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.