Multiple and divergent reporting throughout the media make it difficult to initiate conversations that lead to a credible and enhanced understanding of the situation experienced by legal immigrants on the U.S.-Mexico border. To initiate an intelligent and productive conversation regarding immigration in the Episcopal Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, a fact-finding team was formed and traveled to the Rio Grande Valley border zone in Texas to gather objective humanitarian information. Their focus was two-fold: 1) to engage in conversations with clergy, migrants, border patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents; and, 2) to engage in relief work focusing on the men, women, and children who are waiting to enter the U.S. legally.
Team participants: The Rev. Clelia Garrity, St. Simon's on the Sound; Keith Greene, St. Simon's on the Sound, the Rev. Mary Alice Mathison, St. Thomas, Laguna Beach & Grace, Panama City Beach; Rachel Iversen, Holy Cross, Pensacola; John Talbert, St. Paul's Foley; and Lydia Johnson, St. Paul's Mobile.
Day 1 – Monday, July 29, 2019
We arrived in Harlingen, Texas mid-day and drove to Brownsville, where we registered at our hotel. At 3 p.m., we met with Angela Rudnick, team leader for Team Brownsville. We spent several hours with her discussing various aspects of the immigration situation as it exists in the Brownsville area, the activities Team Brownsville has engaged in and the challenges that face all of the organizations doing relief work in Brownsville. Diocesan team members accompanied Angela that evening to participate in the distribution of food in Matamoros and to develop a better of understanding of the meal preparation and serving logistics.
Day 2 – Tuesday, July 30, 2019
Based on number of persons served in Matamoros on Monday evening, our team decided to prepare a supper for approximately 240 men, women and children. The morning was spent shopping at Sam's and other local stores and transporting the food to the Neighborhood Settlement House where we would prepare the meal. Meal preparation began around noon. We met our deadline of loading our cooked meal into a couple of vans by 5:45 p.m and proceeded to the Brownsville Bus Station where we parked and unloaded the food. It was placed in small carts and we transported it on foot to the plaza at the base of the Matamoros Bridge and then across into Mexico, where at the bottom of the bridge we set up our dinner and served approximately 200 people over the next couple of hours. During that time, we observed the comings and goings of this displaced bridge community and spoke to several of the bridge community members.
Day 3 – Wednesday, July 31, 2019
In the morning we met with the Rev. Laurie McKim, rector of Church of the Advent, Brownsville. McKim was most forthcoming about a number of issues, including the challenges that she faces in pastoring a congregation that is comprised of both Mexicans and Anglos. Angela Rudnick, a congregant of Advent, was with us at this meeting. We spent considerable time discussing Team Brownsville's accomplishments and challenges. Team Brownsville is not supported by Church of the Advent's vestry; this places McKim, who expressed a deep desire to understand the immigration situation from a humanitarian point of view, in a difficult position. Overall our discussion continued to inform us of the complexity and multiple challenges facing the immigration system not only in Brownsville but throughout the diocese of West Texas. We left Laurie and Angela and drove directly to Mission, Texas where we met with the Rev. Rod Clark, vicar of St. Peter and St. Paul. His church engages in several border ministries. One of which involves preparing 600 tacos each week for the Catholic Charities Respite Center in McAllen. (Mission is a suburb of McAllen). As we worked together with Clark, we learned more about the border situation. Between cooking the taco filling and rolling the tacos, we had an evening Eucharist which was attended by several of his congregation members. We also shared a light supper with them. The day concluded with the rolling and wrapping of 600 tacos.
Day 4 – Thursday, August 1, 2019
We collected the tacos from the church refrigerators and delivered them the Catholic Charities Respite Center where we were quickly enlisted in a number of activities. Once again, some of us found ourselves in the kitchen making soup for 400 people, others finished serving breakfast, and others were assigned to the children's section. Our day was spent engaged in these activities, serving lunch and meeting and talking with many wonderful people. Our time at the respite center allowed us to observe and interact with many different individuals and families who had just been released from detention and were awaiting transportation to their sponsors in the United States. We departed mid-afternoon for Harlingen where we would stay for our final night in the Valley. Prior to dinner we had a debriefing session and a concluding Eucharist.
The border situation is extremely complex and continuously changing. The population of immigrants that have collected at the U.S.-Mexico border is quite diverse. Contrary to popular belief those seeking refuge are not only from Mexico and Central America. We met many people from Cameroon, Peru, Cuba, Venezuela and Columbia. For the majority of these people returning to their home country is not a possibility due to various political situations.
At this point, the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP) has been implemented at almost every border crossing. This means that after an immigrant has been granted their initial credible fear interview, and they pass, they are immediately returned to Mexico and told to wait for their second hearing which could be as long as two years hence. If they do not pass their credible fear interview, they are returned to Mexico and urged to return to where they came from. This policy of immediately returning people to Mexico whether or not they have passed the credible fear interview means that the shelters and detention centers, previously overcrowded with those awaiting their future hearings, are now emptying out. This, of course, has a huge impact on planning for volunteer assignments and the offering of humanitarian services on the U.S. side of the border. On the Mexican side of the border, people are left to fend for themselves. They have no money, no work, and nowhere to live. In Brownsville, small non-denominational Mexican congregations are attempting to help with some very basic needs, such as delivering bottles of water to those encamped at the bridge.
Those who pass their credible fear interview are faced with future interviews that require volumes of paperwork in preparation for the next step, then a final hearing to allow legal immigration status. Everyone we spoke with indicated that this paperwork is literally impossible to complete without the services of a lawyer. Migrants lack the financial resources to pay a lawyer; and, in any case there are very few lawyers interested in doing this work even for a minimal fee.
Those who are allowed to pass through to the U.S. to await a "next" interview (this privilege seems at the moment to be an arbitrary decision on the part of the border patrol) must surrender their personal belongings, their shoelaces, their hair bands and their belts and enter detention centers. When they are released these items are not returned to them. Further, they are extremely dirty from the lack of water/showers, etc., as is their clothing. This is the point at which the respite centers are of critical value. The centers offer showers, clothing, food, rest and assistance in arranging for travel to the immigrant's final destination.
Children who are not accompanied by their mother are removed and placed in detention. The sole unit that is recognized as a legal parent/child unit is mother and child. This, of course, causes much confusion and anxiety because people have lost all their paperwork in their journey. It can be impossible to prove that one is the legal mother of a child. It is the children who are not accompanied by their birth mother who are taken from their travel unit.
Once granted permission to seek a final hearing for legal immigrant status people are released from detention and go to various respite centers where they can shower, receive new clothing, eat a meal and purchase a bus ticket to wherever they are going. In the majority of instances, they have to provide the funds for their bus tickets.
Several relief workers indicated that in many cases the plans made with relatives/friends fall through once the immigrant reaches their final destination, and the immigrant is left with no place to stay, no money and no ability to work. Also, at this time, it is rumored that ICE is beginning to collect individuals awaiting their final hearing and deporting them, despite the fact that they are awaiting their final court date.
As noted earlier, the issues are complex and myriad. In the end, there is a vast population of people who are gathering at the U.S.-Mexico border and who will never be allowed entry into this country – in many cases for very valid reasons such as having criminal backgrounds. However, there are also those who simply will not have the resources to hire a lawyer and/or continue waiting for their credible fear interview and the subsequent interviews needed to be admitted to the U.S. for a final court hearing. Unfortunately, with such a crush of people it is almost impossible to sort out who is who; and, therefore, who should receive advocacy support and who should not. Ministries of food, water, diapers and shelter are most important for this vast population.
From a humanitarian point, the stark reality is that in the four days that we were at the border at least 50% of the people we observed and served were young children; quite a few were pregnant women. All were hungry, some were clearly ill. While children are fairly resilient, adults looked shell shocked, completely lost and exhausted. The men, women and children at the Catholic Charities Respite Center were all waiting to board buses and begin their journeys into various parts of America. These are people who will need love, compassion and all forms of support – emotional, educational, physical and in some cases financial. They have left everything behind – sometimes entire families. Grief most certainly must have an overwhelming hold on their heart.
Another concern is that of a public health nature. We observed at least one child with chicken pox, one with measles and many with flu-like symptoms and lice. These children were about to board buses and go to family, friends, etc. in parts unknown throughout the U.S. They need to receive medical attention if we are to prevent serious epidemics of illnesses that will travel rapidly throughout large pockets of the U.S.
Team Brownsville, the Episcopal Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, and the Catholic Charities Respite Center are doing incredibly important work and are in desperate need of volunteers to help support their ministry of feeding and clothing the hundreds of immigrants whom they encounter each day. Catholic Charities is a particularly important resource. Some days they serve 1000 people in just a few short hours.
Also of importance are those who so frequently are forgotten and lost to us once they board the Greyhound bus that will take them to their future home in the United States of America. These men, women and children are our new neighbors. We must find better ways to identify them and then welcome them. We must help them fulfill their dreams of coming to this country to find a better way; a better life.
There is much to be done that is of a strictly humanitarian nature; a Christian nature. Hopefully, with the knowledge and enthusiasm that Team Border Zone has brought back to the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast we can begin productive discussions. Discussions that can lead to a way in which we can become partners in welcoming our new neighbors.
Offer a Spanish language immersion class for members of the diocese who express a desire to engage in ministry with the immigration population.
Develop diocesan-wide discussion groups that raise awareness of the needs of those who are entering our country with little or no support after leaving extremely dangerous life situations.
Investigate developing a partnership with St. Peter and St. Paul Episcopal Church and Catholic Charities Respite Center. This partnership would allow Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast members to travel to the McAllen area and assist with taco making at St. Peter and St. Paul and then volunteering at the Respite Center for two-three days offering cooking skills and other services.
Investigate immigration data in our area and adjacent areas.
Investigate opportunities to offer volunteer services of all sorts, including legal and medical, to various immigration respite centers throughout the U.S.