It takes no time at all to go from a Whataburger fast food restaurant in Brownsville, Texas to an office serving asylum-seeking individuals in Matamoros, Mexico.
The trip requires sticking a dollar’s worth of quarters into a turnstile, a few minutes crossing the bridge over the Rio Grande, and then walking a couple of blocks to the small storefront office of the Mexican-based non-profit called Ayudándoles a Triunfar.
The move from the space of being able to order a hamburger “just the way you like it” to the one of sharing the desperate frustration of people seeking asylum at our southern border is head spinning.
When I went there last week, there were four women and an eleven-year old girl sitting in the office. They were asylum seekers who had offered to volunteer with the non-profit organization.
Me, the white man from America and his niece on a visit from up north, sat dutifully masked, and awkwardly social with the women who were from the Mexican state of Guerrero. The Mexicans had left their homes three months ago, driven away by a violence belonging to its own circle of organized-crime hell.
The women were now in the painful limbo of being asylum seekers stuck between the rock of an American administration that is unwilling to take the right (and legal) decisions on behalf of asylum seekers, and the hard place that is the home that the women do not expect to survive in.
The conversation was broken up by translation, a stumbling over hard to capture turns of meaning, and the small jokes that cover the shared embarrassment of the situation.
I asked what had happened that had made the women decide to leave their homes.
One mother said, “I took my girl and left when some men told me that they were going to buy her. She is only eight years old.”
“Now,” she continued, “I am stuck here because the Americans won’t let me make a case for asylum. They say I will give them the COVID, even though I am vaccinated the two times. I am afraid that I can’t protect her in Matamoros.”
Another woman sighed and said, “Our story isn’t as horrible, but still, we can’t live in my old town. These men showed up at our small ranch and killed our animals and moved into our house. They assured us that we would be killed if we stuck around. What could we do? But we can’t just stay in Matamoros. And I want my girl to be in school and to have friends. Here she has to hide out in the room we rent. I am not a very good mother.”
Her girl sidled up to her mom and took her hand.
The women then spoke of their frustrated hopes. They told us that they had family in Utah, in North Carolina, and in Los Angeles, where there was a cousin, an aunt, or a husband waiting to welcome them home.
“But we are far, far away from our families. We can’t go back to Guerrero; we will be killed. And we can’t go into the United States either. So we just wait here, afraid. And sometimes we think about going ahead and trying our luck, of swimming the river.”
The director of the office reminded the asylum seekers of the dangers and difficulties of that course of action.
“Even if the cartel members leave you alone,” she said, “The American border patrol will still just sweep you and send you back here. Try to have a little more patience, maybe the Americans will change their hearts.”
But Mexican border cities are crazy places for asylum seekers to practice patience. The area is so tightly controlled by organized crime that it is nearly impossible not to be picked out as an outsider and therefore, judged easy pickings.
The thousands of rapes, kidnappings, and assaults upon asylum seekers in Mexican border towns just over the past year is proof of their vulnerable state.
When I asked if they had known anyone who had had that kind of trouble in Matamoros, the four women became quiet. They studied the floor as the silence drew on.
After a few moments, I turned to the eleven-year-old girl and asked what she wanted to do with her life. She took a few long moments, apparently considering her options. She looked up and said, “I would like to be a lawyer.”
I asked her if she was good at arguing and she glanced at her mother. The mother smiled and said, simply “Oh yes she is good at that.”
We all considered the young woman sitting in our midst and the future that could be hers.
The heavy moment was interrupted by a knock at the door. A thin man poked his head into the office and in Portuguese asked if someone could help him, that he had a nail in his foot. His story was lost after that opening statement, as while he had three languages, he did not have our English or Spanish. A volunteer whipped out her phone, and there was a flutter of moving between Spanish and Portuguese and then English and Haitian Creole.
With more or less a sense of what was needed (he had been injured some weeks before and was afraid that the wound was infected), two of the women offered to walk him over to a nearby clinic.
After they left, the director walked us outside and we made ready to head back into the United States. She thanked us for coming and I told her I was sorry that we could not be of more help.
Squinting into the sun, she looked at me and said, “Some times it is good to repeat and repeat the story, it is a way of showing respect to our hope and that can only be a good thing.”
“But,” she concluded, “it would be nice not to have to hope so very much.”