On one hand the Rio Grande Valley is at the center of the national conversation about immigration. On the other, it is isolated, misunderstood, and seemingly far away. Our trip there last week convinced me that most of what I thought I knew was wrong. There is no sense of crisis – illegal border crossings are declining and border-crossing apprehensions are at their lowest level in 45 years. Whether a wall gets built is so irrelevant it doesn’t come up. But there is a weariness from deep poverty and long struggle. Though there are no simple solutions to immigration, there are practical humanitarian actions that could lead to progress. Many involve food. Of numerous encounters, three stood out.
Sister Norma Pimental runs the Catholic Charities respite center. Immigrant families are brought by Border Patrol after long journeys from Honduras or Guatemala, are the lucky ones, released on their own recognizance (some with electronic ankle bracelets) and receiving soup, a shower and assistance buying a bus ticket. We helped serve lunch to families and chatted across language barriers. Sister Pimental prays for the Border Patrol agents and recounted the time one officer, watching immigrant families being fed, told her “Thank you for helping us remember we are human beings.” She frames the challenge: “We need a secure border and we need to treat people humanely and with dignity. We are a powerful nation and can do both.”
Rich Newman is an unlikely pro bono lawyer for unaccompanied minors and detained immigrants. Previously a prosecutor supporting ICE enforcement, he explained drug cartel control of the border, raiding smugglers’ stash houses, and that absent a legitimate asylum claim (fear of government persecution counts, fear of gangs does not) virtually no one crossing the border illegally can come and stay here legally. He shared his evolution from prosecutor to advocate: “Immigration is the civil rights issue of our day. If my kids someday ask what I did, I want them to know I tried. Just like the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, progress is first made through the courts. Then, laws slowly change to reflect the arguments being made in court”
Marcella came from Mexico 11 years ago with her husband and son. They gradually built a comfortable home in a colonia while her husband built his mechanics business. She had two more children, American citizens. Her oldest is a Dreamer. She and her husband remain undocumented. Chickens roam outside their house. The neighbors on each side are in trailers and lean-tos. I ask whether harsher immigration rhetoric has made their life harder. As everywhere, the answer is “No, not really, we just go about living our lives”.
The Rio Grande Valley knows tears of sadness and tears of joy. The tears this time were different. They were tears for unrealized possibilities. Pat Matamoros, with the Cameron County health department for 25 years choked up while telling of the need for a food pantry. Marisela Cortez, representing Congressman Vela had trouble getting through her welcoming marks. School librarian Selma Ramirez cried when thanking us for coming, and shared that her cousin was the Ice agent killed in 2011. All three are American citizens of Hispanic descent. All three have purchase upon the American Dream. So why the tears? I think because they all know firsthand not only what is but what could be. They know what hard work can achieve if given even the slightest chance. They know how unjust are the half-truths that are told, how unnecessary the suffering, how unworthy of a great nation.
So what can we do? As always, we can build on what works. Each action no matter how small is larger than the small thinking that divides us. We can ensure the Respite Center has healthy food, that Cameron County gets a food pantry, that the elementary school kids getting breakfast are also getting after school snacks and summer meals. Food nourishes justice.
I’m so proud of our team’s commitment to the most vulnerable and voiceless. Thanks Chuck, Jennifer, Monica, Sarah, Allison, and Amy. And so grateful for friends like Jeff Swartz, Jonathan Lavine, Ed Shapiro, and Chuck Myers who had the vision and resources to make our trip possible. There are so many places where we do important work – but the isolation of the Valley is palpable. I hope we’ll I always remember to show up on behalf of the forgotten. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks that Chuck shared with me yesterday: “The ironic yet utterly humane lesson of history is that what renders a culture invulnerable is the compassion it shows to the vulnerable.”