“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31)
“Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28)
Last week, members of UCC and other Austin churches travelled to the Lower Rio Grande Valley seeking to understand more about the immigration issues that are so constantly in the news. We were participating in a program called Courts and Ports, which investigates our quickly evolving immigration situation. We were the twentieth group to be on such a trip sponsored by Texas Impact.
About Texas Impact
If you’re not familiar with Texas Impact, their mission states: “Texas Impact was founded in 1973 on the central religious conviction that religious communities are called to minister to the whole person–to respond with compassion to the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of all people.”
“Courts and Ports” is an educational program of Texas Impact which gives individuals an opportunity to observe the immigration situation on our southern border, to attend court sessions, to observe ports of entry, and to learn about the various forms of assistance being given to immigrants. The days were long and exhausting.
Our Experience, as Recounted by Rev. Jimmy Cobb
On Monday morning, we attended a criminal court session in the Federal Court House in Brownsville. There were approximately 45 detainees in criminal court that morning, all shackled at the waist, hands, and ankles. Most had been apprehended the weekend prior to their court hearing. They were addressed by the judge, 5 or 6 at a time. It was much like an assembly line. All were found guilty. These men, and three women, were some of the “violent criminals” that we hear about on the news. One thing they had in common, and the reason they were in criminal court rather than immigration court, was that they had entered the United States between official ports of entry. In previous years, Border Patrol would have turned these people over to immigration officers who would have interviewed them. Now they go to criminal court. Generally speaking, citizens of Mexico are deported quickly. Those from other Central American nations are held in detention until there are enough of them to fill an airplane which will fly them to their nation of origin.
It’s important to note that one has a constitutional right to apply for asylum and interview with immigration officials. This is provided one enters the country through an official port of entry. It’s a confusing issue: seeking asylum is a civil issue. Not coming through a port of entry is a criminal offence.
Another reality, however, is that being able to cross at a port of entry is very difficult. It can take weeks or months for one to be called for entry. In an interview with immigration, one must present a case of “credible fear” if the person were to stay in their own country. If one says they’ve come to get a better job, they’re rejected immediately. If one’s asylum appeal is approved, and they can post bond, they can move on to live with a family member or someone who will be their sponsor. Six months after petitioning for asylum, one can apply for a green card. They could wait 3-5 years for their court date. One refugee waited 9 years. Intimidation by ICE officers, simply enduring the long drawn out process, or freezing in detention, causes many to leave on their own. Maybe 10% of asylum seekers are actually successful.
Afternoon and Evening
Catholic Charities, in Mc Allen, is an astounding example of order in the midst of absolute chaos. The facility was, at one time, a nursing home. We witnessed bus loads of refugees arriving from ICE facilitates for a few hours’ respite before beginning their journey to places all across the nation. ICE, DPS, and Border Patrol officers accompany these deliveries of refugees. There was a young woman preparing to leave. Her envelope reads: “Please help me. I do not speak English. What bus do I need to take? Thank you for your help.” There are shower trailers, restrooms, clothing rooms, laundry facilities, mats on the floors of the former bedrooms for sleeping or caring for children, and food. Catholic Charities becomes their home for a short period of time.
I worked in the kitchen. Gourmet it was not! It was quite substantial soup and a bun or piece of bread for each person. Not much but filling after what they’d been through. There was a sense of calm and gratitude whether they were crowded together in a hallway or assuring small children that all was well. People were polite and eager to help with chores while they waited. There were three young men working in the kitchen. One was serving soup while the others delivered it to those awaiting it. An outside group suddenly appeared in the kitchen announcing they they had come to serve dinner. The women and men had brought beans, rice, chicken soup, water, sodas, cookies, cakes, popcorn. It was feast! They served at least 200 people as much as they could hold. It was a scene of good humanity living together as if they were long-time friends.
In conversation with the men who were stirring the pot, I discovered that they were a group of Catholics who shared this sort of compassion about twice a month. They are not wealthy folk, but they are people who put their action where their faith is. I learned that they have spiritual retreats several times each year at an immigration ministry in Los Fresnos. I asked if it is Southwest Good Samaritan Ministries. It is! It’s run by Disciples (UCC’s denomination). I’ve served on the Board of Southwest Good Samaritan Ministries for many years.
Monday was a challenging day. By the time we got back to Brownsville, it was midnight.
On Tuesday, we crossed the International Bridge between Brownsville and Matamoros. People cross the bridge every morning to serve breakfast to asylum seekers who are living there, waiting for a turn to enter the United States. Gary Tucker’s grandson did this every day for a long time, loading up a wagon and delivering the goods. We took water, snacks, diapers, energy bars. These tents are their semi-permanent homes. They don’t appear to be a danger to us. I was particularly impressed with one young mother. She had received a package of diapers but refused a second package because another family might need them. This little boy was charming, finding joy in a strange place. He tied me up several times.
In Brownsville, we made a quick visit to Good Neighbor Settlement House, a vital Methodist ministry to refugees. This is a place of respite for refugees passing on to other locations in the nation. They offer food, housing, transportation funds, and clothing. Cindy, a Methodist Deaconess, and her husband, Mike, are full-time volunteers in immigration ministry. These folks are on the front-lines every day.
Tuesday afternoon, we visited La Posada, a Catholic residence for refugees who are seeking asylum. La Posada is located on a beautiful, peaceful piece of land outside of San Benito. Three Catholic nuns founded and operate this ministry. They have about 20 residents at a time. There are classes in English, US government, finances, the Pledge of Allegiance, and basic skills for living.
Tuesday night the nine of us traveling together sat down and reviewed all we had learned and seen and felt in our border experiences. We had a lot more pieces of the puzzle in place, but there was a lot more we wanted clarity on. Most of all, we share a commitment to build upon what we’ve learned and a commitment to communicate the plight of those most vulnerable who are coming to the U.S.
Though our time at the border was short, it was packed with experience, eye opening, and left us with a lot to reflect on.
The Takeaway / A Reflection for Easter
There are countless views about what immigration policy should be, but when we bore down deep enough, we’re talking about the lives of human beings. People of faith must treat all people with respect and dignity. We’ve found countless ways to stay true to our own small, tribal groups, socially, politically, nationally, racially, but this is hard to do when we take scripture seriously. It’s not astrophysics difficult. Many of us learned it when we were kids. Jesus quoted the Hebrew Bible saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; (then he added) and (love) your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31) God is the God of all people, not just us. If we are be God’s touch on this world it has to be for all people.
We’re a week and a half from Easter. What better way to celebrate resurrection (renewal of life) than to strive to become more compassionate? We hope you’ll join us this Sunday at UCC in the Wassenich Classroom as we discuss this topic in depth.
Questions? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.