By Glynis Board/Courtesy of West Virginia Public Broadcasting
The immigration crisis on the southern border of the U.S. doesn’t affect the day-to-day lives of most residents throughout the country. But many people are increasingly concerned anyway. A group from Marshall County with many members of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Moundsville recently took a trip to Texas to aid asylum seekers. They went to learn more about the realities of this crisis, and the people who would try to help.
Tom Lawther has lived his whole life in Moundsville, but earlier this month he found himself pulling a wagon full of food across the United States-Mexico border wearing a t-shirt that reads “Land of Hope and Dreams.”
“I just thought it would be a positive message to the people that are trying to get here,” Lawther explained, “that we accept them and want to help them.” Lawther is a member of St. Francis Xavier.
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, West Virginia has the lowest foreign- born population in the country, but residents like Lawther are still concerned about shifting immigration policies. He said he came to honor his mother, who was herself an immigrant.
“She was born 100 years ago next month. She came to the United States from Scotland seeking a better life,” Lawther said. “It worked out for her and her family so it’s a chance to give back and maybe help somebody else live the same dream that we did. Lawther is part of a group from West Virginia that felt compelled to visit Texas in light of news about the crisis of migrants and refugees on the border. His parish priest, Father That Son Ngoc Nguyen, organized the group.
On the way to the border, Father That Son talked about how he first came to the West Virginia as a teenage refugee himself during the Vietnam War.
“If I do not leave,” That Son remembered, “we would not have no future — absolutely. Because my father would get in prison and later get killed. And we were too young to take care of ourselves. We don’t have a choice to stay.”
Father That Son said his experiences watching millions die around him, including members of his own family, ultimately led him to the priesthood in an effort to find meaning and make sense of life. But while his personal experience informs his perspective, he said, ultimately, his Christian values to help those who suffer inspired him to come to Texas. He said it might have been simpler take up a collection or send money, but for him, physically being present was more valuable.
“United States of America is not an unfriendly country. There’s a lot of good people and we have to let these people to know that,” Father That Son said. “That’s why [we’re] there — you have to give them some kind of hope.”
Father That Son and his group set out to make a meal for 650 asylum seekers. Armed with boxes of noodles, cans of tomato sauce, spices, salad and hundreds of fruit cups, the group made their way to the kitchen at the Good Neighbor Settlement House — a small day shelter in one of the poorest pockets of Brownsville, Texas.
A Good Neighbor vs. Dangerous Neighbor
Marianela Watson is a retired school teacher. She’s been volunteering, managing temporary emergency care for a little over a year. She’s haunted by asylum seekers’ stories about sexual crimes, and kidnappings for organs and human trafficking. Until several weeks ago, her shelter would help up to 120 asylum seekers each day.
All were vetted with and had documentation demonstrating they were legally in the U.S.
A recent immigration policy shift stemmed the flow to about a dozen or so each day.
Marianela is very worried about the folks who would have been here had the rules not changed. Volunteers report 100 new asylum seekers reach the border every day, and a new policy dictates they must all remain in the closest country of safe harbor until their cases have been heard.
Marianela pointed out that U.S. issued a travel advisory warning citizens that “violent crime, such as murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault, is common,” in the neighboring Mexican state of Tamaulipas: “Gang activity, including gun battles and blockades, is widespread. Armed criminal groups target public and private passenger buses as well as private automobiles traveling through Tamaulipas, often taking passengers hostage and demanding ransom payments. Federal and state security forces have limited capability to respond to violence in many parts of the state.
U.S. government employees may only travel within a limited radius between the U.S. Consulates in Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros and their respective U.S. Ports of Entry. U.S. government employees may not travel between cities in Tamaulipas using interior Mexican highways and they must observe a curfew between midnight and 6 a.m. in the cities of Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo,” from U.S. State Dept.
“It’s a very dangerous state right now in Mexico,” Marianela went on, “but yet we’re sending them back there to quote, unquote be safe while they’re waiting for their court date? That doesn’t make any sense.”
About 1,600 are camped right across the border in Matamoras, waiting for their day in virtual court with teleconferenced judges in makeshift courtrooms set up across the U.S. border in big white tents.
Of course, volunteers from West Virginia didn’t come to sort out world affairs.
Wagons, Rivers, and Bridges
Back in the kitchen of the Good Neighbor Settlement House, West Virginians were preparing a meal they would have to walk across a bridge and deliver in camps on the Mexican side of the border.
One of the volunteers leading the cooking effort was Jane Klug, a retired teacher from Marshall County who is also a member of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Moundsville. Before leaving West Virginia, Jane heard from many of her own community members who strongly disapproved of her decision to help people in Mexico trying to come to the U.S.
“They have families and they’re used to ‘taking care of their own,’” Klug said without any judgment in her voice. “I am not married, I have no children of my own. Therefore, I think my whole perspective on the world is different.”
Jane and the rest of the group fill 70 large tin pans with pasta, salad, or fruit — then load the tins into wagons — the colorful canvas kind with bigger wheels you might see at a picnic. A grassroots organization called Team Brownsville provided about 25 wagons and extra hands to pull the food across the border.
“We’ve never really had any problems [in the camps across the border],” said Kathy Harrington, a local retired resident, and a regular team leader from Brownsville. “The people are so thankful for whatever we can do for them. They’ve come to rely on Team Brownsville because they know we’ll be here all the time with food. And that’s the one constant, I think, in their lives now.”
Team Brownsville started up in July of 2018, and organizes humanitarian aid groups like the one from West Virginia everyday. With wagons in tow, each individual pays a dollar in quarters to get into Mexico by way of a walking bridge that crosses over a narrow but deep river full of vegetation. Crossing the bridge, Father That Son pointed to the Rio Grande River below.
“Many lives have been lost in this little river,” he said, recalling international headlines highlighting a recent tragedy where a father and daughter drowned trying to swim across.
A City of Tents
It’s a warm evening but it was hot during the day and temperatures could drop into the fifties by morning. Hundreds of camping tents are wedged next to each other on concrete. Men are already forming a line, women and lots of children cluster in another. Soon volunteers are dishing pasta and salad. As a flock of wild parrots flies south overhead, volunteers are told not to venture too far away since no one can say for sure who is in other nearby camps.
There are no real bathrooms or showers anywhere. Clothes are hung from trees and fences in every direction, still drying out from a torrential downpour that flooded the camp last week.
This camp is predominantly made up of Hondurans.
One little boy cried, “¡Fuera JOH!” as he collected juice from a regular volunteer from Team Brownsville.
“You say ‘Feura JOH’ here and half the people will say it back,” Brendan Tucker explained. “It’s a rally cry across [Honduras] which means ‘Out with JOH’ — which are the initials of the president [Juan Orlando Hernández]. People get it. It’s why they came here in the first place.”
Bus Station Dreams
Several hours later, the group makes their way back across the border, through U.S. customs. They’ll spend the rest of the week volunteering for aid agencies — painting, organizing supplies, and greeting the few who do make it across in a nearby bus station.
The volunteers from West Virginia use Google Translate on smart phones to converse with families waiting for buses, making sure they have food and clean, warm clothes for cooler northern climates they’re headed into.
Ray Young is one of the volunteers. He feels strongly that people should only enter the country legally, but worries the process is overly convoluted.
“How do these people find out?” Ray wondered.
He approached a man waiting for a bus who spoke some English. Ray came to discover the man’s name was Hassam, that he was from Bangladesh, and that he’d made his way to the U.S. border from Brazil.
Hassam explained that he’s fleeing political persecution in Bangladesh. While the majority of those seeking asylum come from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, many others like Hassam come from all over the world. He has a brother who lives in the U.S. He’ll stay with him and seek asylum.
Statistically, though, only 10 to 15 percent of people trying will actually be granted asylum. Qualifications are very strict and narrow. Exposure to gang or domestic violence, for example, won’t qualify one to receive asylum. To stand a chance navigating the system, volunteers here explained, you really need a lawyer. Pro-bono lawyers are rare, and other immigration lawyers are expensive, charging up to $10,000 to take a case.
Turning to Hope and Gratitude
Outside the bus station, Tom Lawther stood at the border wall, or border fence. It’s reinforced on the Mexican side with a lot of barbed wire — a stark reminder of harsh realities — but Tom said he feels hopeful.
“There’s sadness here but there’s a heartwarming, too, how much they’re willing to help,” he said, “and the children were the most heartwarming. They haven’t lost their spirit — they’re still happy, hard-working people to me.”
Tom said he’s inspired by the volunteers who live in this border region. He said they also have to deal with people who give them a hard time for helping out, but they help anyway.
“I’m just thankful that somebody organized this to give me a chance to actually do something,” Tom added, “even if it’s a small part, to help a little bit.”
Hope and gratitude were common takeaways for all the volunteers who flew home to West Virginia. They report that despite the harsh realities they saw and learned about, opportunities to share human interactions and see how generosity and kindness can be received left them feeling hopeful that for some people, anyway, tomorrow could be better.