TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — My Journey With Central American Refugees

On a winter afternoon in 1989, I climbed into the cargo hold of a crowded Ryder rental truck, finding my place amid 49 Central American refugees. Over the next 11 hours, on a journey from the Texas border town of Harlingen to Houston, I listened to the stories of the men, women and children, people who in some cases had walked north across Mexico to get to the United States.

“Each could speak of suffering in the lives they left behind — civil war and economic depression in Nicaragua, civil war in El Salvador, unrest that had spilled over into Guatemala and Honduras,” I wrote a few days later in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Even long hours in a crowded truck were better than that.

“And as minutes on the truck stretched on, each clung to an almost blind, perhaps naïve faith in the United States and its people — the hope that life would be better here.”

I remember how a smile seemed permanently affixed to the face of an 18-year-old named Richard Espinoza, whose tennis shoes dangled from the rear of the truck as we sped north. He traveled alone, penniless, with no means to get to friends in Miami, but he seemed without fear.

At one point, he grabbed my pen and notebook, scribbling out a short message in English.

“I fel (sic) very happy in the U.S.A.,” he wrote. “The people nice. Thank you very much, forever.”

But for me there is so much more to the story of that day. Given our barbaric current events, I’m telling it here for the first time.


The refugee and immigration crisis, especially at our southern border, has been a chronic one, stretching back generations. In 1988, as conditions deteriorated in Central America, tens of thousands inundated the U.S. border to apply for political asylum, then were forced to live in border squatter camps until their claims could be adjudicated.

That changed in January 1989, when a federal judge ruled that the asylum applicants could no longer be detained in the Rio Grande Valley and were free to travel to other parts of the country until their cases were heard. Within hours, buses bound for Houston, Los Angeles and Miami were full. Hundreds of other refugees with no money were left to hitchhike or wait.

It was big national news at the time, much like the refugee story is now, and the Star-Telegram sent me to the border to cover it. The assignment nearly broke me instead. I was a young reporter suddenly competing with seasoned journalists from New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Chicago. As many of you know, these were years of depression and self-loathing, and one the biggest assignments of my career threatened to push me over the edge.

After arriving at the border, I had hired a Spanish-speaking high school student to interpret for me but returned him to his school just minutes after we met. The kid looked at me quizzically when I told him there had been a change of plans. I found a deserted country road so I could be alone if I came completely unglued. I eventually drove back to town, found a pay phone in Brownsville, called a friend and began to sob at the sound of his voice.

When the waves of emotion had subsided, I explained my assignment, and shared my fears.

“Here’s all you have to do,” my friend said. “Get in your car, drive to Harlingen, and see what happens.”


There was chaos outside the Immigration and Naturalization Service headquarters, hundreds of stranded refugees milling about. That’s where I found Kathryn Ortega, as she helped dozens of them into the back of the yellow rental truck. She told me that she and relatives had driven down from Houston to deliver 4,000 pounds of rice to help feed the refugees. When the truck was empty their pleas began.

“They kept saying, ‘Please take us,’” she told me. “I couldn’t say no. This is a free ride to where they can get help.”

On the spur of the moment I asked to ride with them. My own feet soon dangled over the end of the open cargo hold as we pulled away in midafternoon, heading north into the country. Every few miles for the first 20, we passed refugees in groups of three and four, belongings slung over their shoulders as they headed the same direction on foot.

Ortega translated as I listened to the stories of violence and poverty that the passengers were attempting to leave behind. Outside the truck, a setting sun cast an orange hue on sprawling flatlands where cattle foraged amid mesquite. Some of the people talked quietly as we drove. Others read Bibles. Mothers held sleeping children. One small girl in pigtails busily ate a bologna sandwich with one hand and clutched a stuffed yellow rabbit with the other.

And at some point, I realized my suffering from that morning was gone. Because of them. The shared humanity in the back of that truck was much more powerful than my misery. In our cramped quarters, all but heart and soul had been stripped away and barriers of language and background were dissolved. I realize now the extent to which we are all refugees in one way or another, human beings trying to make our way in an often cruel and difficult world.

The truck pulled into a town at dusk and we stopped outside a supermarket, where Ortega bought milk, bread and sandwich meat. When the passengers gathered around picnic tables at nearby park, the refugees made sure I was fed.

We set off again into the darkness. Most of the people dozed off, holding loved ones. The only sounds were the hum of the road and the beautiful tenor voice of young Richard Espinoza, who sang a plaintive folk song in Spanish.

Then something happened I will never forget. As we were jostled about in the crowded truck, I felt a tap at my shoulder. It was a young man who had pulled his daughter onto his lap, making room for me to lay down and sleep.


The truck finally pulled into Ortega’s Houston apartment complex long after midnight. I shared a meal of rice and beans with my new friends, then said my goodbyes and disappeared into a cab.

But I’ve seen their faces again this last week, on the news. Nearly 30 years later, as I think of my fellow refugees, I wonder what their lives have been like since we shared that remarkable journey. My fervent prayer is that they have found the United States everything they dreamed it would be

TOM DAVIES: The Verdict — God Bless America

Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan each in his own time spoke at the Berlin Wall. Kennedy asked that the wall be removed because, as he put it, it separated parents from children, husbands from wives, families from friends. Reagan again asked for the wall to come down more than 25 years later. At his urging, it did.

Each president, one Democrat and one Republican but both American, condemned the purpose, intent and the horrible effects of the wall.

The comments by the two presidents are echoed in what civil rights, religious and political groups are now saying about the wall between the U.S. and Mexico, both as it stands now and its proposed expansion.

It wasn’t too long ago that our administration proposed privatizing our prison system, notwithstanding the fact that professionals indicated it was a bad idea. Making money on misery has never been a good idea. The brother of Education Secretary Betsy Devos is one who has been pushing for privatization. Others in the administration agree.

It appears private contractors are making lucrative profits out of human misery. According to the Daily Beast, military contractors are making tens of millions of dollars detaining and housing prisoners as families are being torn apart at the border. While enraged Americans are demanding their elected representatives do something to protest the separation of children and their families at the U.S.-Mexican border, “detention centers” are being built to house unaccompanied children. The contractors are also paid additional millions to transport them to the centers in Texas.

To make matters worse, it appears the U.S. is preparing to pull out of the United Nations Human Rights Council after clashes over Israel and its excessive use of force against the Palestinians.

The Council of Catholic Bishops has condemned the treatment of children and families along the Mexican border as they race to our country for sanctuary. The bishops have gone so far as to threaten canonical penalties to Catholics participating in the separation of families looking for asylum.

It is a mark of courage that the Church is intervening. It would be another mark of courage if politicians would do the same.

The president has claimed repeatedly that the Obama administration made separation of children from parents at the border a law. That claim is demonstrably false. Just as President Obama signed executive orders, so, too, can this president. By a stroke of his pen, the president can stop the policy at our border crossings.

This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. It is an American issue. As a country, we are better than this.

Personally, I could not stand idly by while children are taken from their parents — children who are as pure as the driven snow. These children, who have broken no laws, are placed alone in detention centers. Brothers and sisters are separated. In the name of all that’s holy, how can young children — including babies — be taken from their parents and warehoused?

This is the United States of America. By God, we can and must do better.

What some forget or choose to ignore is the plight of many of the adults who are being arrested and jailed at the border. Many of them have come great distances with their children asking asylum from rape, murder and violence in their home countries. We are a welcoming, compassionate people. What is happening at our borders, in its present form, has to stop. These parents and children seek sanctuary, and we are big enough to grant it.

Like some, I ask myself whether the color of their skin and their race has anything to do with their treatment at our borders.

Think of Puerto Rico. Eight months after a human disaster, little has been done to restore essential services in a country that our Army Corp of Engineers could have reconstructed in half the time. People who are American citizens continue to suffer. Now as we enter a new hurricane season, I ask: If the Puerto Ricans were all Caucasian, would they have been treated better? Would they be the next time?

As a nation, we are simply much better than this. As a people, we know better than this. In other parts of the world, bad things have happened because good people remained silent. We are those good people. We cannot remain silent. Amen.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Rules Of Engagement

As a blogger and Facebook presence, I use my forum to give my opinions but have always steered away from engaging in debate with others online, especially people I don’t know … until now.

Perhaps it is because my posts and blogs are shared a lot and I get tagged in them, but in the past week, I have been trolled by more than a few people, spouting inaccuracies, and I am no longer holding my powder.

Not because it is me they are attacking. I’m an old hand at being attacked. But because they are defending a policy that I believe is morally bereft and indefensible.

I want to actively engage with people who are supporting what I believe is an evil policy of our U.S. government, challenging false statements and forcing them to think about the morality of what they are supporting. But I want to do so in a way that honors my values.

After talking to a few people about it, I thought it might be helpful to share my rules of engagement.

1. If possible, have face-to-face or one-on-one discussions with people you know. It promotes relationship and is the best way to change hearts and minds. But it is OK to confront hatred, ignorance or meanness. Sometimes we can’t leave it unchallenged or unchecked.

2. Treat others the way you want to be treated, whether in the cyber world or the real world. The view from the high road is always better.

3. Facts matter. Be relentless in relying on them, share them freely and if you make a mistake, acknowledge it and correct it. I posted an inaccurate picture, was called out on it, apologized and corrected it. And then posted accurate photos. It reminded me to check and double-check because inaccurate information provides fodder to deny accurate information.

But remember, just because someone says something often enough doesn’t make it so. Lies are lies.

And we cannot “agree to disagree” when what the other person believes is wrong. (I, for example, will not agree to disagree that the world is flat or that this current crisis can only be solved by Congress. The administration can do it with a phone call and refuses.)

4. If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything. “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” I serve a Lord who is merciful, compassionate and always sides with the oppressed. I don’t assume everyone shares my faith, but I will boldly proclaim that I make my choices guided by my understanding of God and am not afraid of confronting those who claim the name of Christ with the words, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me and whatever you do not do to the least of these you do not do to me.” There are some things worth fighting for, and this is one of them in which Jesus picked a side. If that makes others squirm, so be it. I stand with Jesus.

4 Jesus was a criminal. So was the Apostle Paul. Committing a crime is not an excuse for cruelty. “Remember those who are in prison as though you were in prison in with them; those who are tortured as though you are being tortured.” — Hebrews13: 3

5. Ask questions and tell stories. It promotes dialogue. Share why you feel this is wrong and tell your own story. I go to refugee camps. I’ve seen and heard firsthand what people experience. Tell your story and why you care. Don’t let people reduce you to a trope or caricature.

6. Kindness is a virtue. Selfishness is not.

7. Silence is complicity.

RON SCHALOW: When Comes The Last Straw?

Personally, I am unable to speak to very many people, from the moral ground. I won’t put a percentage to it. It might be in the teens. I can usually spot my few lessers, if they still go out in public.

I’m like Trump in that respect. As he said,“I think within the first minute, I’ll know. Just, my touch, my feel — that’s what I do.”

However, I can say with positivity that I have been able to piece together a life that has been monstrously more virtuous than Donald “I Have Only Appeared in 3 Porn Films” Trump has breezed through.

Who knows how many adult films Carp-lips has financed? Who cares, at this point?

I know that the saintly Kevin Cramer has somehow forgiven — or pretended to absolve — the evil-smelling landfill of sins that McTrumpald keeps under a chin. Don can blow up his throat sacs, just like one of those crazy frogs, when startled by a Mexicanish looking hombre, to ward them off.

Cramer also exonerated Will “I Have Only Appeared in more than 3 Windows” Gardner. It’s a handy talent to have, especially for a congressman.

Here’s the part where 90 percent of the readers slap their forehead and think, “Is anyone surprised by any of this?” It’s actually the most typed comment, on all platforms, since the golden scrambled egghead Russianed his way in. “It better pick it up, or I’m off to Amazon.”

And the answer is no. It won’t pick up.

And no flippancy from here forward.

Anyway, I think it may be time to up our standards in this country, since Donald Milhous Trump oozed into office and lowered the bar for everything. How many straws are there? We should be to the last one by now before he takes a wrecking ball to the whole nation.

Of course, Trump will get more straws. But can we agree on the following?

1A. Cage-free children. No children in cages. None, nowhere, for no reason. No children in cages, or confined in warehouses. Is that too much to expect? Is the cruelty really necessary?

I thought it would have been a given. Evidently, I was in error. It’s wrong. It’s heartbreaking, and it’s barbaric and all words synonymous with barbaric. Not original thoughts.

Trump is 100 percent responsible. He tried to blame it on some fictional law the Democrats wrote, forcing him to cage kids. He lied because he’s a liar. Nobody is surprised.

Where’s Kevin with a flaming outrage. He was endorsed by at least one of the right-to-life groups, but I guess infants and toddlers don’t count in the scoring. It’s the same with most North Dakota politicians, who are either on board with caging children or afraid to ruffle the feathers of the peacocks.

Skin color has a lot to do with this.

1B. Separating a young child from his parent(s) is despicable. It’s torture for the youngsters and the parents. Torturous and cruel. Torture. We don’t torture.

2. Leave no one behind. It works for civilians, too. Almost 5,000 Americans died over the course of nine months due to Hurricane Maria and the ineptitude of the racist president.

That’s more than died on 9/11.

That’s more than died from Katrina, when an unengaged and incompetent president, and a clown named Brownie, screwed up royally.

Skin color has a lot to do with this. Puerto Ricans are not Norwegians. White people are preferred by Trump, which makes my skin crawl.

3. Don’t irritate the Canadians.