Today, after a brief time of accompanying folks preparing to present for asylum, we hopped in our cars for drive over to Friendship Park in Tijuana. We were going there to attend a service of the bi-national “Border Church.” Friendship Park, despite the fact that there was a giant wall running through the middle of it, was beautiful on the Tijuana side. The wall had been painted with brightly colored murals that said things like, “love trumps hate,” and “only the weak are cruel.” The service itself was moving, especially when folks on both sides of the border approached the wall, and after placing our hands on the wall, offered a prayer of confession. After the prayer, the pastor on the American side told us to look up to the sky. “The sky is above all of us,” he said, “with no wall, no border-- just like God’s grace.”
After the service we all enjoyed sandwiches prepared and served by deported American veterans. Yes, you read that right. Deported American veterans. I spoke with one man who was brought to the United States as a toddler. He served in the Vietnam War and came home with PTSD, which led to addiction, which led to some predictable criminal charges. After living in the United States his whole life, and after serving his country, the scars of war led to his deportation.
Which brings us back to the not so good.
On the way back to our volunteer hub in Tijuana, we passed by a large tent city. There must have been at least seventy tents, maybe more. One of the volunteers in our car suggested that the tent city might be part of the migrant caravan. “No,” our driver interrupted, “this whole tent city is made up of deported veterans.” This struck up a conversation in the car about some of the deported veterans we talked with at Friendship Park. Our driver shared one particularly poignant comment from one of the veterans. “If I died right now,” the vet said, “I could be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. But I can’t live on U.S. soil.”
The car fell silent for a moment. The reality of the cruelty of our immigration policies was back at the forefront of our minds. As if it had ever really left.
Which brings me to yesterday.
Yesterday I spent the entire day accompanying people as they prepared to present themselves at the border to make their claims to asylum. It was good and satisfying work, in the sense that we were there to support people who really needed it. But it was also very, very hard. It was hard to take in the sea of human suffering, seeing how people were essentially being treated as cattle, during what is likely the worst experience of their lives. It was hard to hear the harrowing stories of people’s journeys. One man told me about how people in his country were being massacred. He had left his wife and children behind in order to travel to Mexico and make his case for asylum (if we hadn’t closed our borders to refugees, he might not have had to make such a trip). He said all he had left was a prayer that maybe at some point he would be granted asylum, and maybe then could bring the rest of his family to the U.S. as well. It was hard to hear the strain in people’s voices when they said they had been waiting to cross for over a month. It was hard to bond with the group of children preparing to cross with their families, who one minute were laughing and playing, and the next minute being put on buses to go into detention. It was hard to see the family that was forced to make a terrible choice. Their number had been called that day, but one family member had yet to make it to Tijuana, and they knew someone would have to stay behind and wait. And so, dad took the two young girls, both sobbing as they separated from their mother and older brother, and they got on the bus that would take them first to an ice-box holding facility, and then to a detention center. Throughout all of this, I recognized the important of what we were doing—witnessing the truth of what is happening at the border and serving as witnesses to these people’s stories. But also throughout the day, I could not escape the terrible truth of the moment I was in. We are treating people—vulnerable, suffering people—like animals. We are treating them like throw-away people that don’t matter. Just because they were born in the wrong place.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,” says the Statue of Liberty. The world has responded. But we have closed our doors. We have closed our eyes and ears. And we have closed our hearts.
But I can’t end on such an ominous note. There is hope at the border. There are people finding refuge. There are lives being forever altered. There is great kindness, and even among the sea of human suffering, there are waves upon waves of beauty and joy. As I prepare to do it all again tomorrow, this is what I will embrace.