Father’s Day

border wall handprints 2Last week I was at a shelter in Brownsville, Texas visiting with a group of Guatemalans who had recently crossed the Rio Grande into south Texas. After five days in detention, the Border Patrol had released them, and they were now getting ready for a long bus ride to join family members near New York City.

We chatted for a while, and then I asked them about their time in Border Patrol custody.

“What was the most difficult moment for you?” I asked.

A thirteen-year-old girl told me the worst part for her was at the beginning, when a detention center guard had separated her from her father soon after the agents had picked them up.

“It was a woman guard and she told me, you come with me, and then she took me to another cage in the room,” the girl told me.

“Did the guard tell you that you would see your father again soon?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “And I didn’t see him again until about three days later when I spotted him walking to the restrooms. He was way over there (on the other side of the building). I shouted loudly, but he didn’t hear me.”

I thought a bit about what that would be like, to be thirteen and to be in a strange place, with guards, and to have your dad taken away from you, and then know nothing about him, or really, what was going to happen to you, for three long days.

I also thought about how, one year ago, during the Trump administration’s implementation of the practice of family separation, the same guard could have taken her away and she might well have never have seen her father again, nor he, her.

I said to her, “Those must have been three long and hard days for you.”

She glanced up at me for a brief moment, but said nothing.

Her father looked up at her and said, quietly, “I missed you.”

One of the volunteers from the shelter called out her family’s name, announcing that they were to be leaving soon for the bus station. She and her dad quietly said to group, “Con permiso,” got up from the table, each of them taking the small backpack that contained some water, a snack and a blanket. That, the clothes on their back, and their traveling hopes were their provisions for this new chapter in their lives.

That night I was texting with an old friend from Guatemala. I told her that I had met a family that day from her part of the country. I told her that they seemed to me to be worn out by the journey. She responded that she had known many people who had tried to make the trip to the US, but who had been deported back to her region.

My Guatemalan friend is a spiritual director, and so I was not surprised to hear her say, “We worry about these people. It is as if they have lost a bit of their soul along the way. They are not the same people as they were when they left, especially the ones that have lost their children.”

“But,” she continued, “Guatemala is complicated and very dangerous and they have no choice but to leave. But their souls keep leaking away. I so worry about my people.”

I thought about that father and his daughter, about what they had left behind, what they had lost along the way, and what they still carried with them.

I was happy that I had gotten to see them leave the shelter, his hand lightly on her shoulder, her face looking up at him with the gift of a smile as they stepped through the door into the bright light of a Texas afternoon.





Esperanza 01Over the first couple of weeks of May, a time when so many of us celebrate mothers, I kept running into moms in different places here on the border. Two of them struck me in particular ways. The depth of one  mother’s sorrow, and her ability to express pain left me speechless. The hope of another mother reminded of there is so much of life that escapes me. Lessons for me, by mothers.

The first mother I met on the first Saturday of the month. She was from Honduras, and someone had called me from the local shelter concerned that the woman could not seem to not stop weeping. The woman was seated at a table with her two teen-aged daughters. They were waiting for their bus would start to Minnesota. The mother had left Honduras a couple of weeks ago, with the two teenagers, and as well as a two-year-old nephew that she had raised since the day that he was born.

Now, however, the mother was without the boy she had raised as a son, and she was bereft.

“My sister lives on the street,” the woman said by way of explanation, “and so she gave me the little boy at birth. She knew she could never take care of him. But when I was in immigration, even though I have the papers giving me custody over him and everything, they still took him from my arms. I knew that your government sometimes separated families, but I thought that they had stopped,” she said.

As she recounted her tale, she began weeping again, the two girls on either side, trying to hold their mother’s heart together. I called a friend of mind who has dedicated her life to healing, or, lacking that, at least to holding together broken hearts. I asked my friend, herself a mother, to come sit with this woman’s grief for a while.

My friend dropped everything, came over to the shelter and sat with the small family for a good two hours. After a while, the tears dried up, although it was hard to know if was therapy, or exhaustion or that wonderful elixir of care shared between strangers.

When I finally left them at the bus station, the mother had dropped into a deep sleep, laying across her daughters’ knees, ever so much a pieta, clearly deeply missing her baby. The daughters, young teenagers, had again taken their places on either side of their mom’s prone figure.

I met the other woman on the following Wednesday, when I went to visit a shelter for immigrants in Matamoros, the Mexican sister-city to Brownsville, Texas. Our team of immigration advocates had been looking forward to the visit, as there are very few shelters for immigrants in Matamoros, and we wanted to get a sense of what the existing ones looked like.

The refuge was extraordinary in every way. Located in the middle of a poor neighborhood, the program managers for years had offered hospitality for the abandoned and the dying. On the day that we visited, there were several elderly women with what appeared to be dementia, a middle-aged man bed-ridden with paralysis, at least four people confined to wheel chairs—and about fifty Central American and Cuban refugees. “We had our hands full with our sick, but no one else was helping these people (the immigrants), so we opened up our doors to them,” the kindly director told me.

The immigrant women stay in a dormitory on the second floor. While most of them were waiting at the international bridge for the unlikely chance that the US would respect its own laws and allow the asylum seekers into the country, there were two women who had just arrived. One of them, Natalia, from El Salvador, told me that it had taken her a year to cross Mexico.

Natalia had sad eyes and a worried air. “I am not sure that my cousin will even allow us to live with her,” she told me, “It has taken me so long to get even this far.”

The windows were open and we could hear the sound of children playing at a playground that was part of a primary school next door.

“That is a happy sound that they make, all those children” Natalia said, and I nodded in agreement.

Her son, a long-legged thirteen year old, had a sweet smile that told me that he knew of his mother’s love for him. “Happy Mother’s Day, a little bit early,” I told her, and she looked at her son, and she said, “Yes, I am happy to be his mother.”

Her son gently took her hand. The wind blew through the windows, the sound of children’s play rising above us.

We could have been anywhere. The children’s laughter was contagious, the breeze was warm, and the hope in these mothers’ eyes still visible.

“It is a very long walk from hell to wherever it is that we are going,” the woman said, referring to what forced her to leave behind all she had.

“Do you think we will make it?” she asked me.

I said, “Of course you will, and you will be fine.”

It was Mothers’ Day, after all, and that gleam in Natalia’s eye was not illusion. It was a mother’s hope.

A Rock and a Hard Place

Way of the cross and border patrol April 9 2004

This past Sunday, Christian churches throughout the Rio Grande Valley celebrated Palm Sunday, a commemoration of the time Jesus of Nazareth led a convoy of people into Jerusalem. The civilized Roman authorities responded to this non-violent action by having Jesus executed, and the gripping drama of those moments continues to be relived in churches some two thousand years later.

There is considerable scholarship dedicated to the notion that Jesus’ crucifixion was the logical, violent conclusion to a process of scapegoating. At the time, people were restless and the authorities needed someone to blame, and Jesus fit that bill to a “t”.

It is fitting to have this liturgical moment front and center these days, in our small part of the world, as the nation’s contemporary scapegoats are gathered just across the river from Brownsville, some five hundred immigrant families peacefully awaiting entry into the United States. Unfortunately for them, politicians have once again chosen the immigrant as the national scapegoat of the moment.

Jesus’ crucifixion, for all of its horror and injustice, was a politically justifiable action.

I had Jesus’ crucifixion in mind when I learned last week that Customs and Border Protection agents had gathered on the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville. The agents dressed in riot gear, launched what appeared to be smoke bombs, and pulled out their weapons. The incident was caught on video by passers-by who were astonished and confused by this exhibition of law enforcement drama.

The confusion is understandable, as the only conceivable reason for such activity was  the 150 or so immigrants awaiting just a few blocks away on the Mexican side of the bridge. These people were families waiting their turn in line to cross into the United States so that they could begin their asylum process. Despite having had to live on the Matamoros, Mexico city streets for two and three months before being allowed their (legal) entry, none of them had rushed the bridge and none of them had threatened violence. Indeed conversations with the immigrants revealed, over and again, that they were fleeing violence, not looking to incite it.

This was not the first time that US Federal agents have put on this kind of show of force. In San Diego the “practice” became a shameful reality when CBP agents launched tear gas at women and men and their children. This was not the first time such a practice had taken place at the Brownsville bridge. But for a year now the federal government has exercised a series of aggressive actions against these immigrant families. A sensible person watching last week’s “practice” on the international bridge  would reasonably wonder if the next steps might be some US authority sanctioning agents to fire upon unarmed, nonthreatening men, women, and children. This may sound like an outrageous consideration, but just a couple of months ago it was unthinkable that the US would fire tear gas at children, and, as a matter of fact, US courts continue to entertain arguments about whether or not it is permissible for US agents to shoot people in Mexico with impunity.

The immigrants themselves, then, are in a horrific situation, trapped on a sliver of land between the narco-violence of northeastern Mexico and the state-sponsored, threats of violence of the United States.

Armed federal agents, however, are not the only ones who prepare to respond to the presence of immigrants waiting at our ports of entry. In our community, Brownsville and Matamoros civilians continue to bring the immigrants food and clothing, an effort that requires its own type of coordination and planning. As a part of the preparation for this work, first-time volunteers are reminded that the immigrants “are people who may have suffered unmentionable trauma,” and the volunteers are encouraged to be sensitive to this, with an emphasis on having a kind, quiet disposition. This they do, and this they have done, for nearly a year now, working in their own way to soften that space between the rock and the hard place that these families live in.



Central American Woman mapThis past Sunday, around noon, I was sitting across from a woman named Erica at a table in a shelter in Brownsville. It had been “twenty-six, no, twenty-seven days” since Erica had fled her home in Central America. I was helping her figure out the complicated bus trip between Brownsville and southern Florida where her sister lived.

“You will have a layover of four hours in Houston,” I told her, tracing the route on a small map. “Then you will get on a bus that will take you to a place called Mobile…yes, it is difficult to pronounce in Spanish. There you will only have a half hour before you take your next bus to a place called Tallahassee. You don’t have to pronounce that, just show them your ticket.”

She processed that information for a bit, and then she said, “I am very worried about my twelve year old (daughter).”

I asked her why, and she said, in a low voice, “Well, just in the past six months everyone in our family has been murdered by a gang. They killed my dad and my mom. Then my two uncles. Then they killed my girl’s father. Now all that is left is me, her, her little brother, and my sister in Florida. They killed our entire family…and she saw every last murder. My little girl is not doing well. If she sees a policeman with a gun, she throws up.”

Erica then called her daughter over and introduced me to her. The girl was thin, and shivering in the air-conditioned room. Her mother took one of her hands and said to me, “Look at her fingers.”

Her daughter had chewed her fingernails down to the cuticles. The girl snatched her hand back from her mom and went to another place to sit down.

I said to her, “Well, about an hour and half’s drive from here there is a border patrol check point, and an armed agent will get on the bus to look at your papers. So you need to know that. But, in any case, she will be fine—you have very good papers. And you then are going to be in a big city that has many resources. You will find someone who can help her with her trauma.”

The woman got very quiet. Then she said, “Thank you. You have been kind to us.”

This particular family had left Central America three weeks ago. They got to the border where they crossed the river in a rowboat (as there are 752 people waiting on a list to cross over the international bridge, and, as the US is only letting in two or three people a week, most people take their chances crossing the river). Erica’s family surrendered to the first Border Patrol agent that they could find. They spent five days in a processing center, where they were given a cold ham sandwich in the morning, another one at noon, and a third one at 8pm. The family was separated from each other by hurricane fencing. They slept for four nights on a cement floor under the glare of overhead lights that were never turned off. They were each given a mylar (foil) “space blanket” to keep warm with.

I asked Erica if she wanted to register a complaint about her time in custody, and she said, “No, the food was horrible, inedible, really—and we were hungry! The water had so much chlorine that it was hard to drink, and the guards were rude—but we were safe. That is all that matters, right?”

I rummaged up a thin sweater and a blanket for the twelve year old. She took my offering, her head still down.

This morning I heard on the news that Kirstjen Nielsen, the Secretary of Homeland Security, was resigning. The president apparently did not find her tough enough, and, in the interim, has chosen Kevin McAleenan, the head of Customs and Border Patrol, as her (standing) replacement.

The president apparently likes McAleenan’s suggestion of a “binary” approach to families seeking asylum. Upon apprehension by border patrol, a parent would get to choose between being incarcerated with their children, or having their children taken from them. If Erica had arrived a month or so from now, she may well have been faced with this 2019 version of Sophie’s Choice.

But on Monday, Erica boarded the bus that would take her to Florida and to her sister. Erica was concerned to know about her court date and the next steps in the asylum process. She believes that her sister, and her sister’s larger American community can save her and her family.

When I left the shelter on Sunday, I looked back and waved at Erica. Her girl was sitting beside her, chewing on her nails. But she looked up me, and she smiled.

It seemed that she had hope.

Sheltering in Place

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Hot coffee on a cold day: Matthew 25:35

Two weeks ago, on a Sunday afternoon, as the nation was being reminded over and over again about the “national emergency” on our southern border, I decided to face my country’s fears head on. I met up with some friends in Brownsville. We loaded up a couple of small wagons with some cases of cans of black beans and condensed chicken soup, tossed in several bags of McDonald’s hamburgers and walked across the national emergencied international border between Mexico and the United States into Matamoros.

Our group was just one very small part of an enormous, region-wide effort to offer aid and comfort to refugees coming to our region. Today’s task was to bring lunch to the more than one hundred souls who had been waiting for weeks to enter the USA “the right way.”

Our first challenge was the Mexican customs officer, who gave our groceries a close review. “We don’t want you giving those people any thing that is expired,” the officer said, with a smile.

We then passed two Mexican Marines, “Good afternoon! We have come to visit the immigrants!” we greeted them, and they, too, smiled, and waved us along.

We pulled the wagons up a small hill into an area just off the entrance to the international bridge. People got from where they were sitting, and came down to meet us, eyeing the food, mostly, but also shyly offering their hellos.

WhatsApp Image 2019-03-04 at 12.05.50 PMThere were 126 refugees there on that Sunday afternoon, most of them from Central America, although there were some people from Cuba and Venezuela as well. The children were all Central Americans, tired looking, but each with their special smile. They were all stuck in a hard place, bullied by a new policy put in place by the US government which, illegally, stopped allowing asylum applicants efficient, safe entry into the country. Some, with their children, had been living on the streets for nearly two months.

As we set up our small food service, the refugees formed a line for lunch, the kids being served first. They took their cheeseburgers over to a wall where they sat and had their happy meals, seeming, to me at least, a little more excited about this gift than the Clemson Football team at the White House a couple of weeks before. We visited for a time, then picked up the trash and prepared to head back into the national emergency that is Brownsville.

It is, however, always hard to leave that space. People want advice and information and above all else assurance. Each one has a slightly different story; each one has a slightly different need. The conversation takes time, but I am always struck about how much laughter punctuates our visits, and just how quickly the discussion becomes intimate.

I tried hard to find someone that we should be afraid of, but about the closest I could get was a man named Rafael, who seemed threatening, but I think that was because he was very tall and really anxious. But when we spoke, he leaned over, getting down to my size, and then he told me that he was terribly worried about his eight year old son, who seemed to have a really bad tooth infection. No terror there, just a sensitive dad hating to see his son in pain.

Our group returned to Brownsville, carting our empty wagons past bored Customs and Border Patrol officers and the yards and yards of concertina wire, the refugees and their hopes now on the other side of the Rio Grande from us. If anyone was experiencing an emergency, it would be those folks.

As for me, on that visit, I didn’t meet a single person whom I wouldn’t have  minded having as a next door neighbor, someone to visit with over the fence, someone to borrow a couple of eggs from, someone with whom to share worries about the kids.

Emergency on the Southern Border

Legal ObserverLate last Friday evening I got a text message from one of the young, tough activists in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. He was requesting legal observers from the ACLU to be present the next morning for a two-mile march between Lloyd Bentsen State Park and the National Butterfly Center. Both places are beloved parks and nature preserves located outside of McAllen, Texas. Trump’s version of the border wall would plow right through the middle of them, and destroy them.

“We are planning a peaceful march but have already heard that there will be a lot of police present, and would like some support,” the activist texted.

In an electronic blink of an eye, my intrepid ACLU colleague Maria Cordero did her magic and drummed up a dozen observers for the march the next day. While it was a very last minute effort to plan and pull off such a march, I absolutely agreed with the idea. Just a couple of weeks before, industrial-grade bulldozers had been trucked down and parked just outside the National Butterfly Center. Those contractors with their bulldozers had their marching orders from Trump and were just waiting for the word to plow their way through one of the most beloved areas in our region.

Although I have been a legal observer several different times in my life, the responsibility never ceases to make me nervous. One assumes, naturally, that if you are going to serve as an observer, then something will probably happen that would need watching and recording. Those “somethings” are not usually pleasant, and, way too often in the history of non-violent marches and protests, turn violent.

Wall the marchIMG_2373Usually the makeup of the crowd that the observers are to watch establishes the level of nervousness. This past Saturday morning there were about 150 people present. About a third of them were very, very old, using walkers and wearing a charming combination of flinty-eyed kindness. Another third were very very young, riding in strollers and attended to by young parents. The final third of the group were energetic and wise young people. Interspersed with the rest of the crowd was a nice fellow with a saxophone, some people on bicycles, and a whole bunch of people walking their dogs. Some Native Americans with banners and tribal staffs were to lead the marchers along the way.

At first glance, this group didn’t make me nervous. Who wouldn’t love them all? But soon after we set out on our march, the pace picked up, the chanting began and it became clear to me that this was a crowd with grit, one that would probably not back down from a police confrontation. Even those with strollers moved along at a good pace, the chanting never died off, and soon we were at the site where the border wall would severe the park from the river.

Wall SulemaThe octogenarian with the walker had refused a ride, but she soon rolled her way right up to the top of the levee where she joined the rest of the marchers as they faced off against the police: two agents in two border patrol pickup trucks, three border patrol agents on ATVs, a deputy from the county sheriff’s office, an officer from the Mission Police Department, an agent from the Fish and Wildlife Service, and a constable from the county, all accompanied by a helicopter that circled overhead the entire time.

The marchers’ intentions were clear. They were going to march up to the top of the levee, gather in a circle, have some prayer, enjoy some silence, sing a few chants and listen to some speeches. Afterwards, they would spread out along the levee for a group photo. And then they would go home.

The police had their plans as well, apparently. They were to have their authority respected and so there could be no gathering, no prayer, no speeches, and, certainly, no group photo.

Although the police must know her well, I am not sure why they keep under estimating the powerful presence of Marianna Treviño Wright, the director of the Butterfly Center. The poor constable who was sent up to confront her and the group was told by her, in steely terms, that HE was “the one trespassing, that all that you (the government) have  any case is an easement—this is the Butterfly Center’s private property and our guests can traverse it or cross it or walk on it or, they want, watch butterflies from it.”

Wall Line on Levee01Spoke her words powerfully, no doubt impelled by the emergency that her center was facing—the loss of private property, the obliteration of a lifelong project, and the spiteful destruction of a lovely park located in a safe place along the Rio Grande River. Her words were, likewise, backed by a powerful chorus of the young and the not-so-young, people from the Rio Grande Valley and people from Minnesota and Nebraska, who had made this place their home.

The constable backed away. The photos were shot. Cheers were made—and we all headed by home.

As we made our way back down the levee to the road, the lady with the walker shouted out, clearly, “Ya nos vamos, pero no nos corrieron (We are leaving now, but it sure ain’t because you ran us off)” (my translation).

The police left as well, even though the helicopter nervously followed us up the road. I suppose one never knows just how much of an emergency people defending their parks and their properties and their right to assemble and speak, can get create.

Thank God.




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(from Naomi Shihab Nye)

On Wednesday of last week I found myself invited to a fancy picnic at a spot in between the border wall and the Rio Grande. A large tent had been set up on the property of a local farmer, whose fields are stuck in the “no man’s lands” between the wall and the river. I was there with a family from a town outside of Brownsville, and we were sitting at a table and chatting as we waited for the people we had been invited to share lunch with.

Nora, the family’s two year old, was fidgety, but quiet. Her father was nervous. He had agreed to speak to some “very important people” about his family’s circumstances. My ACLU colleague and I were coaching him a little, encouraging him to speak to them as if he were speaking to his daughter. “Use short sentences, go slow, they have no idea of how complicated your life is.” We reminded him to be sure to show them the ankle monitor shackled to his leg, and to be sure to explain how his only crime was living with his family in Texas without immigration documents.

He had been given the ankle monitor because he lacked $9,000 in cash to pay his bond after he had been stopped by a state trooper and, having no driver’s license, was handed over to Border Patrol (back in 2008, Texas Department of Public Safety decided to stop issuing driver’s licenses to people without authorized immigration status).


There were some other families invited to the picnic as well, guests from the Catholic Charities’ Respite Center in McAllen. They, too, seemed nervous, which meant to me that they had a good dose of common sense: what on earth were they doing sitting between the border wall and a river that they had just crossed, at no small peril, just a few days ago?

ArrivalEventually the important people arrived—about fifty of them. From what I could gather, they had come from all over the world to visit Texas. They were business people, and so their interests were entrepreneurial in nature. Indeed, they were coming to the picnic having just toured Elon Musk’s Space X project on the Boca Chica beach that was about an hour’s drive from Brownsville. The meeting with the immigrants and refugees was their last stop before they would be leaving the Rio Grande Valley for wherever it is that very wealthy people go.

I was struck by the boldness of the Brownsville mayor who had pushed for this moment on the tour. He had spent most of the day, after all, promoting the opportunities for investment in the area. But here we were, some of the most powerful, financially secure people on the earth sharing barbecue with some of the most vulnerable people in the hemisphere.

I was nervous, too—not due to the presence of the very rich people (or the very poor people) but the extraordinary power gap between the two groups.

At least at my table, where I was translating between a German, an Austrian, two Australians and a family from Honduras, there was respectful, frank, if rather one-way conversation. While the Hondurans had no questions for them, the captains of industry had patient, kind inquiries for the Hondurans. The Honduran father, who just two days ago was shivering in a freezing border patrol holding cell, looked his table partners in the eye as he fielded their questions, each time setting down his knife and fork, and considering his answer before speaking.

It is hard to know what, if anything, would come of this picnic. Many of the group would be meeting the next day with the governor of Texas, a man whose investments in our region have largely been along the lines of sending $1.2 billion worth of state troopers, officers whose job is to hunt down people like Nora’s dad. Perhaps there would be a frank conversation about Texas’ treatment of immigrants.

Nora’s dad did well with his presentation. After he explained his story, one of the wealthy guests said that that was horrible situation, and that he, himself, would pay off the $9,000 bond so that Nora’s dad could be rid of the ankle shackle. Nora’s father was gracious and relieved by the gesture.

As the picnic ended, a slight breeze from the north blew across the field, ruffled the tent, and tickled the river. The families got back into their vans and crossed the border wall for the third time in a week, headed later that day for Boston, for Falls Church,  for Los Angeles, and for other parts of the USA where they would weave themselves into the American family.

The other guests boarded private jets and headed off to their business responsibilities.

In Washington, DC, the president’s aids were preparing his national emergency proclamation, citing amongst his reasons, the terrible peril along the southern border and the need for a border wall. For my part, I was left thinking about the remark that one of the Central American mothers at the picnic had made. She said, “You know, it is just so very peaceful here.” And then she laughed, pointing at the border wall and the many police officers, and said, “a pesar de todo esto (despite all of this!).”


The Desert Wall

human remains 02

The large, white binder was lettered “2017, Human Remains, Book 1.” Inside were 521 photos of human cadavers, bodies found in Brooks County, a place about an hour’s drive north of McAllen, Texas.

The photos were horrific, post-death pictures of someone’s friend or son or mother who had tried to avoid arrest by the United States Border Patrol by going around the highway checkpoint. Some of them had walked for days, perhaps, before dying of hyperthermia or heat exhaustion or thirst or, I could imagine, desperate loneliness.

The sheriff, Benny Martinez, given his responsibilities, is a surprisingly affable man. He had agreed to a last-minute meeting with a group of immigration advocates. Shortly after we began the meeting, the sheriff willingly shared this very visible evidence of the consequences of US immigration enforcement activity. He noted, “For every person in that book, there are five more people that we did not find. That is a very sad thing.”

“So,” I asked, “That would be 2,500 people who died here in 2017?”

The sheriff grimaced and said, “At least that many. And we haven’t finished putting together the data for 2018. But too many people. Too many.”

As I paged through the book, briefly looking at the photo of a skeleton that was still partially clothed, or at the bloated, barefooted body of a woman dressed in jeans and tee-shirt, I was reminded of the curated photos in the Holocaust Museum of the bodies from the Nazi concentration camps and of the photos in the Human Rights’ Memorial in Santiago of the victims of Chile’s dirty wars. The scale is certainly different, as are the historical drivers of those events, but the cruel indifference to the consequences of national security policies is the same

The sheriff spoke a bit about the efforts he and the border patrol were collaborating on, including putting out GPS markers so that those who became desperate (and still had a working cell phone) could give rescuers a location. He talked about rescue beacons and other efforts, but the overall sense was that there was still going to be a lot of dying going on in this small county, and that his collection of Human Remains Books would continue to grow.

Our visit to this section of the dying fields that is part of the nation’s southwest border took place during the government’s longest shutdown. The attempt to pass a budget had foundered upon the president’s insistence on the need for more border wall funding. The Democrats, at this point, were holding fast to no funding for a border wall, but they were busy offering “technological alternatives” to a border wall. The national freakout over the best way to “secure our borders” is shaping our existence as a functioning national entity. This frankly boggles my mind. I am reminded of the poor fellow trying to dance a waltz to a band playing the two-step: it is wrong, unpardonably (disgracefully/shockingly/amazingly) wrong.

The discussion assumes that the border is unsecured, that someone from Guatemala or Mexico (or Ireland or England) could merrily wade the Rio Grande, call an Uber and end up a couple of hours later in Houston. The term “crisis” is repeated, over and again, until most of the country believes that there is a flood of humanity overrunning south Texas, and that we do indeed need to “do something” about our southern border.

The United States is indeed doing something about the southern border, but it is not something that my mother would be proud of. Instead of working hard to create a comprehensive, humane, 21st century overhaul of our immigration policy, our national leadership has doubled down on a policy of deterrence. This presumes that if we are cruel enough, no one will want to be come here; if enough people die trying to cross into the United States, then maybe people will think twice about coming; if they do manage to cross the river, then we will hunt them down, forcing them off the highway and into the desert, where they may well lose their way, run out of water, and die an excruciating and lonely death.

Two Thanksgivings ago, as our family was gathering for a meal in Brownsville, I received a call from a lawyer who works with refugees. She had gotten a plea from help from a family in California, whose uncle had crossed the river, was wandering in the brush somewhere outside of a border town and was feared to be in dangerous condition. The fellow had a cell phone that worked, and managed to send his family his GPS location. The lawyer wondered if I could rush the man some water and some food, so that he would not die.

My lovely son-in-law and I hurriedly packed a bag and made our way to where the man was supposed to be waiting for us. We did not find him. Concerned, we left the bag out in the open, snapped a picture and “pinned” the location, sending all of that back to the California family. Over a year later, in the midst of the government shutdown and the ranting about border security, I received a note from the lawyer. The man had, in fact, finally made it to his family. He was safe, and wanted to express his gratitude, as did his family.

For my part, I was happy to know that  his photo would not be found in Sheriff Martinez’s Book of Human Remains.

Christmas, 2018: A Child is Born, Two Children Die

altarThis past Monday, on Christmas Eve, about fifteen of us gathered under a tree at the foot of the Gateway International Bridge. We were on the Mexican side of the border, at the edge of Matamoros, the sister city to Brownsville, Texas. We were standing just outside a makeshift camp that had been set up for refugees who had been waiting weeks for their right to cross the international bridge, to enter the United States, and to apply for asylum.

It is one of the most “in between spaces” I have ever been in, where humans beings are “ni de aquí ni de allá” – neither here nor there. It is a terrifying, lawless place in which one’s hopes become reduced to expecting the one meal a day that volunteers are trusted to deliver, and entertaining the insane hope that organized crime will stay away, for at least one more day.

One of the many good people from Texas who had been supporting these refugees had suggested that a Christmas Eve prayer service might be a nice thing to offer the people living in that in in-between space. And so it was that we had ended up forming a circle around a small table that served as an altar. Amongst us were a man from Ghana and a woman from Cameroon who both spoke English, as well as some families from Honduras and El Salvador.

We began by singing in Spanish—a complicated tune that everyone seemed to know how to sing badly, and then we sang Silent Night, which we did well. After a bit, people were invited to write down on a small slip of paper whatever might be their prayer for this time in their lives. The refugees paused and thought about this quite a bit, and then began to write. The African man wrote on both sides of the paper slip and looked like he would have filled a notebook. A man from El Salvador wrote his words slowly, almost as if they pained him. A pregnant woman wrote on her paper, and I think all of us could guess what her prayers were.

Then, one by one, the immigrants came forward and placed their hopes and dreams and fears on a small fire. A gentle breeze dispersed the smoke; a couple of birds perched above us sang quietly.

We were quiet for a bit and then our prayer was over. The travelers came up and wished the Americans well. They asked us some of the many questions that they had—when did we think that they would be allowed to cross, what was the place called “Maryland” like, would the United States keep them in jail for long.

And then we shook hands and bid them well, sharing that smile that comes from recognizing a moment of shared grace.

Alongside our border there have been many moments of shared grace over these past six months. This grace is daily made manifest in the hundreds of hot meals that are cooked and then walked across the border bridges, in the thousands of “travel bags” that are prepared for those refugees facing long bus trips, and in the countless shared confidences and tears. Time after time, regular working people show up in the middle of the night to rescue young women left at a closed bus station by ICE, or make the hour and a half trek to the detention center to pay a bond or collect someone who needs a ride. The volunteers are a cross section of our community—lawyers, teachers, counselors, clergy, entrepreneurs, the very wealthy and the very poor, some younger and some older,

It is all a delight and yet, really, not unexpected. There are good people all around who do extraordinarily good work and who have been doing this sort of thing all of their lives.

Sadly, what is also not unexpected, is the sinfulness that calls forth these gracious responses. While the calculated abuse of immigrants at our nation’s southern border is decades old, the Trump administration’s actions has deepened the darkness of that evil. The separation of children from their parents (more than 250 remain separated) was perhaps the lowest point of his abuse of immigrants, but the steady onslaught of lies about the Central American immigrants created a space in which the planned humiliation of these people became acceptable to this self-declared Christian nation. That particular moral bankruptcy became clear after the Secretary of Homeland Security blamed the recent deaths of the seven and eight year old Guatemalan children on their parents, shortly after the man responsible for the children who were in Border Patrol custody covered up the first death.

Many Americans, most of whom have never been to the southern border, insist that people who wish to exercise their right to apply for asylum cross into the United States “the right way.” Since the beginning of June, this “right way” was illegally blocked by the Trump administration, which planted armed guards on the bridges to turn back anyone who would petition the United States for asylum. With the bridges effectively shut down, desperate people like the father of the seven-year-old Jakelin Caal, opt to attempt to enter the US by crossing the desert, or, in Texas taking their chances with human smugglers to cross the Rio Grande.

It is worth noting, over and again, that upon crossing the international boundary, the very first thing that these Central American families do is surrender to the Border Patrol. They are not interested in being illegal, they tired of hiding from evil doers back in their home countries, and they are seeking to be recognized as human beings deserving of the protection of the law.

The Christmas story is one of promise and hope, but the context of birth of the Christ child was a midwinter season in a lawless territory occupied by a ruthless army. What is noteworthy is that anyone would discover meaning and hope in the birth of a child in such a time and place.

During this Christmas season of 2018, I take, if not hope, then at least the powerful reminder that each and every human life is precious, whether this human being was born in a stable, or whether she is being carried in her father’s arms across the desert into the United States. Owning up to the responsibility for those lives requires just a bit of attention, just a bit of grace. We close out 2018 having, in many, many ways, failed to honor that responsibility. I look forward to 2019, with a hardheaded hope that we will have the courage, as a nation, to be graceful and generous. Or, at the least, to be decent enough to care for all those who trust us with their lives.

Traveling Souls

Child at immigrant memorial

Shoes of immigrants

Last week I was visiting with a couple of guys in the Catholic Charities’ Respite Center in McAllen. They were helping clean up the kitchen and I was poking around the cabinets,  looking for garbage bags, trying to do my small part in offering hospitality to the stranger.

They told me how hard it had been to leave home. Both had horrific stories about why they had to leave. A fellow from Honduras told me that he had intervened in an assault on an American woman. “I testified against this guy,” the Honduran told me, “and he gets convicted and given twenty years in jail, but, you know, he was related to the local police chief and was let out after a couple of weeks. Then he and his gang came after me. I was lucky to get away. But how I miss my family.”

The other man, a Nicaraguan, had a similar story, but, as he wrapped up his story, the both of them said, “You know, you really need to talk to this other guy. He really has had a hard time.”

They brought a young father from El Salvador over to me. We sat down at one of the tables in the small dining area. After a long moment, he told me that he and his five-year-old daughter had left El Salvador some five weeks ago. He said that the journey was hard, but that the worst that had happened to them occurred right as they reached the border region.

“We had passed a Mexican immigration checkpoint,” he said, “Just before you get to Reynosa (the Mexican city across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas) and a Mexican state police car pulled our bus over.”

He told me that he knew to pay attention and that he noted that the police car was numbered “192”.

Shortly after being stopped, a group of men armed “only with machetes and knives” pulled up in pickup trucks, commandeered the bus and drove it some miles down a dirt road. The immigrants were led off of the bus and taken into a large, two story building where the children were separated from their parents and taken to the building’s second floor. 

The adults were put into a large space on the ground floor. They were tied up and then told that they had been kidnapped.

“It was a terrible, terrible two weeks that we spent there,” he said. “I had no idea what was happening to my little girl, they beat us up, they hardly fed us.”

He paused a moment and then said, indignantly, “They stripped me naked and made me tape a message to my family, demanding money. They made my family look at my naked body.”

At some point, he told me, another group of men showed up at the barn and freed the captives.

“I don’t know who they were, but they saved us from being murdered, of that I am sure,” he told me. And with that, his five year old, who had been playing with some other children at the center, came into the room and crawled up into his lap. He introduced me to her; she shyly smiled and told me her name.

Her father thanked me for listening. He stood up, and gathered his things. “We have to catch the 4:30pm bus,” he told me, and he walked away, through the doorway, and down the street toward the bus terminal.

It was only later, while telling the story to the woman I try to serve as husband, she being a pediatrician, that I appreciated the father’s horror during those two weeks.

“You know,” the doctor said to me, “that little girl could have been raped.”

Just a week after I had heard this story, the Washington Post reported that the United States and Mexico were close to an agreement that those seeking asylum in the United States would stay in Mexico, a “safe third country” while their requests were evaluated.

There are many places in the world that are not safe for five year olds. The adults in the world are charged with looking out for the well-being of those children. That is a considerably low bar as a measure of a civilization, but one to which we, as a nation, should aspire.

I know at least one five year old and a pediatrician who would agree.


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