For nearly four hours I sat on a metal folding chair doing intake for the steady stream of people coming before me. I was at our newest hospitality site, Casa del Refugiado, and it’s a requirement at all our sites. Take down all the asylum seeker’s information from their ICE documents. But it can take a while when you’ve just received 150 families
I tried to write quickly, yet it seemed every time I looked up, more tired, worn, brown-skinned faces looked back at me, sitting in rows of white folding chairs, awaiting their turn. The children, who surely must have been hungry, were incredibly well-behaved.
Each time a parent and child came to my table, I smiled and introduced myself, trying to reassure them, especially the children, that this is a safe place. I was limited to brief encounters and kind smiles. Until a young woman, with a strong presence, sat down at my table. Her 24-year-old husband and 4-year-old son stood beside her. The boy had a shock of gray hair above his left ear, like a little man aging prematurely. Mixed in with his dark mane, it stood out, begging for me to ask a question. But I didn’t.
The expressionless mother answered my questions matter-of-factly, about birthdates, country of origin, which relative was sponsoring them in the U.S., until we got to the question about health. We’re required to ask is if they have any health issues, anything we need to know about. Turns out her little boy has vertigo. She explained that he takes medication, which the family had brought with them, but CBP had taken away.
“Why?” I asked.
She didn’t know. “He just took it,” she said, and she flung her arm across the air, sweeping away the now invisible medicine, in imitation of the agent’s action.
I had heard of this happening from other volunteers – how some agents have taken both children’s and adult’s medication (including epileptics), for no given reason. Thrown it away. But this was the first time it had happened to someone I was interviewing.
I got curious. Had she been exposed to other maltreatment I’d heard about?
“When you were with el migra (their name for immigration agents) did you sleep on the ground or on a cot?”
“En la tierra,” she said. Her face visibly changed as she told me this. Her eyes softened. Her voice almost caught in her throat. “Hacίa frίo.” (It was cold.)
I paused and looked at her.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I reached out and touched her arm on the table before me. “I’m sorry this happened to you.”
Maybe it was my tender gesture. Maybe she felt safe enough to release her feelings, even if only just a little bit. But finally she let the tears come. As this now very vulnerable woman sat before me, I wanted to cry, too.
Not just for her, but for all the others like her. Those who’d had children’s sweaters taken away, baby blankets and extra layers of clothing removed. Those who’d slept on the ground, huddled with their children against their chests, with maybe a thin Mylar covering. Those who’d gone without basic necessities.
Like the mother who came to us with a baby who’d been in the same diaper for four days. A fellow volunteer told me about the child’s terrible rash.
They come to us hungry. Some say they eat only once a day with el migra.
For months now I have been hearing about harsh circumstances some asylum seekers undergo once they turn themselves over to Border Patrol.
Some are held in cramped holding cells and sleep on the floor. Others are placed in makeshift tents and sleep on the ground. I understand that it can be difficult to accommodate the increasing numbers. Yet our churches and other nonprofits continue to step up to meet basic humanitarian needs. We provide cots and blankets. Three meals a day. Baby formula and diapers.
And, even if provisions are not possible, it is one thing to be unable to alleviate another person’s suffering. It is quite another to cause it.
What excuse is there for kicking someone sleeping on the ground? Screaming at frightened children? Knocking someone in the head because he is indigenous and doesn’t understand your instructions given in Spanish? Threatening a mother with words like “your children will die for abandoning your country” after her husband was murdered?
Yet, this is what some asylum seekers have reported. One man described his experience with el migra as “seven days in hell.”
Granted, not all Border agents are like this. Some are kind and compassionate. Some have even brought us donations.
But for those who harbor harsh anti-immigrant feelings or carry unprocessed anger and stress, it is much too easy to abuse those under your care. Without oversight of makeshift shelters, and with increasing public maligning of immigrants, I fear more, and worse, is happening.
No matter where you stand on this issue, what happens to other human beings under our care matters.
And if I claim to follow Jesus, a suffering servant himself, I will do what I can to relieve suffering.
And more than that.
Because I have experienced the unconditional compassion and mercy of God and I am created in that image, if I do not offer the same to others, then I am a fraud. I am no lover of God.