Christmas, 2018: A Child is Born, Two Children Die

altarThis past Monday, on Christmas Eve, about fifteen of us gathered under a tree at the foot of the Gateway International Bridge. We were on the Mexican side of the border, at the edge of Matamoros, the sister city to Brownsville, Texas. We were standing just outside a makeshift camp that had been set up for refugees who had been waiting weeks for their right to cross the international bridge, to enter the United States, and to apply for asylum.

It is one of the most “in between spaces” I have ever been in, where humans beings are “ni de aquí ni de allá” – neither here nor there. It is a terrifying, lawless place in which one’s hopes become reduced to expecting the one meal a day that volunteers are trusted to deliver, and entertaining the insane hope that organized crime will stay away, for at least one more day.

One of the many good people from Texas who had been supporting these refugees had suggested that a Christmas Eve prayer service might be a nice thing to offer the people living in that in in-between space. And so it was that we had ended up forming a circle around a small table that served as an altar. Amongst us were a man from Ghana and a woman from Cameroon who both spoke English, as well as some families from Honduras and El Salvador.

We began by singing in Spanish—a complicated tune that everyone seemed to know how to sing badly, and then we sang Silent Night, which we did well. After a bit, people were invited to write down on a small slip of paper whatever might be their prayer for this time in their lives. The refugees paused and thought about this quite a bit, and then began to write. The African man wrote on both sides of the paper slip and looked like he would have filled a notebook. A man from El Salvador wrote his words slowly, almost as if they pained him. A pregnant woman wrote on her paper, and I think all of us could guess what her prayers were.

Then, one by one, the immigrants came forward and placed their hopes and dreams and fears on a small fire. A gentle breeze dispersed the smoke; a couple of birds perched above us sang quietly.

We were quiet for a bit and then our prayer was over. The travelers came up and wished the Americans well. They asked us some of the many questions that they had—when did we think that they would be allowed to cross, what was the place called “Maryland” like, would the United States keep them in jail for long.

And then we shook hands and bid them well, sharing that smile that comes from recognizing a moment of shared grace.

Alongside our border there have been many moments of shared grace over these past six months. This grace is daily made manifest in the hundreds of hot meals that are cooked and then walked across the border bridges, in the thousands of “travel bags” that are prepared for those refugees facing long bus trips, and in the countless shared confidences and tears. Time after time, regular working people show up in the middle of the night to rescue young women left at a closed bus station by ICE, or make the hour and a half trek to the detention center to pay a bond or collect someone who needs a ride. The volunteers are a cross section of our community—lawyers, teachers, counselors, clergy, entrepreneurs, the very wealthy and the very poor, some younger and some older,

It is all a delight and yet, really, not unexpected. There are good people all around who do extraordinarily good work and who have been doing this sort of thing all of their lives.

Sadly, what is also not unexpected, is the sinfulness that calls forth these gracious responses. While the calculated abuse of immigrants at our nation’s southern border is decades old, the Trump administration’s actions has deepened the darkness of that evil. The separation of children from their parents (more than 250 remain separated) was perhaps the lowest point of his abuse of immigrants, but the steady onslaught of lies about the Central American immigrants created a space in which the planned humiliation of these people became acceptable to this self-declared Christian nation. That particular moral bankruptcy became clear after the Secretary of Homeland Security blamed the recent deaths of the seven and eight year old Guatemalan children on their parents, shortly after the man responsible for the children who were in Border Patrol custody covered up the first death.

Many Americans, most of whom have never been to the southern border, insist that people who wish to exercise their right to apply for asylum cross into the United States “the right way.” Since the beginning of June, this “right way” was illegally blocked by the Trump administration, which planted armed guards on the bridges to turn back anyone who would petition the United States for asylum. With the bridges effectively shut down, desperate people like the father of the seven-year-old Jakelin Caal, opt to attempt to enter the US by crossing the desert, or, in Texas taking their chances with human smugglers to cross the Rio Grande.

It is worth noting, over and again, that upon crossing the international boundary, the very first thing that these Central American families do is surrender to the Border Patrol. They are not interested in being illegal, they tired of hiding from evil doers back in their home countries, and they are seeking to be recognized as human beings deserving of the protection of the law.

The Christmas story is one of promise and hope, but the context of birth of the Christ child was a midwinter season in a lawless territory occupied by a ruthless army. What is noteworthy is that anyone would discover meaning and hope in the birth of a child in such a time and place.

During this Christmas season of 2018, I take, if not hope, then at least the powerful reminder that each and every human life is precious, whether this human being was born in a stable, or whether she is being carried in her father’s arms across the desert into the United States. Owning up to the responsibility for those lives requires just a bit of attention, just a bit of grace. We close out 2018 having, in many, many ways, failed to honor that responsibility. I look forward to 2019, with a hardheaded hope that we will have the courage, as a nation, to be graceful and generous. Or, at the least, to be decent enough to care for all those who trust us with their lives.

Traveling Souls

Child at immigrant memorial

Shoes of immigrants

Last week I was visiting with a couple of guys in the Catholic Charities’ Respite Center in McAllen. They were helping clean up the kitchen and I was poking around the cabinets,  looking for garbage bags, trying to do my small part in offering hospitality to the stranger.

They told me how hard it had been to leave home. Both had horrific stories about why they had to leave. A fellow from Honduras told me that he had intervened in an assault on an American woman. “I testified against this guy,” the Honduran told me, “and he gets convicted and given twenty years in jail, but, you know, he was related to the local police chief and was let out after a couple of weeks. Then he and his gang came after me. I was lucky to get away. But how I miss my family.”

The other man, a Nicaraguan, had a similar story, but, as he wrapped up his story, the both of them said, “You know, you really need to talk to this other guy. He really has had a hard time.”

They brought a young father from El Salvador over to me. We sat down at one of the tables in the small dining area. After a long moment, he told me that he and his five-year-old daughter had left El Salvador some five weeks ago. He said that the journey was hard, but that the worst that had happened to them occurred right as they reached the border region.

“We had passed a Mexican immigration checkpoint,” he said, “Just before you get to Reynosa (the Mexican city across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas) and a Mexican state police car pulled our bus over.”

He told me that he knew to pay attention and that he noted that the police car was numbered “192”.

Shortly after being stopped, a group of men armed “only with machetes and knives” pulled up in pickup trucks, commandeered the bus and drove it some miles down a dirt road. The immigrants were led off of the bus and taken into a large, two story building where the children were separated from their parents and taken to the building’s second floor. 

The adults were put into a large space on the ground floor. They were tied up and then told that they had been kidnapped.

“It was a terrible, terrible two weeks that we spent there,” he said. “I had no idea what was happening to my little girl, they beat us up, they hardly fed us.”

He paused a moment and then said, indignantly, “They stripped me naked and made me tape a message to my family, demanding money. They made my family look at my naked body.”

At some point, he told me, another group of men showed up at the barn and freed the captives.

“I don’t know who they were, but they saved us from being murdered, of that I am sure,” he told me. And with that, his five year old, who had been playing with some other children at the center, came into the room and crawled up into his lap. He introduced me to her; she shyly smiled and told me her name.

Her father thanked me for listening. He stood up, and gathered his things. “We have to catch the 4:30pm bus,” he told me, and he walked away, through the doorway, and down the street toward the bus terminal.

It was only later, while telling the story to the woman I try to serve as husband, she being a pediatrician, that I appreciated the father’s horror during those two weeks.

“You know,” the doctor said to me, “that little girl could have been raped.”

Just a week after I had heard this story, the Washington Post reported that the United States and Mexico were close to an agreement that those seeking asylum in the United States would stay in Mexico, a “safe third country” while their requests were evaluated.

There are many places in the world that are not safe for five year olds. The adults in the world are charged with looking out for the well-being of those children. That is a considerably low bar as a measure of a civilization, but one to which we, as a nation, should aspire.

I know at least one five year old and a pediatrician who would agree.

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Do your soul a favor and visit http://veronicagabriela.com/traveling-soles/

“Don’t Neglect to Show Hospitality to Strangers”

 

In an expensive campaign stunt, the current president of the United States militarized my border, even as he invited biblical curses upon our nation (“Cursed be he who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.” Deut 27:19).

There is no caravan of people sitting on the other side of the river. The caravan coming through Mexico is a month away, and is composed of asylum-seeking fathers and mothers and their children.

The election, however, is in a couple of days.

The oldest and slimiest trick in the book is for a leader to declare war in order to garner votes.

Please vote on Tuesday. Bring your own army to the polls with you.

In March and April, when you start to write your check to the IRS, just remember that you will be helping to pay for the concertina wire that is a part of this political campaign ad.

“This is America”

WhatsApp Image 2018-08-22 at 8.51.50 AMSince the beginning of this past May, visitors crossing the international bridges between Matamoros, Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas would have noticed something different—and alarming. Dozens of people, including women and children, could be seen standing or sitting in the blazing sun, some of them for four or five days. US Customs and Border Patrol had put three agents at the International Boundary Line, midway across the bridge, and were preventing anyone who would be seeking asylum from entering the United States to make that claim.

And so, although the refugees had the legal right to apply for asylum under both international law (the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol) and under national law (the United States’ 1980 Refugee Act) the United States had decided to make it difficult or impossible for the refugee to access that right.

WhatsApp Image 2018-09-15 at 11.57.41 AM (1)Mid-May I had asked a woman from Honduras who had been on the bridge for several days what the agents were telling her when she tried to enter. She told me, “They said that the United States was not taking asylum cases, now that Trump was president.” She also told me that she didn’t believe the agents, because, a couple of days before, a pregnant woman from El Salvador had been let through the checkpoint. “And I don’t really have much of a choice but to wait. There is no way I can go back home, I will get killed. And I am afraid to cross the river (with a smuggler); I hear that they always rape women. So I will trust in God and wait.”

Later that same week I spoke to a couple of fellows from the African nation of Cameroon. They told me that one of the Mexican immigration agents had told them that the “United States was not letting in black people. They are racists.” But the same agent told him that for $100 each they could put on a special “non-racist” list.

The Mexican agents have organized a good business–it is rare to see any more than ten to twelve people waiting in line to get on the bridge, although there are reportedly hundreds of people trying to figure out how to get on the famous list.

Kirstjen Nielsen, the Secretary for Homeland Security, has denied that the refugees were being refused the right at apply for asylum, saying essentially, that the customs and border agents were “busy.”

The refugees busily waited in the open air, on the bridges, throughout the summer and into this fall. There are no restroom facilities and there are no water fountains on these bridges—the bridges are meant for crossing over. They are not waiting rooms.

There are, however, a lot of good people on both sides of the international boundary line.  Since May, and daily, these kind souls have been offering all sorts of help to those standing in the lines of misery that the Americans had created.

There is a ensergio pizzatire Mexican team of volunteers who literally risk their lives, twice daily, to offer help to the people passing through their city (the smuggling cartels consider the asylum seekers as good business and do not appreciate anyone helping them get out of Mexico). There is a young Texan who  cooks meals, twice a day, for the fifteen to twenty people who might be on line. There are a couple of guys from Brownsville who daily cross to Matamoros, dragging a small wagon with supplies—water, snacks, tarps to keep the sun off of the people. There are several women from Brownsville who have become experts at easing the wait. They can tell the refugees which bridge (there are two) has American officers that might make the wait shorter, whether or not the shelter in Matamoros is full or not, or how to get medical care.

One of the women in this last group frequently posts her observations on Facebook, closing, always, with a defiant, “This is America.”

Misery

20180627_114530From a volunteer who gives rides to those immigrant parents whose children had been taken from them by the US government. The women and men are released, after paying a bond, from the Port Isabel Processing Center, which is a 45 minute drive into town.

I don’t really believe in Hell but there should be a special place there for the designers of the policies (and supporters) that tore the young children from the women I met tonight who have been in jail for over a month without hope—yelled at daily by guards to be quiet and to quit sobbing for their children—their children who are being held as far away as Chicago, New York, Arizona and San Antonio. This on top of trauma they have experienced in their own country. This is surely not the first time cruelty has been done in the name of the USA but it surely is a very bad moment in our history. The suffering of these women I can say first hand is so raw and real and beyond anything I have experienced. Even those who have strong asylum claims and a few who have recently been able to post bond and be released still have no timeline for reuniting with their children, some as young as 5.

Animals

ClaudiaA few weeks ago, the president of the United States referred to immigrants as “animals”. His apologists hastened to insist that he was referring to gang members, but the remark was consistent with a recent series of actions that establish the degree to which the Trump administration views immigrants as less than human.

Last week, unarmed, twenty-year old Claudia Patricia Gomez was shot to death in a dusty town just north of the border. She had crossed into the United States to join her husband and was traveling with a group of immigrants. The aftermath of the shooting was captured on Facebook Live by a neighbor. As the Border Patrol rounded up other members of the group, an agent is heard saying to some of immigrants, “This is what happens to you people.”

This most recent death of an unarmed civilian at the hands of a Border Patrol agent came a month to the day after a different Border Patrol agent was found innocent of homicide after shooting 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena to death. In that case, the defense lawyer argued that the first three shots were fired in self-defense, and, since one of those first shots would have killed the teenager, the other six that the agent fired could not have been homicidal as the boy was already dead.

Sandwiched between these events was the announcement from the Department of Justice that the United States would follow a “zero tolerance” program on immigrants. Attorney General Jeff Sessions crowed that one new policy would be that children crossing the border would be separated from their parents as a matter of policy. Since that announcement, more than 1000 children have been rendered orphans. Court watch witnesses report fathers and mothers pleading with the federal magistrate judge to “tell me where my little boy is, please!” The Judge (in this instance), serving willingly or not as a cog in the deportation machine muttered “there is a special place in hell for the people who created this (policy).”

Indeed. Workers at the site where the detained families are first taken after being picked up by the Border Patrol said that when the children are removed from the parents the scene “fue algo de Satanas” (“was something created by Satan”). “Puro grito, pura llorada”—just screaming and wailing.

I invite you to contemplate the hell that the mom or dad who had their child taken from them must have felt then—and is still feeling now.

I can only enter into a dark prayer as I wonder, worse still, what the children must feel. I have been made painfully aware of the horrors that have been visited upon the tender hearts of these children from Honduras or El Salvador or Guatemala or Mexico. To have their sole emotional and spiritual support ripped from them—this takes torture to an entirely new level.

As the investigation of the shooting of Claudia Patricia proceeds, I invite you to reflect upon her photograph. Look into her eyes. She is not an “animal.”

Lessons

eddie canales picEddie Canales runs the South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias, Texas. His office is roughly 75 miles north of McAllen, just across the street from the Brooks County Court House and a few minutes drive from the checkpoint that the Border Patrol operates along highway 281.

For those who are unaware, much like in eastern European countries before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States operates internal checkpoints, and has done so for decades. The checkpoints in south Texas are located approximately eighty miles north of Brownsville and McAllen. Everyone traveling along the two highways that lead out of the region is subjected to the same scrutiny, as if they were entering into the country for the first time. It is an unnerving experience for the uninitiated—in the middle of America an armed federal agent pulls the traveler over and insists that she prove her innocence, that she has a right to be there.

Immigrants for whom obtaining permission to be here is nigh near impossible, must therefore escape detection at least twice—once upon crossing the Rio Grande, and, once more, going further north. Many of them take their chances and try crossing around the checkpoints by heading out into the surrounding desert. The journey is dangerous. Many people—hundreds, it is estimated—die in the scrub land that blankets Eddie’s home county.

The checkpoints are the reason Eddie created his Human Rights’ Center. He has a rough job. He maintains dozens of water stations spread out across this area, formerly known as the Wild Horse Desert, and he has advocated for years to the federal government on behalf of these traveling souls, arguing for a more humane immigration policy, for shutting down the checkpoints, for having the border patrol do more to save the lives of those lost in the desert.

During a visit with him back in February, he talked about the recent discovery of the bodies of a group of migrants. “It had gotten really cold, and we found these individuals who apparently didn’t know how to huddle up together (to share their warmth). They all died. Then, not long afterwards, we found this other group that knew how to huddle up. They survived.”

Life lessons can be found anywhere, of course, but for those paying attention, the Wild Horse Desert offers them up in spades.

As a measure of the desperation of the migrant: not only is the traverse around the check point complicated by heat (or cold), a lack of water (you simply cannot carry the amount of water that you need to survive), the thorns, the rattlesnakes, the scorpions, but the migrant is walking on sand—sand that is loose, deep, and seemingly designed by some demon to wear a person out. These details are well known by those thinking about making the trip. They know of the risk, they know that people disappear and die while making the journey, and yet they feel that they must take this chance. Something dire indeed is driving people to make this trek.

As a measure of the courage, the generosity and the strength of many who have joined Eddie’s work: exhuming and identifying bodies so that families can have at least the peace of knowing the finality of their loved ones, is an exhausting task that pits good-hearted people against hard-headed bureaucracies ranging from our own federal government (which refuses to facilitate the identification of victims between Eddie and the families) to a county coroner who, without a lot more work, could facilitate the matching of DNA data between families who are searching for a loved ones and those who have died.

As a measure of just how casually cruel people can be: the water stations are regularly vandalized (this is not specific to south Texas. This video clip shows Border Patrol agents doing this in Arizona, a particularly chilling rationale for that behavior).

As a measure of the loss of our sensibility as human beings: that we have spent billions of dollars on “securing the border” when the vast, overwhelming majority of the people crossing into the USA are families (moms and dads and their children) who surrender to the first border patrol agent they encounter, and who are seeking asylum. Those who do try to avoid apprehension by the Border Patrol, and who end up wandering in the desert have names. They have mothers and children. They have best friends. Some of the ones that I have known (who made it across the desert alive) played shortstop for their local baseball team, others taught Sunday school, and yet others were hired out to serenade mothers on Mothers’ Day.

Eddie knows many of those who did not make it through the desert. He would not have recognized them in real life, as he only saw their remains. But mixed in those remains could be a small purse with some photos in it, giving a hint of the family that awaits news of her, somewhere south of the US. He might find a prayer card invoking the intervention of San Toribio, or a small notebook with phone numbers. Whether or not there is much physical evidence left of the individual, Eddie does know that this was someone who was a son or a father or a best friend.

The shift to a policy of deterrence and prevention of unauthorized immigration by the Border Patrol has been clearly linked to the increase in deaths of immigrants (RadioLab recently produced a series laying out this move, and its disastrous human toll). This policy has been picked up by Homeland Security, who has shamelessly suggested that separating children from their parents at the border is a good idea.

All of this begs the question of why on earth people would migrate at all. What diabolical forces must be at work in someone’s home country that would force them to leave their kin, their community, their language and the place of their ancestors? In the very long, heated national discussions about immigration, only the briefest nod is paid to the so-called “push factors”, those critical conditions that force the decision to migrate.

The Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol Sector Chief Manuel Padilla has a long-standing relationship with Eddie, and Eddie seems somewhat encouraged by recent conversations. But the political change in Washington, and the continued dehumanization of the immigrant, makes any sort of meaningful change a very long-term project.

In the meantime, Eddie and his volunteers will continue to stumble upon the remains of those who, perhaps, did not have someone else to huddle up with, or who just needed water, and, lacking that, died, alone, unnecessarily, north of the American border.

(To help with the mission of the South Texas Human Rights’ Center, go to their website by clicking here).