Monday, March 31, 2014

The Beast

Several times a day, a train rumbles through our neighborhood. Johnny Cash may sing wistfully about the lonesome locomotive’s whistle, but there is nothing romantic about this train’s horn. The blasts come every few seconds as the long line of boxcars pass churches, parks and schools. The constant racket of the rails is a reminder of how much international commerce flows through Brownsville.

This is the same train that immigrants from Central America and southern Mexico take to get to the US border. The migrants call the train "La Bestia" (the Beast), no doubt for the horrific accidents and deaths that often happen to those who choose to ride the rails.  People fall from the train; people are thrown from the train. The amputations and the deaths are well-documented, and the rail line offers a daily chronicle of nightmares. A Beast indeed.

Once, years ago, while visiting Honduras, I rode The Beast myself. I had clambered up on the roof for the absolutely inexcusable reason of wanting to have the experience.  It was a terrifying few moments, as there was not much in the way of handholds. After a very short while, I crawled down the side of the car and back inside. I was shaking so badly that I couldn’t stand up.

I cannot imagine the kind of physical and emotional strength required to survive a ride on the Beast that would last the days it takes to cross Mexico.

A couple of weeks ago, three Honduran women who undoubtedly had taken this train for at least part of their journey, crossed the Rio Grande into the United States. Shortly afterwards, the women, two fourteen year olds and an older woman, surrendered to a passing border patrol agent. The agent took the three immigrants to a more isolated spot, and then raped them. He tried to break the neck of one of the women, and she passed out, and was left for dead. He slashed the wrist of the second woman and left her to bleed to death. He then took the third woman, one of the fourteen year olds, to his apartment, tied her up, put a sock in her mouth, and then went back on duty.

In the meantime, other Border Patrol agents rescued the wounded women, who reported that the assault had been done by a man dressed like a border patrolman. The agent, apparently realizing that he was found out, returned to his apartment and, as police officers  moved in on him, shot himself to death. When police entered the apartment, they found the other fourteen year old immigrant--naked, bound and gagged.

“Horror” is an inadequate term to describe what she experienced that day. “Fury and disgust” do not capture the reaction of Valley residents, especially women, to the event.

The three women, according to the office of Homeland Security, were reunited with family members and were having their immigration status “adjusted”. The Border Patrol Union released an advisory denouncing the agent as a criminal.

One question, though, remains unanswered. If the agent had not committed suicide, would we have even known of the story of those three women? Like fingernails dragging along a chalkboard, the answer is “of course not.”

The train’s horn blares; carting its wares, as it crosses, once again, through my community. A border patrol truck pauses at the stop sign beside our home, and then roars off, that agent doing his part to keep our border secure.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Angels

For those who live alongside a border, hospitality is at once a virtue and an expectation. The coming and going of strangers is, at the same time, exotic and normal. The sharing of bread is a necessity and a privilege.

As a border resident, I enjoy learning new ways to practice hospitality. Recently, I was delighted by a story detailing how one woman would welcome an eighteen year old into that often strange, very exotic no man's land called adulthood.

The story came from a pediatrician, a woman who had practiced her trade long enough, she noted, to care for patients from their birth to adulthood. One of the nicer moments in her practice, she shared, was how good it was to sit with a newly minted 18-year-old, one who would be moving from pediatric care to that of a physician who cared for adults. The pediatrician said that she liked to pull out the patient’s file and go through it with him. 

“Look here,” she would say, “back when you were three years' old, we were worried that you might not be growing. But look at you now—a strapping young man!” Or she might show him what she had charted on the day that his mom brought him in after he had broken his wrist. “Do you remember how high up that tree you got?” she might remind him.

The conversational attention to detail of the young man's life was her way of honoring his history--and recognizing his new status. I can imagine the young patient sitting up straighter and straighter, as his physician, one who knows him so very intimately, affirms him as a human being, and, now, a new adult.

On the other hand, and just down the street from our home, live a group of young people for whom the celebration of their 18th birthday can be a brutal moment. These young women and men are "unaccompanied alien children" in the sensitive language of the law. They are young people, mostly from Central America, who have come to the USA to escape the nightmare that has taken over their homes. Many of them survive the long journey through Mexico only to end up captured by the border patrol.

Since 2003, the responsibility for unaccompanied children has been in the hands of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. This means that the Border Patrol has 72 hours to place a child that has been arrested in an approved shelter. There are fourteen of these shelters in our region, holding, today, March 6, 2014, 1,279 children.

These institutions offer shelter, clothing, meals, classes, and attention. For the most part, the facilities seem to offer a stunning difference between the experiences that the children had while crossing through Mexico, which featured endless days of hunger, cold, and, God can only weep at the thought, violence; and that of the shelters, in which there are three meals a day, classes in English, and, extraordinarily, snacks.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement works to reunite the children, as quickly as possible, with family members. The process, however, isn’t always a smooth one—and if the captured child is 17 years of age, the reunification has to take place before the child becomes an adult—that is, before the 18th birthday.

If a 17-going-on-18 hasn't managed to connect with her family, hasn't been able to arrange a release to be with a foster family, on her 18th birthday, she will not get a visit with a compassionate and gentle physician. Instead, Border Patrol agents will arrive at the shelter. They will remove their pistols and place them in the safe box, the clanging of the pistols, despite the thick walls, and multiple doors of the institution, can be heard from within. The officers will be invited within the sanctuary of the shelter and be allowed to take the now 18 year old off to immigration prison.

The first experience of this new adult, then, is that of being a criminal. She will be dressed in a prison uniform, she will be placed behind razor wire, and she will have no one looking out for her.

Can you take a moment to imagine what that must be like—the disorientation, the fright, the shock, especially for a young person who was, to begin with, fleeing for her very life?

The practice of hospitality is a subversive one, whether it takes place in a doctor’s office or in a small town along a migrant’s journey. The pediatrician’s message is subversive in that it so different from “the winner take all, you are on your own now” survivalist meme of 2014.  Subversive, too, is the action of the neighbor who takes the chance of hiding the 17-going-on-18 year old from the migra—this because our nation has grown afraid and our collective heart has shrunken and our vision of greatness has become clouded and we somehow think that these children, even if 18 year old children, are somehow dangerous.

Alongside a border, some of us refuse to see these children as dangerous, but rather as blessings.

This is not a new notion. I am reminded of the scene in Genesis 18, wherein Abraham, sitting “in the tent door in the heat of the day, lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood over against him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them…And he took curd, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, while they ate.”

Three men—seventeen years of age, or maybe eighteen? We don’t know their ages, because scripture only tells us that they were strangers, that they were hungry, and that they were angels.


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Space

There are more than 1,200 shanty towns along the border in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas. These neighborhoods are known as colonias. They typically feature what happens when poor peoples’ dreams run smack up against the implacable, tight-fisted politics of the second richest state in the union. In the case of colonias, 300,000 people ended up living in patched-together housing in a series of “friendly to business” developments that are short on amenities (street lighting and storm drainage, to mention a few) and long on profit margin.

 Jocelin and her husband Omar live in one of these communities. The couple has four children and eight years of happiness, although their joy is tinged by the sweat and weariness of too many years of working as field hands for nearby produce plantations.

Most of those eight years the family has spent piled up on top of each other in a small “travel trailer”—the sort of thing people used to pull behind a small truck. The trailer had a small bedroom, a tiny kitchen area, a tinier bathroom, a small-sized sitting area with just enough room for a table, and a little couch that lined the back wall of the trailer.

You get the picture—a cramped living space painfully carved out of the Great State of Texas by a family that spends its days cleaning the cucumbers and tomatoes that sooner or later end up decorating my Subway sandwich.

The family adapted to the space. Jocelin and Omar slept in the bedroom area, and two of the kids on the couch, and the other two arranged themselves along the hallway. Some times there was hot water and sometimes not. But, as Jocelin notes, there was always laughter.

Most recently, the family became the beneficiaries of an experimental “emergency recovery” housing program. A local organization of good people won a contract to experiment with possibilities for emergency housing after a natural disaster (in our case, a hurricane). The idea was to figure out how quickly a home could be put up after a calamity, and, to test to see if this new home would work better than the infamous trailers of post-Katrina fame.

A couple of weeks ago Jocelin and Omar moved into one of the homes that was part of the pilot project. Suddenly, they had more living space than they had ever known before in their life. While the house came with a refrigerator, an oven, and a microwave (all greatly appreciated), there was no furniture in the living room area and only a small dresser and a bed on one of the bedrooms. There were no pictures on the walls or rugs on the floors. When told that the place looked nice; she responded with confusion. “I think that it is a better place for my family, but I think that we went from being poor to being miserable. We feel sad here, and I don’t know why.”

But then a neighbor came by with a potted plant, which Jocelin carefully placed beside her other flowers and herbs. She walked the neighbor to the street, and thanked her. Jocelin looked up the street toward the school bus which was stopping and starting, leaving off children in front of their homes. She crossed her arms and waited. Soon her children would be home and the house would be filled, if not with furniture, then with the sound of her family.

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Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama; happily residing in Brownsville, Texas.