People seeking political asylum in the United States line up to be interviewed in Tijuana, Mexico.

Photograph Elliot Spagat/AP

Faith at the border – caring for the stranger and refugee as children of God

Rev. Bill Gaventa

October 16, 2019

We were an ecumenical band of clergy over 100 strong, mostly but not all from mainline denominations and congregations in Texas, headed across the Global Bridge in Brownsville, Texas so we could meet and talk with people camped out, just beyond the bridge, waiting for their turn to apply for asylum. We had gathered the afternoon before, listened to leaders of immigration and legal organizations in the “Valley,” as that part of Texas is called, through the evening and the next morning. This was all part of a workshop called Courts and Ports, organized by Texas Impact, the interfaith advocacy organization based in Austin. Now it was time to see and hear for ourselves.

It was a hot Friday afternoon in Texas, made a bit hotter by the fact many of us had never done anything like this before, and by the advice we had been given by people who make the crossing regularly in their ministry. “Don’t take things to give these families.” “Don’t give them money.” “Don’t stray too far from the main group.” Why? Because Mexican cartels ruled the Mexican side of the border, and would be watching. Gifts or favors to the individuals and families waiting might set them up to be targets, even more so than they were. We each were given a light backpack with a small bottle of Gatorade, most of which ended up being given to children and families who were gathered tightly around their tents trying to take advantage of every inch of shade offered by one large oak.

A woman whose nickname is “Mother Teresa of Matamoros” got up on a bench and told the individuals and families under the tree who we were, and why we were there, essentially asking in Spanish if they would receive us into that little space they had so that we could listen to their stories. The suspicious looks gradually changed. We had come in teams of about ten each, with at least one person fluent in Spanish in each group. Those teams fanned out, and groups of about 15-20 refugees gathered around each group.

The group we talked with was about half children and half adults, with most of the kids clinging tightly to their parents at first, uncertain who we were, why we were there, and what all this meant. A mom holding an obviously sick child was the initial center of our attention, telling us of the virtual impossibility of getting any medical help for her daughter. The people were from all over Central America: Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, all with stories of having left because of extortion and violence they had personally faced in their hometowns. When a gang demands several thousand dollars from a small business owner or farmer, money they do not have, and then threatens to harm one of their children or a member of their family, they don’t have much option but to flee because they had often seen those threats carried out. Whatever money they could get, they would use to get through Mexico, and, if necessary, pay another form of gang money that would allow them to get to a part of the Rio Grande where they could swim across. Requesting asylum and crossing illegally were both better options than being killed.

Remember the moral and prophetic foundations of the biblical call to care for the stranger and refugee, as children of God, rather than being feared and vilified for their race and poverty, and treated as if they are enemy. Somewhere, in our family histories, we have all been strangers and immigrants, and may be yet again in the future.

Some of the people camped under this oak tree had already been over, caught, and then deported. Some of the parents had been separated from their children, but then united when they were deported back. As bad as their reception had been, it was still safer than their hometown and safer than territory just south of the border.

Some had appointments to see the immigration authorities, to apply for asylum, so they just had to wait. Coming to a border and applying for asylum was a right written in law, one that the United States had helped to establish. But now, bureaucratic and physical obstacles were being placed in front of every step in that process, and other obstacles placed in front of those. Under the new Migrant Protection Protocol, they were supposed to apply first for asylum in Mexico, and wait there. But with little to no protection, their poverty and powerlessness made them easy targets for the syndicates making money off these parents looking for safety. More and more red tape, being criminalized for wanting to immigrate, and being placed in new situations of terror seemed to be the real operational protocol.

By all reports, and from what we saw, these are not groups of young men who might be gangsters nor groups of men, as in the past, slipping in to work and then send money home. The young men we saw were husbands and fathers, trying to do what they could. Until relatively recently, they had been able to apply for asylum, then sent to detention centers run by charities, while awaiting a hearing date for their application. They would then try to go to somewhere in the United States where they had relatives, knowing with tight family bonds from their culture that they would be taken care of.

I stood next to one family as we listened and asked questions. A dad had a young son in his arms, the boy with almost no affect. He was wearing what I assumed to be his father’s hat. They got my Gatorade, and he began to stir. Then a little later, he got my simple backpack, and then began to put the Gatorade in and out. And a little later, the dad got my hat, which brought the first smiles on his son’s face as they began to play together. To my frustration, that was all I could do. A little bit more shade was all the protection I could offer.

But we learned other things we as people of faith can do, including:

  • If we believe the United States should be seen as a place of refuge, then tell your members of Congress. Let them know you believe the asylum ban is wrong.
  • Talk to the people themselves who are refugees or immigrants in your communities. Hear their stories, not what is being told about them by those who command the airwaves.
  • The blockage is partly because of inadequate judicial resources to process legal requests for asylum. That process should be separated from immigration enforcement, just like courts are separated from police and law enforcement, and resources put there to deal with the backlog, rather than having public resources (or private investments) go to private companies who are building and running detention centers and camps, another form of making money off the plight of these refugees.
  • Volunteers are working with charities and legal rights organizations to be observers in hearings and courtrooms. Think about serving for a while as a set of ears and eyes. The system is more humane when people know they are being watched.

Finally, remember the moral and prophetic foundations of the biblical call to care for the stranger and refugee, as children of God, rather than being feared and vilified for their race and poverty, and treated as if they are enemy. Somewhere, in our family histories, we have all been strangers and immigrants, and may be yet again in the future.

Rev. Bill Gaventa is an ordained American Baptist chaplain and director of The Summer Institute on Theology and Disability.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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