A year ago, a delegation from Beacon Heights Church of the Brethren visited the U.S./Mexico border at McAllen and Brownsville, Texas. Last month, a group of eight returned to better understand and see firsthand the issues in the Rio Grande Valley and help asylum seekers there.
We were expecting to see many differences, and we did. Our visit was challenging, informative, enriching and ultimately reaffirms our commitment to justice.
One of the highlights of our first trip was walking across the border into Matamoros, Mexico, with a representative of the group Angry Tias. We were expecting to do that again. That changed about three weeks before we were to leave. The person with whom we were to cross was no longer able to take us. We were referred to Team Brownsville, an organization of volunteers who serve those waiting in Mexico.
Their volunteers serve dinner every night to asylum seekers waiting in Mexico as a result of the Trump administration's Migrant Protection Protocols last May. These procedures offer anything but protection for asylum seekers, exposing them to all kinds of hardships that place them in a dangerous and impossible situation.
Under U.S. and international law, people have the right to seek asylum in another country, even without documents. It is not a crime to enter the U.S. and claim asylum.
Previously, asylum seekers who crossed the border would turn themselves in to border patrol and request asylum. They then could progress through the court system while remaining in the U.S. Now, asylum seekers wait in Mexico until they can present their case in court. Usually their court date is two to three months away. On the day of their hearing, they are allowed into the U.S. The court is in a tent, and the judge in San Antonio appears on a screen. If the migrant seeking asylum is in one of the shelters away from the border, they must find and pay for transportation to the border. It's difficult and somewhat dangerous for immigration attorneys to consult with their clients in Mexico.
Every evening Team Brownsville, with volunteers from all over the country, serves a meal to 1,000 asylum seekers waiting in Mexico. In addition, they greet and feed asylum seekers at the bus station each day in Brownsville; and on Sunday they teach school in the refugee camp. The estimate is that there are from 1,500 to 3,000 asylum seekers waiting in Matamoros. The Mexican government feeds about 1,000 asylum seekers located further back from the international bridge.
Team Brownsville representatives told us they could pair us with another team coming from Dallas. That team had volunteered before, but this group was on the small side.
Serving a meal involves planning, funding, buying supplies, preparing food, transporting and ultimately serving the meal. Just thinking about the task seemed beyond the scope of what our small group could do. We decided to step out in faith. Two weeks before leaving, we made an announcement at church about our intention and asked for anyone with an extra $20 to send it our way. Before the service was over, there were donations being passed down the pew. A similar request was made to friends at Cancer Services; they also responded. The generosity was rapid and overwhelming.
We planned to serve turkey and cheese sandwiches, oranges, grapes, carrots and Halloween candy. We thought the meal would be nutritious, provide some fresh food and give a bit of a treat. The Dallas group would fund, buy supplies, and prepare the sandwiches while we would work on the rest of the menu. We would help with any sandwiches still needed.
By the time we departed Fort Wayne on Oct. 27, we had raised more than $1,800. We estimated the amount we would need was just short of $1,900, and we would pay for half. Our plan was to give any extra money to organizations we were visiting during the week.
Everything was looking pretty good, until the Monday evening before the fateful Friday. We received notice that the group from Dallas was not coming – the group leader's husband was having major surgery. So we were met by another challenge: Could we pull this off by ourselves?
After consulting Team Brownsville and a representative of the Good Neighbors Settlement House in Brownsville (where we would be preparing the food), we decided to continue. Who else would feed the asylum seekers? They were depending on us.
So, Wednesday evening, eight Fort Wayne friends descended upon Costco in McAllen, Texas. We checked out with eight large carts stuffed with food for our meal.
Early on Friday, we set to work assembling 1,200 sandwiches, washing and cutting up oranges and clementines, washing and destemming grapes and boxing up carrots and candy (the Mexican government does not allow whole fruits to enter the country).
We loaded 84 containers of food into the van and headed for the bus station. Team Brownsville has nice wagons with collapsible canvas sides. We put the containers into 14 wagons and started walking across the Gateway International Bridge. Most of those in our group hauled two wagons. As we got close to entering Mexico, we had a surprise. Walking along side us was Ira Glass, with the staff from his NPR radio program, “This American Life.” Glass interviewed several of us, along with many others.
In Matamoros, one is faced with tent after tent, as far as can be seen, occupied by asylum seekers who have been sent back to wait in Mexico. It's a stark reminder of our nation's continuing cruelty to those who rightfully come to seek asylum.
The conditions in the camp are dreadful. The sanitary conditions are appalling. Many bathe and do laundry in the Rio Grande River. We saw five portable toilets for the nearly 1,500 people who camp closest to the bridge. There is no clean water; the one water station is broken.
Safety is also a big issue; the women fear rape and are in need to “pay” for things. It's easy to prey on the refugees. Our friend from Brownsville is worried about an outbreak of flu since the refugees are vulnerable to health issues. All that being said, she notes: “These asylum seekers are smart people with great problem-solving skills. They are dealing with challenges I will never have to deal with. They are smarter and more resilient than me. I have deep respect for them.” They work together and share when they can.
We took our wagons down a narrow street that backs on to a fenced gate with tents on either side. Team Brownsville stores two long folding tables slid between tents in that area. We set them up and organized two serving lines. The asylum seekers knew exactly what to do: They lined up, women on one side, men on the other, children down the middle. Children are served first. Then, the women and men are served simultaneously.
For an hour or so we were the “cafetería ladies,” filling plates as quickly as we could. We were fearful we would run out and someone would go hungry that night. But we had enough for everyone. Some came back for seconds. We had about 70 of the 1,200 sandwiches left; the remainders went to the free store. We also returned with some of the candy, which would go into treat bags that are regularly given on Sunday. Almost all the asylum seekers said “gracias” as they were handed their plate.
As we packed up and left, we had lots of help from several youngsters. They pulled and pushed the wagons up the bridge until the point they were no longer allowed entry.
We left Brownsville, sore and exhausted both in body and emotionally. No mere border, however fortified, can begin to address the reasons people take enormous risks and make incredible personal sacrifices to seek an appropriate and dignified life for themselves and their families. We are appalled and ashamed of the Trump administration's “wait in Mexico” protocol. Every human being is entitled to dignity and respect.
Leslie Sperry is a member of Beacon Heights Church of the Brethren.