What I’ve witnessed at the border

This originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.

Asylum seekers at the border have always been just a step or two away from complete disaster. Sickness, crime, desperation, and heartless immigration policies have taken their toll. But I never expected a virus to be the ultimate threat.

Since last July I have been volunteering with Team Brownsville, a nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian aid to asylum seekers in Matamoros, the border city in Mexico where migrants wait for the chance to apply for asylum.

I was last there in February. In March they announced that because of the pandemic, no more out-of-town volunteers would be accepted.

Around the same time, World Central Kitchen, the nonprofit organization which had been preparing meals for the migrants, ended its operation in Brownsville and Matamoros, for the safety of its staff. President Donald Trump closed the border to all but essential traffic. Then came the novel coronavirus.

Andrea Rudnik, Team Brownsville’s volunteer coordinator, wrote on Facebook:

“A pandemic was never on my radar. Not until a few weeks ago, anyway, and even then it seemed like a remote possibility or something that would happen somewhere else.

“But here we are. And I am tasked with telling volunteers that they cannot come to work on the border right now.”

I first visited Brownsville in June 2018, when I drove down from my home in Houston to attend a protest against the forced separation of migrant children from their parents at the direction of the Trump administration. Months went by, and last summer I returned, this time to volunteer.

I returned every month but one since then, staying for several days at a time, helping cart food, supplies, clothing and other needed items over the Gateway International Bridge to the plaza at the foot of the bridge where migrants had set up camp while waiting for the opportunity to apply for asylum. During the first two months I volunteered, between 100 and 200 asylum seekers lived in the plaza. Then last August came MPP.

Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as MPP or the “remain in Mexico policy,” were instituted at the Brownsville port of entry. Over the next eight months, the migrant population living in the plaza grew from a couple hundred to over 2,000. A squalid tent city mushroomed as the migrants languished. They depended wholly on humanitarian aid provided by local volunteers including those with Team Brownsville.

Over Valentine’s Day weekend, I visited to protest with a group called Witness at the Border. A couple hundred people from across the country converged on Brownsville to take part in a weekend-long schedule of activities intended to bring awareness to the injustice and misery resulting from the Trump administration’s asylum policies.

In the early morning on the 14th, I went to the Brownsville South Padre Island airport and joined a group of about 25 protesters. They were focused on a pair of buses holding would-be immigrants to the U.S. who were about to be loaded on planes and flown to Guatemala. These flights had become routine due to the cooperative agreement Trump negotiated with that country.

It was a surprisingly cold morning for Brownsville. A group of women clung to a chain-link fence and chanted in unison the words “We love you” in Spanish.

“Los queremos! Los queremos! Los queremos!”

Some pressed red paper hearts against the fence. One woman shifted the framed drawing of the Virgin of Guadalupe she was holding and lifted her hands above her head in the shape of a heart.

Joshua Rubin, founder of Witness at the Border, left his Brooklyn home last October to spend a couple months in solitary protest outside a detention center holding teenage migrants in the border town of Tornillo. He became a fixture, standing outside the center for hours, holding signs messages as simple as “Free Them,” occasionally waving to teens as they were moved into the center. From there, he went on to witness outside another immigration detention center, in Homestead, Florida.

“I try to keep myself visible because the main part of witnessing is seeing,” Rubin, a man with a salt-and-pepper beard sporting a safari hat, said. “But the other part is being seen, so we try to be the visual manifestation of what’s going on on the other side of that river.”

The “Welcome to the United States of America” sign at the edge of Southmost College’s campus, directly across from the Gateway International Bridge, was adorned with signs and banners printed with phrases like “Don’t Look Away,” “MPP Kills,” and “Let Them Cross.” Protesters pumped their fists when drivers honked in support as they drove by.

Many volunteers and protesters express this feeling of obligation, of urgency. Sadly, that dedication has not succeeded in ending MPP or improving the government’s treatment of asylum seekers, but thanks to volunteers, some improvements were visible in the encampment.

On my last visit, in March, the encampment had moved up a hill onto the river levee, a larger area to accommodate what was now close to 2,500 asylum seekers. People still lived in tents close together, but there was much more infrastructure, with a huge dining tent, dozens of port-a-potties, a laundry station, filtered drinking water and showers. Hand-washing stations were installed with signs displaying the proper hand-washing method to prevent infection. Andrea told me that because so few people could now cross into Mexico, Team Brownsville had arranged for a local restaurant in Matamoros to provide meals for the asylum seekers. She and her team have not stopped and will not stop finding ways to provide whatever assistance is within their power to give.

I don’t know when I will return to Brownsville. The border is bowed under the weight of the coronavirus, just as other places are, and the outcome is as far from certain there as anywhere.

I don’t know if I will ever again work with the volunteers who came from all over the country, who earnestly smiled at the asylum seekers as we served them dinner, who hauled thousands of bags filled with bottles of shampoo and soap and toothpaste, who prayed for the migrants’ plea for asylum to be heard, who played with the children and taught them in the Escuelita de la Banqueta, the once-weekly pop-up school Team Brownsville created for the migrant children.

I have seen the camp in Matamoros as it changed, and I have witnessed the unyielding dedication of Team Brownsville volunteers. And I, like so many others, have witnessed the suffering inflicted by the Trump immigration policies.

During that weekend in February I was invited to participate in an interfaith press conference. Each speaker — Jewish, Christian, Muslim — did a reading or said a prayer. Mine ended:

Oh God, we will not close our eyes. We will not look away. We will stand as witnesses and give voice to the voiceless. This is our promise to them and to You.

And these words are part of my witness. I hope you see through my eyes what is happening in Brownsville and Matamoros. Please don’t forget the most vulnerable who have relied in vain on America’s promise of liberty and compassion.