Of migrants and justice: My trip to Brownsville/Matamoros

In mid-July I volunteered assisting migrants on the Texas-Mexico border, carrying donated items from community members in Houston.  I wrote this to thank the donors and describe my experience.

As I drove to Brownsville last week to volunteer helping migrants at the Mexican border with Team Brownsville, I only had to glance at the back seat, where bags and bags of donated supplies sat, to know that I belong to a generous and concerned community.  I thank all those who donated.

The migrant children, especially those on the Mexico side of the border who are waiting indefinitely to have their asylum claims processed, loved the coloring and activity books. I know many of you wanted to donate other items and I couldn’t say for sure what was needed until I got there.  There is unquestionably a need for clothing and hygiene products. I plan to be back in Brownsville in mid-August and can do another donation collection then.  Or you can send donations directly to Good Neighbor Settlement House, a respite shelter that partners with Team Brownsville.

Hair “ties” made from tinfoil blankets

Saturday evening I joined the volunteer team at the Greyhound bus terminal on International Blvd., barely a mile from the Mexican border, where immigrants released from detention are dropped off to start their travel to family or friends who awaited them in all corners of the country. I was happy to have donated belts and shoelaces on hand for people just released from detention. Apparently authorities also take away ponytail twists in detention; I saw several women with silver ribbons in their hair; I was told those are strips torn from the tinfoil blankets the migrants are given in detention.

One of the activities we engaged in was providing dinner and donated items to migrants on the Mexican side of the international bridge.  The vast majority of these people were turned away when they presented themselves to Border Patrol agents and requested asylum.  They are told to wait until their assigned number comes up.  There is a huge paper sign affixed to a wall of the Border Patrol office.  It lists numbered entries that include names and countries of origin.

This list purports to show the order in which people or families will have their asylum request processed.  This process, known as “metering,” means that people who lawfully request asylum are not afforded the legal protections they are due, but instead are instructed to wait in Matamoros without any legal status, potentially for months, exposing them to risks of  crime, hunger, and despair that causes some to take the extreme step of trying to cross illegally rather than wait.  You can learn more about metering and other unlawful border policies by watching this webinar from the ACLU Border Rights Center.

The government’s justification for metering is that there are too many migrants to process.  Here is an interesting article about the volume of immigrants who came through Ellis Island 100 years ago. They numbered up to 10,000 in a day, and they only turned away 2% of the total applicants for immigration.  It can be done if there is the will to do it.  And this was during a time of nativist sentiment similar to today’s.

Before I left Brownsville to return to Houston, I met with staff from the ACLU’s Rio Grande Valley office.  I’m glad I did, as they gave me insight into the gritty details of a process that appeared more benign than I expected. 

An ACLU staffer I met with in Brownsville told me that the government has been separating families for decades and that ICE and Border Patrol have long cultivated the same fear in people of Latin American heritage that African Americans experience with the police.

The current “deterrence through cruelty” policies are just the latest manifestation of the exceptionalist vision of America as a white Christian nation.  With Trump in the oval office, the tension between that vision of this country and an inclusive, compassionate nation is greater than it has been in decades. The 2020 election results we need to restore sanity are obvious. The Republicans have made it simple.  They are all in on racism.  Vice President Pence and Sen. Lindsay Graham visited an immigrant detention center and looked everywhere except in the eyes of the men in those overcrowded cages.

Please pray for justice for these people at our border, those who are detained in miserable conditions, those who are living on the streets in Mexico waiting for a hearing, and those whose families have been torn apart by our government.

I will relish the day when the travesties at the border are no more than the legacy of the worst president ever with the most depraved administration in memory.

Migrants like those I saw last weekend will not forget what they have experienced.

It is my hope that the people who took part in mistreating asylum seekers will also be unable to shake the memory of this time in history.  I hope that Kirstjen Nielsen and Stephen Miller wake up at night haunted by the cries of children wailing for their parents.

That would be true justice.