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.

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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.


Screen Shot 2019-08-18 at 5.12.54 PM

Photo by Melba Lucio, teacher.

A year ago, in the aftermath of the release of the audio tape of the anguished cries of children separated from their parents and being held in border patrol custody, thousands of people from across the country called the offices of nongovernmental organizations on the border to offer all manner of help to the people caught up in the war on immigrants.

I received a voicemail at that time from a woman from out-of-state, asking for help in locating an immigrant who was in a shelter in Reynosa, Mexico (Reynosa is just across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas). She told me that she was worried about him, as “he has come from Honduras and through Mexico on his bicycle…I want to help him.”

I thought of that phone call over the past month as story after story came out about the war being waged not only upon immigrants, but also upon the good people daring to offer a hand to them. There was, for instance, the shameful moment in July when the federal government decided to re-try Scott Warren for his attempts to save the lives of immigrants crossing a remote wildlife refuge. (For those tempted to dismiss Warren and his group (“No More Deaths”) as simple “do-gooders,” Warren notes that since his arrest, “at least 88 bodies were recovered from the Ajo corridor of the Arizona desert”).

Then, just a couple of weeks ago, on August 2nd, Stephanie Leutert, Catherine “Ellie” Ezzell and Jake Dizard, three researchers with the University of Texas, were walking a sixteen year old boy from El Salvador across the international bridge that links Piedras Negras, in Mexico, with Eagle Pass, in Texas. The boy, recently orphaned, was trying to enter the United States where he had hoped to enter a plea for asylum.

When the group reached the international boundary line at the middle of the bridge, a Border Patrol agent, breaking US law, international accords and the Border Patrol’s own internal protocols (“every CBP agent (is) to let unaccompanied children enter the port “without problem”) refused to allow the boy into the United States. A bit later, a border patrol supervisor arrived. The Mexican officials had surrounded the academics and were threatening the scholars with arrest for “human smuggling.” The border patrol supervisor refused, then, to allow the US citizens entry into the United States, so that the academics would be taken into custody by the Mexican authorities. As the Mexican officers walked the researchers back down the bridge into Mexico, one of them remarked, “Things have changed under Trump…the United States just denied entry to American citizens.” (Jay Root reported this story for the Texas Tribune).

Eventually, the US officials allowed the Salvadoran boy and the three US citizens into the United States, but only after some hard work by the ACLU, and an intervention by Congressman Will Hurd’s office.

The following day, Saturday August 3rd, the Reverend Aarón Méndez, a much-loved pastor from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, disappeared. Or, more precisely, “was disappeared,” to use a term common in Latin America for kidnapping that leads to murder. The Reverend Méndez had been operating a shelter in Nuevo Laredo for immigrants seeking asylum in the United States. He had recently blocked drug cartel members from kidnapping some of the immigrants who were staying at his shelter, and his disappearance is most assuredly tied to his action on their behalf.

The prosecution of a human rights worker for attempting to save lives, the threats exercised against three US academics, and even the probable death of a pastor, pale in the face of the more than eighty-eight people who recently perished in the Arizona desert, of the Walmart slaughter in El Paso, or of the fates of the tens of thousands of immigrants suffering the daily terrors of “remaining in Mexico.”

All the same, the persecution of the human rights’ workers, whether by US government policies or by organized crime, is a serious attack on our sense of solidarity, that practice of making manifest, in concrete ways, the nature of our common fate. The three researchers practiced solidarity as they walked with a sixteen-year-old boy lost along the border. They recognized the boy’s vulnerability and refused to ignore his plight. Solidarity was the basis for the moral conviction of so many people that other human beings should not die of thirst in a desert. Solidarity rooted the practice of Reverend Méndez’s biblical hospitality, one radicalized by death threats.

The exercise of solidarity serves as a powerful defense against all manner of social evil. Under its rules of engagement, solidarity refuses to accept the abuse of anyone—but especially of the innocent and vulnerable—as a price of doing business. This tactic plays out well, whether the persecutions take place in the name of progress (i.e. greed) or in the name of national security (i.e. greed), for the actions make clear those choices that politicians have taken and would prefer to keep under wraps. The screaming of babies caught on tape, for instance, is a powerful argument against the notion that these children are “threats to our national security.” Apart from shame, there is, quite simply, no other response to the anguished cries of those children.

The very nature of the exercise of solidarity creates a self-selecting pool of participants, who themselves form a powerful community of activists. Although immigrants have been national scapegoats in every political era, the response to the Trump administration barbarities have created a “doubling down” of efforts on behalf of immigrants, bringing new players and new energy to fortify the usual players in this age-old struggle. I was delighted, for example, to see a group of Alabama churches band together to create an entire network of sanctuary communities. An extraordinary internal strength must be at the center of the group of people committed to hiking together for miles through the desert in search of destitute immigrants, as is the moral force of the group of the elderly nuns who recently protested the actions of immigration enforcement in our nations capital.

I don’t think that the kindly woman who phoned in an offer of help last year was ever at risk of being persecuted by our federal government. I do believe, however, that the government considers her sentiment as dangerous, and I agree with them. The practice of solidarity is wildly contagious and is by no means limited to nuns and clergy. I have certainly seen that in my town. Just last week a group of people got together and created a school project for the refugee kids stranded at the international bridge. Every day, they cart school materials across the bridge, clear out a spot in the blistering heat, and teach children.

We are all of us called to respond to the cries of children. One group of Americans chooses to cage them; another group chooses to teach them.

This, alongside our border.



List of people waiting at the Matamoros/Brownsville Bridge

Last Saturday there were 2,732 people on a waiting list posted by Mexican authorities just at the entrance to the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros. The people on the list were immigrants who were waiting for their chance to explain to an American official why they desperately needed asylum in the United States.

Many of the people had been waiting there for months, essentially living on the streets of a city so dangerous that the State Department counsels American tourists to avoid the area all together, due to the threats of “murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault.” As most of these immigrants had loved ones waiting for them in the United States, the local gangs have figured them for valuable ransom opportunities. The women in particular have become targets for harassment and assault.

For the first time in a year, Brownsville citizens who have been providing food and basic needs to those waiting have started receiving requests for condoms and morning-after pills.

One of the people waiting there at the bridge last week was a twenty-year-old Central American that I will call Katia. Katia, unfortunately, did not have her name on the list. Katia had crossed into Mexico near Tapachula, where a Mexican immigration agent took all of her documents. The man wanted Katia to give him $200 to get her papers back, but Katia is poor, and so left Tapachula without her documents. When she got to the Matamoros/Brownsville bridge, Mexican immigration authorities refused to put her name on the waiting list, because she didn’t have papers.

Katia was traveling with a two year old and suffers from a chronic illness. When I met her, she had been waiting to cross the bridge for over a month. It had been a difficult time for her and her little one. Things only got worse when the United States announced its decision to apply their weirdly named “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP) to those seeking entry into the United States from Matamoros. In simplest terms, most anyone crossing into the U.S. from Matamoros and seeking asylum will be returned by U.S. agents to Mexico, where they will have to wait yet more weeks and months for an opportunity to have their cases heard by an American official.

As has been seen in San Diego, Calexico, and El Paso, the Migrant Protection Protocol offers no protection to any migrant. To the contrary, it puts innocent men, women and children in grave danger. The program’s judicial process lacks any semblance of protocol or due process. MPP is, quite simply, a federally sanctioned kangaroo court, even though it boasts a host of court officials participating in the sham.

As if this wasn’t enough, at the same time that the MPP was implemented in Matamoros/Brownsville, acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan announced a new asylum rule that would– with limited exceptions — prohibit migrants who have resided or “transited en route” in a third country from seeking asylum in the US., therefore barring migrants traveling through Mexico from being able to claim asylum.

All of this confused and alarmed Katia and her fellow travelers, many of whom abandoned their well-intentioned efforts to enter the USA “the right way.” Instead, they headed to the banks of the Rio Grande and entered the river, often with children in their arms, to swim to the United States. Nearly all of them were aware that just a couple of weeks ago, a father and his two year old had drowned precisely at this same spot.

By Tuesday of this week of government attacks on immigrants, Katia and her child had disappeared from the group at the bridge. No one could say what had happened to them, and I worried about this very young woman with a child and nowhere to go to be safe.

Two days later, on Thursday, I was trying to figure out how to speak in a useful way about the confusing border situation to a group of church people who had come to the Rio Grande Valley to see for themselves what the immigrants were facing. I had prepared a powerpoint slide deck, but the room that we were using was at a migrant shelter and there were a couple of Central American families who had just crossed the river waiting in the same room that the presentation was to be given. I scotched the powerpoint, realizing that the photo of the drowned father and his daughter would be a terrible thing for those folks to look at.

I was headed to the back of the room to say hello to those families, but was interrupted as the church visitors had arrived. After they were seated, I launched into a semi-sermon about reading the Bible through the lens of the migrant—“the spirit of God went forth” (Genesis 1), Abram and Sarai “went forth to Egypt as aliens” (Genesis 12:10), and other examples. I noted how these sacred migrations were taken in hope, but that perhaps we church people would do well to reflect on all the different ways that this hope was tempered by enormous suffering. I pointed to the back of the room, to the table of newly arrived people and said, “While these folks, for instance, have come here with hope in the promise of America, their suffering as a result of that hope—and a lot of that our fault as a nation–creates a moral and ethical challenge for us, those who receive them.”

I took some questions even as I was distracted by my own speech. If the thousands of children who had crossed the Rio Grande had not been able to convince our national community of the sacred nature of this moment, then what was the point of yet more homilies on the issue?

The church people left and I went back to chat with the immigrants. I was happily surprised to discover Katia and her child seated amongst them. We chatted. She was quiet and seemed nervous, but she did now, for the first time in a while, have some official documents, even if only a strangely-drawn up Notice to Appear in court (there was no date or time for this appearance and no clear way for Katia to discover that vital information).

She and her child were here, amongst us and should be able to enjoy the protections of the United States Constitution, which should mean much more than “thoughts and prayers”.

When she arrived at the shelter, Katia had no place to go, as her entire family had been wiped out by the violence in her home country, and she had lost the contact information for the one person she did know in the US. But Katia had made a friend at the shelter, a woman a bit older than she, who seemed kind and whose relatives had agreed to purchase airline tickets for Katia and Katia’s child. I was nervous about this arrangement, for who could tell what these people were going to be like. Katia however, seemed hopeful, even in the midst of such difficulties. “God cares for me,” Katia said to me.

Scripture, can be manipulated to confirm all kinds of ideas, but I had taken some quiet satisfaction that day thinking about how the Bible uses immigrants to offer so many insights into the the mind of God, beginning with the obvious stories in Genesis and Exodus (“exodus!”) and ending with the book of Revelation, believed by many people of faith to have been composed, with great hope, by a man who had been put into exile.

Not all of us are fortunate enough to have met people who have suffered exile. There is an extraordinary grace in those encounters, for there is great peril in seeking a new heaven and a new earth, and there is much to learn from those who have suffered the consequences of such a decision. My brief moments with Katia, and with the woman who opened her new home to this young woman and her child reminded me of the power of their hope, a virtue, which, at least for that moment, and for this young woman, had helped her overcome a bureaucratic torture machine with its lists and decrees and armed guards and protocols and its calculated meanness meant to humiliate the immigrant.

Katia’s journey had led her and her child, if not to a new heaven and a new earth, at least to a new home.

So, in the name of God, I hoped.




Hanging on for Dear Life

Before we learned to swim, my brothers and sisters delighted in hitching a ride on my dad’s broad back and hanging on for dear life as he swam out into the deeper end of the local public swimming pool. It is a memory as fresh as yesterday, perhaps because of the terror that lay at the heart of the experience—it was hard to hang onto to his slippery skin, and the water was deep and I didn’t know how to swim.

Two weeks ago, that memory came back in a different way. On June 26th, Oscar Alberto Martinez, a father from El Salvador, and Valeria, his little girl, drowned as they tried to swim across the Rio Grande. The United States would not let them enter the country by crossing a bridge, so the family decided to give the river a shot.

One can understand the temptation, for the Rio Grande is relatively narrow as it passes between Brownsville and Matamoros. It is a river, however, that carries a deep and strong current, a river that has claimed victims in the past, and one that now took this dad and his little girl as well.

A photo surfaced of two drowning victims. They are lying facedown on a bank of the Rio Grande, Valeria’s arm around her father’s neck, Oscar’s shirt holding her fast to his back. The image touched hearts from around the world, causing many to compare it to the iconic photo of Alan Kurdi, the three year old child whose body washed up upon a Turkish beach nearly four years ago.

The deaths of Valeria and Oscar, however, did not take place in a country far, far away. They died just a little ways away from where I live. Indeed, many of us have acquaintances that spoke with the family, some of whom tried to convince the father that swimming across the narrow Rio Grande is a dangerous proposition, for the river can be deceiving.

For a brief time, Oscar and Valeria were our neighbors.

In Brownsville, soon after their deaths, there was a Sunday evening vigil. A hundred or so people gathered at a spot that overlooks the river in which Oscar and Valeria had drowned. There were earnest prayers and speeches, but it was a moment that demanded either profound silence—or unending shrieking. The unnecessary death of an almost two-year old pokes holes in the hearts and minds and imaginations of anyone with a scintilla of sensibility, and the words that fall out of those holes are   inadequate, the thoughts insufficient and the rage unfocused. But that evening we formed a community as we stopped for a moment to gaze at the river, and to acknowledge, formally, the evil that caused these deaths. And then, necessarily, we went back to attending to our duties, amongst them, in a now literal way, working feverishly to save the lives of these who are our neighbors.