By the Rev. Tom Wall with Elsa Compton and Mackin Wall
As we gathered at the Brownsville, Texas, bus station, the January darkness was falling on our team from the Methodist Student Network (Wesley Foundation) at the University of South Carolina.
The food we had spent all day preparing was loaded into some 25 small hand-pulled wagons to be taken across the bridge and over the Rio Grande into Brownsville’s sister city, Matamoros, Mexico. Immediately after we crossed the border, we were met by a tent city that is the temporary home to about 1,500 people as they wait to seek asylum in the United States. Tents are set up in any vacant area in the plaza, on the sidewalks and in what was once a park just beyond the riverbank. People from Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Cuba and other countries have been living in and around the Matamoros tent city in hopes of a better life for themselves and their families.
Many have fled their countries of origin to escape gang and police violence, extremely poor economic conditions, death threats, rape and other serious oppression. We heard stories of systematic terror and intimidation. We listened to people describing the incomprehensible events that led them to make the long and dangerous journey, a true testimony to the terrible conditions they were facing and the desperation that was driving them toward the border.
On this particular night, we were joined by Team Brownsville, a local nonprofit, volunteer-run organization that crosses the border three nights a week to provide meals and resources to those living in the tent city. We had spent the majority of the day preparing more than 800 burritos along with fresh fruit and lemonade to serve in the Matamoros Plaza.
We quickly realized the women, men and children living in the tents heavily relied on Team Brownsville and other churches and organizations based in Mexico for their meals and other resources, such as diapers, formula and medication.
The next evening, we met a well-known, much-loved and much-appreciated man named Pastor Abraham. He is the pastor of a Matamoros-based hip-hop church where former cartel members make up the congregation. Pastor Abraham and members from his congregation travel the 30 minutes from their church to the border twice a week to serve a meal. Before the meal was served, several men led a short worship service of hip-hop songs and prayer of encouragement and hope.
One afternoon, we were met by Pastor David, who is the superintendent of the Methodist churches in and around Matamoros. He led us on a walking tour of the tent city where we were greeted by people with whom he had developed a close relationship. We learned that he and his church members walk around the tent city every morning offering water, hot chocolate and coffee to those living there. They pray and form relationships with the asylum-seekers to ensure they are cared for.
We were humbled to meet people like these who work endlessly to serve the asylum-seekers living on the border. It was apparent to us that Christian teamwork and compassion cannot be stopped by the border wall and the immigration policies making the asylum-seeking process so unbelievably difficult to attain.
There in the tent city of Matamoros, where the “other side” in the United States is clearly visible just beyond the Rio Grande, hundreds of people wait with hope and optimism. Our team had the honor of meeting Rich, who spoke with our group one morning about the U.S. immigration system, particularly as it relates to asylum-seekers and refugees at the southern border. Rich shared with us that about a year ago he worked as an immigration attorney for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, where he worked to prove the government’s case against asylum-seekers and refugees seeking passage into the U.S. to start a safer and better life. He spoke passionately and precisely.
He expressed the discomfort he felt when he witnessed the poor conditions in ICE detention centers and the children living in cages—reasons that led him to leave his job as an ICE attorney and take a large pay cut to work for immigrant rights. Rich now works through The United Methodist Church as an immigration attorney in a program called “Justice for Our Neighbors.”
He explained the RIM Policy, or “Remain in Mexico,” where asylum-seekers are forced to stay in Mexico as they await their court date, making it difficult to work and make money as they wait. He explained to us that because of this policy, many people continue to live in danger in Matamoros and other areas along the border because of the cartel and other dangerous situations.
A person seeking asylum in the U.S. needs to physically cross the border at an official entry point where they will then be met by an immigration officer and begin the paperwork to claim asylum. In recent months this has become nearly impossible because the U.S. government has placed two officers on the exact border line to prevent asylum-seekers from stepping onto U.S. soil to ask for asylum. They tell seekers to line up, where they have ended up waiting for weeks and months on the bridge with hopes that one day they will be allowed to cross and receive a court date.
Unfortunately, when the waiting asylum seekers press the immigration officials, they are told, “Sorry, we are full.” This has spurred people to cross illegally.
There is a popular misunderstanding that those who cross the border illegally will then run away into Texas, never to be found again, some committing crimes. We learned that this is usually not the case. People will make the dangerous swim across the Rio Grande, some dying on their way, only to sit on the other side and wait for an officer to meet them so they can ask for asylum. But now they are arrested for illegal entry and immediately sent to Guatemala (unless they are from Guatemala) where they will have forfeited any right to future asylum in the U.S.
A stricter interpretation of the law ordered by the attorney general has made it nearly impossible to assert the argument of “credible fear” of persecution in one’s home country.
Rich explained that even if someone’s family member has been murdered and the implication is that they are next, that is not reason enough to be granted “credible fear,” unless they have been directly threatened by the police (not a gang). Additionally, someone seeking asylum in the U.S. must have been denied asylum in the country they passed through (Mexico) before arriving at the U.S. border, even if their staying in Mexico would be equally as dangerous for them.
There are several directives made to U.S. immigration lawyers by the U.S. Justice Department that have restricted the process even further, making it nearly impossible to be granted “credible fear” and asylum in the U.S.
During the last day of our trip, our group had a fascinating session at an immigration courthouse where Rich, along with a current ICE attorney and a private immigration attorney, spoke with us about their jobs. They shared their perspectives and personal stories about the jobs they do and the immigration system. They all agreed that between the three of them they could work out a more fair and just immigration system—one that is not driven by fear and politics.
The people living in the tent city of Matamoros continue to suffer today. The U.S. immigration conundrum has divided our country, split families and injured many already vulnerable. We traveled to the border to see the many sides of the issue as we met with all kinds of people—asylum seekers, border patrol, ordinary citizens, pro-immigration and ICE attorneys, and church leaders. We saw fear and hope up close and personal on both sides of the border. We witnessed Christian faithfulness to the gospel, and we met Christ many times each day.
We were reminded to ask ourselves not simply about the legalities of a socially constructed line on a map or human-made wall, but we were forced to tackle questions of morality and Christ-like behavior. We were reminded how Jesus, Mary and Joseph were refugees and asylum seekers in Egypt, as Herod sought to kill the infant Jesus.
We met a God not bound by nationality or political party or economic self-interest, but a God calling out for compassion and justice, a God who claims everyone as God’s own child.