BROWNSVILLE, Texas — The Missionaries of Jesus Convent sits a mile away from Matamoros, Mexico. A 15-minute car ride takes you to one of three bridges spanning the Rio Grande, a blue line on a map that separates hundreds of migrants in tent cities from asylum in the United States.
Inside the convent, I sat with two students from Catholic Memorial, an all-boys Catholic school in West Roxbury. Students and faculty leaders from fellow Edmund Rice Christian Brother schools Bishop Hendricken in Rhode Island, Brother Rice High School in Michigan, and Iona Prep in New York joined us, too.
Hours had passed since we landed in Brownsville for our service-immersion trip to the US-Mexico border.
Once we stepped off the plane, advertisements for South Padre Island, a spring break destination for college students 30 miles away, greeted us inside the terminal. Smiling white faces, combed beaches, and lavish restaurants followed us to the exit.
A horizon full of construction sites and strip malls sank into the road outside the airport. Mexican-themed liquor stores and fast-food restaurants flanked our concrete trail to the convent. Pawnshops dotted every other street corner along the way. Meanwhile, posters of Our Lady of Guadalupe covered store facades.
While the Immaculate Conception Cathedral stood tall in the town center, the divide between our world and this land of broken dreams loomed even larger before us.
We realized this days later at Catholic Charities Respite Center in McAllen. Last year, I had witnessed hundreds of asylees arrive at the center seeking food, water, and clean clothing. They sought relief after a long journey and with a pending court date. Many traveled for weeks, others for months, from Central America. Some arrived at the border by foot in the middle of the night while others tried to swim across the Rio Grande. All of their stories ended in an encounter with an ICE official.
I remembered one adult in particular. He asked me for a pair of shoelaces.
I remember wondering why.
According to those who volunteered at Catholic Charities Respite Center, law enforcement confiscated shoelaces, razor blades, and other commodities, fearing asylum seekers could use them to commit suicide.
But, since then, a lot had changed.
Up until this past September, ICE detained any person who requested asylum at a detention center inside the United States. The asylee then needed to make a case of “credible fear” for leaving their homeland. If the asylee proved this credible fear and contacted a sponsor within the United States, then ICE officials released them. Oftentimes, ICE released them with ankle bracelets that tracked them until a court date.
Expansion of the Migrant Protection Protocols changed this process. Now, asylum-seekers need to wait in Mexico, instead of the United States, for their legal proceedings.
When we arrived at Catholic Charities this year, we pulled up to a renovated nightclub. Catholic Charities moved into the re-outfitted building just a few blocks away from its old location. I expected to see lines of adults and children inside as I had a year ago. Instead, rows of empty chairs and a few volunteers greeted me.
The volunteers said the center saw upwards of a thousand asylees on any given day last year. Now, the center barely sees 10 a day. Stories of overcrowded tent cities in Matamoros, just across the border in Mexico, where migrants now wait in line for court hearings, shook us to our core. A Catholic nun showed us a photo of the makeshift cities from her visit a few days prior. She told stories of kidnappings and cartel-fueled violence in Matamoros that terrified us. Despite these threats, she and a group of nuns still offered to transport supplies across the border.
After a few hours, a woman who traveled to America from Honduras arrived inside the shelter lobby. She left Honduras with her husband to find better health care for her son, who suffered from a variety of head and back ailments. Five months later, after traveling through the northern Mexican desert, she arrived at the border. ICE caught her after she and her family crossed the border. They sent them to a detention center. Through her broken English, she called the tent cities in Matamoros a “prison.”
For three nights, officials kept her separated from her 2-year-old child.
While she spoke, I looked down and noticed the only familiar sight from last year. Neither she nor her husband wore laces on their shoes.
Before they entered the kitchen to eat a meal, someone handed the family a small package of string.
Her face lit up with gratitude.
That night, our student group sat in silence inside the convent. The woman’s smiling face stuck with us. Her gratitude weighed heavier than the humid night air.
Brother Stephen Casey, the service-immersion coordinator of the Christian Brothers, encouraged us to remember the simple yet profound question that he asked us a few days ago at the beginning of our week on the US-Mexico border.
“What is your immigration story?”
My fellow faculty leaders and I asked this same question in the student meetings leading up to our respective trips. We expected them all to research their lineage and to share what they found on the first night we arrived.
Huddled around a candle, the students remembered their stories of grandparents arriving in New York, Lowell, Mass., or Chicago in search of a better life during World Wars I and II.
Some arrived from Kenya, others from Lebanon and Poland.
Few, if any, associated their own immigration stories with those of the detention centers and ICE raids that they see on the news.
As educators, we wanted to change that. We wanted them to bridge that divide between those two different worlds. But, instead of observing, we wanted them to interact between the two.
During the reflection, they remembered playing with the Honduran woman’s son in the corner of the lobby. A gallery of crayon drawings hung over their heads, drawn by children who stayed at Catholic Charities in the past. Some illustrated their homes in Nicaragua. Others depicted their ideal life in America — one full of rainbows and sunshine.
Our visit to La Posada Providencia gave those drawings more color.
La Posada provides temporary shelter for those who seek legal refuge in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Operated by the Sisters of Divine Providence, the shelter sits on a piece of farmland in San Benito. It has hosted more than 10,000 people and has served people from 86 countries since its inception in 1989.
One of the three Catholic nuns operating the shelter, Sister Zita Telcamp, welcomed us. She said the shelter modeled itself after the biblical story of Joseph and Mary, who sought a place to stay for the birth of their son, Jesus. In accordance with that story, they promised to accommodate every person — regardless of their background — who knocked on their door.
Even if the sign on the inn door read, “full.”
At lunch, we ate with a young mother from Honduras. Two children sat next to her. Sister Zita told us that the mother needed to attend a court date later that day.
While living in Honduras, she lived her life in fear as a lesbian. Several men attacked and raped her for her sexual orientation.
Months later, she gave birth to twins.
“She was ridiculed throughout the community and needed to leave her country,” said Sister Zita.
“She would be dead now if she stayed.”
At La Posada, the sisters require those who stay to take English classes. She wants each asylee to learn enough English so that they may apply for a job if granted amnesty.
“[Asylum-seekers] don’t come for a better life,” she said.
“They come to save their life.”
In a community where, according to her, a lot of second-generation Americans lack empathy for asylum-seekers, she wanted our students to listen to their stories.
“If you’re far removed from a situation, it can be difficult to show empathy. When you meet them and give them a face, it becomes more real,” she said.
We saw our students connect with these stories on a more personal level at Guadalupe Regional Middle School.
Guadalupe, a fellow Christian Brothers school in Brownsville, does not charge students tuition. It relies on generous grants and donations to sustain its operations throughout the year. Even with such generosity, the school used outdated supplies and needed refurbishing after sharing its facility with the local parish.
Many of Guadalupe’s students come from undocumented families still navigating the immigration process. At the school, our students prepared a cookout for their middle school kids. During the cookout, our students heard the voices of children who wanted to play at recess and read their new favorite book at home, not those of kids who spent days, if not months, in a detention facility.
Then and there, our students saw themselves at that same age.
Before we left, we gathered in a classroom to pack brown bags with toys, cookies, and clothes for those children waiting on the other side of the Rio Grande. Missionaries planned to cross the pedestrian bridges into Matamoros and distribute them inside the tent cities that next day.
The sound of bags crunching filled the air. Nobody said a word.
Together, we concentrated on what we wanted those children to find when they opened their bag. Candy, a miniature wooden car, Play-Doh. Love.
Just a few miles away from the middle school, a 25-foot fence spanned the Rio Grande. Its electrical wiring draped its metal beams. ICE patrol vehicles kept watch in the distance.
The children of Matamoros felt so close, yet so far away.
We heard their pain. We felt their exhaustion.
The crunching of our bags grew louder and louder.
We wanted them to know our presence. We wanted them to escape the violence of the cartels.
But most of all, we wanted to show them we care. That someone walks with them on their journey. That they can find a little piece of hope at the bottom of a small brown bag.
Mike Kotsopoulos can be reached at email@example.com.