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.

Community for Children

December 21, 2020

Dear friends, known, and yet to be known,

I hope this letter finds you and your loved ones safe and well.  No doubt you all have continued to advocate for and take care of those in need in your own communities during these extraordinary times.  Knowing you share our passion for the well-being of all children, we wanted to provide you with an update on our advocacy work on the Texas/Mexico border, our goals for the future, and to ask for your help.  

You have seen the news about asylum-seeking families’ plight and many of you witnessed it first-hand at the border.  Much of the medical effort at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, was supported by a non-profit we started in 2015, Community for Children, Inc.  Community for Children, Inc., board members have responded in multiple ways over the last five years:

  • Organizing medical volunteers like you to provide acute care at the Humanitarian Respite Center
  • Raising funds to hire full-time medical staff at the Humanitarian Respite Center
  • Providing over-the-counter medications through funds supplied by the AAP and CforC
  • Purchasing prescription medications and durable medical equipment for the immigrant families on the border
  • Soliciting funds to support midwifery support for the pregnant mothers arriving
  • Creating a partnership with Stanford, Texas Children’s Hospital and Migrant Clinician Network to develop the first national network of clinics and academic medical centers to connect pregnant mothers and children with chronic medical conditions to medical care in their destination communities.
  • Offering referral services for vulnerable pregnant woman and children to other shelters along the border, including the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, La Posada Providencia in San Benito, Annunciation House in El Paso, The Holding Institute in Laredo, and Loaves and Fishes in Harlingen.   

For 2021, our goal is to raise funds to:

  • Fully fund the salaries of certified midwives to provide medical triage and anticipatory guidance to all prenatal and postnatal immigrant mothers.
  • Continue provision of prescription medications, over-the counter medications, supplies, and durable medical equipment for immigrant families.
  • Advocate for human rights and the humane treatment of immigrant children and families through education and outreach to communities and policymakers.
  • Expand our efforts to other immigrant shelters along the entire southern border from Brownsville to San Diego.

You can help us by:  

  • Advocating for all children and families in your community and in this country.
  • Educating friends, colleagues, and family about the work you did on the border and the work currently being done through Community for Children, Inc.

I treasure all of you who were able to come to the border and recognize the precious time and effort it took to get down here.  I am forever grateful that you joined us on the journey.  Many of you have written emails and letters expressing deep concern for the families and sent donations.  There is absolutely no way we could have cared for these families without you.  A million thanks!  Please stay safe and let me know how you are doing. I would love to hear from you.  

With much love and respect from the entire Community for Children, Inc. Board of Directors:

Dr. Marsha Griffin, President – (956)832-8255; griffincfc@gmail.com

Dr. Minnette Son, Vice President – (210)326-1280; msonmd@gmail.com

Dr. Stan Fisch, Treasurer – (956)345-7954; stan.fisch@gmail.com

Dr. Judith Livingston, Secretary – (512)288-6522; judeliving@gmail.com   

Warmest regards,

Marsha

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.

Asylum

028cb-francisco-smallJuly 1, 2020

I remember him at odd times, a small, quiet man whose scars on his thumbs spoke far more about his suffering than his own words could.

His name was Francisco, and I had met him back in 1988, when I had first come to the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas. Francisco was from Guatemala, and had shown up at our parish door asking for something to eat and a place to stay while he arranged for a bus to take him to relatives who lived in New York.

Francisco had been a catechist in his small village. A catechist is someone trained by the church to offer basic religious instruction and lead the community in prayer. His acceptance of this responsibility on behalf of his community was unfortunate.

In 1982, the Guatemalan military had put up an army garrison in Francisco’s village. Soon after arriving, the new post commander sent soldiers to bring Francisco and his wife and children in for interrogation. Francisco had brought his bible with him, “In case he wanted to pray with me,” he told me. Francisco said that upon seeing the bible, the officer told him, “You people are communists.”

The officer ordered his soldiers to bind each of the family members’ thumbs together with copper wire. The family was then marched to the edge of a ravine just outside of town.

One of the soldiers drew a machete and decapitated, first, Francisco’s six-year-old little boy, and then his nine-year old little girl, and then his wife.

Francisco, horrified, his thumbs bound behind his back, leapt off the cliff, survived the fall, and escaped the soldiers. After years of hiding from the army, Francisco made his way out of Guatemala, across Mexico and into the United States, where he applied for asylum.

I do not know if Francisco ever received asylum. I met many people during that time in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s who did not. (Robert S. Kahn’s Other People’s Blood details how in the Rio Grande Valley the Immigration and Naturalization Service and other federal immigration enforcement agencies so corrupted the process that the granting of an asylum claim was rare). All the same, occasionally, people in dire need received asylum.

The evil that was visited upon Francisco continues, unabated, across the world, and its victims seek flight from its scourge. Over the past year, some made it to the Mexican side of our southern border, where they have waited, with an exhausted hope, for relief. The Trump administration has battered that hope with one punitive action after another—separating children from their parents, holding people in barbaric conditions in border patrol detention, forcing people to wait in the extraordinarily dangerous conditions in Mexico, and a series of attacks on the asylum process itself.

These actions are in contravention of our own law and international conventions, rules of good governance designed to create safe spaces for those caught in government-grade barbarity. All the same, the administration is proposing a yet another new rule, one that would practically bring an end to America’s offer of asylum. The proposal is exhaustive in its wickedness, narrowing acceptable categories for seeking asylum to a near null set.

The rule is a proposal and so open for public comment. If you and your community would like to offer a public comment against this proposal, you can go to the website dedicated for receiving those comments: https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=EOIR-2020-0003-0001.

Sarah Cruz of Texas Impact did all of us a great favor by writing a piece offering context and background for the rule:  https://texasimpact.org/2020/06/new-proposed-rule-will-end-asylum/

There are other Franciscos waiting at our southern border. They have come “trusting in Americans” as many of them have told me, time and again.

As far as Francisco goes, I would like to believe that our country honored his trust in us. I would like to think that he is, therefore, living as a free man in a small town somewhere in the US, his heart and his thumbs still scarred by the evil of that long-ago afternoon, but in a safe place now, from which he might honor the memory of his family.

I Do Not Want to Tell This Story

falfurrias unknown femaleI have a friend who is a woman of the Quiche people. She lives near the highland region of Guatemala. Survival has been the mode of life for most of her people, most of the time. She has dedicated her own life to healing the various physical, psychological and spiritual wounds that her community suffers.

I checked in with her last week, with COVID19 on my mind.

She told me that things were tough. The Guatemalan government had closed down her small town. People were only allowed out of their homes for two hours a day and that social contact in her area was strictly policed. This was fine for controlling infections, she said, “But we are poor people. We don’t have big refrigerators or spaces to stockpile food. We must go to the market everyday.”

Now one had any money for food.

Just before the town was quarantined, dozens of people had arrived in her small town walking down from the high mountains. “There is starvation up there,” my friend said. After a pause, she added, “I saw the saddest thing this morning. I was out for a brief moment and I found an older woman sitting on the curb. She was drinking from a bottle of corn liquor. The woman told me, ‘It’s cheaper than beans and its helps with the hunger pangs.’ ”

Over the past three years, the United States federal immigration enforcement apparatus decided to try and seal off our country from those it deemed “undesirable.” The actions of the Department of Homeland Security included the Muslim ban, the intentional and permanent separation of children from their parents, the refusal to allow asylum seekers their lawful entry into the United States, and, most recently, the practice of expulsion. Under expulsion, anyone that the border patrol detains is immediately returned to Mexico, whether or not they are in true danger of death, whether or not the person has the absolute right under US law to be present and to be placed into a proper immigration process. (Border Patrol claims that children under the age of 12 who are travelling alone are placed with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, while children older than 12 are put on a plane back to their home country).

Immigration hardliners disingenuously claim this tough enforcement is an effort to deter immigration in the first place. That is, make the experience of immigration so horrific that no one would want to even consider that as an option. The deterrence mode of immigration enforcement has been in operation since the 1990s and it has never worked. Despite border wall construction, despite the tens of thousands of border patrol agents, US army troops, highway patrol agents and other “boots on the ground”, people have continued to come north to seek safety for their children.

Why is that? There are many answers, all well documented but one salient reason is that the horrors in Guatemala (in this case) are beyond tolerance. No father will stay in a place that puts his son in mortal danger (which is the case in an area controlled by organized crime). Once a daughter turns thirteen, no sensible mother will remain in a town in which girls that age are considered appropriate targets for rape—a criminal act are seldom prosecuted. For many people, living in Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras is accepting a death sentence for their families.

And so they flee.

In these last months, however, conditions have worsened. The violence of criminal gangs remains unchecked, but now there are crop failures, and people are starving. For many Central Americans, the imminent crush of COVID19 will be the straw that broke the camel’s back, and they, too, will join the flight north, to the United States.

In the recent past, when these families crossed into the United States, they sought out a border patrol agent. They were seeking apprehension, so that they could begin the process of claiming asylum. As asylum seekers have told me over and again, they are not interested in being illegal. They want their day in court. They are convinced that their experience in their home countries would be compelling enough to meet the standards of an asylum case.

Now, however, when an asylum seeking family reaches the United States, they are denied the very possibility of asking for asylum. Surrendering to the border patrol is no longer an option for them. It seems clear to me that the next chapter in this sad history of immigration into the United States will be these families doing their level best to avoid apprehension. With the aid of smugglers, and with the bold courage born in the act of saving a child, they will try to make their way across the Rio Grande, and then venture into the a wilderness known as the Wild Horse desert.

In our section of the border, part of this desert is in Brooks County, just about sixty miles north of McAllen. Not everyone who enters that desert survives. The Brooks County sheriff has a gruesome photo collection of the bodies that he has recovered over the years. Most all of the pictures stored in the large binders he has are of the bodies of men, although there are some women.

Last week, I had that collection of photos in mind when I joined a conference call that sought to organize the work of the many wise and good people dedicated to protecting the most vulnerable children in Texas. I tried to explain the impact of the expulsion practice put in place by the US government. I told the group that the “push factors” for immigration from Guatemala was once the unimaginable misery of poverty. Added to this was the armed violence of the army visited upon civilians, and, over time, the dread of living in a land ruled by gang members.

“People are not going to stop fleeing this horror. For the sake of their families, they must leave. But now, instead of trusting that the United States has a noble law for the treatment of people like them, their journeys will take them into the deserts around the border. The most vulnerable child in Texas,” I said, “will be the nine year old girl walking with her mother through the Wild Horse desert come this June.”

That is a story that I do not want to tell.

 

Expelled

20190621_192319

Shoes of asylum seekers, left behind.

Two weeks ago I spoke over the phone with three people who had recently come to the border to seek asylum in the United States. One of these was a man from El Salvador who told me that he and his wife and two children had had to leave their village after the local gang leader told the man that the gang wanted to “rent” his nine year old daughter.

“We left the next day,” he told me, “I have an uncle in Atlanta who told me that he would take care of us while we did the asylum process. We have no where else to go.”

A woman that I spoke with was at that same shelter. She was from Nicaragua, and she told me that she had lived in the United States for almost twenty years.

“I went home to bury my dad and overstayed my travel permission, so they (the US authorities) wouldn’t let me back into the country,” she explained, “ But I have an eleven year old living in Texas, and with all that is going on, I need to be with my daughter.”

The other woman I spoke with was from El Salvador. She spoke softly, but was clearly furious about how she and her family had been treated by the US agents.

“We crossed the river and it was freezing cold. The patrol showed up and we surrendered and told them that we were seeking asylum. They wouldn’t let us talk to them, they didn’t care about our reason for being there. They just told us to give them our things. They poured out our drinking water, and the kids were shivering, but they wouldn’t give us our jackets back. The agents just ignored us. They drove us to the international bridge and made us walk into Mexico. It was 2 a.m. and on the Mexican side of the bridge there were a bunch of men with guns sitting in a truck, staring at us. We were terrified, but we must have looked so pathetic that they thought we weren’t worth fooling with,” she told me.

The three families were a part of the more than 10,000 people that the border patrol has “expelled” since March 21st, when the government assumed that emergency public health measures issued by the Center for Disease Control gave them the right to bypass long-standing immigration law. The new policy, while outrageous, given our nation’s meager, yet important previous commitments to provide safety for those seeking political asylum, is not surprising. After all, ours is the country that cold-heartedly separated children from parents, that left those families who managed to remain together languishing in cages for days on end, in conditions likened to torture.

Ours is the country in which children died in while in border patrol custody.

It is a depressingly short route from separating children from their parents, to refusing to even consider offering safety to people fleeing for their lives. The pretext for this new policy is the COVID19 virus, but the plan to seal the border from asylum seekers has been in place since just after the 2016 election. The effort by advocates over these past weeks to defend our nation’s asylum policy has been extraordinary, especially given the strictures of “remain in place.” There are numerous cases filed in federal court, official complaints establishing the record of abuse have been lodged with the government, and other efforts are going forward.

Those of us who have had the honor of working on behalf of the asylum seekers, however, realize just how important it is to this struggle for these suffering men, women, and children to be seen, to be heard, and to be known. The practice of immediately expelling people effectively “disappears” the asylum seekers, as it is very difficult to even find them in the murkiness of the Mexican border. It has become nigh unto impossible to lift up the plight of these people.

There are 2,500 asylum seekers who continue to live in a tent camp in Matamoros. They were not expelled, but rather made to “remain in Mexico” for the course of their asylum process. Many, many people from the US have visited with them over the past year and a half. While these 2,500 displaced people are only a small part of the millions of people who have been forced to flee their homelands, what makes this Matamoros community special is that they are not strangers to us. They are friends who have trusted us with their stories, who invited us into their tents and into their lives.

For some of us, these were one-time encounters that lasted perhaps an hour or so; for others, the visits have been a daily part of their lives for months on end. However brief, the visit was powerful. For while the asylum community, like any other collection of human beings, suffers with its own foibles, it is also gifted with people who have learned to navigate a world of unseen terror, of uncertain futures, and of deep loss. Just standing in the same space with someone who lives through that can only inform our own lives.

In all of the conversations that I have had with people seeking asylum, a significant aspect of their survival mechanism was an unstinting trust that the people who populated a nation of law (as so many described the United States), having heard the circumstances that brought them to the southern border, would offer them and their families a safe place to live. No one was coming north to look for a free handout (which, in case you do not know this, does not exist). They were simply looking for a place where they could watch their children safely grow up.

Our nation’s heart has hardened, at least under the present leadership. The federal government has taken the law and twisted it and turned it to serve one purpose—that no one’s plea for asylum will be heard, at least in the foreseeable future. Indeed, if the expulsion program continues, we won’t even know that there are people knocking on our nation’s door, pleading for help.

Citing public health concerns covers a multitude of sins, but even as the hounds of plague, and, then, probably, famine, nip at our collective global heels, the plight of this community of people should not be allowed to fade from the public’s attention. In my own Jewish/Christian tradition, neither epidemics nor wars nor any calamity removed the obligation to care for the stranger. Indeed, in our traditions, the practice of hospitality is considered a blessing more for those who offer it than for those who receive it. Likewise, dire curses are attached to those who fail to honor this obligation. Our nation’s new practice of expelling the stranger, without the slightest regard for their well being seems to fall in line with the curses (Exodus 22:21–24, for just one sample).

At the end of one of the phone calls that I had last week, a woman asked me “If my family and I cross the Rio Grande, and this time avoid the border patrol and make it to my grandfather’s place in the United States, will the first time that I got caught affect my (asylum) case?”

Her desperation was heart breaking. I told her that I didn’t know about asylum law. I did know biblical law, though, and so told her, “Well, if you make it to Brownsville, your family is welcomed to stay with us.”

She thanked me, graciously, saying, as is the custom, “Que Dios te bendiga.”

There is No Good News

crosses removedMarch 22, 2020, Brownsville, Texas.

A friend from Matamoros texted me this morning. She said that yesterday afternoon she had met a father from El Salvador. Earlier in the day, desperate to get his five-year-old son to the safest place that he could imagine (in his mind, the United States), he had swum across the Rio Grande with his child on his back.

He took the boy up to the top of the riverbank, and sat down. Eventually, a border patrol truck rounded the corner, heading toward them. At the very last moment, the father placed his child on the ground, and dashed to the river, swimming back to Mexico, leaving his boy behind.

The five year old was now an unaccompanied minor in the custody of the US government. The father assumed that the little boy would be handed over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement and, eventually, united with family members who live in the United States.

Up until last week, a family desperately seeking safety for their children, and opting to abandon them to the mercy of the US government would have sent the children up across the international bridge. Mid-bridge, the children would surrender to US Customs and Border Protection agents, with the parents assuming that the children would be taken proper care of and that they would soon be with family members. In actuality, this was a terrible idea. Indeed, once attorneys explained all the bad things that could happen in this scenario, most changed their minds about sending their children alone into the USA.

On the other hand, there is just not a lot of hopeful options for asylum seekers and their families, and some continued to send their children into the USA. Last week, however, Mexican immigration agents began intercepting the children who were crossing the bridge. The agents would take the children back into Matamoros, where they were turned over to the Mexican equivalent of Child Protective Services. This was a horrifying eventuality for the parents of the children, for the reclamation of their children required reams of documentation, much of which had not survived their journey across Central America and Mexico.

Perhaps the father felt that losing his child to the Mexican government was much more fearful than the idea of drowning in the river. Maybe he had heard of someone doing this successfully in the past, and maybe that other person’s child was living, safely, with an aunt or someone in Maryland, or in Illinois. Maybe the father was carrying so much love for his little boy, and that love was mixed up with so much terror about what could happen to his child that the idea of swimming the river and leaving his boy behind was the best he could come up with.

In any case, today, the father is without his boy, and the boy without his father. In a reasonable world, they would not have been forced to live in fear in Matamoros while awaiting the processing of their asylum case. In a kind world, they could be living with their family members some place in the United States during this process. In this miserable world, it is hard to know what has happened to that five year old.

As for the father, my friend tells me that he just sits on the steps outside her office, and weeps.

 

Civility

20191118_172930I met a very wealthy, very powerful man last week in Matamoros, Mexico. He had come from a very long ways away, at no little expense and bother. The man had wanted to see, with his own eyes, the situation in which the Central American asylum seekers were living as a result of the US government’s “Migrant Protection Protocols” program (MPP). This initiative forces asylum seekers to live in some of the most dangerous cities in the world as their  applications for asylum in the United States were considered.

Matamoros, the city just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, is one of those cities.

As we walked together through the camp, he bent his ear toward me hear my responses to his questions. “How many children are here?” “How do people get drinking water?” “How dangerous is it?”

Mostly, though, he walked and seemed to take care to notice what the people living in the tents were doing. At one point, he stopped at a campsite where a family was seated around a cookstove fashioned out of mud and sticks. He asked if he could take their picture. The father of the family agreed, and after taking some pictures, the man had a short chat with them, asking after their children and their hopes. The conversation was quiet, the father told the visitor that people were afraid to live in the place. “No one is safe here,” said the man.

As we left the family, the father thanked us for the visit.

We then walked to the river bank, having to duck under several clotheslines which were loaded down with children’s wear.  On our side of the Rio Grande were the sounds of life: children playing, women chatting as they washed clothes at the communal laundry station, two men laughing as they used a machete to hack up wood for cooking.

On the other side of the river, only about 200 yards away, were the huge white tents that housed the courts where the asylum cases of these people would be heard. As we stood gazing at the tents, I explained a little bit of the process to him. I told him that I had a friend who had a hearing the next day. I told him that it would be another day of humiliation for her, that she would have to be in line on the bridge at 4a.m. for a hearing that would not begin until 9a.m. She would be checked at the bridge for lice. She would share the intimate details of the horrors she suffered in Honduras over a webcam to a judge who was sitting miles away in a different courtyard. Like her last time in court, she would ask for another hearing, for later on, so she would have time to gather more evidence for her case. She would tell the judge that she had been raped in Matamoros and was afraid to go back. The judge would then send her to some other official who was in charge of deciding who could safely stay in Mexico and who could not.

And that, like nearly everyone who had made the trip to the tent courts across the way, she would be back in these miserable circumstances the following afternoon.

As we walked back to the bridge, I asked him what he thought about all of this.

He stopped walking, pursed his lips for a moment, and then said, “I have found more civility amongst the people living in this squalor than in my own country.”

We re-entered the US, handing over our passports to be reviewed by a Customs and Border Protection agent. Just across from the agent were large photographs of the president and vice-president, smiling down at the proceedings.

Living Between A Rock and A Hard Place: The Militarized U.S.-Mexico Border

I have walked across the Brownsville international bridge, the structure that connects my hometown with Matamoros, Mexico, hundreds of times over the years. As a longtime borderland resident, crossing back and forth for work, family, or business is part of regular life.

But on one morning late last year, I crossed the bridge along with one of my colleagues for a much more serious reason.

Both of us had received worrisome text messages from friends in Matamoros reporting that some 300 asylum seekers had staged a sit-in on the Gateway International Bridge. Our friends knew that the ACLU of Texas was advocating and litigating on behalf of these families, and they thought that we might be worried about them.

The idea of hundreds of vulnerable asylum seekers in a face-off with militarized border guards did indeed make us nervous. After all, the militarization of our community in Brownsville had reached extremes I never could have imagined when I arrived here back in 1989.

MPP riverHundreds of asylum seekers and migrants lined up early in the morning at the Brownsville-Matamoros port of entry, nervously waiting for their court dates.

In three decades, the Rio Grande Valley had gone from being a lovely, quiet place on the border by the sea, to an occupied zone. Three thousand border patrol agents, hundreds of state troopers, and military troops are now patrolling our streets and the banks of the river. The miles of concertina wire sitting atop the border wall that runs right through the heart of Brownsville adds a particularly bitter punctuation to the sense that we are a community under siege.

Yet we aren’t under siege and never have been. “Securing the border” is the official reason for all of the armed federal and state troops in our midst. What is happening is that there are families who are fleeing for their lives at our doorstep. And in Brownsville, residents actually open their hearts to these families, offering them food and shelter.

Indeed, if many Rio Grande Valley residents are feeling unsafe, it is more likely because of the enormous number of uniformed agents running around with guns on their belts. Some of the most horrific crimes in our otherwise peaceful region have been committed by federal agents: In 2014, near Mission, Texas, a border patrol officer sexually assaulted and attempted to murder three young women — two of them 14-year-olds. And just this past year, in Laredo, another Border Patrol agent is on trial for serial murder.

MPP riverA Department of Homeland Security vehicle parked outside a restricted area near the port of entry in downtown Brownsville, TX.

Aside from those sobering events, just the fact that there are so many fingers on so many triggers signals that violent events could escalate very quickly at the drop of a dime. And it wouldn’t be federal employees that would suffer; people from the community and those seeking refuge would be the casualties.

On that cold morning, the thought of the asylum-seeking families on the international bridge facing off against Customs and Border Protection agents suited out in their riot gear quickened our steps as we made our way toward the bridge.

Although concerned, I was not surprised by the action of the asylum seekers. For weeks, more than fifteen hundred people had been living in small camping tents at the entrance to the bridge. The conditions are horrific. There are only six portable toilets available to the families; there is no public safety.

MPP riverOne of the few hand washing stations, surrounded by litter, in the asylum encampment that has emerged in Matamoros, Mexico, near the U.S. port of entry.

Rape had become commonplace, with reports that the “morning after” pill is a common request from the women in the camp. As there are only four showers available for the more than 1,000 souls, people had taken to bathing in the Rio Grande. This river, while nearby, carries raw sewage from dozens of cities that line it. The river regularly features rotting carcasses of animals that die by its murky banks.

Many of these asylum seekers had been in Matamoros for months. The federal government had placed them in the Migrant Protection Protocols program (MPP), a policy that meant that the asylum seekers would have to endure horrendous conditions in Mexico while awaiting their asylum hearings.

Finally, the frustration of the hundreds of people at the port of entry in Matamoros had reached a tipping point. And so, in the middle of the night, three hundred of these suffering souls decided to walk to the top of the bridge, peacefully making the only case that they had to make — that they were human beings and deserving of being treated as such.

MPP riverThe pedestrian walkway on the old bridge that connects Brownsville to Matamoros, Mexico.

While families congregated in the early hours, CBP agents quickly sealed the bridge, dragging a high fence with concertina wire across the road and shutting the gates on the sidewalk. The asylum seekers, upon reaching the barriers, chose to lie down on the roadway. Some of them had thought to bring mats, laying them out for seating. Others simply took their place on the public roadway. There was never an attempt to rush the barriers or otherwise gain forced entry into the U.S. — simply a peaceful demonstration of their humanity.

Despite the calm gathering, the CBP agents called in reinforcements, and soon a dozen agents, dressed in anti-riot gear were facing off against the families. A drone hovered overhead, and an officer made a show of photographing the protesters.

Then, for the next 14 hours, the groups simply faced each other, divided by a fence, and politics. One group was committed to nonviolence; the other group appeared ready to be quite violent. In an irony of life in the borderlands, many of the CBP agents and the asylum seekers shared the same last names, the same language, and, in many cases, the same faith.

As the day wound to a close, the asylum seekers quietly left the bridge, moving back to the hovels that has been their home. Suddenly, in an unnecessary and provocative gesture, CBP agents blasted off four rounds of smoke bombs near the crossing, the explosions rattling windows and setting off car alarms. We were told the agents were just “taking advantage of the moment” to practice.

These last blasts might have been meant as a sign of power, but I saw them as a mark of our national impotence. Sure, we can march soldiers to a line and spend an enormous amount of our precious resources repelling a nonexistent threat. Yet we aren’t big enough to offer people fleeing for their lives a chance to tell their story, nor an opportunity for us to be the big people we say that we are.

MPP riverThe Rio Grande Valley is surrounded by fences, like this one at the port of entry in Brownsville.

Meanwhile, the asylum seekers who peacefully demonstrated throughout the day, displayed admirable public courage. This, despite being subject to a place where they are damned if they flee the violence of their home country and damned if they don’t manage to get to a safe place with their family. The absolute weakest, most vulnerable people in our bi-national community stood up face-to-face with the most powerful force in our region.

And their message was simple: We are here. We are not leaving. We are not afraid. An incredible message to hear in this very tight spot in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where we find ourselves living between a rock and a hard place.


Voices of the Rio Grande Valley: How Extremist Federal Policies Continue to Threaten Texas’ Borderlands. Over the next several weeks, the ACLU of Texas, in collaboration with staff and community members based in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV), will be sharing a series of essays, photos, and videos that demonstrate the region’s ongoing struggle to ward off intrusion of federal policies on everyday life. While many of these policies are not new to the RGV, they have been ramped up under the Trump administration, which has used the borderlands, its people, and its resources as pawns in a political game. But the people of the Rio Grande Valley are not staying silent. Join us as we explore the rich history, culture, and environment of this region in southeast Texas, and how its residents are fighting back to preserve their homes and way of life.