On the Border: Report from Sue Abrams

by Susan Abrams, LWCF board member

Editors note: This is the third and final report back from Brownsville & Matamoros by our amazingly dedicated board member Susan Abrams, who recently spent one week volunteering with Team Brownsville.

Brownsville has a distinctly Mexican feel. Many of the signs are in Spanish and the restaurant menus lean heavily on Mexican food. Especially around the bus station, it feels like you don’t have to cross the bridge to be in Mexico. The bridge is a busy toll bridge, with heavy traffic in both directions. It looks like any toll bridge…on steroids. There are police cars everywhere, more cameras than I can count, concrete barriers, and razor wire all over the place. The toll booths are scrupulously monitored and nobody tailgates to get through as fast as they can. Doing that is likely to be a very regrettable mistake. Walking across doesn’t feel much different from walking across the Manhattan Bridge. Coming back is when it feels different… you don’t need a passport or security check to get into Brooklyn!

The tent camp has become familiar, as have some of the faces that we see as we serve dinner each night. For a few  nights I was the Purel squirter lady (another resume building skill!) so I interacted with every person who came through the serving line, holding many of their hands so I didn’t miss with the Purel bottle (I’m a little directionally challenged.) I’ve learned that those hands and faces belong to doctors, teachers, college professors, technology workers, accountants, engineers. Those people had professional lives that they had to leave behind because of violence, and now they live in a tent with thousands of others, hoping for the opportunity to start life over again. And they will probably never have the same lifestyle they left behind, even if they beat the odds and make it across the border. 

Every Wednesday night one of the local evangelical pastors comes and does a hip-hop rap service for those waiting in line for dinner. They have a huge sound system and they rap for about 20 minutes before dinner begins. Given my limited (a generous description) Spanish, I understood about 6 words out of the whole program. I got some translation from a friend observing with me but, in the interest of full disclosure…the pastor is very handsome and charismatic so even if I didn’t understand the words, it was fun to watch! A few minutes for everyone to lose themselves in the music and maybe the message. 

But reality is never far away…One night, walking back to the American side, a group of about 20 young men, each with a white plastic trash bag in hand, passed us going the opposite direction, back to Mexico. It looked like a bus had stopped and disgorged the passengers. In fact, that’s exactly what had happened…only it wasn’t a city bus they’d ridden.  It was a Customs and Border Patrol bus and it had disgorged a group of deportees who were on their way back across the border to figure out their next step. At the airport every morning, we heard from witnesses that several flights go out filled only with asylum seekers who are being brought back to Guatemala. 

Last night, coming back across the bridge, we were stopped on the Mexican side by thick, acrid smoke and loud yelling. The traffic was totally backed up because the police had closed the gate. It sounded like a demonstration, but when we heard what sounded like loud gunshots, I admit we all got scared. It turned out to be a simulation drill for the police on both sides to practice in case something like that actually happened. A chance for them to wear the riot gear we’ve seen stacked on the bridge each time we pass. It made us more aware of the fragile situation that exists. It also made us think of how unnecessary that fragile situation is and how easily it could be remedied. 

There are tent courts set up right at the bridge on the US side (this photo was taken at night). The court has two sessions a day and the results of each session aren’t encouraging. The percentage of asylum seekers whose plea is approved is probably in the single digits. Those statistics aren’t great anywhere but in some places you have a better chance than others. Colorado is one of those better places, Atlanta, Georgia is one of the worst. 

After a week here we will all be very sad to leave. We’ve learned a lot about the situation here in Matamoros and we’ve definitely put a human face on this despicable situation.  One of the boys who has helped us each night (the one who read 100 books last week and who goes out each morning looking for work to do to be busy and useful) cried and hugged us when he heard we weren’t going back tomorrow night. I cried with him. Team Brownsville is doing an unbelievable job here, providing everything from tents to food to what schooling they can, to coordinating an array of social services. They work entirely from donations so if you are looking for a good place to make a donation, this is it….teambrownsville.org  and any of the programs will be helped by that generosity. 

The frustration is the limited impact we can have right now, and the fear is that it could get worse. But the importance of getting out the vote in November is even more evident, and really, that will be the best hope for change. In the meantime, I hope these emails have given you a better idea of what is actually happening here at the border. It isn’t pretty. 

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