Wade in the Water

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The pain of heartache flows in the narrow river. I watch the ripple from the footbridge above, feeling helpless, hopeless. There is little I can do.

Do I let my heart feel the sorrow, the grief? Sometimes I do.

Sometimes I cry with the young wife and mother who lost her 2-year-old daughter and the husband carrying her on his back. Or with the Honduran woman whose husband did not want to come but listened to his wife’s plea. “It’s only for a few years,” she told this strong man who could no longer keep his family fed and safe.

He did not make it across the Rio Grande.

Nor did the 21-year-old female who’d been sent to wait in Mexico. Alone and vulnerable. No one to protect her from imminent rape. She tried to venture back across.

El Salvadoran wife and mother of drowned migrants 2019
El Salvadoran wife and mother of drowned migrants

Taking the risk in the water was better than the risk of waiting in Juarez.

Single women, mothers with children – they are the easy targets.

I’ve heard courtroom reports of Guatemalan women pleading with the judge at their initial court hearing not to send them back. “Put me in a cell,” one tells the judge. She would rather be locked up while she waits than be “free” in the homicide capital of Mexico.

“They extorted my family for money,” another one says. “I’m afraid to go back.”

Two women sob in the courtroom, with their young children in tow. Intruders tried to rape them at their shelter.

Those of us who live at the border – we all know it’s not safe in Juarez.  There is nothing protective about this outrageously unsafe policy, the complete opposite of any kind of “protection” for migrants.

Even the El Paso City Council denounced the “Remain in Mexico” policy 6 to 1 back in July. Still, it continues.

I read about a priest who was kidnapped in early August by a gang for not letting them into his shelter to kidnap migrants. He is still missing. Another priest was killed outright in Matamoros.

Juarez shelter
Juarez shelter; photo from El Paso Times

Now at our hospitality center, Casa del Refugiado, in El Paso, a different kind of migrant passes through. The kind that can take a plane across Mexico and land closer to the border. The kind that have cell phones and are cellphone savvy enough to make their own travel arrangements quickly. Some leave our center within less than 24 hours of arriving.

Granted, not all are like this. But I hardly see the desperate, disheveled, dirty faces anymore. Those who had to leave their country just to survive. And started out on foot.

Facing extreme hardships. Extreme suffering. Extreme roadblocks along the way.

Wait in Mexico? They have been waiting. Especially the Guatemalans, the Hondurans, the El Salvadorans. Waiting for justice and safety that do not exist.

So, this tiny patch of water that separates two cities, two countries, poses a minor obstacle.

Still, the river can be deceptive.

The water churns, swirls, gains power.

So many stories are buried in its silt.

I ask, what can I do? Plead? Wail?

And then I do one thing I know I am asked to do. I pick up my pen. I tell others. I write the stories, hoping those who read will know that we cannot stand on the shore watching. We, too, must wade in. Feel this churning, swirling power.

Maybe it will change us. Maybe it will cause us to act.

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Cause No Suffering

Casa del Refugiado cots
Rows of donated cots at Casa del Refugiado

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?”

Migrant families in US custody are sleeping on the ground under a bridge in El Paso
Asylum seekers held under the Paso del Norte Bridge in El Paso, March 2019 (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

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.

Casa del Refugiado Esperanza
A message of hope inside Casa del Refugiado

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.suffering servant

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.

Janet McKenzie_Jesus
“Jesus at Gethsemani” painting by Janet McKenzie