“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