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Bearing witness on the Southern border

I’ve returned from a church mission trip to McAllen, Texas. My heart is heavy. Here’s what I saw and heard:

Families camped out in the brutal heat on the Mexican side of a bridge in Nuevo Progress – a legal port of entry. The border patrol agent would not or could not say how many asylum seekers were processed each day.

Neighboring towns on each side of the Rio Grande –Progresso, Texas, and Nuevo Progress, Mexico –Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico. Historically, these communities have been good neighbors even with their shared problems of poverty and violence on both sides of the border.

McAllen, a city in the poorest zip code in the nation, with its own economic contrasts – substandard housing and Top Golf - in the national spotlight and tired of it, desirous of less finger pointing and national immigration reform.

The winding Rio Grande, picturesque and seemingly placid surrounded by green countryside bordered by sugarcane fields.

News crews nearby covering the story of a mother and small children found dead in these fields most likely due to dehydration.

News crews nearby covering the story of the father and his toddler drowned. The Rio Grande is deadly – strong undertow and invasive, weedy undergrowth that can pull under a person entangling legs and arms.

Stories of coyotes, human traffickers, drug smugglers hidden from our view but preying on these families desperate to get to our country.

Levees reminiscent of New Orleans. Human intervention like a border wall could upset the balance of nature with flooding and damage. An evening of torrential rain was followed by a morning of flash flooding with schools closed.

Concrete border wall built during President Bush’s administration – an inadequate stretch largely funneling the human flow of migrants to another place to cross.

Faces of mothers, fathers and their children – faces lined with weariness and hope.

A Honduran child peeks over his mother's shoulder at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. (Nuri Vallbona)

It is the faces of these sojourners – patient, grateful, and determined – not scary, nor troublesome as we sometimes hear – who reaffirm our common humanity and how we must do better to address this humanitarian dilemma.

We spent a morning at the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen (pictured above) welcoming families recently processed and dropped off by Border Patrol. I sensed palpable relief. There were waves of people coming in the door, lining up patiently, listening attentively to directions in Spanish, and waiting for the backpack we would give them. The contents were basic: toothpaste, as many toothbrushes as needed, soap, and shampoo.

They had nothing but their most precious cargo (remember the car decal?) – their children. A father stood, hands resting on the shoulders of his two sons. A mother holding the wiggly hands of twins under the age of 2. The most alarming sight - a mother across the room with a toddler and a three-day old baby; sitting in a plastic chair doubled over with her head down, clearly in pain recovering from a C-section we were told. A volunteer held her baby; another looked for small diapers; yet another sought a larger backpack of provisions. I met volunteers from San Francisco, Houston, Pittsburgh – all whose hearts had led them to help.

We handed out deodorant, disposable razors, hair ties. A few parents would ask for medicine, something for an upset stomach, repeated vomiting. We would measure out a single dose of Pedialyte, Pepto Bismol, that’s about all we had. I relied on a few Spanish phrases, lots of smiles and gestures to understand and be understood. If that didn’t work, I turned to those helping who did speak Spanish.

Next, these families, orderly and patiently, lined up for showers, clothes, and a meal.

These families had experienced a long, deeply uncertain wait to cross the border with the current Administration’s policy of “metering”, severely restricting the daily number of immigrants who can apply for asylum.

After entering legally, many immigrants go to government-run processing centers –intended for no longer than a 72-hour stay- crowded, cold, under-staffed. The largest one, Ursula, in the country – a retrofitted warehouse with the capacity of 1,000 – is in McAllen.

After establishing “credible fear of persecution or torture in their home country”, they provided the name and address of a relative in the United States to sponsor them, while awaiting their asylum court date. This information was verified. With bus or airplane tickets to their family sponsor’s home, plus details about how to stay current on when to appear in court, they came to us for a temporary respite before continuing their journey.

What drives families to leave their homes for America? Poverty, lawlessness, domestic and gang violence. By the time they arrived at this respite center, they had endured a journey we cannot imagine. Desperation and fear left no other choice. Only bits and pieces of their stories will we ever know.


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