Our Vacation in Brownsville Showed Us the Border Crisis Up Close

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Brownsville is a run-down border city at the southeastern tip of Texas, where the Rio Grande ends its journey to the Gulf of Mexico—more as a polluted creek than the grand waterway of our imaginations. Downtown is a lifeless grid of one-way streets. All the action is on a neon stretch along the interstate and on the nearby resort of South Padre island, a 30-minute drive from the airport. My wife and I hadn’t traveled there from London to play in the sand, though.

One of the perks of life abroad is distance—the kind that lets you tune out whatever is too annoying, too disturbing, too infuriating. But more than a few of the headlines emanating from the United States of late have struck a nerve that made tuning out impossible, especially President Donald Trump’s insistence that American tax dollars separate migrant families and jail asylum seekers. I’m the grandson of an undocumented immigrant from what is now Poland, and my wife, Sarah, spent much of her 20s teaching in Central America. But what could we do? We tried to connect with folks on the ground without much luck. So we decided the least we could do was show up. That became the plan: just show up. We needed to see for ourselves what was going on, especially since the story had faded from the headlines after the initial outcry in 2018.

That calling was what inspired us to bring a clear purpose to part of our vacation. For our first segment, we’d bear witness to recent developments along the almost 1,000-mile border—the towns, the roads, the encampments, the wall—before moving on to the wonders of Big Bend National Park and the artistic desert outpost of Marfa. But it didn’t really work out that way. The day we set off from London, we finally heard from the local group that calls itself “Angry Tias and Abuelas,” or Aunts and Grandmothers. Cindy told us to show up at the bus station at 4 p.m. And that’s what we did.

There we met another out-of-towner. Lindsay sat at a folding table set up by the local volunteers—known collectively as Team Brownsville—as something like a customer service desk. She’s a school librarian and dairy farmer from North Carolina who’d taken a few days off work for the same reason we were there, to absorb the scene a few hundred yards away from where we were standing, across the International Bridge in Matamoros. She wanted to bring back photos and firsthand accounts to folks back home who were skeptical of what the media was reporting.

The chitchat was interrupted by one of the Team Brownsville leaders, Sergio Cordova, an educator by day, who was leading a whole battalion of volunteers who swept us into their mission. It was a squad from the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue—lawyers, teachers, a rabbi, a nurse, and just a bunch of all-around do-gooders. 

Here’s what ensued that late Saturday afternoon: Sergio took a bunch of folded-up canvas wagons—imagine Radio Flyers designed by REI—out of their supply shed, across the street from the depot. The loading was done in the parking lot. Supplies prepared by the Brooklynites included hundreds of quartered oranges, ground cloths, sleeping pads and bags, and fleeces. Once packed, the wagon train set off, through the bus station, down 14th Street, and to the International Bridge. We each had four quarters for the turnstiles but handed them off to the Mexican border officer, who held a gate open. He was accustomed to this drill, obviously. The lines of people and vehicles waiting to go the other way were endless. We crossed the Rio Grande, with folks on the Mexican side doing their laundry and bathing in the dirty water below, and passed a desultory check by the customs agents.

Then we confronted a sight for which I was unprepared, a tent city set up adjacent to the border crossing. Maybe a better word is at the border crossing. There, hugged up against the entry to the bridge, stood the first of many hundreds whom we would feed that evening. They were waiting patiently and, over the next two hours, kept coming for the rice and beans and tortillas prepared by a local restaurant, and the drinks and fruit we’d wheeled over.

The sun was down by the time we were done, so we didn’t get a good look at the surroundings until the following day. We returned with the Brooklyn battalion to serve breakfast and help at the weekly Sunday “sidewalk school.” Tarps are laid out on the concrete paths, and kids are organized by age so that volunteers can read to them in groups. (There is another setup that operates three days a week in which the teaching is done by the asylum seekers themselves.) On this Sunday, the kids received backpacks stuffed with more gifts—donations from well-wishers—to celebrate Epiphany.

The encampment comprises endless rows of dome tents, housing some 2,200 people on this day, according to our organizers. Some groups demarcated compounds with jerry-rigged cooking and bathing stations in what was apparently a public park. The lucky ones had their tents set up on pallets to avoid the mud slop when it rains. Mexican officials provided portable toilets a few weeks before our arrival. We counted 30—not nearly enough, and overflowing when we peeked inside with our noses covered.

The scene is the result of an administration policy that’s restricted the justification for seeking asylum. Asylum seekers must now remain on the other side of the border while their claims wind their way through the American system. On the U.S. side is another tent-city that houses immigration courts. In the days that followed, we spoke to numerous Central Americans—Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Hondurans—who shared remarkably similar, if unverifiable, tales. Essentially, they were fleeing violent gangs and corrupt authorities. One family of six fled their village in El Salvador the day after they were approached to sell their 16-year-old daughter.

After our third day, it was time to move on. Our next stop was McAllen, about 60 miles up the border, where we’d hoped to help out at a center that served new arrivals. Once housing and feeding more than 1,000 a day, the site had maybe two dozen the day we visited—mainly Africans and Haitians. Central Americans weren’t making it over anymore.

The next morning, Sarah and I looked at each other and pretty much said the same thing at the same time: We can’t have a vacation anymore. Big Bend and Marfa were out. We spent the next eight days getting in even deeper with the everyday heroes who have assembled in Brownsville, devoting too many of their waking hours to help those seeking what hundreds of thousands before them did: a better life in the U.S. These are the names you should know, the stories you should hear: Madeleine Sandefur, one of the “Angry Tias,” who works to get refugees out of detention; Norma Pimental, an indefatigable nun in McAllen; Michael Benavides, a Desert Storm veteran and a founder of Team Brownsville. Those are just some of the people we met on our consciousness-raising adventure. Meantime, detention centers keep sprouting in the barren landscape of South Texas.

Of the many unforgettable images, an odd one sticks with me. It was in the waiting room of the Port Isabel Detention Center. We were there, thanks to one of our new friends, to visit some of the detainees. We’d emptied our pockets of all but the car keys and handed over our IDs to the private security contractor at the front gate. We’d walked by the stone monument dedicating the site to the victims of Sept. 11 and passed through the metal detectors, with nothing but the most polite interaction with the khaki-clad minders. We signed in and there we were, in the jail’s waiting room. The whole thing was an antiseptic institution with a soundless television playing adjacent to the reverse ATM that allowed you to deposit money into detainee accounts. On the screen was The Hunger Games—surely a coincidence, but a wholly appropriate dystopian fantasy for the time and place. —With Sarah Towle

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