Life at the Border
Behind the rhetoric, headlines, and statistics surrounding immigration
are the stories of individuals and a Texas community living with the
daily realities of a complex issue.
by Stan Friedman | January 29, 2020
Above: As the sun sets near McAllen, Texas, migrants line up to surrender to U.S. Border Patrol before being transported to a processing center. Photo by Mani Albrecht / Courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection
McAllen, Texas—It’s easy to drive past the 77,000-square-foot converted warehouse on West Ursula Avenue and not realize it is at the epicenter of one of the most volatile political debates in the United States. The only thing that distinguishes the U.S. Border Patrol Processing Center from the neighboring warehouses is the American flag flying from a pole that reaches high above the fenced parking lot.
There is no visible indication that this is where pictures have been taken of separated families and people crammed together in holding pens, sleeping on concrete floors beneath sheets of Mylar. According to a report by the Department of Homeland Security inspector general, conditions here are “squalid.”
Across the four-lane road is a quiet neighborhood of middle-class homes and a park. There is scant visible evidence that of the entire 2,000 miles of United States–Mexican border, the Rio Grande Valley here is the Border Patrol’s busiest sector. No clues suggest 339,135 people were apprehended in this sector in fiscal 2019, which ended September 30—an increase of nearly 110 percent over the 162,262 the previous year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Yet the normalcy can be jarring.
McAllen is a place where you learn
how much you don’t know,
and where you can learn more
if you are willing to listen.
“You really won’t see anything unusual,” says Daniel Armendariz, pastor of People’s Covenant Church in nearby San Juan. “Daily life goes on pretty much as normal.”
Yet the normalcy can be jarring. McAllen is a place where you learn how much you don’t know, and where you can learn more if you are willing to listen.
That can be a challenge. Many residents don’t want to speak to reporters. When they do, several ask that their names not be used. A border patrol agent isn’t authorized to speak, neighbors don’t want neighbors to know what they really think, and people without documentation don’t want to reveal themselves to law enforcement.
Still, in the midst of complicated legal status and identities, this community goes to church with one another. They eat together, buy goods and services from each other. At the same time, they trust each other and doubt each other.
“People ask me what is happening here, and I tell them there are so many layers,” says Dale Lusk, who lives in McAllen and serves as international director for global engagement for Serve Globally. “It’s complicated.”
It also is not new. “This may seem like something new to the rest of the country,” Lusk says, “but it’s been this way for years.” When the world focused its attention on the caravans making their way north in October 2018, Lusk said, “We have that many people come across here every day.”
More than 120 migrants who were smuggled
in boats across the Rio Grande at Los Ebanos,
near McAllen, are processed by Border Patrol agents.
McAllen is a city of 140,000 people, 86 percent of whom are Latino. A vast majority are sympathetic to the plight of the people traveling without documentation, but one Latino, who asked not to be identified, said, “You wonder how many people we can take in.” He added, “A lot of people have spent a lot of money and time trying to enter legally. Is it fair that they’ve tried to do it the right way and someone else can just come in?”
Until five years ago, the vast majority of people who were apprehended for entering the U.S. without documentation were single males from Mexico looking for work. Many participated in a repeated cycle of being arrested, released, and then caught again when they returned.
Today, the majority of people crossing the border are from Central or South America. Many are families, women with children, or unaccompanied minors who have traveled thousands of miles to flee civil war and gang violence.
The McAllen bus station is one of the few places in the city where the distinctions of the place are evident. Nearly every day, buses and vans drop off a couple hundred newly released detainees who have been approved to stay with family or sponsors in the U.S. while they wait for their cases to be adjudicated.
One night in July, two dozen travelers sit scattered throughout the station. Parents try to keep toddlers occupied. A father and teenage son who had been detained separately for weeks share a bag of chips. An older couple sits quietly off to the side. Adults hold manila envelopes with an 8-by-10 sheet of paper stapled to them that reads in capital letters, “Please help me. I do not speak English. What bus do I need to take? Thank you for your help!” On the back is their schedule outlining each transfer they need to make in the coming days.
One couple with a toddler anticipate a three-day journey:
Depart McAllen at 9:30 p.m. on July 16.
Arrive in San Antonio at 2:05 a.m. on July 17.
Depart at 2:35 a.m.
Arrive in Dallas at 7:25 a.m.
Depart at 9:15 a.m.
Arrive in Richmond, Virginia, at 5:20 p.m. on July 18.
Depart at 8:15 p.m.
Arrive in New York City at 4:15 a.m. on July 19.
Depart at 8:30 a.m.
Arrive in Bridgeport, Connecticut, at 10:35 a.m.
In some ways, the bus rides are the quickest and
easiest parts of their journey, says Lusk. This night, several travelers describe walking much of the way from Honduras, Guatemala, Ecuador, or El Salvador. Lusk helps translate for the Spanish speakers. He says it is encouraging to see English-speaking travelers helping migrants find the right bus. They are the fortunate ones.
Sixty miles away, 2,000 people have set up an encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, near the International Bridge, which connects the city with Brownsville, Texas. They have fled horrifying violence in their home countries, and many have endured more suffering on their journeys north.
A mother says through an interpreter that she fled home after her two teenage sons disappeared. One was found dead, but she never heard from the other again. She left with her third son to spare him the same fate.
Another mother with an adolescent daughter says they were both assaulted as they traveled.
Only days earlier a father and his young daughter, not even two years old, drowned trying to cross the river in a desperate attempt to get to the United States. The picture of their bodies face down in the water next to the bank sparked outrage around the world.
Most people here agree on two things: the system is desperately broken, and politicians seem more interested in using the issue as a political weapon than in finding solutions.
What they don’t agree on is who suffers most from that brokenness.
One border patrol agent admits he resents being viewed as a xenophobe who enjoys separating families. He points out that a majority of officers are Latino or people of color. “We just want to do our jobs,” he says. “We do the best with what we are given.”
Most people here agree
the system is desperately broken.
What they don’t agree on is
who suffers most from that brokenness.
The agent says he and his colleagues recognize that images of people confined in what appear to be cages are disturbing. But, he says, the fenced-in areas provide 360 degrees of visibility. “If they were in cells, we couldn’t see what is happening. It’s for their own safety.”
He explains that human traffickers try to pass themselves off as family members crossing the border. Other adults, especially single men, who are more likely to be detained or deported, cross with otherwise unaccompanied minors. Some of the family separations occur because authorities are investigating whether children and the adults they travel with are related.
On the other hand, the agent says, border agents regularly rescue migrants caught in the Rio Grande’s swift current or who are suffering from severe heatstroke and dehydration. “The mainstream media doesn’t write about that,” he says.
Immigration attorney Jodi Goodwin argues that many of her clients have suffered from abuse at the processing center. Their daily needs are often unattended, she says. “It is cruel what is being done to them.”
The inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security
identified dangerous overcrowding and inhumane conditions
in the rio Grande Valley, referring to a “ticking time bomb”
and a “humanitarian crisis” in a July 2019 report.
The economy is growing in McAllen, due in part to the thousands of people on the Mexico side of the McAllen–Hidalgo bridge in Reynosa who stand in the sweltering heat, waiting to cross the Rio Grande. They are going shopping.
They show agents their U.S. Border Crossing Card, which is available only to Mexicans who prove they have the financial resources to purchase goods. They can stay in the United States for up to 72 hours and must not travel more than 25 miles from the border.
When people do cross without legal documents, they tend to move on to other parts of the country, and those who remain try to remain inconspicuous. According to the Department of Justice, McAllen is one of the safest cities in the country. That may be partly due to the ubiquity of law enforcement vehicles—U.S. Border Patrol, a branch of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Sheriff’s Department, McAllen Police. You can hardly drive a mile without seeing one of these vehicles on the road.
Yet when the government announces a crackdown or raids, church attendance drops and business slows.
Carla, a Mexican woman in her mid-30s, has spent much of her life living in the shadows of a broken system. Sitting in the suburban house she shares with her husband, she says she has never ventured more than 50 miles from McAllen. Beyond that perimeter, permanent checkpoints are set up along the roads, where everyone is stopped. When she was a child, her father, a pastor, was asked to come serve a church in McAllen. The family packed quickly and crossed the bridge using a valid visa.
After it expired, they stayed. “My dad wanted a better life for us,” Carla says.
The family lived in a church parsonage in McAllen for several years. Carla and her siblings started school, and she quickly learned English. Her parents told them to stay out of trouble and be careful of law enforcement. Over the years, they became part of their community.
“Because I speak English well, people think I’m American,” she says. “I never felt different. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I began to wonder, ‘What am I going to do with my life now?’”
By the time Carla’s family got a permit to stay in the country, she had turned 18 and had to start the process over for herself. One official gave her two options: Go back across the border and then try to come back in. “‘Tell them what happened, be detained, and then go before an immigration judge.’ Or, she said I could get married to a U.S. citizen.”
She did not want to take a chance leaving the country, and she had no intention of marrying someone she didn’t love. Because she did not want to get fake identification in order to apply for a job, she did various types of domestic work. She took out a private loan for $5,000 so she could attend several semesters of college, but then the money ran out.
Just over a year ago, she married her husband, an American citizen she has known since they were kids. Recently, after an extended process, she gained her work permit.
Life along the border is complex.
When a man suffers a heat-related illness while
attempting to avoid agents, U.S. border patrol provide him
medical aid in a McAllen orange grove last summer.
In July, a youth group from Community Covenant Church in Lenexa, Kansas, traveled to the valley to host vacation Bible schools at People’s Church and La Villa Covenant Church, the first Spanish-speaking congregation in the Covenant, founded in 1947. Lusk says he was excited when he learned the group wanted to take time to learn about immigration during the trip. They were the first team to ever do that, he says.
So he took them to the border wall where they prayed for everyone affected by the situation there. He also brought them to an emergency shelter, La Posada Providencia, nestled off a road in rural San Benito, about 20 miles from the border.
Once people have gone through the processing center and been identified as likely candidates for asylum, Border Patrol or ICE brings them to places such as La Posada, where they may stay from a half day to several months. When family members or friends are able to send money for a bus ticket, many leave. For those without a place to travel, La Posada workers help them access services, including legal assistance.
In the 30 years since the shelter opened, La Posada has taken in 10,000 people from 86 countries, says director Zita Telkamp, one of three nuns who help oversee the operation. A year ago, the shelter hosted 900 people, and they expect that number to surpass 1,000 by year-end. By comparison, between 2009 and 2010, they housed 150 people.
Located on several acres of cleared land, the shelter is tranquil. Two plain dormitories hold 12 people each. A commons building includes staff offices, kitchen, dining area, and a mobile classroom. Children play on a small playground.
Unlike most shelters, which struggle to sustain themselves, La Posada is fully funded through the Sisters of Divine Providence of St. Louis, Missouri, which started the ministry, and other donors. Some do not allow visitors, Telkamp says.
At La Posada, volunteers who have traveled here from across the countryteach asylum seekers and immigrants English. If they already know the language, volunteers help them prepare for their citizenship tests.
One day last summer, ten students, including children, are learning English. They are eager to greet visitors, say their names, and tell where they are from. These students have traveled here from Central America, Russia, and Sri Lanka.
Most people who are sheltered at La Posada have suffered at the hands of gangs, including some closely aligned with governments. One family has come from Guatemala, where they paid “protection” money to a local gang. When the family could no longer pay, the gang entered their house, broke the daughter’s arm, and cut off one of the father’s toes. The child still bears a scar.
People generally arrive empty-handed. Telkamp recalls the late afternoon several families arrived, including four children, ages 7 through 10. She wound up having to drive to a store to purchase flip-flops for them. After walking for months, “Their shoes smelled so bad,” she says. “I said those shoes can’t go in the bedroom. You have to be able to breathe.”
Telkamp has heard stories from thousands of people since she started at La Posada in 2008. Hope can be hard to come by, but “I never want to lose compassion,” she says. “You can become kind of hardened. But if you can listen to each person’s story, you can care for them. That’s what the gospel tells us.”
A youth group from Community Covenant Church
in Lenexa, Kansas, prays during
a visit to the border wall in McAllen.