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.
Today is the 9th anniversary of David’s passing, and I’m marveling at where I’ve landed. Only last week, I moved again.
No, I didn’t stray very far from El Paso. Just over the border in New Mexico. But it’s a good move. I’ve bought my own place in a great community, and it means I’m putting down roots. Settling in. Ready to really sink my teeth into my life here.
Back in 2009 I could not have envisioned this life. A life without him. A life far from dear friends and a community that fully supported and surrounded me and Davis through our grief.
A life outside my beautiful Virginia.
Now I can’t imagine going back. Not being able to accompany and support the asylum seekers who arrive at our door. I can’t imagine not being able to witness firsthand and speak up about the realities of the Borderlands – the name for our area, from El Paso to Las Cruces, NM.
Because the reality is so much different from what you hear in the news or from the mouths of political pundits on TV. Or on Twitter.
I’ve learned so much through the people I’ve met. About perseverance and faith against all odds. About the challenges of living with tremendous uncertainty. The kind that’s life-threatening and beyond heartbreaking.
And, most especially, about the nature of our true home. The home within.
Still it feels good to have landed in my new physical home. A place with a different kind of beauty, where I still have my circle of friends and a community committed to social justice and caring for “the other.”
A safe place.
Yes, El Paso and the Borderlands are safe. In fact, El Paso continues to be counted as one of the safest U.S. cities for its size. I have always felt safe here. I teach English to adults at a church that’s within walking distance of the border. The little hospitality house where I volunteer is downtown, also close to the border. Mexican shoppers cross over daily and support our economy.
This is why what we hear in the media about the border is so disturbing. Like the idea of the president sending the National Guard. It’s ridiculous to us. We believe it’s a waste of taxpayer money and our resources. The truth is, apprehensions at the border have decreased significantly. The numbers are way down.
We also know the truth about the caravan of immigrants traveling from Central America through Mexico and how that story, in the hands of this president, exploded into some far-fetched, fear-based fantasy. Not to mention that many of these asylum seekers are from Honduras, a country whose recent election was considered a fraud, except by our president. He supported the reelection of President Juan Orlando Hernández – an authoritarian leader in one of the most violent nations in the world. We continue to send military aid to Honduras while their military police abuse and kill grassroots activists and the poor and marginalized. With rampant crime and human rights abuses, it’s no wonder Hondurans are fleeing.
One young woman whom ICE delivered to us shared how the people are desperately poor. Desperate people do desperate things. She and her roommate were both raped in their apartment, and everything they had was stolen. They had nothing left. They were not safe. And they had no recourse. The police could not or would not help them. She fled, not knowing this rape would result in a pregnancy until months later.
Yet she shows no resentment. She even smiles when she speaks about this baby. She seems to be in a good place mentally and spiritually. I wonder if I could land with such grace.
But then again, after David died, I didn’t think I’d ever land someplace gracefully and securely again. At least not without that bottomless well of pain accompanying me.
I’ve discovered that’s not true.
And moving to Las Cruces, with its tree-lined streets, and a little cooler temperatures and a lot more greenery – all within a short drive to El Paso and still within my border community – well, it’s like landing in the best of both worlds.
With so many blessings, I can’t ignore what’s going on in the world around me and not give back. I know David would approve.
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.
This post is dedicated to spreading hope.
It may seem like there’s not much of it around. Especially with all the disheartening and discouraging news out there. But good things are happening, too. People are mobilizing for positive change.
People like you and me.
And today you have an opportunity to join me in spreading hope.
In fact, I can’t do it without you.
That’s what this story is about. An opportunity to make a positive change in the life of one special mother and son. A mother who has already suffered so much.
Blanca is an asylum seeker who came to one of our ports of entry with her 12-year-old son, Luis, to save his life. After her husband, a military officer, in El Salvador, was assassinated, Blanca tried to stay in her country. She and her two sons moved 15 times in four years, hoping to stave off the gangs threatening them.
But without police protection, it was impossible to keep her family safe.
Her older son finally fled on his own. Eventually, Blanca and her youngest son also had to leave. And in October 2017, they arrived in El Paso, asking for asylum.
That’s when the unthinkable happened.
Rather than place them in a family detention center or release them on bond, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) separated Blanca and her child, putting her in detention and Luis in foster care.
This is a practice we never allowed before now. Until the Trump administration decided to use separation of parents from their children as a deterrent.
As you can imagine, it is heartbreaking to witness. Seeing a mother who has been separated from her child.
If you’re a parent, you can especially understand the unimaginable pain.
But here’s where you come in. With your dose of hope.
ALDEA – the People’s Justice Center, a non-profit committed to representing separated families, decided to take on Blanca’s case pro bono. And they’re located in Reading, PA!
They had to fly to El Paso to visit Blanca, research their case, and attend her hearing. And on the day of Blanca’s hearing, something amazing happened. The judge ruled she had “credible fear” and ordered her released on bond of $7,500!
This doesn’t happen often with El Paso judges. And he set her bond at a reasonable amount, to boot. Believe it or not, the average is $20,000 or more.
But Blanca has no money. So, ALDEA set up a GoFundMe account for her.
In little over a week, we have raised nearly three-fourths of the money we need.
This gives me hope.
So many good-hearted people who want to do the right thing by a mom desperately wanting to be with her son again.
So many people who believe in what is possible.
Will you join us in spreading this wave of hope for Blanca and Luis? Any amount you donate is greatly appreciated.
And it adds to the flow of positive energy to counter and balance all that negativity out there.
Here’s the link to the GoFundMe page: https://www.gofundme.com/FamilyReunificationBondFund
If you’re interested, here’s Blanca’s full story, as reported in the Houston Chronicle: http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Her-husband-murdered-her-son-taken-away-a-12462658.php
Thank you for spreading hope.
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.
We’re expecting some pretty important visitors to our little border community tomorrow. Not just one big wig from the administration in Washington, D.C., but two – U.S. Attorney General Sessions and Dept. of Homeland Security Secretary Kelly.
Apparently, they’re making the rounds, having visited Nogales, Arizona, just the other day.
But I don’t think any of us is exactly sure why they’re coming. I doubt they’re coming to breathe our arid air and tour the 15-18 ft. high border fence we already have erected along our border.
My hope is that they actually want to learn something about the communities impacted by their immigration and border defense decisions. That they want to ask us questions and gather information about what life is really like for people living so close to Mexico before they go any farther with their costly deportation and border wall plans.
One can hope, can’t she?
But, if they’re simply coming with their own agenda, to put in place whatever they already have in mind, then God help us.
History has shown us what happens when those who govern make detrimental decisions for those from whom they are far removed, both physically and emotionally. Remember your American history and the cry “taxation without representation”? Remember what happened when the British tried to rule people in a faraway land without understanding their concerns or being willing to treat them fairly?
Now, I’m not threatening a revolution or anything. I’m just saying…
Pay attention to history!
El Pasoans don’t seem to be too happy about this visit. Although we are trying to hope for the best.
In today’s El Paso Times – our daily newspaper – the editor had this to say about Sessions and Kelly’s visit:
“While they are here, they will see a border region that bears little resemblance to the rhetoric that comes from the administration they serve….
“…not the out-of-control border portrayed in certain political and media circles.
“Sessions and Kelly will see a community doing robust trade with Mexico. More than $21 billion in exports flowed from El Paso to Mexico in 2015, making us the largest exporter to Mexico among U.S. metropolitan areas. That export flow creates jobs not just in El Paso, but across the nation… (from http://www.elpasotimes.com/story/opinion/editorials/2017/04/19/el-paso-much-show-sessions-kelly-editorial/100668718/)
As for our representatives, both Democrats and Republicans are hopeful too.
U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat, said he wants Kelly and Sessions “to understand that the safety of our community has been undermined with…calls for ‘military style’ immigration roundups and with the atmosphere of intimidation and fear promoted by this administration.”
Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican who represents the eastern portion of El Paso County, is, “hopeful that they will listen to the law enforcement agents on the ground and realize that a wall from sea to shining sea will be the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border….you can’t have a one size fits all solution to the border.
“We can secure the border and continue to facilitate the movement of goods and services at the same time. These are not two cities separated by an international boundary. It’s one community separated by a border.”
Some locals are taking a little more aggressive stance.
Like the recently-formed Borderland Immigration Council and Border Network for Human Rights, a long-standing human rights group. They’ll be holding a picket line and press conference tomorrow to protest “the continued rhetoric demonizing border communities and Trump administration actions to criminalize migrants and militarize the border.”
They’ll present actual cases of people who have legally sought asylum protections here and have been incarcerated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), even though they pose no danger to our community.
I’ll join them at the Federal Courthouse.
And I may not be throwing any tea overboard (a little hard to do in the desert 😊). But I will find a way – like many other like-minded Americans – to use my freedoms and my voice.
Where’s Paul Revere when you need him?