by Mark Redwine
The refugee camp for asylum-seekers is no more. Two weeks ago, the first busload of refugees legally crossed the bridge that spans the Rio Grande River between Matamoros, Mexico and Brownsville, Texas. When they arrived at the Brownsville bus station, a crowd greeted them with applause, cheers, tears, hugs, handshakes, and exuberant joy expressing the start of the end of two long years of suffering in the camp. I was not able to greet that bus, but have been able to greet several since then. Yesterday, the last bus from the camp crossed into Brownsville. Today, the few people left in the camp were taken to a shelter in Mexico and the camp is now empty.
My emotions are in flux. There is joy and a sense of completeness for the camp closing and for the ones who made it across. But it’s also mixed with sadness and anger over the ones who suffered so much while in the camp and for those who died there. It is a strange blend. I am not sure which emotion will show up or when.
I was one of the pastors who served the folks in the camp. I performed several “Celebration of Life” services. We worshiped together. We prayed together. I shared their hopes, dreams, joys, and helped them through their fears and frustrations. Then about a year ago, like a light switch turning off, outsiders were no longer allowed into the camp because of new COVID-19 restrictions. I was no longer able to visit my friends there. That left a hole in a part of my heart the size of a bus.
The COVID restrictions also stopped all asylum cases from proceeding for an indefinite period of time. This led to hopelessness in the camp. The camp’s population dropped from around 2,500 to about 600 in about a week. The people just seemed to vaporize. They knew that there was no longer a legal way to asylum.
A policy called “Unaccompanied Minors” was still in place, however. Under this program, any child under 18 could pass into the USA and come under the care of Health and Human Services. HHS would try to find relatives for the kids to go live with. So, some of the asylum-seekers started sending their kids across the bridge to present themselves to the Border Patrol as Unaccompanied Minors, knowing they would never see each other again. They sent them with all the papers they would need and a list of relatives they could go to. This caused a surge in kids entering the USA, for a while.
Then, a new policy slithered in called “Expulsion.” Under this policy, kids as young as two years old were loaded on to planes and sent to Guatemala. Not only kids, but anyone the Border Patrol chose to deny entry to. No one was allowed any sort of hearing or other legal process. They were just loaded on a plane and shipped out back into the mouths of the sharks they were fleeing. The flights were deportation/expulsion flights. We called them death flights.
They flew out of Brownsville. People boarding flights were placed in chains. Just like you see in the history books of slaves being loaded on to ships. And evoked chilling emotions, especially if you have ever been to a place where slaves were actually loaded on ships, or walked through slave holds.
I have a friend who is a “Hostess” for one of the airline companies that fly the death planes. Recently, she was on a flight to Africa. The plane was loaded to capacity with women deportees and those expelled. When the plane landed and the women saw where they were, panic broke out; the women started wailing in terror. She said that it sounded like a slaughterhouse. She said that she had never seen this intensity of fear in her life. When the women got off the plane and had their chains removed, chaos ensued. Many ran. Some turned over a bus that was there to take them to detention. They knew what awaited them. The pilot took off as soon as the door was secured, without authorization, in fear for the safety of his crew and his plane. This scene and these sounds still haunt her today.
There is a place in Africa, near Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, called Bagamoyo, which is Swahili for “where I lay my life down.” It is an old slaving fort. On the beach are the stone posts with iron rings where slaves were held before boarding their ships. When it was time to go embark, their chains were removed and they were marched to their ship to receive different chains that belonged to the slaver. This was the time of decision. They could decide to go to the ship and accept the new chains, or run and certainly be killed…Bagamoyo: to lay down your life. Over the last four years, the requirements for immigrants to prove their asylum case has become more and more difficult, especially when it comes to proving credible fear. I know people who would lay down their life rather than board the death flight back to their own country and face the brutality, torture, and murder awaiting them there. They would have preferred their own Bagamoyo in Brownsville, Texas.
Over the last three weeks, the death flights have been suspended. The Expulsion policy has been rescinded. The Unaccompanied Minor program is back in place. And, we are receiving immigrants at the bus station, mostly women with small children, for the first time in two years. Even though the camp is gone, we will continue to care for the immigrants for as long as they come. We will do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes. We will continue to serve those who desire to become a part of the American tapestry—to serve those who want to become a part of what makes America the light of hope and freedom to the rest of the world.
If you would like to know more about Mark and Marilyn’s work on the border, or how you can help, like their Facebook page or email Mark for more information at mtmasai@aol[dot]com. You can also check out Mark’s previous articles that share more about the camp in our Tales of Diversity section.