On the Border, by the Sea

On the border, by the sea

Mike Seifert

Borderland Religion; edited by Daisy L. Machado, Bryan S. Turner and Trygve Wyller


As a Catholic Christian of the social gospel ilk, I live in the most interesting community in the United States of America. My home is in Brownsville, Texas. My front porch, facing south, is just over a kilometre from the Texas/ Mexico border. Brownsville, sister city to the Mexican city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, is about 30 kilometres from the Gulf of Mexico. As I sit and write this chapter, a border patrol helicopter hovers overhead, filling the early morning with a racket that reminds me that I should be afraid. Although I live in a region that the FBI considers amongst the safest in Texas, a poll indicates that nearly half of the residents believe that this is a dangerous place. “With so many border patrol agents and national guard troops and helicopters and drones, well, something bad must be going on.”

Beneath the helicopter’s flight path, my neighbour from across the street is getting her kids ready for school. She is an undocumented person from Matamoros. During the day, she cleans hotel rooms; in the evening, she works as a waitress. Her three children are American-born, and she drives a $45,000 black SUV as camouflage. “The Border Patrol doesn’t bother rich people,” she told me. Two months ago, the police arrested her husband and he was deported to Mexico. I haven’t seen him since. Three generations of the same family live in the house next door to me. Two years ago, the grandmother died a horrible, agonizing death as she was undocumented and had no access to medical care. Her daughter, now the head of the household, is in the United States on an expired tourist visa. Her sisters are naturalized citizens; her nieces and nephews are American-born children. The con- versation that crosses the fence between our homes is a mix of English and Spanish; incomprehensible for those who are not bilingual.

Across the way, another family hosts weekly fish fries for any and all; they are all US citizens of the law and order type, are perfectly bi-lingual and worried about their mother, who is dying of cancer. There is no public hospital in this region, so her care would be very expensive. On the other side of town lives one of the first people that I met when I moved here some thirty years ago. This woman was born and raised in Matamoros. Her par- ents crossed her “illegally” into the US when she was seven. Ronald Reagan’s amnesty program (IRCA) normalized her status. She then finished university, and now works for the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), where she is in charge of keeping people just like her seven-year-old illegal self from entering the US.

These people are all church-going, Roman Catholic Christians. They hear the same Gospel each Sunday and they share the same Eucharist. They all have images of the Virgin of Guadalupe in their homes, and they are most comfortable praying in Mexican Spanish. The CBP agent sends her son to a private and expensive Catholic school; walking to Mass, my next-door neighbour avoids the streets that the Border Patrol drives along. They are all immigrants, and they are all pious believers. Living in Brownsville, a border city, their lives have been deeply shaped by immigration. This could be because they are Mexican-Americans, and considered by other Americans as immigrants themselves. They may have been profiled by federal agents as looking like potentially undocumented immigrants (or, more recently, as potential terrorists). They may have a family member who is living with them who is unauthorized, or they themselves, faithful, fully human beings, may be considered by the US government as illegal.

These very immediate, very personal senses of living as an immigrant, religious American is complicated and enriched because they live in the city that is along the closest land route for Central Americans seeking to enter the US. That is, these immigrants’ stories of faith have recently become at once more nuanced and more powerful, with the national scapegoating of immigrants, with a Pope who has taken a preferential option for all immi- grants, and with the arrival in south Texas of tens of thousands of Central Americans, mostly children and their mothers, fleeing the vicious drug war violence that has wracked that region. The families have been famously welcomed, and clothed and fed at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen (a city near Brownsville); thousands of the children who arrived alone have been given temporary shelter in private facilities while they await reunification with their families. The stories of their journeys are horrific, and their needs overwhelm the capacity of those who have welcomed them.

All of this takes place in the shadow of the Border Wall, an eighteen-foot, $6 million a mile barrier that the US Congress ordered as a part of a response to the nation’s love affair with hating the immigrant. The wall itself is admittedly useless in preventing people from crossing into the United States, and it is universally derided by border residents. The Border Wall is, however, an extraordinarily potent statement from the American people to my border community: we fear your kind, we despise your kind, your kind can stay out. The Border Wall is only the most visible manifestation of America’s power play against the southern immigrant. The Wall and its environ is patrolled by a police force (the Border Patrol) larger than all of America’s other police forces combined. Not sufficient with this show of force, the state of Texas added $800 million worth of state troopers and national guardsmen. The state and federal government have made it virtually impossible to live a decent human life without immigration authorization, part of an overall strategy to reduce the attraction of immigration.

Immigrants, in any case, and despite the sentiments and intended strategies, climb over the wall or go around the wall, and enter the United States. They do so passing into our community, a church-going group of people who publicly confess to a deeply personal relationship with Jesus the Christ. The phenomena of migration, and of religion, form on this border an inevitable, daily, lens through which one’s life is examined and tested. For the believer, the two play off against each other in a public Eucharist, as the dismembering act of crossing a border on the part of a new immigrant opens into the possible remembering action of hospitality by a believer who was once herself an immigrant.

The hospitality of the Ranchlands

Geography may have as much to do with the intersection of immigration and religion in this place as sociology. Brownsville, Texas, and the larger region known as the Lower Río Grande Valley, has the distinction of being the closest land route for Central Americans traveling to the United States. The Valley is on the eastern side of the 3,200-kilometer southern border between Mexico and the United States. The area is isolated from the rest of the country by the Wild Horse Desert, a vast expanse of scrubland bisected by two highways. Roughly a hundred miles up the highways are highly reinforced checkpoints staffed by federal agents. The checkpoints, in effect, form a second border. Without travel documents, the only way north and away from the border is a treacherous journey through the desert.

Despite its isolation, the Lower Río Grande Valley is a zone rich in eco- nomic possibilities, with fertile farmland, a port on the Gulf of Mexico, and the daily passage of nearly $1.2 billion of goods through the ports of entry. Even so, the Valley is the poorest region in the United States. Many of the inhabitants live on a per capita income less than that of Guatemala, El Sal- vador, or Mexico. The 1.5 million residents have no access to a public hos- pital. The poverty is the product of a century of pro-business politics that belies the extraordinary wealth of Texas as a whole. It is, as with most bor- derlands, a place of much contradiction: a poor place transversed, daily, by billions of dollars of trade; a port of entry that suffers, just up the highway, yet another port of entry.

The Lower Río Grande Valley was once a part of Mexico, becoming a part of Texas in 1848 after the conclusion of the Mexican/American war. Even after the war, and despite the horrific, often state-sponsored violence against the original landowners, the communities to the north and east of the Río Grande looked very much like their sister cities in Mexico. Throughout the 20th century, the interdependent economies of the area and the remoteness of the place made the movement of peoples back and forth across the border a near universal experience amongst local communities. A drought in unirrigated ranch lands on the Mexican could inspire a trip to the US for a season of farm work; an urgency in the family, a sickness or other tragedy could drive a return to the Mexican ranch home later on. It is difficult to find a family living in the Lower Río Grande Valley who does not have a living memory of their own migration. The stories of strangers sharing meals, as well as the awareness of the terrific hardship of travelling through this area inform the encounter with a stranger asking for shelter, for food, or for directions. The poverty of the area can help explain the deeper sensibility towards the precarity of life lived on the margins, as no one quite appreciates a glass of water as one who has known deep thirst.

As would be expected, a culture of hospitality undergirds the extensive, deep ties between communities across the vast region and between generations. Time is taken, and time is given for rituals of welcoming and initiation, for meals and for storytelling. Amongst even the most nominal of Christians, baptisms, weddings, and funerals play signature roles in the Lower Río Grande Valley border communities. “There are worse places to be a stran- ger,” commented one long-time resident. It is not always clear if it is religious or desert mores, but the example (and not an exception) is the attitude of 93-year-old Pamela Taylor, a British national with a ranch just outside of Brownsville. An elderly woman who expresses no love for “the illegals” as she terms them, she keeps two ice chests on her porch—one with water, the other with mineral water (Sakuma 2015). I have known families that live along the railroad (a popular pathway for migrants) who would add a dozen tacos to the day’s meal preparations, in anticipation of the hungry stranger who might happen by later in the day. It is frontier hospitality – not offered foolishly, the guest regarded with some suspicion – but given, in any case, freely.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brownsville institutionalized the religious side of this hospitality during the early 1980s when Central Americans were fleeing the civil wars of that time. The Diocese, amid much opposition from white residents of the area, and with support from main-line Protestant churches, established Casa Romero on the outskirts of Brownsville. Up to 300 immigrants were sheltered there for weeks at a time, safe from the Border Patrol and the abuse of anti-immigrant groups.

The American response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th com- plicated the practice of border hospitality, whether celebrated by an institution or by an individual. Security measures that were put into place effectively created a militarized zone of the southern border communities. It became a felony offense to offer aid to an immigrant. A web of social suspicion was created in which a simple traffic stop for a broken brake light could effectively lead to the destruction of an entire family, as the complicated, mixed immigration status so common in the area runs smack into the hard-headed, no holds barred American security apparatus.

The regional sharing of life between the two countries was further damaged by Mexico’s efforts in 2009 to destabilize drug trafficking. A vicious turf battle broke out after the Mexican government arrested leading cartel heads. Decapitated bodies were hung from highway overpasses, and the tor- tured remains of people were tossed along the public way, this long before the advent of the ISIS horrors.

Five years into this war, in the late spring of 2014, unaccompanied children as well as families began arriving at the Texas/Mexico border. The refugees, fleeing the obscene drug violence of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, surrendered to US Border Patrol in the tens of thousands (distressingly, Mexicans fleeing a similar situation were immediately repatriated). More than 60,000 children and family members had been detained by the United States Customs and Border Protection by the end of the summer of 2014.

The responses to the moment were notable. Texas politicians seized the moment to establish their “pro homeland security” bona fides. The state of Texas called out the National Guard, tripled the number of state troopers in the area, and ordered up drones and motorboats outfitted with machine guns to patrol the river, all this in response to children who were voluntarily surrendering to the authorities. The director of ICE, a Mexican American who grew up not far from this border, seemingly cutting notches in her own pistol, blithely announced that her job was to deport people, and yes, even children who were refugees. A number of members of one Catholic parish, anxious about the demands that the new immigrants were placing upon social services, took care to point out that “these aren’t our people,” and that “they (the immigrants) are taking food from our hungry people.”

The US Federal Government, for its part, proved itself incapable of meeting even minimal policing standards with regard to the apprehension and detention of children. The worst example was the rape and attempted murder of two thirteen year-old Honduran immigrants by an on-duty Border Patrol agent (the Border Patrol never offered the public an adequate accounting of the incident). More common was the Border Patrol’s warehousing of the children. Many, many of these children were certifiable war refugees, and all of them children who had suffered the trauma of travel through Mexico without a parent. The children, after arrest, were packed into holding cells for days on end. The processing centres, kept to bone-chilling cold “to keep them calm,” were universally known as “hieleras” (“ice boxes”). As the situation became public, a nun working for Catholic Charities managed to get into the processing centre. She begged the sector chief to let her into one of the cells, “that I might pray with them.” After spending some time with the children, as she took her leave, the border patrol sector chief pulled her aside and thanked her for “humanizing these children for us.”

The City of McAllen, however, offered quite a different response. The city invested millions of dollars in a collaborative effort with the Catholic Church to create a respite centre for newly arrived immigrants. The iconic moment: the immigrants, having survived the multiple traumas of abandon- ing ancestral homes, of travelling the Mexican gauntlet, and of detention by American immigration authorities (who had a hard time even seeing children as human beings), walk into the respite centre where dozens of volunteers pause at their work to applaud and welcome the newly arrived. Tears are shed by all and then a hot meal, a hot shower, and a fresh change of clothing is offered before the immigrants begin the next section of their journey. This happened dozens of times a day, throughout the summer of 2014. After a brief decline in numbers (the US paying Mexico to “stiffen” its own southern border) through 2015, in the summer of 2016, tens of thousands of Central American refugee families began passing through south Texas once again.

This latest immigration, with its own particular characteristics of despera- tion, is one amongst many that the Lower Río Grande Valley has experi- enced over the past fifty years. Whether the immigrants are children fleeing war or adults seeking a way to feed their children, the immigrants come from culturally Christian countries, passing into the US, a nation itself with a relatively high degree of self-proclaimed Christians. The US’s hard stand against Christian refugees begins in the Lower Río Grande Valley, in a community that is at once immigrant and Christian. The two postures stand hand-in-hand, and inform each other in difficult and important ways.

Boundary experiences

The encounter between the immigrant and her faith, between the believer and the immigrant, and between immigration and religion are daily occur- rences alongside an international border, but particularly when that border is a zone of conflict. In south Texas, as in many places throughout the world, controlling the passing of people across borders has become a militarized operation. Apart from the extraordinary sums of money invested in “secur- ing the border,” the effort has taken on every appearance of a battle front. In February 2015, the Texas National Guard was deployed to the Mexican border, joining a “surge” of state troopers sent in June of 2014.

The narrow Río Grande (River) now features machine-gun mounted speedboats (the guns are operational – the border patrol killed a picnicker on the Mexican border). The state troopers deploy snipers (their training inspired by the movie American Sniper) who have shot unarmed immigrants to death.

Apart from the human costs of this war, the financial burden runs into a billion dollars – even as the actual rate of immigration is close to zero, and even as the only rise in immigration has been from families and children fleeing Central American violence as well as immigrants who surrender to authorities immediately upon arriving. The sociological costs are yet higher – federal agents encourage neighbours to “inform the Border Patrol” of illegal activity; members of the Texas state legislature seek to punish anyone offering “sanctuary” to immigrants. Along the border, the nature of our civil society is tested. After all, these immigrants look like us, they are children, and, in many cases, they are us – our parents, our relatives, and our friends.

The following stories are remarkable because they are typical. The first story, that of Silvia, relates the experience of people for whom the border splits them from their families. The second story, that of a former colleague, describes the painful dilemma for a Christian citizen, exponentially shar- pened when one stands in the shadow of the border wall. The third story captures the nature of the vía cruces that is immigration in the Americas in the 21st century, a standing at the foot of the cross that shatters easy notions of being a disciple.

Though I walk through a dark valley

Silvia is a Mexican national, a lovely, proud woman that I have known for fifteen years. She lives in Matamoros, Mexico, the city that is just a short walk across the bridge from Brownsville. Her children, her grandchildren, and her great grandchildren all live on the American side of the river, in Brownsville. For years, on each Friday afternoon, she would finish up her work in Matamoros, pack a small bag, and walk across the bridge to Brownsville. She had a tourist visa, she had her home, bought and paid for in Mexico, and she had the loves of her life just a short walk away.

This was this good woman’s happiness, up until about two months ago, when, as she was crossing into Brownsville, an immigration agent took her Mexican passport from her, and then cancelled her visa. The agent gave her no reason for the cancellation, and Silvia returned to Matamoros, heart-broken, and stricken, wondering how she would get to see her family. The drug violence in Matamoros has made it too dangerous, especially for children, prime targets for kidnappings, to travel there.

After a good deal of thought, Silvia took the little bit of savings that she had, hired what is known as an alien smuggler, and prepared to cross into Brownsville. Silvia was terrified of the river crossing. The Río Grande, while a small river, runs deeply and swiftly and is dangerous. “But,” she said, “crossing the river was the easy part. The nightmare began when we got to the US side, and the guide made me get into the sewer.” That was how she entered into the United States – a long, long crawl, in absolute, suffocating darkness, through the rot and the death that lay in the city sewer.

She finally came to a manhole cover, and rose up out of the sewer into an alley. The guide gave Silvia some sweatpants and a shirt. Silvia, a dignified 67-year- old woman who just needed to be with her children and her grandchildren, had to strip naked, stooping behind a trash bin in an alley just off of the main street, as she changed her clothing. She made it to her daughter’s home, and washed the stink off of her body and out of her hair. She dressed in her own clothing, a modest dress and sensible shoes. She couldn’t, however, wash away the stain of her humiliation. She was not someone who crawled through a sewer, undressed in a public alley, or sneaked through the streets like a criminal. She was a grandmother who needed to hold her children.

Now, weeks later, Silvia sleeps until noon, this woman who was once the first one up and the last one to bed, who, with an inimitable élan, delightedly busied herself with the joys of attending to a home. Her face has aged con- siderably in these last weeks, and the spirit has gone from her step. It is as if she has become trapped by the pull of gravity, not the kind that leads to a swift fall, but the one of the long, slow pull downwards toward the sewer of humiliation.

I know Silvia’s grandchildren – they are loud and they are many and the family gatherings trill with laughter. It is a good place for her to be, espe- cially now, as there is nothing quite like the sensation of a child crawling up into his grandmother’s lap. The child knows much about light and joy. The child loves the smell that lies upon his grandmother’s skin, the perfume called home, the scent, that of life.

After some months, Silvia returned to Matamoros, Mexico. Not so long ago, she once again made the journey across the river, but this time she was captured, not by the border patrol, but by drug gangs who control the pas- sages across the river. Her family was forced to come up with $10,000 to pay her ransom, and she was released. According to Silvia, the double doses of humiliation and terror have deepened her faith. She is a devotee of Our Lady of Guadalupe, with an altar in the front room of her Mexican home. “I understand her,” she says, “she understands me, and the kind of suffering that mothers go through. I always carry her with me (when I cross).”

Matthew 25: 35

The priest was a Mexican national, now an American citizen, born into an upper-class family. He grew up speaking Spanish, English, and French. He had been working on the border as a missionary priest for about twenty years. We had shared meals and daily prayer together in a small community of religious men in south Texas. One morning, he came into the house, having had just returned from celebrating Mass in a chapel that sits just in front of the Rio Grande. He was very upset, to the point of shaking.

“You will never believe what happened during Mass,” he said. “Right in the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer, these two men came into church. They were soaking wet and just walked right into Mass, walked right down the main aisle.” “So what did you do?” I asked him. He said, “As soon as I fin- ished Mass, I called the Border Patrol on them. We can’t have that sort of thing going on in church.” Having said that, he seemed to feel better. He stood up, excused himself, and went about his day.

He had always described himself as a stickler for rules, “bien cuadrado” he would say. He could see no violation of the laws of hospitality in his actions.

On the contrary, he felt, strongly, that these men had been abusive of the sacred space of the church and the Eucharist. It was hard to know what had disturbed him more, the fact that they were soaking wet and dragged river mud into the church, that they had interrupted the exigency of the ritual of the Mass with their own needs, or that they were illegal aliens. What was very clear was that he was not buying any of the notion that they were somehow Christ in the flesh. If anything, his encounter with the immigrants hardened his religious sense and reinforced the place of religious propriety.

Throughout the rest of the parish community, however, I could find no one who agreed with him and who approved of his actions. To the contrary, they were appalled, disappointed, and confused. Those believers’ sense of religious propriety was reinforced as well, albeit in an entirely different direction.

I am not worthy, but only say the word and I shall be healed

I cannot even now, share her name, as her case for asylum continues in deepest limbo. Her story, sadly, is also typical, one of the 800,000 created by the Guatemalan repressions of the 1980s and 1990s. She is an Ashti Indian, a Mayan from the highlands. At four years of age, her village was massacred by an army patrol, one under the command of a man who was recently elected (and then deposed) as president of Guatemala.

During the army’s murdering, she escaped into the forest, but only after witnessing the death of her mother and her infant brother. She survived the army’s limpieza, the mopping up of the survivors, although the rest of her family did not. She was raped at fifteen years of age, and, as is the custom, was forced to marry her violator. She bore him three children; he beat her and raped her continuously. Her overtures to the police were useless, as his uncle was a police captain. Her husband joined the drug cartel and they forced her into their service. She resisted however, and came under death threats from them. Years after the massacre, she became a part of the Guatemalan truth and reconciliation process, and offered statements about the events in her village. Her testimony, however, was not protected, and after yet more threats, decided to immigrate to the United States.

She crossed the Río Grande, surrendered to the Border Patrol, and asked for asylum. Her case was accepted, but she was held in county jails over the two years that it took for the courts to evaluate her claims. She became deeply depressed, possibly suicidal, and after some extraordinary interven- tions, was released while awaiting the long-overdue hearing. She lived with my wife and I for six weeks of this time of waiting. During this time, she discovered that her children had had to move in with their father, and that her ex-husband had begun to sexually abuse the seven-year-old girl, promis- ing the girl that if she complained to anyone, he would “cut out her tongue.”

I overheard this discussion as the mother and the girl visited by What- sAppAp telephone application, the mixing of Ashti and Spanish coming over the bedroom’s transom in our south Texas home, the mother exhorting her child to be strong, to trust in God, to believe that her mother would soon bring her to the United States. We were with this woman when the current judge reviewing her case decided that he was lacking authority to make a decision, that the woman would have to refile an asylum case, for the government had so egregiously mismanaged the claim as to render the court moot. The judge made this decision fully aware of the plight of the seven year old girl, but, like the priest, he was not willing to sully the court with this family’s suffering.

We mourned for a long couple of days, and then prepared to fly her deeper into the United States, to a place where there were a few members of her tribe living underground. I asked her how she was doing, and by way of an answer, she told me about a time when she and some friends had cooked five dozen tamales to be delivered for a party. They were using a GPS system as they searched for the address, and ended up way outside of town. They stopped the car, as the GPS announced, “You have reached your final des- tination.” She told me, “We looked to the right and we saw a cemetery, and we looked to the left, and we saw a cemetery. We all laughed and said, ‘This is not our final destination, not today.’ That is how I survive – I refuse to believe that this is what God wants for me. This is evil.”

But, I insisted, “How do you continue on?” And she smiled and said, “I have many friends, we are a travelling community.” And this is true – at some point, someone had gifted her with a cell phone and a generous cell phone plan, and this woman was on the phone constantly, with her former cellmates from immigration jail and her former refugee dorm mates. It was, in a sense, a sort of liturgy of the hours, only instead of invoking the Psalms, she called up a litany of saints. I had heard her cajoling them, laughing with them, comforting them, the message clear – this is a passing moment, we are not yet at our final destination.


Sakuma, Amanda (2015) This is where the country’s most infamous fence ends MSNBC. com. Available from http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/where-the-countrys-most-in famous-fence-ends [Accessed 09. 11. 2017].