Civilized in Texas

The young man’s name was Juan. He was seated across from me in the airport terminal in Harlingen,Texas.

Harlingen is a city in the Rio Grande Valley, along the Texas southern border. Once upon a time, Ronald Reagan stoked the national fear for those living on the other side of our southern border by noting that Harlingen was “just two days’ driving time” from Managua, Nicaragua.

This, like most everything believed about the southern border, was a wild exaggeration. But the idea of Managua as “a privileged sanctuary for terrorists and subversives” who were just a road trip way from the United States managed to scare a large part of the American public willy-nilly and enormously helped the US sponsored terrorism in Nicaragua known as the contra war.

I knew Juan’s name because it was printed in large font on the front of a brown envelope. Recently released asylum seekers carry these envelopes like a shield of protection—the envelope contains the papers that certify their legal presence in the United States.

Juan was thin, and from the ready smile he offered anyone who glanced his way, seemed to feel very much alone.

An older, kindly looking woman was sitting next to him. She leaned over to him and said “Hello.”

“Hello,” Juan responded.

She asked him in English if he was o.k. To which question Juan simply smiled. The woman then got up from her seat, went over to the small airport shop and bought a bottle of water. She came back to her seat and offered it to him, which he accepted, with a slight bow of his head.

After a bit, I also greeted him, and asked him where he was from.

“A place called Huehuetenango in Guatemala,” he said.

“Ah,” I said, “I have been there. It is a beautiful place. In the mountains, and nice and cool.”

A little later, I asked him where he was headed. He told me, “A city called Georgia.”

“Georgia is beautiful,” I said, “Although a little warmer than your home town.”

“Are you going to be with a family member?” I asked him, and he told me that he was going to live with his uncle, who had been in Georgia for eighteen years.

“That is great,” I said, “So helpful to be with someone who knows the area.”

I asked him what his uncle did for a living and Juan told me that he installed roofing. I thought for a while about this skinny kid from the cool highland climes of Guatemala and what kind of damage the Georgia sun did to roofers.

We travelled together to Houston, where I helped him find his departure gate. I bought him a hamburger, gave him a card with a phone number that he could call, should he ever need any help, and wished him well.

This simple, pleasant encounter between travelers cost me $6.45 (the hamburger) and a few minutes of my time. I think Juan felt welcomed, and I was glad to share a meal with someone who was hungry.

My time with Juan was on my mind when, about a week later, Texas Governor Greg Abbott declared that the state was being invaded by illegal aliens. Abbott announced that he was going to build a Texas border wall, that anyone coming into the state from Mexico would be arrested, charged with trespassing and jailed.

Abbott subsequently emptied out a Texas prison in preparation for these mass incarcerations. The Governor also commanded units of the Texas Department of Public Safety to patrol the Rio Grande Valley and arrest anyone they judged to be illegal. Unwilling to leave children out of this spew of hatred, Abbott set into motion a plan to remove state child welfare licenses from places that take care of children who cross alone into the United States.

The governor doubled down on this unpleasantness and committed $250 million of state monies to his wall project, not to mention the millions that he was costing the state by clearing a prison and assigning state troopers to the job of enforcing federal law (the state already spends more than $400 million a year on state troopers securing the border).

He announced all of this at a press conference held near the border. The governor seemed thrilled at his  idea of saving Texas from people like Juan by building a wall, pulling children out of facilities contracted by Health and Human Services, and jailing people for “trespassing into Texas.”

This is all “hot air” (as the ACLU of Texas’ David Donatti put it), and has nothing at all to do with securing the border or protecting Texans, and everything to do with Abbott’s political fortunes. The shamelessness of this kind of posturing by someone running for office is no longer surprising, although I remained puzzled at the naiveté of my fellow voters.

After all, the border is secure. It really is. There are indeed a lot of people crossing the river, but they are picked up by the border patrol and sent back across the river (illegally, but that is a story for another day). I have met hundreds of migrants and each encounter has been a lesson in goodness, in hope, and in graciousness. I have no worries about migrants, and, I believe neither should any other Texan.

Migrants, of course, should worry about the Texans who might inhale some of the governor’s hot air and buy into building walls, punishing children, and filling a state prison with innocent asylum seekers.

On the other hand, there are those Texans who would bother to greet people like Juan, offer him a drink of water, or a hamburger. “Civilized”, I believe, is the term for those kinds of people.

The little bit of that decency that I enjoy was given to me by, among others, my dad, who encouraged me to never be afraid to respond to another person’s need and who to this day goes out of his way to make friends with strangers.

I like that political platform. Thanks, dad.