Our group of 20 priests, six of us from Chicago and accompanied by staff of the Catholic Extension Society, arrived in McAllen, Texas, on Sept. 16. On the Mexican side of the border, in Matamoros, we heard about an estimated 7,000 men, women and children waiting in line in 90-degree heat. Their wait would be as long as 2 weeks to receive a ticket for a court date to appeal for asylum in the United States.
The people waiting could not venture from the line to relieve themselves or to sleep. People of faith and goodwill fed them and offered encouragement. The people waiting sought the safety and acceptance of a country that once had been a place that prided itself for welcoming fellow human beings into its rich fabric of cultural diversity. Now the people waiting had to suffer the indignity of defecating in line and walking through the detritus of other mothers, fathers and children seeking asylum.
Having endured the threats and violence of gangs, drug cartels, kidnappers, cartels of human traffickers and human organ harvesters, they now stood at the border crossing where, if Lady Liberty were standing there, she would be holding her head in her hands, weeping that she had been sidelined by those in power who have no heart or soul except for the almighty dollar and unchecked power over others.
Many of the people standing in those lines are unaware of the root causes of suffering that forced them to flee their homes. And, sadly, many of us resting safely and comfortably in our homes are also unaware that their suffering has been caused by decades of reckless American intervention in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. We sit idly by as our fellow human beings are stopped, humiliated and caused to wait months for a slim chance that they will be granted asylum.
Before July 16, border agents – the majority of whom do treat these men, women and children with compassion – were bringing 1,000 asylum-seekers every day to the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley’s Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen. The asylum-seekers were greeted with applause, hugs and kisses. They each were provided a meal, medical care and a mat to sleep on. The staff prayed with them and listened to their prayers of gratitude that they had finally arrived and that the U.S. was welcoming them. Trained staff and many volunteers helped them contact loved ones with whom they would stay until their asylum hearings. The next day they would board buses to transport them to homes of their loved ones.
And then, over the next 24 hours, another thousand would arrive at the center to applause, hugs and a huge dose of compassion.
Today, more than 40,000 of our sisters, brothers and children are standing in lines at various U.S. border crossings, waiting for tickets for court dates 2 months later. They will need to find a way to survive until then. When they appear before an immigration judge, they will be given a second court date. Under the Trump administration’s more and more restrictive policies, if they survive until that second court date they will have a 10% chance of receiving asylum. The 90% who are denied may try to hire a coyote to take them across the border. Some may prostitute themselves and their children to raise the funds to do so. Others may attempt the trip on their own. Many will return to their own countries, where they may face the threat of violence and death.
In the meantime, staffers at the Catholic Charities welcome center are now welcoming only 20 to 30 people a day and are trying to figure out how they can extend their resources across the border to show that at least some citizens of the United States do care. Because, as every good Christian, every good person of faith, every American who has a heart knows: No border can stop basic human compassion.
As many fathers and mothers said to us during our visit: “No wall will ever stop any parent from seeking a place of security and promise for their children!”
The Rev. Larry Dowling is a priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago who moderates the Priests for Justice for Immigrants. He is pastor of St. Agatha Catholic Church.