I have become close to a father and his two children who are seeking asylum. I met them in mid-October when I traveled with a multi-faith delegation from Chicagoland to Matamoros, Mexico.
These past four months I have held in my heart the images and stories of 9-year-old Belen, 4-year-old Stiven, and their loving father, Mario. We have talked and texted through WhatsApp. Mario has shared their challenges of living in a tent, dealing with respiratory illnesses—which landed Belen in a hospital, and struggling with the monotony of being caught in legal limbo, not to mention the lack of school for the kids other than one hour a day provided by volunteers.
When I first met Mario, he was a week away from his first asylum hearing. He asked me to help him with his asylum application that was in English. I was so touched by his story and how he interacted with his children that I secured a lawyer for him on a “low bono” basis and agreed to be his sponsor. Over time I found myself committing to do whatever it may take to get this beautiful family settled in the United States. As his Feb. 14 asylum hearing approached, I realized that I could not miss it.
On the evening of Wednesday, Feb. 12, I missed my connection in Houston and crashed on the couch of a colleague. The Lyft driver that drove me to the airport told me that he received asylum two years earlier, that he’s from Cuba where his family was persecuted. He said, “I spent 32 days in the freezing cold detention center and 14 days in solitary confinement because there was no space in the regular prison. I almost went crazy it was so awful, but you know what, I’d do it again if it meant that I could stay in the United States.” He said, “I don’t know if people are aware how great this country really is. I’m so glad to be here. I’d do whatever I had to just to be able to live here.”
I encountered similar determination and strength of spirit in Matamoros both in October and my recent trip. In October, I encountered squalid conditions. Even though the number of refugees has tripled to over 3,000, it feels now like an organized refugee camp. Instead of five poorly maintained port-a-potties, there are now 60 clean ones clearly marked for women and men. Purified water stations and showers are available. These improvements come from Team Brownsville. World Central Kitchen, headed by Jose Andres, has partnered with Team Brownsville to prepare two healthy meals a day, served under a giant tent.
The dire poverty is still quite visible. Many tents are as crowded together as they used to be. It is like a concentration camp with one border they can’t cross, and it’s too dangerous to go more than a couple blocks into town. The river is horribly contaminated; a number of people have died from going swimming. It is not a place for children and yet a lot of children are there, but not as many as there were in October. An estimated 700 children have been pushed across this specific border into the custody of the Brownsville Border Patrol by parents denied asylum. Desperate, these parents hope somehow their children will find a better life than what they believe they can provide. Truly heartbreaking.
After a full day among the refugees and learning more and more stories from people who are fleeing violence, I met with the lawyer, Cathy Potter, and learned that most of the asylum seekers have no lawyers and without a lawyer, it is virtually impossible to be granted asylum. A lawyer increases the chances by 17-fold, but even still, the odds are stacked against success.
In my collar and best black suit, I showed up early the next morning at the Brownsville Immigration Court. It’s a permanent huge white tent structure right next to the bridge to Matamoros. Neither the judge, the translator, nor the government lawyer show up in person. Instead there is a flat screen where their images are projected. But I never saw this, because to our surprise, I wasn’t allowed to enter. So I drove to the Harlingen Immigration Court, 25 miles away, and watched the judge conduct the hearing in person. I sat where I could see Mario and Cathy on the flat screen television — and they could see me when the government lawyer asked questions.
I was impressed by how Cathy asked Mario questions to get his story out. He is from a small town in Honduras but found a good job in the city of Pimiento. For 14 years he worked at a clothing factory. He was appreciated for his diligence and leadership. A man that Mario knew from when he first moved to town had joined the gang MS-13 and had returned to Pimiento. This man came to Mario’s house with two companions and told Mario that he needed him to sell drugs at the factory. Mario refused. He was told that he had a week to think it over and, if he didn’t agree, he and his family would pay the consequences.
The most poignant moment of the hearing was when the judge asked Mario about his extended family in the small town where he grew up. He began crying, saying that he misses his family terribly but is too scared to return because of the gang’s threats.
Mario’s request for asylum was denied. The judge said she found Mario credible but the law requires a certain amount of evidence to grant asylum. There is a very high bar that must be met to demonstrate “persecution” such that very, very few meet it.
I return from Matamoros very sad. I am overwhelmed by the cruelty of this country’s policies towards refugees. I cannot imagine what it’s like to live with the daily terror of one’s own safety, as many people do both south of the border as well as people here in the United States who don’t have legal documentation.
The good people I have encountered in Matamoros are living in a dead end and many see no option but sending their children across the border. This cruelty must end. This cruelty is a result of United States law and worsened by the Migrant Protection Protocols instituted by the Trump administration.
I am grateful for PASO who organized my first trip to Matamoros that included two state lawmakers, including Rep. Lisa Hernandez. She introduced a House Resolution calling upon U.S. Congress and particularly Illinois representatives to end the Migrant Protection Protocols and oppose funding for Customs and Border Patrol, ICE. I’m grateful that Chuy Garcia and Jan Schakowski voted against the recent federal budget because it increased funding for CBP and ICE. But they were the only U.S. Representatives who did so from Illinois — and named this funding as the reason for their “no” vote. Illinois was the first and only state to pass such legislation, and now it is up to us citizens to demand the end to cruel and inhumane laws.
Rev. Alan Taylor, an Oak Park resident, is senior minister with the Unity Temple Unitarian-Universalist Congregation in Oak Park.