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.

Foot Washing

Many years ago, while serving as a Catholic priest, I was invited to celebrate Holy Week with some men who were being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Port Isabel Processing Center, located outside of Brownsville, Texas.

When I asked the men which way they would like to pray, one of them asked if we could do “that feet-washing prayer.” The feet-washing prayer comes from the Holy Thursday liturgy in which, following the Gospel of John’s narrative of the last supper, the church reenacts Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet. The community is reminded, in this way, of Jesus’ remonstration that no one is above the obligation to care for each other, however humble that service might be, and whomever it is that is in need of that care.

That was the prayer service these men wanted during that particular Holy Week. And so, on that morning in the midst of a federal prison, we managed to round up a bucket, some warm water, soap and a couple of towels. The men—there were about thirty of them—removed the flipflops the government had given them, and became quiet.

I knelt on the floor. I took the first man’s feet into my hands. I rinsed them, soaped them, rinsed them again, and dried them. I moved onto the next man, and then the one after that. I remember the distinctiveness of their feet—some were swollen, some were thin. They were all calloused and scarred, however, and one fellow still had bandages from the cuts he had gotten from the cacti that lined the trail that he had been following through the desert before he was caught.

I remember being profoundly moved by the intimacy of the moment, of having held in my hands feet which were maps of the journeys these men had suffered. I also recall being struck by the irony of it all. In that prison, on that morning, we had ritually recalled a moment when the social tables were turned, the honored guest acting as a servant during his last meal with his friends. Just a few hours after that meal, this innocent guest would be hauled up the Calvary Hill and then executed as a capital criminal, all of this in order to keep some sort of political peace.

The foot washing took about an hour. We finished with a benediction, a prayer and a hymn. One of the men came up to me and quietly thanked me for the service. “In this place, it is rare that I feel like I am treated as a human being. Today, though, I did feel that.”

We went our separate ways: the men back to their prison pods, and me into the freedom beyond the prison gates.

In that ICE detention center, on that morning, there were no tables turned. The men may have enjoyed a bit of spiritual solace, but nothing really changed. Most of them, indeed, would be sent back to the violent mess of their own cavalries, to the misery that had set them on their journey north to begin with. Their similarity to the plight of Jesus was keen, as the only reason that they were in this prison had everything to do with keeping political peace and next to nothing to do with any actual threats to our social order that these men could have posed.

The latest alarm in the national news is all about the threat to our social order that the children coming to our southern border represent.

The arrival of Republican senators and their usual boat ride along the Rio Grande (replete with 50 caliber machine guns) fulfilled my cynical expectation of politicians lining up for an easy photo opportunity that requires no sensible much less humane response to the actual moment at hand.

These news stories and the frantic responses by elected officials are peaking, however, during these weeks’ celebrations of Passover and Holy Week. I was reminded again of Biblical foot-washing and of Passover meals as a number of faith leaders from across the nation reached out over the past week to migrant advocates along the border. They quite simply, and generously, asked, “how might we help?” One pastor told me, “We can absolutely take care of these children, however many there are. I mean, this nation can come up with the resources to build aircraft carriers; children are much easier that that. What a great moment to be church!”

One group wants to send the families immediately back into danger; the other group wants to take care of them.

Thus as Senator Ted Cruz, cruising the Rio Grande in a Border Patrol boat, portrays the children as threats to national security, Methodist pastors from North Carolina, see the migrants as families in need of some warm clothing. Once again, the biblical obligation for hospitality runs up against the politician’s wish to terrorize constituents. This is not a fair fight, as most of the time fear and complacency trump courage. It is though, a just, proper and holy struggle, with the lives and well-being of innocent men and women and children in the balance.

Blessed Holy Week, chag pesach sameach.

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.