Witness

Twenty-five years ago I got a call from someone asking if a young woman could stay at our parish rectory. “Meribel has suffered horrific abuse, someone who wants to kill her has tracked her to the Rio Grande Valley, and our group cannot find a safe place for her.”

Meribel in her new home

Meribel moved into our guest room. Each day that she was with us, she would arise before dawn. I remember passing the guestroom door (which she left open) and seeing her kneeling in prayer. In our daily interactions, I had kept in mind that she must have had demons that had taken up residence in her heart and soul. For all of her troubles, she was gracious and kind, but clearly suffering.

Fortunately, at that time, several places of refuge had been set up for survivors of torture, places where they could rest from their demons, and, perhaps, over time, exorcise them. Meribel went to one of these places in Ohio, where she met another survivor of torture, Sister Diana Ortiz.

Surrounded by friends, Sr. Diana Ortiz quietly died this past Friday, after suffering with cancer. “Peaceful” was the word used to describe her death. In the context of her life, this was a well-deserved way to pass away.

Sr. Diana was a kindergarten teacher working in Guatemala. In the words of the Washington Post’s obituary, “on Nov. 2, 1989, assailants Sister Ortiz identified as Guatemalan security forces abducted her from a convent retreat-house garden in Antigua and drove her to a detention center in Guatemala City.

Targeted for working with the Indigenous community — which the military had long brutalized for presumed left-wing sympathies — she said she was blindfolded and raped by three captors.

They burned her with cigarettes as they demanded names of Indigenous subversives, she said; a doctor who later examined her counted 111 burn marks. She was lowered into a pit with rats and decomposing bodies and later forced to dismember another captive with a machete. She was told the killing was photographed and videotaped, to be used as blackmail if Sister Ortiz attempted to seek redress. About a day into her imprisonment, a fourth man, called Alejandro but whose accented Spanish led her to believe that he was American, entered the torture chambers and ordered the others to stop. He said Sister Ortiz’s disappearance was making headlines in the local and American media.”

While being driven to another site, Sr. Diana escaped her captors, and made her way back to the United States. For the next thirty years, Sr. Diana dedicated her life to exposing the United States’ involvement in the terror wreaked upon indigenous people in Guatemala. She was publically ridiculed by some of the highest authorities in the State Department, routinely threatened by the CIA, and dismissed by the public as someone not quite right in her head. In spite of these troubles, she also offered important leadership in efforts to bring some level of peace to her companions who had suffered torture.

Over the next coming weeks, asylum seekers who have been remanded to the Migrant Protection Program (and many of them tortured while in that program) will begin to be released into the United States. These people face demanding challenges: aside from the burdens of the personal trauma they bring with them from their home countries, they will need to navigate the difficulties of beginning a new life in a strange place, during a pandemic, and in a nation that has told over the past four years that they are criminals and fraudsters.

The new administration, however, has publically committed itself to undoing the harms of the previous president. This new government could exercise generous compassion, and, more importantly, apply the basic concepts of justice to those seeking asylum.

In the meantime—in this moment—the life and death of our sister Diana Ortiz invites us to acknowledge that there are demons at work in our midst, and that many of them share our national identity.

Her life invites us as well to take courage from those who refuse to be silenced about the horrors that these people have wreaked upon the lives of others. She inspires us to live lives in which we welcome the stranger, however needy, into the sanctuary of our own homes.

Hope

Last Saturday, a man from El Salvador stood with his 4-year-old son on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. Just across the way, a scant one hundred yards, was Brownsville, Texas, and the promise of safety. He was considering swimming the river with his child, anxious to escape the misery and the dangers of Matamoros, something that he and his little boy had endured for more than a year. The family had been placed into the misery of Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, was trapped in the violence of northern Mexico, and was at the point of hopelessness.

I had spent some time with this father, and I knew that he missed his wife and his daughter, that he was unnerved by the massacre of nineteen migrants just weeks before by Mexican police officers, and that he was desperate.

But he also knew that the river posed an immediate danger. Like this father, everyone who had been placed in MPP would remember the day that another young father and his two-year daughter, frantically seeking safety, had drowned trying to swim across the river.

However, on that warm afternoon last week,  this father took his boy by the hand and at last turned away from the immediate dangers of the river to face, once again, the dangers of living as a migrant in northern Mexico.

Thank goodness he had held back. Just a few days later the Biden administration announced that the most vulnerable people in the MPP would soon begin to be admitted into the United States—those waiting in Tijuana, those waiting in Ciudad Juarez, and those waiting in Matamoros.

The weirdly named “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP) was implemented in January of 2019. In simplest terms, people seeking asylum and crossing into the U.S. from Mexico would be returned to Mexico, where they would end up waiting for more than a year for an opportunity to have their cases heard by an American official. The Migrant Protection Protocol offered no protection to any migrant as these people are forced to live in northern Mexico, in places where the rules and protections of law has effectively ended.

Ending MPP was one of President Biden’s campaign promises. Dr. Jill Biden had personally visited the misery of a camp in Matamoros set up for migrants in MPP. Soon after the inauguration, hundreds of advocates from across the nation began to pressure the administration to make good on this promise.

With the announcement of the rollback of MPP, hospitality teams all along the border have started their own planning. Locally, groups have initiated fundraising and the organization of their volunteers (in the time of COVID). They anticipate welcoming those released from MPP at local bus stations, and sending them on their way with a basic orientation (“when you get to Houston, you will change buses—and it will be a four hour wait. But you are safe, and you are on your way!”), a backpack of travel supplies, and a hearty “welcome!” (If you would like to support these efforts, please visit the Angry Tias website. You can directly donate by going here).

I am concerned about other people who seek asylum and who are not in the MPP (non-Spanish speakers are not in this program). A friend tells me that there are many Haitians and Africans stranded in Reynosa, a particularly violent city just south of McAllen. I worry that many of them, excluded from this offer of protection, will be driven to desperate, dangerous and unnecessary attempts to seek refuge.

This uneasiness is tempered by the hope that this new administration, and we as a nation and a people will once again be a place where those in need can seek freedom, safety, and protection from persecution. President Biden will have to be reminded, over and again, of this promise. There are millions of us who believe in that vision. Let the healing and the welcome begin with each of us in every corner of this nation.

I am relieved that the father and his four year old did not choose to swim the river. I do hope that their journey to their loved ones is without incident. I carry that hope proudly.