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Courts & Ports Mission Trip: Blessed are You

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This evening, as we reflected on our experiences in Brownsville, our leader Mike asked each of us to select a Bible passage that resonated with us and what we’ve witnessed. I chose Matthew 5:1-11, known as the Beatitudes. I believe Jesus’ words are an apt reminder of God’s vision for us:

 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Today, we crossed over the Matamoros Bridge and entered into Mexico. This is where asylum seekers can legally enter into the U.S. to request humanitarian protection. A newly built fence and posted federal agents have been put into placed in the middle of the bridge so individuals are unable to step across the border and request asylum.

The result of this practice, known as metering, is the creation of a makeshift community beneath the foot of the bridge. Here women, men, and children who have journeyed for miles spend their days and nights waiting for an opportunity for mercy from the U.S. As we found ourselves waiting out a rainstorm inside the shelter of the U.S. checkpoint, I couldn’t help but wonder how those out in the elements were fairing. And I couldn’t help but think of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for 40 years for the Promised Land. 

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Throughout our time here, we have heard stories of hope and stories of great loss. During our conversation with Michael Seifert, a staff member of the ACLU, he asked us this challenging question: Is it ever right to tear apart a family?

We watched short clips of State Trooper dashboard cameras where families were literally torn apart. There is a scene where a teenage boy just learns his father is about to be detained, and will soon be deported, and he weeps. And I weep. Because so many people impacted by the enforcement of our broken immigration system are families. Mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters – torn apart from one another and from safekeeping.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

In 2018, the number of immigrants who were detained and subsequently requested “voluntary departure” was more than double the numbers of the previous year. The conditions of the detention centers and the lengthy and costly legal processes are too much to bear. However, the only detainees who qualify for “voluntary departure” (and are sent back to the very communities they fled from out of fear) are those without any criminal background. Mike Siefert shared how he met a young man in a detention center who had been detained for three years. When Mike asked a federal agent why this man had been there for so long, the agent said, “Because he insists on fighting for his rights.”

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

What has given me hope are the residents in these border towns who tirelessly serve, work, and advocate because they believe a better world and system for immigration is possible. Even though it’s easy for people like me to be distracted by the constant news cycle and the overwhelming issues that cause so many people to suffer, there are people like Mike and Cindy Johnson who stay passionate and compassionate about the people who are most impacted by our immigration enforcement policies.

Mike and Cindy are retired elementary school teachers and faithful Methodists who cross the Matamoros Bridge once a week – even when they are not leading groups like ours – to bring food and supplies to those living in the encampment just below the bridge in Mexico. They are quiet saints who do not get any publicity, but are likely keeping children and strengthening the hope of people who live on the fragile edge of despair.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Sister Zita Telkamp is about to celebrate 70 years since being first called at the age of 15 to join the Sisters of Divine Providence. The last 30 of these years have been filled with serving a ministry known as La Posada Povidencia, a shelter and community in San Benito, Texas for immigrants and asylum seekers. Sister Zita tells us they accept anyone who shows up on their steps and the first thing anyone receives is a warm meal.   

Hanging on the wall of their dining room, in poster board lettering, is the phrase: Many Cultures, One Family in God. Sister Zita says the emphasis on family is how Sister Zita sets the tone and rhythm for their lives together. All meals are eaten together. Beds are bed. Bathrooms are spotless. Everyone looks out and cares for one another. Recognizing how we belong together is how La Posada has been able to welcome 10,000 guests from countries like Russia, Zimbabwe, and Guatemala through their doors.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

One of the challenges in attempting to learn about the U.S. immigration system and its enforcement practices is how impossible it is to find clear answers to an unending list of questions: How long are adults allowed to be detained before they are processed? Who conducts credible fear interviews with asylum seekers? How do the cases proceed through immigration and criminal courts simultaneously? What happens to the people who are deported? How are 250 children who were separated from their families still missing? How much of the border wall is actually providing security to U.S. residents? 

At the same time, there are equally challenging questions as to how people of faith are to be engaged in this particular issue. What is God’s desire for the people who are seeking safety? What do our Scripture say to us about national security and the plight of immigrants? What does Jesus teach us about our laws in light of God’s love for God’s people? What am I to do when by neighbor is suffering? What is unquestionably clear, though, is that there are people within and outside our borders who are suffering and praying to God for deliverance. 

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

One of the stories that we will carry with us is the story of a young woman who managed to escape political persecution in her home country. Sadly, she was raped before she could escape and that rape resulted in a pregnancy. While held in detention here in the U.S., La Posada was the only shelter to respond to the letters for help written by this frightened and desperate young woman. When she gave birth, she named her son Emmanuel because of her steadfast faith that God is with her. (And she chose his middle name after the lawyer who offered to represent her case in court pro bono!).

I often forget that many of the people that we label as “illegal,” “undocumented,” or “unlawful” are also people of God and people of great faith. Their stories parallel the plight of Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 21:8-21), Ruth and Naomi (Ruth 1), and even Mary, Joseph and Jesus (Matthew 2:13-16). Did they cross borders illegally? Were they offered shelter by strangers? Was God with them throughout their entire journey?

Our immigration system is complex and so is the application of our faith. Our delegation continues to wrestle and discern what we ought to feel and do now that we are on the other side of this small journey. We hope you will join us for a time of reflection and sharing at PHPC. Stay tuned for a date!

Courts & Ports Mission Trip: Restoring Human Dignity

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Our team sure picked an interesting time to get out of Dallas! Although we arrived in Brownsville three hours later than we anticipated, I was extra grateful that night to check into our hotel and have electricity, a hot shower, and a comfortable bed.

After our first full day in Brownsville, I continue to be grateful for our electricity (A/C!), hot shower, and a comfortable bed. We began the morning with dipping our toe into the Brownsville Federal Court House. This visit was give us a small glimpse into the legal process detained migrants and asylum seekers experience in the U.S. 

First, it was important for us to recognize that we were not at Immigration Court, but rather, at a Federal Court. Historically, the federal prosecution of “unlawful entry” or “illegal entry” — which means entering into the U.S. between ports of entry — remained relatively low until 2005. It was in response to the attacks of 9/11 that re-introduced the enforcement of a law that was originally designed to criminalize Mexican migration in the 1920s

Last year, the then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session announced a new “zero-tolerance” policy, which meant the federal prosecution of anyone who crossed into the U.S. between ports of entry, including people who crossed to seek asylum in the U.S. This resulted in making these types of criminal prosecutions more than half the national caseload for federal judges. 

Unfortunately, when we arrived to the courtroom, we were told we could not enter because all the available seats were being used by the defendants that morning. The security officer told us he did not want us seated next to felons. 

We were eventually allowed to enter the courtroom, but by that time, all of the cases involving “illegal entry” (known as 1325s) had already been heard. 

Later in the afternoon, we journeyed to McAllen to visit one of the respite centers serving migrants and asylum seekers who have been detained and released by the government. Championed by Sister Norma Pimental and countless volunteers, the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center provides basic amenities and services to anyone who walks through their open doors. The tagline on the bottom of the sign on the lawn reads: Restoring Human Dignity. 

What does it take to restore human dignity? A simple gesture like providing shoelaces and hair ties, two of the items confiscated once migrants are detained. Having a fresh t-shirt, clean diaper, and a simple warm meal. Assisting with phone calls to connect individuals with their U.S. ties. 

To be honest, the respite center is… rustic. The floors are dirty from the constant flow of foot traffic through its buildings. The sleeping area consists of plain blue vinyl mats placed on hard floors, with no sheets or pillows. I did not even venture to inspect the restroom situation. Even so, the respite center represented hope to many. The beginning to the end of a very long and arduous journey — physically and emotionally. 

Our team was working hard to contribute to the work of the center that we didn’t get much opportunity to meet the other volunteers. We didn’t receive any official tour or explanation as to what was going on and why. My lack of Spanish certainly limited some of my interaction with guests. And still, there was an unspoken understanding between everyone there. We are here to care for one another and ensure people’s most basic needs are met. It reminded me of the nearly 40 verses in the Torah where the Israelites are commanded by God to “love the immigrant as yourself.” 

"When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” - Leviticus 19:33-34

There is still much to process and more to see tomorrow as we journey to cross the border ourselves into Mexico. 

Posted by Rev. Kathy Lee-Cornell with

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