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.



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:

Sarah Cruz of Texas Impact did all of us a great favor by writing a piece offering context and background for the rule:

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 no 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.



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.



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.

A Glimpse of God

20191029_114204Last week I believe I got a glimpse of God.

This happened while with some people who were visiting the Rio Grande Valley. The visitors had wanted to go across the bridge into Matamoros, Mexico. They were disturbed by what they had seen and heard in the news about the conditions that asylum-seeking families faced while having to wait in Mexico for their court hearings. The visitors wanted to see the conditions for themselves.

There is much misery to see there. Even as one crosses into Mexico, a look off to the side of the bridge will reveal wads of toilet paper in the bushes near the river. With only fifteen working toilets for the 2500 people in the camp, choosing to use the bushes rather than endure a wait makes sense. The threat of cholera and other diseases from the untreated human waste, however, could be the price of that choice.

The camp itself consists of a thousand small tents, most of them donated by charitable people, set up on asphalt, or in a small wooded area behind the river levee. There is no privacy, no security, and no running water. It is a chilly time in our region now and the cold adds another layer of misery. Meals are dependent upon church groups and other volunteers, which has fortunately worked out fairly well for the camp inhabitants. There is no school for the children (who are more than half of the 2,500 inhabitants); there is no day-care for those parents who might find some work.

There is a sense of fear that permeates every moment of life. Those in the camp arrived in Matamoros having already experienced horrors that most of us could not appreciate—the torture and murder of a loved one, a constant series of graphic threats, often directed at one’s own children, and a pervasive fear that your family will never, ever be safe. Even as they endured the flight from their homes, and the crossing through Mexico, this last bit is perhaps the most dangerous. Matamoros is prime cartel country, and most of the immigrants who are headed to the United States are doing so because they have family members there. This makes them ripe for kidnapping and extortion, because, even if the asylum seekers have no cash, they do have people in their lives who love them and who would pay a ransom. Just a month ago I had arranged to meet with a young woman a team of us were arranging to present to US officials to get her permission to enter the U.S. She asked us to meet her at a convenience store. We greeted her, and as we began walking toward the bridge, she hung back about a half a block. Only later, after she was safely in the US did she tell us that she was afraid of us, that she had already been kidnapped once and did not want to go through that again.

As of mid-July, these terrified people living in misery had to add yet another category to their suffering. The United States had begun hearing asylum cases in tent courts that had been erected right at the border. Access to the courts is nearly impossible, difficult even for an attorney with the proper paperwork in hand. As the months went by, people would go to their initial hearing. Instead of being released to family members in the United States who could take care of them, nearly all of them—even if pregnant, sick, or terrified—were returned to Mexico where they were to continue living in the tent city until their next court date. The desperation has gotten to the extreme that some parents have begun sending their children, alone, into the United States. “My children will not survive three more months in this place,” one man said.

The visitors took all of this in. They politely visited with some of the camp residents. One woman, seated next to us in an office, was bouncing her little girl on her knee. I asked her how old the girl was, and the mother looked up and said, “She is ten months old. She wants to walk, but there is no place here where she can do that. That makes me very sad.”

There were other people in the office, and one of the visitors addressed them. “This is a terrible situation. Why do you continue to stay in these horrible conditions? Why not go to another country?” Her pointed questions were asked in a quiet, respectful voice.

Another woman in the room answered in an equally respectful tone. “We remain here because we believe in America. We know that once the Americans hear our story, they will give us a safe place for our children. We believe in America.” The others in the room nodded their assent, including the young mother.

“It is a high price to pay, what we have to put up with here,” added another woman, “but it is worth it, we believe so.”

For the Americans in the room, this belief in America disturbed us. We were well aware of our nation’s long, complicated fear and hatred of immigrants. And yet here were some of those very feared and hated immigrants refusing to accept that that fear was real. They still had hope in America.

The visitors and I walked back over the bridge into Brownsville. The barbed wire and the doubled-up numbers of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents guarding the border were a reminder of our nation’s fear of those who come to our border.

As I took my passport back from the CBP agent and walked into my country, I thought of that mother with the baby longing to take her first steps, and of her belief in America. I believe that conversation with her and the other asylum seekers was that week’s glimpse of God—an encounter with someone whose vision of us is so much grander than our own sense of ourselves .

A belief of that category by its very nature demands that we be who we say we are.

That is a tall order. There are a lot of people watching and hoping that we are up to the task. One of them is looking for a space in America where her baby might learn to walk.


Pita Gamez tents at bridge

Asylum seekers shelter in tents, Matamoros, Mexico

Brownsville, Texas
October 30, 2109

Laura is from the highland area of Guatemala, a place with breath-taking beauty and a spirit-numbing history of systematic abuse of human beings. I visited with Laura a couple of weeks ago in Matamoros, the city just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas.

We had sat down beside each other on the curb of the street that runs just in front of the small tent that has been her home for the past three months. Although Laura is in her sixth month of pregnancy, her face seems to me to be too thin, and she found it difficult to sit still on the cement for very long. For all of her discomfort, she was engaging and eager to talk about her experiences coming north from Guatemala, her time in Border Patrol custody, and her hopes and fears for her immediate future.

Laura’s first language is Mam, and my first language is English, so our conversation in Spanish was stripped of subtleties.

I asked her what had happened to her in Guatemala, that she felt that she had to leave. “Oh,” she said, “I had been raped by a police captain and I discovered I was pregnant. He came to our home (she was living with her parents) to kill me, but I was away. So I managed to escape him, but I knew that he would find me and kill me. Because he is police.”

Laura decided to come to the United States because she has a aunt who is a citizen and the aunt said that she would take care of her. But Laura had no idea that things on the border had become so complicated and dangerous.

At the end of July, she paddled across the Rio Grande on a large inner tube, and, as she entered the United States, she slipped in the river bank mud and took a hard fall.

“I knew that I had hurt my baby,” she told me, “and I was glad that the American police (the border patrol) were there to help me. But the officer was rude and told me that if I was faking my injury, that I would be in a lot of trouble…but he drove me to an office and there other officials took my name and my fingerprints and asked me questions…I was hurting a lot and so they took me to a clinic.”

Laura went on to say that at one point during the drive over to the clinic, the border patrol officer, a woman, told her, “You would be better off if you just had an abortion. . .Trump is not going to let people like you have babies in the United States any more.”

Laura lifted her eyebrows as she told me this, as if to say, “How would someone have the nerve to say something like that?”

Laura said that the people at the clinic treated her well, and that after a while, her pains went away. She was then taken back to the border patrol station, where an officer told her that she would be sent back to Mexico, where Laura would be given a “nice room in a shelter over there until her court date.”

“And now look at me! This is the nice shelter I am living in–a small tent on the street,” she said, her composure breaking down for the first time.

“I don’t know what I am to do, who is going to help me with this?” she asked.

I had thought she meant her legal process, and so started to explain about the volunteer attorneys who came to Matamoros.

“No,” Laura said, “I mean, who is going to teach me about being a mother? I have no one to do that here.”

We sat quietly, uncomfortably, for while, and then shared a mutual sigh, and then I took my leave.

I told her that I would stay in touch with her, which I have, although I have not done much for her other than get her some prenatal vitamins.

For her part, Laura made some friends, one of whom a woman from Matamoros who has taken her under her wing. Laura continues to live in her tent, but she likes to visit with the woman.

“She helps me with some natural herbs and she is nice to talk to,” said Laura when I spoke with her last week.

Laura does not intend to have an abortion, but she fully intends to present her case for asylum.

“I don’t have much hope in the Americans,” she said, “But I do hope in God.”

Laura’s court date is coming up this week. It would be nice to be with her in the courtroom, during her hearing, but that won’t happen, as the United States has blocked the public’s access to these courtrooms.

“There are national security concerns,” one of the private security guards had told me the last time I tried to enter.

That comment makes some sense, in its own way. Perhaps, somewhere in our national psyche, there is still a place where shame can function. Perhaps people witnessing the quiet words of a mother-to-be could exercise the power of their moral outrage and our nation could be moved to do the right thing by Laura and the thousands of others living in misery just across our border. The exercise of that power would not a threat to our national security, but an indictment of our national character. These days, our national arrogance will not allow that, and so, as a country, we have resorted to secret courts, to harassment of the vulnerable, and to an abandonment of our own law.

That is a damned shame.

Post navigation

Leave a Reply

A Week on the Southern Border

1. Sunday morning, refugee encampment, Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico.

20180627_114530Crossing the international bridge from Brownsville to Matamoros is simple. The pedestrian puts four quarters into a turnstile, and steps onto the passageway. The walk across the bridge is pleasant, even if it is hot. There is a stiff breeze and some shade. The river seems peaceful, even if the view is tempered by an enormous amount of concertina wire recently added, purportedly to protect the United States from Central American parents and their children in case they attempt to rush the armed border guards.

Mexican customs agents wait at the bottom of the bridge for visitors,  and they are busy, as there is a steady stream of people crossing into Matamoros from Brownsville. On a Sunday morning, many of these people are headed to Mass with their relatives, others are going to shop, and dozens of people are bringing breakfast to the five to six hundred people who have come to the border to ask the United States for asylum.

Once through the Mexican customs, a walk across the avenue brings you to the refugee encampment that the United States began to create a little more than a year ago.

The camp sits right at the entrance of the international bridge, the one you take to go into the United States. The space is about a third the size of a football field. Aside from the occasional port-a-potty or two, there is no access to a restroom. Aside from bathing in the filthy and dangerous Rio Grande, there is no place else to wash clothing, or a child. Aside from a tested faith in God, there is no public safety. That is, no protections from sexual assault.  Thus, routinely, the women ask volunteers for emergency contraception and condoms to protect themselves.

Pita Gamez Escuelita

There is, of course, no school, which is striking, because the first thing I notice, and re-notice, every time that I visit, are the children. Of the six hundred or so people hanging out at the foot of this bridge, half of them must be between four and eight years of age.

On this particular Sunday, as for the past month or so, teachers from the Brownsville area have set up a “sidewalk classroom.” There is someone teaching basic English, someone else leading the children in song, and yet another teacher handing out books from her “book burro.”

Several of the children come up and give me a hug. They don’t know me, but associate me with the teacher, I suppose. This is not normal behavior, but neither are the multiple sores on their skin, no doubt from either bathing in the nastiness of the Rio Grande, or living for days in the horrid heat of the border.

Recently when my wife, a pediatrician, visited the children held in border patrol detention, she called child protective services to lodge a complaint. Now the child abuse has gone international.

2. Monday, Catholic Charities Respite Center, McAllen, Texas

Since 2014, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Brownsville has been offering hospitality to the families who are released from detention by the Border Patrol and left to make their way to families and friends elsewhere in the United States. Up until two weeks ago, the Respite Center in McAllen was receiving between 600 and 800 people every day. They were offered a hot meal, a shower, a change of clothing and a traveling packet that would take them from the Rio Grande Valley to Boston, or Miami, Los Angeles or Seattle.

Today, there were four people, a mom and her toddler-aged child, a dad and his eight year old. The other 796 or so people? In Mexico. After the families cross the river and surrender to Border Patrol, after they state their intention to apply for asylum, they are supposedly given a court date, and are returned to Mexico, where they must live in a camp similar to the one I visited yesterday.

3. Tuesday, Social Media.

There are probably a hundred people in Brownsville who have busted their hearts and souls offering solace and aid to the  immigrants who have crossed into our community over the past year. There is no one in charge of the group; it is a self-organized set of volunteers who have nonetheless fed and sheltered and cared for thousands of people in the most difficult of circumstances. Much of the organization happens through social media.

Opening a facebook app requires a deep breath and perhaps a stiff drink.

Today’s concern is about a woman who had crossed into Brownsville, had gone into labor, was taken by border patrol to a local hospital where a doctor was told to “stop the labor.”

The woman received an injection, her contractions stopped, and she was returned to Mexico, where she was to continue to await her asylum proceedings.

Once in Mexico, a day later, she went into labor in the midst of the 600 people at the bridge. She was taken to a Mexican hospital, where she gave birth.

Social media expressions range from disbelief to outrage. Who is the doctor that would do this? What is border patrol up to now? Why is it that they continuously target children—and now the unborn?

4. Wednesday, Federal Court, Brownsville, Texas

The finest attorneys in the Rio Grande Valley go to court to request that the judge stop the border patrol from long-term, abusive detention of immigrants. The border patrol admits that their own standards place a 72 hour limit on the amount of time that they can hold immigrants in their detention centers.

Throughout the testimony, witnesses were reminded of the particular horrors of border patrol detention. Worse than jail, for there are no phone calls to family allowed, little access to showers, no change of clothing—and all of this for up to a month. The cells reportedly have more than double the capacity of people in them, in which case the detainees take turns sleeping on the floor, or relieving themselves in the single, open toilet.

The meals have fewer calories than a starvation diet—a cold (frozen) piece of bologna stuck between two pieces of white bread.

The agent in charge explained the meal preparation: “Shortly before serving, the frozen sandwiches are taken from the freezer and put in a refrigerator to defrost.” Thus the ice on the meat that many immigrants have reported.

They are given this, twice a day, for as long as they are in detention.

Tomorrow, another agent will be put on the witness stand. He will swear, so help him God, that detainees were served “three hot meals a day.”

5. Thursday, Port of Brownsville Entry.

We find out, late on Wednesday, that court proceedings for those immigrants placed in “Migrant Protection Protocols” will begin today at 8am. About thirty of us agree to show up and to see if we can gain entry to the proceedings.

The first three to attempt entry are immigration attorneys. The Border Patrol police tell the attorneys that they cannot get into the court unless they have a “G-28” as well as the name of a detainee whose case is being heard. One of the attorneys asks the officer if he  knows what a G-28 looks like. He says, “You are asking me technical questions that I cannot answer.” She responds, “But you are in charge of screening us. How can you do that if you don’t even know what to look for?”

The officer doesn’t respond.

Two by two, the citizens approach and are turned away. Afterwards, we stand around for a bit, as if this tune has ended on a 7th note and needs resolution.

There is none of that, not today.

Later on we discover that inside the hidden court, only two of the six people who had a hearing scheduled showed up. No one knows what happened to the other four. Did the asylum seekers even know that they had a hearing? Had they been kidnapped, had they been killed?

All four were ordered deported, in ausencia.

6. Friday, Good Neighbor Settlement House

A colleague of mine and I interviewed a woman who had crossed the river, gone into labor and given birth in a local hospital. She told us that the (male) border patrol agent who had apprehended her stayed with her through her labor and birth. He was with with her in the recovery room until a shift change brought  a new nurse who looked at him once and, owning her authority, kicked him out of the room.

We went over the woman’s many documents with her. They were all in English, documents  that stated how the government chose to legal consider her. It was an endless gobbledygook of information critical to her status in this country.

When we finished, she looked up suddenly, and asked, “And where are my baby’s papers?”

“Ah,” I told her, “She is an American citizen. She doesn’t need any papers.”

The mother smiled, in relief, and pressed her daughter to her heart.

A good end to a complicated week.