Two weeks ago I spoke over the phone with three people who had recently come to the border to seek asylum in the United States. One of these was a man from El Salvador who told me that he and his wife and two children had had to leave their village after the local gang leader told the man that the gang wanted to “rent” his nine year old daughter.
“We left the next day,” he told me, “I have an uncle in Atlanta who told me that he would take care of us while we did the asylum process. We have no where else to go.”
A woman that I spoke with was at that same shelter. She was from Nicaragua, and she told me that she had lived in the United States for almost twenty years.
“I went home to bury my dad and overstayed my travel permission, so they (the US authorities) wouldn’t let me back into the country,” she explained, “ But I have an eleven year old living in Texas, and with all that is going on, I need to be with my daughter.”
The other woman I spoke with was from El Salvador. She spoke softly, but was clearly furious about how she and her family had been treated by the US agents.
“We crossed the river and it was freezing cold. The patrol showed up and we surrendered and told them that we were seeking asylum. They wouldn’t let us talk to them, they didn’t care about our reason for being there. They just told us to give them our things. They poured out our drinking water, and the kids were shivering, but they wouldn’t give us our jackets back. The agents just ignored us. They drove us to the international bridge and made us walk into Mexico. It was 2 a.m. and on the Mexican side of the bridge there were a bunch of men with guns sitting in a truck, staring at us. We were terrified, but we must have looked so pathetic that they thought we weren’t worth fooling with,” she told me.
The three families were a part of the more than 10,000 people that the border patrol has “expelled” since March 21st, when the government assumed that emergency public health measures issued by the Center for Disease Control gave them the right to bypass long-standing immigration law. The new policy, while outrageous, given our nation’s meager, yet important previous commitments to provide safety for those seeking political asylum, is not surprising. After all, ours is the country that cold-heartedly separated children from parents, that left those families who managed to remain together languishing in cages for days on end, in conditions likened to torture.
Ours is the country in which children died in while in border patrol custody.
It is a depressingly short route from separating children from their parents, to refusing to even consider offering safety to people fleeing for their lives. The pretext for this new policy is the COVID19 virus, but the plan to seal the border from asylum seekers has been in place since just after the 2016 election. The effort by advocates over these past weeks to defend our nation’s asylum policy has been extraordinary, especially given the strictures of “remain in place.” There are numerous cases filed in federal court, official complaints establishing the record of abuse have been lodged with the government, and other efforts are going forward.
Those of us who have had the honor of working on behalf of the asylum seekers, however, realize just how important it is to this struggle for these suffering men, women, and children to be seen, to be heard, and to be known. The practice of immediately expelling people effectively “disappears” the asylum seekers, as it is very difficult to even find them in the murkiness of the Mexican border. It has become nigh unto impossible to lift up the plight of these people.
There are 2,500 asylum seekers who continue to live in a tent camp in Matamoros. They were not expelled, but rather made to “remain in Mexico” for the course of their asylum process. Many, many people from the US have visited with them over the past year and a half. While these 2,500 displaced people are only a small part of the millions of people who have been forced to flee their homelands, what makes this Matamoros community special is that they are not strangers to us. They are friends who have trusted us with their stories, who invited us into their tents and into their lives.
For some of us, these were one-time encounters that lasted perhaps an hour or so; for others, the visits have been a daily part of their lives for months on end. However brief, the visit was powerful. For while the asylum community, like any other collection of human beings, suffers with its own foibles, it is also gifted with people who have learned to navigate a world of unseen terror, of uncertain futures, and of deep loss. Just standing in the same space with someone who lives through that can only inform our own lives.
In all of the conversations that I have had with people seeking asylum, a significant aspect of their survival mechanism was an unstinting trust that the people who populated a nation of law (as so many described the United States), having heard the circumstances that brought them to the southern border, would offer them and their families a safe place to live. No one was coming north to look for a free handout (which, in case you do not know this, does not exist). They were simply looking for a place where they could watch their children safely grow up.
Our nation’s heart has hardened, at least under the present leadership. The federal government has taken the law and twisted it and turned it to serve one purpose—that no one’s plea for asylum will be heard, at least in the foreseeable future. Indeed, if the expulsion program continues, we won’t even know that there are people knocking on our nation’s door, pleading for help.
Citing public health concerns covers a multitude of sins, but even as the hounds of plague, and, then, probably, famine, nip at our collective global heels, the plight of this community of people should not be allowed to fade from the public’s attention. In my own Jewish/Christian tradition, neither epidemics nor wars nor any calamity removed the obligation to care for the stranger. Indeed, in our traditions, the practice of hospitality is considered a blessing more for those who offer it than for those who receive it. Likewise, dire curses are attached to those who fail to honor this obligation. Our nation’s new practice of expelling the stranger, without the slightest regard for their well being seems to fall in line with the curses (Exodus 22:21–24, for just one sample).
At the end of one of the phone calls that I had last week, a woman asked me “If my family and I cross the Rio Grande, and this time avoid the border patrol and make it to my grandfather’s place in the United States, will the first time that I got caught affect my (asylum) case?”
Her desperation was heart breaking. I told her that I didn’t know about asylum law. I did know biblical law, though, and so told her, “Well, if you make it to Brownsville, your family is welcomed to stay with us.”
She thanked me, graciously, saying, as is the custom, “Que Dios te bendiga.”