Deacon Timothy Donohue of Holy Family Parish, West Roxbury, made a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border in mid-February to see first-hand the experience of asylum seekers waiting in Matamoros, Mexico, for their cases to be heard. The following are his observations of the situation there.
In June 2018, the immigration crisis at the U.S. Mexican Border involving unaccompanied children and children separated from their parents caused news organizations to move the immigration topic to the front page into headline status. In the face of the challenges and grief asylum seekers suffered, this paper carried a story, "The Gospel at the Border," about the work of Sister Norma Pimentel, M.J., and Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley welcoming asylum seekers. Sister Norma and the Catholic Charities Respite Center she started in McAllen, Texas, focused on upholding the dignity each person they met, and they continue to offer that same respect today.
Twenty months later, the headlines about the border issues have all but disappeared while the challenges and insults to the dignity of each asylum seeker are different and more egregious. The right of asylum is an ancient judicial idea and, in modern times, the United States is a signatory to the United Nations 1967 Protocol and is obliged to provide protection to those who qualify as refugees and asylum to asylum seekers. All nations have a responsibility to manage their borders and asylum seekers have a legal right to ask for asylum. Asylum seekers also have a God-given right to be treated with dignity and respect as they work through the asylum process to determine whether they qualify to enter the United States or be deported.
Last year, the new Migration Protection Protocols (MPP) modified the process for the determination of asylum and made it much harder to achieve. Out of roughly 20,000 asylum applications in 2019, less than 200 people were awarded asylum. The waiting period for the new processing system has created a "tent city" of 2,000 families standing by on the southern banks of the Rio Grande River in Matamoros, Mexico.
This new protocol has slowed the number of asylum seekers by metering all Spanish-speaking asylum seekers. Everyone is stopped at the painted line on the Gateway International Bridge, marking the border between Mexico and the U.S. Each person is given a number and sent back to Mexico to wait days or weeks until their number is called for their first meeting with immigration officials. The rate of success for asylum seekers today is less than 1 percent. The forms are challenging, and legal assistance is very limited.
Sister Norma has adapted programs to serve the needs of these hopeful "campers" in Matamoros. Over three years ago, Sister Norma organized a process to meet people who had been processed by Border Patrol and released after they had been given a date for an asylum hearing. Sister picked up these people off the streets of McAllen after they were discharged by Border Patrol and gave them a meal, shower facilities, medical check-ups for children, clean clothes and diapers. Everyone received several sandwiches and toiletries for their bus ride from McAllen, the city they chose for their court date and usually the home of their sponsors. Now, under MPP, these people have to wait for their court dates in Mexico, not in the hometowns of their sponsors. So, Sister Norma created a plan to minister to them in Mexico by joining together with over a dozen not for profit organizations in the area. Together the groups work to make sure there is clean water, tents, hot meals, haircuts, and medical care for the families waiting for asylum. This is all donated.
Sister's Respite Center in McAllen and Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley raise money to purchase basic food products. Teams of volunteers divide 100-pound sacks of beans, flour, sugar and rice into portions in zip-lock bags. Vegetable oil goes into empty water bottles and diapers are bagged by size. The supplies are then loaded into vans, and the volunteers head to the border in Brownsville.
The volunteers unload the supplies into wagons for the hike up over the bridge and into the campsite in Mexico.
This camp is a sea of donated wall-to-wall tents and lean-tos. The area is a temporary home for 2,000-2,500 refugees, principally from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Families with children make up most of these asylum seekers. They have fled violence in their native countries, risking their lives to make the month's long arduous trek northward in hopes of finding a better, safer future for their families.
Guatemala City is 1,300 miles from the camp. For many, the trip included months of waiting at the Guatemalan border with Mexico to obtain transit papers to cross through Mexico. They sold everything they had, left their relatives and neighbors and carried what they could because the fear for their lives -- most commonly from gang persecution and unspeakable violence -- was so great that staying was not an option. Asylum seekers must tell their story effectively to prove their "well founded fear" and thus qualify for asylum.
At first glance, the conditions in the camp seemed clean and orderly. Various relief agencies, such as Team Brownsville and Angry Tias y Abuelas, provide hot meals, sometimes twice a day. Others, like Sister Norma's Volunteers, bring food, diapers and toiletries. Most recently, volunteers set up shower and laundry facilities and porta-potties are now in place for the first time.
The kids are everywhere. The kids met volunteers at the edge of the campsite with smiles and helped pull carts and wagons of supplies uphill into the camp. UNICEF just began a small school for children. If you sit down to read a children's book, the children flock to see the pictures and listen.
Parents provide for their children as best they can, some going into the town of Matamoros to find work for a day. They cook over fire pits or mud ovens they have built for themselves. Some are lucky enough to have tents on a concrete slab with an extra awning above them. Most of the families shelter under make-shift tents or tarps pitched on bare dirt. Rainy days become difficult when the dirt-tent floors turn to mud. At night, the winter cold makes nighttime uncomfortable and unhealthy. The gangs prey on the families on the edges of the camp. One report in the Dallas Morning News estimated that there were 19 kidnappings but there are no police in sight. The State Department has categorized Matamoros as a Level 4 "Do Not Travel" location.
Faced with almost impossible odds to gain asylum in the United States and after months of delays, when they are deported or unable to resolve their status, families are determined not to go back. Many parents are left with a choice to stay in Mexico with the constant danger and threats from the gangs or put their faith in the hopes of a better life that might exist across the border for their children. They say goodbye to their children and send them across the bridge alone to enter the United States as unaccompanied children, which puts the children into another asylum category for processing and creates another layer of opportunity fraught with loss and hardship.
All asylum seekers need help with their immigration papers. One young couple, probably teenagers, with a two-month-old child, were begging for $64 to obtain a set of photos for their asylum application. They were determined not to go back to Guatemala.
These asylum seekers survive in Matamoros dependent on the charity of many not-for-profit groups in Brownsville and McAllen. The families look forward to the daily wagons of rice, sugar, beans and coffee and the diapers and hot meals, and clean water. The rules for asylum continue to change with new court action just last week. What hasn't changed is the desperation laced with hope and faith that you see on the faces of the men, women and children that leave their homes in fear for their lives and walk for months with their belongings on their backs to get a chance for asylum striving to find the basic human dignity that our Gospel teaches to all of us.
DEACON TIMOTHY DONOHUE IS A PERMANENT DEACON OF THE ARCHDIOCESE OF BOSTON ASSIGNED TO HOLY NAME PARISH, WEST ROXBURY.