made the trip to the tent courts across the way, she would be back in these miserable circumstances the following afternoon.

As we walked back to the bridge, I asked him what he thought about all of this.

He stopped walking, pursed his lips for a moment, and then said, “I have found more civility amongst the people living in this squalor than in my own country.”

We re-entered the US, handing over our passports to be reviewed by a Customs and Border Protection agent. Just across from the agent were large photographs of the president and vice-president, smiling down at the proceedings.

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