Volunteering At The Border: 3 Days Of Not Enough In Brownsville, Texas
It’s Monday afternoon in the border town of Brownsville, Texas, and my friend Laura and I are preparing dinner for 185 people. Later we will transport this meal on carts across the bridge into Matamoros, Mexico, to serve asylum seekers camped out on a concrete slab referred to as “the Plaza.” We can do this because, unlike the asylum seekers, we have the freedom to cross the 227 feet bridge over the Rio Grande from Brownsville into Matamoros as often as we like, with the wave of our U.S. passport. Those 227 feet are all that separate the asylum seekers from asylum, protection from the lives that they are desperately trying to leave. We have never cooked for so many people before but we prepare the meal as we would for anyone we love: fresh salad, pasta with meat sauce, dinner rolls, and cookies. And soon we will cross over the Rio Grande River, a natural border that at first glance looks relatively innocuous but upon closer inspection has a strong current.
We cook at the Good Neighbor Settlement House, a homeless services organization that generously allows us to use their industrial kitchen. A young woman from Matamoros doing community service eagerly helps us with the task. We meet up with other volunteers at the Brownsville bus station where another dinner effort is being organized by Sergio Cordova, a Brownsville resident and co-founder of the volunteer organization Team Brownsville. We cross into Matamoros with the food and other supplies with a large group of newly arrived volunteers from Florida, as well as Andrea Rudnick, another Team Brownsville co-founder and board member, and Mark Thomas Redwine, a former pastor serving the struggling Las Colinas district of Brownsville and a regular volunteer. Their experience, guidance, and support are greatly appreciated.
We arrive to three enormous lines of people waiting to eat: children first, then women, and then men, and we are incredibly grateful for our Italian and Jewish instincts to make a lot of food because we were able to generously serve every single person. After dinner, we give out shirts to the women and children. And even though we all know that this is the most desperate situation, we find moments to laugh together. I offer one woman who is eight months pregnant an extra-large shirt to cover her belly and, giggling, she shares that she would prefer to show her figure.
How did I get here? In late June, we wondered: How do we respond to the news about the brutal and unjust conditions of asylum seekers when we are not living in border cities? What can we do to make a difference or at least to help in some way? These were the kinds of questions that my friend and New Jersey neighbor Laura and I were asking ourselves when I came upon the work of Team Brownsville on Facebook. A college friend was tagged in some photos doing volunteer work at the bridge between Brownsville and Matamoros. Our questions had been answered; we contacted Team Brownsville, made our travel arrangements, and we were off to Texas. It felt like fate.
The women became excited when we distributed clean underwear, handing them as many pairs as we could before we ran out.
Team Brownsville works to help asylum seekers that come to the Brownsville/Matamoros international bridges and the Brownsville bus station. Founded in July 2018 by a group of like-minded educator volunteers, the organization has expanded to include members from all over the United States, as well as the world. They initially began serving asylum seekers on the bridges, with food, clothing, bedding, and sun protection. They later expanded their purview to include asylum seekers who were released from Rio Grande Valley immigration detention centers to the bus station. Team Brownsville supports human rights and the legal process of asylum seeking and, daily, they help by bringing meals, clothing, bedding, toiletries, sleeping arrangements, backpacks, and snack bags for traveling across the country. They serve all people equally, regardless of race, religion, sexuality, disability, or national origin.
In preparation for our time in Brownsville, Laura and I reached out to friends and family and asked for donations to buy necessities for the asylum seekers. We purchased underwear and socks for children, women, and men; shoe laces (theirs are taken by Border Patrol and replaced with mylar strips) and sunscreen; sticker books, art supplies, yo-yos, and card games for the children. We planned to spend our remaining money once we arrived and established a sense of what people needed, since the requests change daily. We expected to either serve breakfast and/or dinner at the bridge or bus station, and potentially volunteer during the day in the shelters where asylum seekers are brought once they are let into the country.
We were filled with anticipation when we arrived and eager to head to the bridge that first evening. We met up with a small group of regular volunteers, including Michael Benavides (another co-founder and board member) and Ann Finch (board member and regular volunteer), at the bus station and together walked across the bridge.
“Sergio and I sometimes feel like we’re spitting on a bonfire. Shouldn’t they have the Red Cross or somebody over here?” Michael told the LA Times over a year ago. “But if we don’t do it, they go hungry.”
Many may be familiar with the tragic photo of Oscar and Angie Valeria, a father and daughter from El Salvador who drowned attempting to cross this very river out of desperation. Arriving with absolutely nothing to a legal entry point, and then being turned back and told that they had to wait in a concrete plaza on the side of the bridge entry in Matamoros for between two and four months, was apparently too much to bear. And so this small family decided to risk everything and swim across the Rio Grande, a choice that many asylum seekers feel forced to make because waiting at the Plaza seems too bleak. Just recently Real America with Jorge Ramos aired an episode that demonstrated the peril of crossing the river and the lack of accountability of the U.S. and Mexican Border Patrol. Can you imagine being so desperate that you throw your few things in a bag that you then use as a float to take your child across a dangerous river?
Once in Matamoros, as a group we crossed the major traffic with our carts filled with food and supplies to get to the concrete slab where the asylum seekers were camped out. It was about 7:30 p.m. and there was finally some shade, but still quite hot. A local restaurant in Matamoros had also been hired to bring dinner that evening. As we looked around, we saw men, women, and children from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Venezuela, and Cameroon. Some young boys were kicking a soccer ball into a goal post. A little girl in a turquoise dress was laughing and running and a toddler walked around with a smile and a very saggy diaper.
Everyone was so excited about the fruit and even more delighted when we shared apples.
Once dinner ended, the crowd thinned. People began to approach us and ask us for items they needed, like wipes and detergents since there is no running water and no easy way to wash hands, face, or clothes. Luckily, we had some small Ziploc bags of wipes and powder detergent that the regulars had arranged. Most of the asylum seekers only have the clothes they are wearing. The women became excited when we distributed clean underwear, handing them as many pairs as we could before we ran out. We also gave out sanitary napkins and tampons —products that so many of us take for granted. Person after person after person asked us for a bolsita (plastic bag) or a mochila (backpack). When we thought about how many bolsitas we throw away on a regular basis at home, our hearts began to break. The asylum seekers come with nothing and therefore have no place to put the things that they acquire, or protect them from being taken. Others asked for pasta de dientes (toothpaste) and more to drink as they receive one bottle of water in the morning and one in the evening. As we tried to listen carefully to each person, we created a mental shopping list of what we needed to buy once back across the bridge. More than anything else, we wanted desperately to help them, to meet their needs, to make this desperate and terrifying situation just a little bit easier.
In Brownsville again, we headed to local supermarkets to load up on toothpaste, juice boxes, apples (the asylum seekers get very little fresh fruits and vegetables), diapers, and more sanitary napkins. We returned the next morning, meeting Michael and Ann again at 8 a.m. in front of the bridge, to share what we had purchased with the asylum seekers alongside the breakfast that was provided by a local restaurant. The restaurant owners, a warm and caring couple, arrived with a large container of juice, ham and cheese sandwiches, and watermelon and cantaloupe. Everyone was so excited about the fruit and even more delighted when we shared apples. A Cuban man approached me, smelling the fresh apple and smiling. “This is really wonderful. It smells so good.” That morning again we began to gather a sense of their needs: several of the newly arrived men said that they needed clean tees and underwear, a pair of decent shoes in their specific sizes, and even a tent.
It has felt like such a small act, especially because at the end of the evening we are able to leave, to return back to the U.S., to go back to our lives of comfort, privilege, and certainty.
As we were getting ready to leave, we noticed that about 30 people were being walked over the bridge to the Plaza from Brownsville to wait for their court date. This is a result of the Migrant Protection Protocol or MPP, which was enacted in Brownsville on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. We don’t know how long they will wait for their chance to see the judge and plead their case. One newly returned family was told that they could wait for one to two years. This is after they have already waited in the Plaza for months with extreme weather and no toilets, showers, washing machines, or basic amenities. Who is selected seems totally arbitrary and some asylum seekers may consider the illegal route of swimming across the river as their only option of avoiding MPP. But I was told that even river crossers are being walked back into Mexico.
We have come to know the children, women, and men who are seeking asylum now that we have been at the bridge a few times. There is a human connection: a smile, a few words, many expressions of “gracias,” mutual feelings of gratitude and appreciation of one another as people. It has felt like such a small act, especially because at the end of the evening we are able to leave, to return back to the U.S., to go back to our lives of comfort, privilege, and certainty. Each night that we walked back across the bridge to Brownsville, we noted the cool breeze off of the river, the hundreds of crackles that flocked the trees, and the way the light changed as evening approached. It was a momentary comfort but also a gleaming reminder of the vastness of the plight of asylum seekers.
There is so much work to be done. This is only the beginning for me and I urge everyone to find ways to take action. Donate money, donate time, educate people, come down and volunteer if you can afford to, or volunteer in detention centers near you. We cannot sit idle.
That third night there were already an additional 60 people there when we arrived. We brought men’s underwear and tees but we quickly realized that no matter how much we bring, it never feels like there is enough. There are always more people in need and many “lo sientos” when you have to turn them away. The women asked too, and we had to say, “Solamente para hombres hoy” (only for the men today) even though we wanted to say, “There must be some way for us to help you. There must be something for us to do.”