Category Archives: love
The press has gone.
Photographers no longer shadow us down the hallways as we tend to our guests. No more wanna-be volunteers show up at our door unannounced after having driven for hours from places like Denver or Phoenix. No more “angry moms” spend their mornings preparing breakfast and lunch for our migrant families as a positive response to their outrage.
Gone are the headlines about crying toddlers torn from the arms of their mothers and fathers. Gone are the news reports about abuses at detention centers.
Our lives are back to normal. Whatever “normal” is these days.
For those of us on the border, it may feel like we’re on our own again. It may seem as though people don’t care.
But I know that’s not true. I know you are listening, dear reader. I know that you do care. Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this.
So, I’d like to make you aware. Better inform you about the “norm” for so many who do feel as if no one cares. About the maltreatment asylum seekers face, especially when they hail from African countries. About the abuses that occur. About the loneliness and isolation.
Once you know, my hope is that you will not forget. And that you will take some small, positive action from where you are. Make a difference in at least one other lonely or abused person’s life that will add to the growing wave of merciful acts done in the name of humanity.
So that others will know they are not alone.
As you may know, I have been visiting asylum seekers detained at the ICE El Paso Processing Center through a nonprofit called CIVIC. CIVIC stands for Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, and Jan, our local program administrator, has done a super job of connecting volunteer visitors with lonely people holed up in these prisons.
Some detainees have not had a visitor in over a year. They wait for Jan to connect them with an available volunteer. They feel so alone. Forgotten. Powerless.
Until last month when African asylum seekers at our detention facility became empowered.
They risked creating and signing a petition against the El Paso DHS ICE Field Office for “improperly and impartially” denying their parole and treating them unfairly. They claim they escaped persecution in their home countries and came here for safety, only to be persecuted at the hands of ICE officers and detention guards.
The majority of them have been in ICE custody for more than a year. They all arrived legally as asylum seekers at one of our EP ports of entry and had positive credible fear interviews, yet they remain in “immigration proceedings.” Proceedings that seem to have no end to them.
They have a right to parole through the Damus decision. And they have watched as parole is granted to Latin American detainees, especially to Cubans, awaiting their hearing, while their parole is unjustifiably denied.
At an alarming number.
A little background on the Damus decision. A teacher from Haiti, Ansly Damus has been confined in Ohio for more than a year-and-a-half. He fled his homeland fearing violence and political persecution and asked for asylum. An immigration judge granted him asylum not just once, but twice. But the government appealed those decisions and Damus remains locked up indefinitely even though he poses no threat and is eligible for parole. The judge has ruled that ICE violated its own procedures by not granting Damus release under what’s known as humanitarian parole.
That’s what our African detainees are petitioning for. Humanitarian parole.
On a personal note, I’ve been seeing my young Ethiopian friend, whom I call Mathias, for nearly nine months now. He’s been locked up for over a year. His birthday is coming up in early October. He’s told me he doesn’t want to spend another birthday behind these walls. Celebrate another year of his young life on hold.
It feels like such a small thing. To visit someone only once a week or a few times a month. It never feels like enough. And then he sends a letter saying how I make him strong and comfort him, how he is happy to have someone “on the outside” who cares. He says it’s not easy to be in detention, but he is “learning about life” and learning that there are “good-hearted people in this world like CIVIC.”
He is learning…and so am I.
I am learning that sometimes it feels like our hands are tied. That it feels like we are alone to face the wall or the tempest before us. But we are not.
Sometimes God shows up as the person accompanying us. Or the one accompanied.
Don’t forget this. Be the one who cares.
.NOTE: I am creating a new blog – same theme, different look. I hope to link it to this one, and I hope you will continue to follow me on this journey.
Don’t make me cry, David.
I’m standing in front of the fresh cherries display at Sprouts, considering how many to buy while simultaneously pondering a brave new step in my life when I suddenly recognize the tune being piped in overhead.
It’s U2’s “With or Without You.”
Without warning, a familiar feeling floods me. The band U2 was one of David’s favorites. And this particular song has a special meaning for me. So many years ago, deep in the midst of my grief, I listened to that song over and over. It both consoled and pained me.
In my mind, I felt as though I couldn’t live without David. And yet I knew I would.
That was over nine years ago now and yet instantaneously David comes into my awareness. And, as if in recognition of the decision I’m about to make, his voice, gentle and strong from somewhere inside me, says:
“I’m proud of you, honey.”
I hear and feel this as clearly as if David were standing beside me, whispering these familiar words into my ear.
It takes all the effort I have to keep myself from crying right there in the middle of the produce aisle. And because I don’t want to look that vulnerable, my demanding voice says, ‘don’t make me cry.”
I manage to hold back the tears.
Somehow knowing he would leave this earth before I did, David tried to prepare me for his death. As if that were possible.
Mr. Serious. Mr. Practical. He even planned financially to take care of me and Davis after he’d be physically absent.
What I didn’t know was that he would take care of me emotionally in difficult, doubting moments that test my ability to fully love myself. Just by “reliving” and remembering his unconditional love for me.
He was the first person in my life to really see and accept me. The first to tell me how he appreciated my courage, my strength, my beauty, and my independence. It was such a gift. To have someone see me for who I truly am and not who they think I should be or want me to be.
It was his love and confidence in me that allowed me to declare not long after his death:
“I’m learning to let go of any attachment to what I thought my life would be and opening to limitless possibilities.”
And that desire, to live my life fully – no matter how different from what I’d planned – is what brought me to the border.
I am reminded of this as I live my life here and make choices that are countercultural. Choices that are not popular with my family and possibly further alienate me from them.
It’s not easy, to stand in my truth and keep my heart open in the face of old hurts, misguided assumptions, distorted perceptions that come at me. Whether it’s from strangers, or, most especially, from people I love.
Yet I believe God desperately wants us to keep loving and to know how unbelievably precious we are, how unconditionally loved we are, in the face of everything that comes at us. Sometimes the only way Love can do that is by sending us a message through someone who loves or has loved us that much.
For me, that person is David.
Complete vulnerability. That’s what David gave me. And that is what love asks of us.
We are meant to give ourselves away. And I know, in giving myself, I get so much more!
I am reminded of someone else who gave himself away for us. To show us the path of Love. To show us what is possible when you give it all away. And how transformational that is.
Love is the only answer in this crazy, confused, painful, joyful, fearful, beautiful, and insecure world. Love is the only power that will transform and save us.
And it waits for us to say “yes” to it.
“Through the storm we reach the shore
You give it all but I want more
And I’m waiting for you”
(Lyrics from “With or Without You”)
“There’s nothing I can do,” he tells me.
He’s told me this countless times before.
Always with the same calm, trusting composure. And I have come to accept the acceptance in his words, knowing that his deep faith guides him.
But tonight…tonight I feel the anger growing inside me.
Tonight I want to slam my fists on the table, pound the glass between us, yell at the guards or his deportation officer, or better yet, the anonymous person who wrote this dreadful form letter Mathias has just slipped under the thick glass that divides us.
The letter that states our government continues to work with his government to take him back, even though we both know that since he has no passport or other legal documents, it’s highly unlikely his country will ever accept him. They’ve already said they can’t take him.
The letter that states he must not interfere with the process (a statement that would be laughable if it weren’t so ridiculous).
And, finally, the worst part, the letter that states he must remain locked up until October. Three more months of not knowing. With no guarantee any decision will be made even after that time.
Mathias, the young man I visit in detention, lost his asylum case back in April. Not unusual in El Paso. Denial is happening at an even higher frequency here than elsewhere.
We know he is supposed to be deported. But he waits in this liminal space as the two countries go back and forth, indifferent to the life they are impacting.
Three more months in limbo. Or is it hell?
I know the food isn’t good. I know that whenever he is allowed outdoors – always accompanied by a guard – he must stay within the narrow areas outlined in white on the cement. He cannot venture outside these lines.
I know about the locked metal doors that seal behind you, the tall barbed-wire fences and the full barracks where the TV plays loudly throughout the day. The difficulty he has in trying to pray.
And yet, I tell him I wish I could trade places with him. Even as I say it, I know I am sincere.
He is already so thin, he cannot afford to lose any more weight. I would gladly lose it for him. I would take on the monotony of his structured day, assigned to wear a navy jump suit, allowing others to make decisions for me. In such a situation, so completely out of my control, I would be forced to turn to God while perched on this ledge in liminal space, feeling like a confined criminal when I am anything but.
This is Mathias’s situation. And he no more deserves it than I do.
This young man who followed the law, coming to a U.S. port of entry to present his case for asylum. As international law allows.
The thing is, I care about Mathias. I have come to know him as a man of integrity. I have watched him deal with the stress and uncertainty of his situation with courage and tremendous trust in God.
When he tells me, “There is nothing I can do,” I hear and see in his face his ability to accept “God’s will,” as he puts it. He trusts God to care for him.
Yet he tells me he longs for freedom. After all, he has been confined for more than a year already.
I think of this as I drive home and discover Interstate 10 is closed. Traffic crawls as it’s diverted off the highway. I feel so tired and frustrated, knowing this will double the time it normally takes to get back to Las Cruces. I swear aloud.
Then I think of Mathias. Locked in his barracks tonight. Sleeping soundly, ever since he has learned to accept his situation.
Stressed behind my steering wheel, cursing tonight’s road construction, I suddenly wonder, who is more free?
Sometimes I have trouble accepting life on life’s terms. Despite his age, Mathias is my teacher. He reminds me of the importance of returning to my Source. My true freedom. And did I mention he is Muslim?
“He [or she] who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love will not have anything to give others.” Thomas Merton
I love Virginia. I was so thrilled to be back visiting my former home that I pretty much wandered around with a continuous smile.
First there was the effects of all that spring rain. Virginia’s mountains and hillsides glowed with a vibrant green carpet. Trees and vegetation along the roadsides were so full, they seemed to reach out to embrace me.
I treasured hikes and gatherings with dear friends. Enjoyed surprise encounters with old friends at a special wedding. Spent time with Davis – always a treat – and got to see the wonderful adults some of his high school friends have become.
Virginia has given me so many precious memories and such special heart connections, who wouldn’t smile?
Even crossing the state line and seeing the familiar “Virginia is for lovers” slogan got me.
But I can’t say my entire trip was filled with goodness and happy thoughts.
Back home at the border things were heating up. Even before I left El Paso, we were seeing cases of asylum seekers being jailed and their children taken from them. In the week that followed my departure, a difficult and painful situation had deteriorated from bad to worse.
Not that I was watching TV news. But between emails from friends and contacts back home, along with snippets of Internet news, I couldn’t ignore what was happening.
Soon, along with the joy of being back in Virginia, I was carrying a heaviness on my heart. It accompanied me into bed at night and awoke with me every morning.
Seeing faces in the news similar to those of the families I accompany, knowing the pain and distortion they were being subjected to, I couldn’t rest easily. After all, I’ve listened to their stories, played with their shy children, prepared and eaten plate after plate of reheated rice and beans with them.
Maybe right about now you’re asking, how does this relate to the title of your blog post?
I admit that finding words to express all I’ve been experiencing these days is challenging.
But I’ll try.
Sunday while hiking in the Gila National Forest, I met a Navy veteran who’d lived in Virginia. When he discovered Virginia had been my home for 30 years, he shared his not-so-positive opinions about the commonwealth.
Far from the “Virginia is for lovers” motto, he saw Virginians as racists still living in the pre-Civil War era, honoring the Confederacy, stuck in time. (I should note he was Caucasian.)
Clearly, his “reality” differed greatly from mine.
Not that there aren’t people who act this way, but this is not the Virginia nor the Virginians I know.
This guy’s stereotype was not indicative of the special place where we raised our son.
Davis learned about love in Virginia. He learned compassion, not judgment. Acceptance, not racial profiling. He learned to meet people where they are and be generous with what he has.
My heart connection with Virginians has created a different reality.
It’s those heart connections – both in Virginia and on the border – that prevent me from lumping people into derogatory categories. Or labeling them “racists,” “animals,” “criminals” who are “infesting” us.
I could not malign and dismiss the people of Virginia any more than I could the families of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras who come to our hospitality houses.
Why? Because living on the cusp of what’s happening at the U.S.-Mexico border, I’ve experienced a different “reality.” Thankfully, a reality many of my Virginia friends wanted to hear about. And I’m so grateful for their listening open, loving hearts.
“Do you know what hurts so very much? It’s love. Love is the strongest force in the world, and when it is blocked that means pain. There are two things we can do when this happens. We can kill that love so that it stops hurting. But then of course part of us dies, too. Or we can ask God to open up another route for that love to travel.”
― Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place: The Triumphant True Story of Corrie Ten Boom
I agree that love IS the strongest force in the world. Love can turn things – and people – around.
And something else about love.
Love is strong and fierce in defense of those it loves. Love is not cowardly. It takes risks. Lovers do not sit quietly by while those they love are maligned.
I don’t intend to be silent in support of people I have come to love.
I make no apologies for the pain and anger I feel in my heart when I see a video of a Guatemalan mother, reunited with her 5-year-old son at the airport, sobbing into him as she tells him in Spanish that she loves him.
The pain that we have been inflicting on these children is a violent act. It is anything but love. It goes against the grain of what love is.
It goes against who I am.
This is not a time for silence or inertia. It’s a time for lovers – lovers in the true sense of the word – to speak up.
I had two encounters with a wall on Saturday night. Literally and figuratively.
One was the tall steel monstrosity that Trump has erected at the Santa Teresa, NM port of entry – the beginnings of his “big, beautiful wall.” The other is the one I discovered in me.
It wasn’t exactly what I’d expected to encounter – this growing self-awareness of ways I put up walls. But there it was. Right in front of me.
And impossible to ignore.
Not unlike the not-yet-but-soon-to-be 18-ft wall of ugliness planted at my feet in the desert.
Even at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, the sun was hot and strong, bearing down on me and a few hundred “friends” gathered at the fence line between Mexico and New Mexico.
Sponsored by the Southwest Environmental Center and other environmental and humanitarian groups, this Border Wall Protest was to draw attention to the negative repercussions of constructing this wall and to present a tangible resistance.
I’ll say right off that I’ve grown tired of protests. I want to take positive action. And I often look for ways to do that.
But I came in solidarity, and with curiosity. I wanted to see what this wall looked like. After all, $72 million (so far) of our tax dollars have been appropriated to its construction. And this is the spot where it all begins.
Let me tell you, it’s ugly. It’s invasive. Much more so than any human being.
And, for those of us who live in the Borderlands – the area from El Paso to Las Cruces – it’s right in our backyard.
We locals know this wall will not stop the flow of drugs across the border. The demand is high in the U.S., and the smugglers find ways to transport drugs through the ports of entry and through tunnels. Nor will it stop desperate people from seeking asylum at the ports of entry. But it will stop the natural flow of wildlife across borders and countries, something I learned about in Costa Rica, which is an international bridge for the flow of North American wildlife. It will also prevent animals close to home from finding necessary water and sustenance.
So, this wall will accomplish nothing positive and it will cost billions.
Costly and unnecessary.
I pondered that as I walked.
And as I gazed beyond the narrow steel columns into the expanse of desert, a sadness came over me. The sadness of so much pain in our country these days. The name calling – on both sides – the harsh pigeonholing of immigrants, the refusal to take responsibility for the negative outcome of our actions. And, most especially, the cruel SOP of separating young children from their parents at the border.
This is a hard reality. And it was hard to hold.
As Franciscan Richard Rohr says, “We hold the hardness of reality and the suffering of the world until it transforms us.”
But holding it means not being reactionary. As I thought about this, I recognized my own reactionary stance. How sometimes I erect my own costly and unnecessary walls.
When someone expresses an opinion different than mine and digs their heels in the ground refusing to even hear what I am saying, a wall goes up.
When someone dismisses what I feel most passionately about, a wall goes up.
When someone hurts others, oblivious to the pain they’re causing, or supports a policy that hurts others, a wall goes up.
I realize it’s a risk, to take down these walls. I could get hurt.
Yet I know they too are an unnecessary monstrosity that stops the natural flow of life and love.
If my purpose here truly is to learn to love better, how can I come from a different stance? Not condoning or ignoring the harm another is doing, but also not being reactionary?
What will lead me closer to the Divine heart of God? Dualistic, negative thoughts that prevent me from really connecting with others? Or an open mind and heart that seeks a new way to respond? One that lets down walls and goes beyond comfortable borders?
So, I’ve been reflecting on these questions. Maybe you’ll find considering them helpful, too.
What boundaries am I being asked to cross?
What walls do I need to tear down?
I experienced paradise for nearly two weeks. Every morning in Costa Rica I’d wake up happy.
And that’s despite getting up much earlier than usual.
The cacophony of birds greeting the dawn just wouldn’t let me sleep. Nor would the howler monkeys. With their loud calls seemingly so close to my window, I felt as though someone had planted my bed smack in the middle of the jungle.
But I’d jump up, no matter the hour, excited and eager to get out there and see what amazing colors and species of bird, animal, and plant I’d find today.
Costa Rica defines abundance.
For such a small country – it accounts for only 0.03 percent of the earth’s surface – Costa Rica has nearly 6 percent of the world’s biodiversity. An overabundance in my book. I couldn’t even keep up with the numbers. Something like 600 species of birds – more than the United States and Canada combined – at least 150 species of frogs, over 500 species of trees.
Every day was an adventure in joyful exploration. An encounter with tremendous beauty.
Daily, I found myself expressing gratitude for this incredible earth we’ve been placed on.
But everything wasn’t perfect. Neither in Costa Rica nor elsewhere on the planet.
While on vacation I wasn’t watching the news, but I couldn’t get away from what was happening at the U.S.-Mexico border. I continued to view emails and messages from friends and reliable news sources.
So, I was aware that the caravan of Central Americans had been denied entry to the U.S., with the claim that Border Patrol had reached its capacity and was unable to accept and process the asylum seekers, most of whom were mothers and children. I knew, too, that this was a charade. The caravan had been anticipated. It had been in the news for days. There was no reason, other than political, as to why Border agents weren’t prepared to receive them.
Meanwhile, back in El Paso, my fellow volunteers were helping an unusually high number of migrants. Texts and emails were coming through, rapidly and daily, for more volunteers, as ICE delivered more than 400 asylum seekers to our “hospitality houses” during the week I was gone.
It was such a contradiction. One border outside Tijuana unable to process a little more than 100 people who had been expected to arrive while another port of entry was taking in an unexpected 100 or more a day.
I couldn’t help but think about it. I imagine a hard stone wall, filled with anger, fear, and prejudice, stacked up against some people’s hearts, to keep from feeling their humanity towards immigrants. It is this wall, I suspect, that keeps us from feeling the pain and outrage over our government’s practice of now separating children – as young as 2 years old – from their mothers at the border. Mothers who have fled their country in order to save their children. Now suffering even greater heartbreak.
It felt like such a contradiction within myself, too.
One minute I was telling a co-traveler how Costa Rica makes my heart happy, and the next, I was explaining to another how the tragic and troubling situation at the border hurts my heart.
And both were true.
I don’t pretend to understand why there is such pain in an abundant universe.
This is the world we live in: one that can be both paradise and prison, both filled with immeasurable joy and immense sorrow.
And my faith lives in the midst of these seemingly contradictory experiences and emotions.
When I ask my inner being, what am I to do, I hear that my task is simply to learn to love. Love those in sorrow and pain, and love those who wound and hurt them because of their own pain and ignorance. Learn to hold all of this suffering and let my heart feel and expand in the process. Which really isn’t that simple, is it?
But this is what connects me to the One who has created such inexpressible beauty in nature and such vulnerable hearts capable of unimaginable pain.
It may seem contradictory, but both are gifts – treasures hidden in plain sight.
It was such a precious thing.
To have a little 4-year-old, previously a stranger to me, trust me with her knotted tresses. Trust me enough to allow me to secure her between my knees as I sat down and attempted to untangle her long, wavy locks.
Lint and other particles from her weeks-long journey from Honduras had nested in Yoselin’s curls and refused to disentangle themselves.
It felt like a nearly impossible task. Especially with only a thin comb as my tool.
She never made a sound. Never winced. Yoselin stood quietly, patiently, while her 7-year-old sister and her appreciative father watched.
I finally threw my hands up.
“It’s the best I can do. Es la mejor que puedo hacer.”
I gave a pleading look to her dad and twisted a hair band around her tresses, securing any loose ends. Even after I pulled her hair back into a ponytail, Yoselin didn’t budge. She remained perched between my legs, unmovable. I gave her a little nudge.
“I need to get up,” I gently said. Necesito levantarme.
Reluctantly she moved away and I went off to prepare lunch so she and her family could eat before they boarded the bus to Tennessee in a few hours.
It felt like such a small thing. And yet very precious.
I didn’t know the next time this child would receive such a gentle, loving touch. Her innocence and complete vulnerability and trust at my hands made me want to cry.
Sometimes it’s not just children who are innocent and vulnerable and trusting in our hands.
I’ve become familiar with so many suffering people who have come here completely vulnerable and trusting in a country known as the greatest defender of human rights and democracy.
Like my guy in detention “Mathias.” He was shocked when, after explaining to U.S. Customs and Border Protection his reason for seeking international asylum, they handcuffed and confined him in a detention facility.
I’ve been visiting Mathias for months. I’ve gotten to know him and care about him. Even took the morning off to attend his court hearing, as his main support system and concerned friend. But he lost his case. It doesn’t appear he has much chance for appeal. His health has been deteriorating since he arrived at the El Paso detention facility. Yet El Paso has one of the better facilities.
If he doesn’t appeal, he will soon be transferred to another facility as he awaits deportation. And his situation could get much worse.
My fear is he’ll be transferred to a private facility in Sierra Blanca, Texas, where African immigrants, in particular, are being abused and beaten, according to a recent report by immigrant and civil rights groups. This is not surprising, based on what we hear from other volunteers and immigration attorneys.
It deeply disturbs me – what’s happening in our country. Both behind closed doors and overtly.
I’m aware that sometimes I can’t get all the knots out, no matter how hard I try. I can’t prevent the pain someone is experiencing.
Sometimes the best I can offer is to simply walk alongside them in their anxiety. Their fear. Their suffering.
And not have any answers. Not be able to explain why a country known throughout the world for supporting and defending human rights would treat others inhumanely.
It doesn’t seem like enough. What I do.
But I know that kindness does matter. A caring heart matters. And an educated, intelligent response to abusive authority matters, too.
Your response matters.
Let’s all do the best we can do. It’s the only way positive changes can happen.
Like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, I have confidence.
Confidence in what exactly? That’s a question I had to ask myself recently after reading an NPR article on what Americans have confidence in – or don’t.
Based on a recent poll, NPR found that Americans don’t seem to have much confidence in any institution. Not in Congress. Not in their political parties, nor the president, nor big business. Not in banks nor the media. Not even in public schools.
But there is one institution in which Americans apparently have a lot of confidence.
As much as 87 percent of Americans said they have “a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the military,” according to the poll.
That’s a 30-percent increase from the 1970s.
At first, reading this was upsetting.
I mean, for a country that overwhelmingly claims to be Christian, this somehow didn’t sit right with me. Trusting in force and firepower. In violent means to an end. Not that Christianity hasn’t been violent throughout the centuries. Still, I do believe we are evolving.
I also believe this growing confidence in the military equates to a growing fear and anxiety in our society. Perpetuated by what we’re fed.
Anyone could easily tap into that fearful place by listening to the news or political pundits. Or by following the barrage of negativity coming across social media. Or coming down the pipeline from Washington.
So, for my own sanity, I decided to pause. Take a breath.
And in the silence, ask myself, “What do you have confidence in, Pauline? What do you trust?”
What came to me immediately is that I have confidence in what I cannot see, yet I know is present in everything.
I have confidence in love. The Source of love that we cannot fully grasp with our finite minds, yet upholds us in everything.
This love permeates nature. It causes the sun to rise every morning and the moon to shine in the darkness.
Everything and everyone is a manifestation of this love. Nothing exists outside of it.
I have confidence that love is present in everything. It prevails in the midst of negativity and deep darkness. Even in the violence, in the madness, in the disease and desperation.
And although love won’t intervene, I trust in this love to heal the repercussions of violence. To show up in each of us as acts of mercy and compassion. Selfless kindness. Sacrifices made for another.
It heals what seems impossible to heal.
And it accomplishes this through me, and through you.
I have confidence in this love. And I have confidence in me. Because, as St. Catherine of Genoa said, “My deepest me is God.”
My true Source is love.
Sometimes, trusting in that is the only thing that saves me.
Funny, but after I reflected on this, I found myself breaking into song. Suddenly singing “I Have Confidence” just like Maria in The Sound of Music.
I picture Maria in her little jacket and funny hat, carrying her guitar case along a picturesque Salzburg street as she makes her way to the von Trapp mansion. She’s belting out a song to her little scared self about what she has confidence in. She needs to remind herself. Because she’s venturing into completely unknown territory.
And it feels a bit frightening. As the uncertain future easily does.
But as she sings, Maria grows stronger as she remembers her Source of confidence, present in the sunshine and the rain. Present in her.
Maybe we all need to sing along. And trust in what really matters.
You may have a reaction to this vulgar term. Maybe you’re tired of hearing it already.
I get it.
But please stick with me. I have a story to tell. And it matters that you read this.
My new friend – I’ll call him Mathias – sleeps on a mattress so thin, he feels the cold steel of the springs underneath him. A bullet lodged into his left side presses into him, aggravated by the hard coils of his assigned bed. He tries to sleep only on his right, but even then, the pain barely diminishes. The bullet, put there long ago by police who were supposed to protect him.
Mathias is a 25-year-old asylum seeker from one of those African countries.
He’s not a criminal. Yet, he is a prisoner.
He’s one of the detainees I visit weekly at the El Paso Detention facility.
We’ve never hugged. I’ve not been able to touch his shoulder or squeeze his hand in support. Even though I’ve longed to.
I speak to Mathias from the other side of a glass. With a phone to my ear, my body hunched forward, as if straining will help me hear his words more clearly, I listen. To stories of hardship and trauma I’ve never known.
Stories of the challenges of living in confinement.
Stories of hope.
Because Mathias does have hope. Despite all he’s experienced.
He hopes in a country that values liberty, justice, and the dignity and right to life. He hopes in a court system that will do the right thing.
I wish I could share that hope.
Mathias was just a boy, away at school, when his entire family, threatened by corrupt police, fled the country.
It’s been years since he’s seen his mother.
He smiles when I come to see him, asks how my week was, if I’ve heard from my son, who’s only a year older than he is.
I think of Mathias’s mother, holed up in a refugee camp in Kenya. She didn’t get to say goodbye.
Mathias tried to live a “normal” life without his family. Continue school, then hold down a job, save money. But the police threatened him. He had to flee. By that time, crossing the border wasn’t easy. He couldn’t join his family in the camp. He had to get help.
His story of how he made it all the way to the El Paso port of entry is more than admirable. It’s an amazing story of the human spirit. Of faith, hope, trust.
He trusts in the promises of a free and democratic society.
Still. In spite of his shock that, after pouring out his story to Border Customs, they handcuffed him and tossed him in detention to await his fate.
And he’s not unusual.
More weary asylum seekers have been arriving at our ports of entry, fleeing violence from places as far as Cameroon, Ethiopia, the Congo, as well as from El Salvador and Guatemala. Countries that are not on the U.S. list of favorable places to migrate from.
Whether our president used those exact words or not to describe these countries is not the point. The real concern is his intention.
Words like “refugee,” “asylum seeker,” and “immigrant” have become associated with something evil. Or, at least, something undesirable.
Yet international law supports asylum seekers. International law says a Government is prohibited from returning someone to their country if they will be subjected to torture or persecution or death. But a recent report compiled by human rights organizations at the border documents cases where we have not been following that law.
It shows that more punitive and inhumane deterrence practices are being implemented towards asylum seekers under this administration. More human rights violations are being recorded.
Surprisingly, the report also shows, El Paso courts have one of the highest denial rates for asylum seekers. It’s a sad reality that makes no sense.
Yet, the outcome of a case is determined by the judge assigned rather than the severity of the asylum seeker’s life-threatening situation and the credibility of their supporting documentation.
I may be going against the grain here, but I am actually praying that Mathias wins his asylum case and remains in the U.S.
I am praying that more and more of these violations come to light. And that they matter to people like you.
And I pray that one day winning an asylum case will not be a rare occurrence in many of our courts.
It’s worthwhile noting that National Right to Life Day is January 22. The right to life, the dignity of a life, extends to all human beings, not just the unborn. Not just those who were lucky enough to be born in the United States.
For me, Mathias – and thousands others like him – is the voiceless little one who needs me to stand up and say, you are a child of God. You have a right to live.