Montana

Combination box to open a gate on the border wall

Every Saturday afternoon I talk with Lorenzo, a young man from El Salvador. Lorenzo is living with his nine year old son in a small town in Montana. We had met briefly last year at a temporary refuge set up here in Brownsville for people applying for political asylum. Lorenzo and his boy had been released from custody to live with friends while their case made their way through the asylum process. While they were waiting at the shelter for a bus to take them north, I offered him  some tips about how to travel from the Texas coast to the Canadian border. At the end of our visit,  I offered him my phone number, in case he needed help of some sort or other as he settled into his new home.

Some months later Lorenzo did in fact call, shortly after a weeklong blizzard made it impossible for him to make it to his first hearing in the immigration court in Denver. He was in a panic, as he truly believed he could make a case for the United States to grant him asylum. But he had no way to make it to his hearing on time. He had tried calling the government’s immigration service hotline, but the number was always busy. He wanted to know what the status of his case was and if I could help him find that out.

I managed to find out that Lorenzo’s case was heard and that he was in fact placed into deportation. An attorney friend of mine told me to encourage him to find a lawyer, as Lorenzo had good reasons for a judge to reopen his  case. Some other friends helped me track down a non-profit organization that takes asylum cases in that part of the country, and someone at that organization did a brief interview with Lorenzo, promising  that they would get back to him in due time.

That was six weeks ago. Lorenzo is now becoming increasingly worried. “I do not want to be an illegal person,” he told me. 

I reminded him that he was not illegal, but that he did need to be quite careful as he did not have the necessary documents that would protect him from ICE agents and deportation. 

“There are a lot of people who don’t know you or your story, and some of them, even if they did know your story, don’t want you here, so just be careful,” I advised him.

“But people here are so kind to me,” Lorenzo replied, “they even put up with my terrible English!”

Lorenzo and I never speak about politics or global news; our conversations are the chat of small-town neighbors—his boy likes his school, the job stocking grocery shelves is boring and doesn’t pay much, but the boss is friendly, the weather is terrifyingly cold, and there are really good jobs in the fracking fields around his town, but you need legal documents for that work, so he settles for the secure penury of the job that he has.

He did tell me that his wife has since married someone else, and that makes him very sad.

Each time we finish our conversation I am struck by how difficult life must be for this young man—alone with his nine year in a tiny town on the North American prairie, dependent upon the kindness of a shopkeeper in the midst of a pandemic and with no clear legal path forward. I worry that he so looks forward to our conversations, as we have little in common, and I fear that I am the only adult he can actually have a conversation with. 

He is so grateful for these short phone visits that to deny him that comfort would require a capacity for rudeness that my mother took away from me a long time ago.

And I like him—Lorenzo has a sharp sense of ironic humor, a clear love for his son, and, most of all, a deep hope that has not been undermined by the violence in his home town, the loss of his wife and other children, and the bleakness of a Montana winter.

I am taking a lesson from him and I lean in on his hope. Who knows? Maybe it will work out that a judge will reopen his case, and give Lorenzo the chance to make his argument, and, upon hearing that argument, allow Lorenzo and his son to begin a new life in earnest.

It would be an honor to witness all of that, and, in no small way, a privilege to learn a lesson about hope from him.