MSN students learn firsthand while helping migrants at Texas-Mexico border

By the Rev. Tom Wall

“Why are you making such a dangerous journey to come to the United States?” we asked many of the migrants whom we met and served at the Texas-Mexico border.

We got the same two or three answers:

“I want a better life for my family.”

“I am afraid for our safety. There is too much violence in my community.”

“There are no jobs, and I need to feed my family.”

Who of us would not identify those as legitimate reasons to migrate? Would we not do the same for our families?

Unfortunately, the United States’ immigration system is broken, and of thousands of migrants seeking asylum, only a fraction will qualify under the strict definition of asylum.

The Methodist Student Network (Wesley Foundation) from the University of South Carolina traveled to McAllen and Brownsville, Texas, in early January to see, hear, serve and accompany migrants who had crossed over legally into Texas, as well as migrants who waited on the bridge over the Rio Grande and in one of the several encampments in Matamoros, Mexico, for a court date or hearing.

Some become impatient waiting and swim the river, braving swift currents and razor wire on the U.S. side of the river. There is a sense of urgency, chaos and desperation among the migrants. They are living without a country, as most sold everything they had to raise the money to pay a “coyote” for passage. And the crisis at the border and political dysfunction in Washington has made having a future in the U.S. even more difficult. But they also have hope and faith as they wait.

We brought and gave out supplies such as diapers, formula, socks and pain reliever at a migrant encampment of about 300 people beside the Rio Grande. Pastor David, a Methodist pastor in Matamoros, met us the next day at the camp to talk more about the migrants and the ministry he and his church offers. Sometimes his kitchen will be filled to overflowing with migrants he invites to his home for a meal.

I asked Pastor David if he knew those he invited. He said he knew they were children of God and in need.

We spent time with Eddie Canalas, who directs the South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias, Texas. This small town, about 70 miles from the border, is in the middle of ranch land. Some migrants travel through the many ranches trying to avoid detection. Each year, many die of dehydration and heat exhaustion. Canalas’ group has placed water barrels in various locations on the ranches and along secondary roads for the migrants. It has saved many lives. Our group spent the day with Canalas learning about the immigration crisis and refilling many of the water barrels around the county. Canalas told us the U.S. has only tried enforcement at the border to deal with immigration. He claims that just adding more border patrol and building more fences will not work. He calls for “regularization.” That means allowing people to come in to work and to return home, and having them register to do so. Many just want to make money to send or take home.

And there is a severe labor shortage in the U.S., he noted. Canalas greatly blames the crisis on racism (most of the migrants at the Texas-Mexico border come from Venezuela, Haiti and other Latin American countries) and greed—people wanting cheap illegal labor for maximum profit.

The South Texas Human Rights Center also tries to identify those who have died in journey through the ranches and to let their loved ones know. They also seek to reunite families who have been separated at the border in the Immigration, Customs, Enforcement facilities or during the journey.

We met a Venezuelan woman and her son at Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, where we spent several days. Several hundred refugees come through the center each day to be assisted in traveling to their sponsors in another part of the U.S. The woman and her 10-year-old son had been traveling with her nephews, ages 21 to 2, but her nephews had been separated from her at the ICE center and she did not know where they were anymore. She was traveling to her family in Chicago who had sent money for bus tickets. She had no option to wait or try to find her nephews.

Our students made many walks of accompaniment with migrants in downtown McAllen. We accompanied them to the bus station, money exchange, clothing store and telephone store—anywhere services were needed. We took them to doctors and pharmacies. Most of us knew a little broken Spanish but no Creole, but we all discovered “Google Translate.”

Many of the migrants shared their stories of leaving their homes and making the perilous journey.

Meeting a migrant, accompanying them, hearing of their sufferings and seeing their smiles with hopefulness puts a different face on the crisis. It’s no longer “us” and “them.” It is just one human family all created in God’s image. And as the song goes, “There but for fortune go you and I.”

As one of our MSN students, Abby, reflected, “I felt I learned so much more by talking with people and hearing their stories than I ever learned about immigration in school or on the news. There was something more impactful by actually seeing for myself and questioning people about their lived experience.”

Our biblical story (as well as the U.S. story) revolves around migration. From Adam and Eve’s forced migration out of Eden, to Joseph’s human-trafficked migration to Egypt at the hands of his jealous brothers, to his brothers’ and father’s reunion in Egypt because of a famine-forced migration from Palestine, migration is a centralizing theme. Joseph and Mary migrated to Egypt with baby Jesus under Herod’s death threat.

And the “greatest migration” is noted in Philippians as “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God” who “empties himself” and migrates to be in “human form” in dangerous first-century Palestine.

Our histories are the stories of migration. Migration has made us who we are.

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