What really happens when someone comes across the border and asks for asylum? That is a question many ask, hearing so many proclaim the stories of abuse as fake news.
Pastor Rose Mary Sanchez, an ELCA pastor serving at Iglesia Luterano Cristo Rey in El Paso, Texas, knows. She serves a small congregation where only eight of the families that worship there earn over $15,000 a year. Most of the members of her congregation are undocumented.
She said things have gotten worse for her people in recent years. Although many didn’t have documents, under the Obama administration, most of them had a right to work and were paying taxes, although not benefiting from any government programs. However in the last few years, things have changed. They have retreated into the shadows as the Trump administration seeks to deport not just criminals but anyone and is shutting down avenues for them to work.
She admits that when she came to serve there, from a family of educated Bolivians, she had many of the prejudices privileged people share about the poor. She believed that many of the people were poor because they were lazy and were drunks, trying to take advantage of the system.
But she learned, firsthand, about the problems that result from a lack of education and a lack of opportunity, She saw the realities of hard-working, noble and honorable people who fought every day to provide for their families, seeking to make a way when so many walls are put in front of them.
Pastor Rose Mary said we all have walls. But like the Palestinian Wall and the Berlin Wall, physical walls hurt and divide people. But even when those come down, the walls within our minds remain. We need to address our own barriers, the borders of our mind that keep us from seeing all people as children of God, worthy of dignity and human rights.
For her and her congregation, pushing those borders has meant that they have needed to reach out to the migrants who are coming to her congregation. It has not come without a cost. Congregations that previously supported them now refuse to do so because they want to have nothing to do with asylum seekers.
But for Pastor Rose Mary, there is no question that her congregation is focusing on what they need to do. She said it all boils down to a simple question. Do you love Jesus? If Jesus was coming, would you drop what you were doing and focus your ministry on Jesus? Well, if that is the case, since Jesus himself came from a family fleeing violence and seeking asylum in a foreigh country, how can we say no to these people who are doing the same.
Her congregation was feeding 400 people who were migrants at the height of the crisis. Now the Remain in Mexico policy does not allow people to cross the border and ask for asylum until their number comes up. The policy is actually a violation of both U.S. laws and international refugee protocol, but it has been effective in reducing the number of asylum seekers. As a result they are now feeding 400 people a month and looking for ways to support the people who are waiting in Mexico.
Her church provides shelter, clothing, helps refugees contact their families and takes them to the airport and the bus station, staying with them until they leave. She said it is very hard. People come in who are desperately hungry, sick, and they smell bad from their immigrant journey. But the first thing they do when they come to the church is not grab food or clothing, but go to the cross to thank God for being there and being alive.
As she shared her story and the story of the congregation with our group, she wanted us above all else to share with others what happens to these migrants when they enter the care of the Custom and Border Patrol She wants to people to know what is being done in the name of the U.S. government. She wants everyone to know about the violation of human rights that has become official U.S. policy.
She has heard stories from migrant after migrant and they are all the same. She said that some of the Border Patrol are reasonable people who treat them kindly. One officer even asked a migrant for forgiveness for what the other did.
But many were cruel, calling the people dogs and vermin. They were given minimal food — perhaps Ramen 3 meals a day, or cold hot dogs without bun, or most commonly, burritos that were still frozen. Children were given crackers and juice once in while in the evening as a special treat, but that was it.
Migrants described begging to send their kids to the hospital when they were sick and burning up from fever. One woman described how a kind Border Patrol officer finally took her daughter, but when she returned with medicine, one of the cruel officers took away the medicine. Conditions have gotten precipitously worse this year. She described how they kept the facility known as ‘the ice box” deliberately cold and took away all blankets but a thin mylar blanket. She showed us a picture of a toy a 5-year-old girl with cold burns on her hands and lips had shoved in her pocket. It had some tape wrapped around the small toy — she told them that since the officers weren’t going to give her a blanket to stay warm, she wanted to her toy to stay warm.
Pastor Rose Mary said people come for a variety of reasons. She shared the story of a pastor who fled his homeland in Central America because a gang leader fell in love with his daughter. When she refused his advances, they raped her, so the pastor sent his wife and daughter to the U.S. When the gang found out she was gone, they threatened his son that they would kill him.
They fled the country that day and the next day their home was attacked and riddled with bullet holes. They hired a bad coyote to lead them to the border and the pastor had to leave the group when he stopped the coyote from raping a girl in their group.
When the man arrived at the border, he was treated differently by the Custom and Border Patrol. They gave him food, let him have some privacy and allowed him dignity because he was able to show he was a pastor. But he verified all of the stories of how others were treated — by being kept cold, given limited food and without dignity.
Sometimes you learn as much about how badly people are treated by comparing them to those who are treated well. Pastor Rose Mary and her congregation want people to know what is happening — what is really happening — so that people can’t ignore it. It isn’t Fake News. It is a reality that is done in the name of U.S. government.
What really happens when people cross the border? The truth hurts. It hurts those who cross and it hurts our reputation as a humane country. But we can only change it if we know the truth and get it out there for others to hear. And that is what our group was convicted to do — to share what he heard, we witnessed and we shared. So others may know what really happens.