The People and Pastor Lorenzo
The crisis on the border is real.
The families crossing the border in Laredo, Texas come from all over the world – but the vast majority (at least that we encountered) come from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. They are seeking asylum - fleeing the corruption and violence in their homeland where gangs and cartels run rampant – terrorizing their own people with extortion, forced gang recruitment, death threats. Seeking to protect their children and being enticed by a lie that all they have to do is make it over the Mexican-US border, the families begin their journeys.
It costs at least $6000 to be escorted by a coyote. Each time they cross into a new Mexican cartel territory, the coyotes themselves have to pay a fee to that cartel. If they are late on the payment, or don’t have enough money to pay, they are killed, beheaded in front of the families they are escorting – children included. The journey is long, arduous and dangerous. When the families reach the border, they are escorted across illegally – and then – rather than the safety they have been promised, they are abandoned in the desert. They are now illegal. They turn themselves in to ICE, are processed, and are given a date for an asylum hearing.
The tragic thing about all of this is that by crossing the border illegally, they have gravely damaged their chances of obtaining a favorable outcome at their asylum hearing. Most will be deported. They have sacrificed everything they own – spent their entire life savings to make the journey – witnessed unspeakable horrors – endured grueling conditions – for nothing. They cross illegally and make it just about guaranteed that they won’t be allowed to stay.
Ruth Ortiz (daughter of Pastor Lorenzo) told us about one family that passed through. They were from Africa. The father was a school teacher, and the mother was a nurse. One day, a child died in the father’s classroom (I believe she was sick). The parents were influential - and had him arrested. He was imprisoned for two months while the case was investigated, and it was found that he had done nothing wrong. The family of the little girl was not happy with this outcome. His two sons were killed, and his wife and daughter were raped. They fled – made it to a cargo ship – and survived the journey to Mexico by eating crackers.
So why do they cross illegally??!! Why damage their chances at asylum? They have been lied to. They have been told that all they have to do is make it across, and all will be good. They are pawns in the hands of those with their own agendas. But let me keep this apolitical.
Back to what happens once they have crossed the border. Once they are processed by ICE (this takes a couple of weeks because ICE is so backlogged because of the surge in people crossing) they are given an asylum hearing date and are released. ICE used to drop them at the Greyhound station – where American thugs would then take their turn at scamming these people. And here is where Pastor Lorenzo Ortiz got involved. ICE would notify him that they had dropped off a batch of people, and he would go to the station to make sure they had a safe place to stay while they waited for their buses.
That has now changed – because now even Greyhound is backlogged. So instead of being taken to the bus station, the people are dropped off at Catholic Relief in Laredo. Here they are given a quick medical screen, a shower, and a chance to call a family member to get them money for a bus ticket to a destination city. Catholic Relief is also packed to capacity. So about twice a day, Pastor Lorenzo arrives to pick up the overflow (it seems like this happens around 11:30 and 4:00 pm each day). All of the people he picks up have an address to go to somewhere in the US, but they need food, shelter and a way to get a ticket. Pastor Lorenzo takes them to his house (he used to take them to his church, but that building was soon filled – and he had to find another solution. Having no other option, he took them home).
I’d say he lives on maybe a ½ acre lot. It was hard to tell because it was filled with people. It was really hot, and really dusty. (I noticed that in the mornings people stand outside with a hose, watering their dirt to keep the dust down.) He has four showers there (from Baptist Disaster Relief) and a couple of Porta Potties. As each group arrives, they are assigned a number. They wait for their turn to make a phone call to a family member for money for a bus ticket. His kitchen has become the hub of this activity – it is dark and cool inside, the counters are piled with meal prep stuff, hygiene items, and water. There is a long table where volunteers sit in front of phones (two other families help him – but that’s it). Meanwhile, outside, the people are given the chance to take a shower, rummage through a couple of Rubbermaid containers for a change of clothes (big need there too), and find a place to sit (or a cot to sleep on if they are staying overnight). Then they wait for the bus ride. It is stifling hot and very dusty in his yard. Surrounded by buildings, there is no breeze.
What We Did This June
How did we fit in to all of this? What we ended up doing was nothing we had prepared for. We went there thinking we would be working with the same group of kids all week long – a simple VBS with songs, crafts, stories. That didn’t happen.
When we arrived on Saturday, Ruth came up to the van and said, “How good are you guys at improvising? There are 70 people in there – go.” I’d say we were all a little stunned – we thought we were arriving a few days early to unpack and to do some recon – and here we were with our luggage and our stuff all packed in boxes. It felt awkward to walk in – the people look exhausted, hot, dazed. They mostly were expressionless. And so began our week!
After a couple of sessions we had a good working plan in place. Twice a day, we would go to Pastor Lorenzo’s house (usually around 2-ish and 6-ish). There was a park with a covered playground around the corner – and we would take the children there (nearly all of the parents came as well – they understandably did not want their children out of their sight). When the children saw the playground, their tired little faces would light up and they would run over and start playing – they were just kids being kids. We found that they loved bubbles, so as they were sliding, we would blow bubbles – and they playground would soon be filled with laughter. Looking at the parents, you would see the weariness and wariness leave their faces – they would slowly relax as they watched their children PLAY.
After about 15 – 20 minutes (keep in mind it was HOT) – we would gather the children and give them water and a bag of cookies. Our kids would then sing a couple of songs with them (in Spanish even!) – the older children really enjoyed this – going through the hand motions and hearing the silly songs. This was followed by a puppet show (huge hit) and then the wordless book. We had a 15-year old translator for this part (Lucia). Ruth told us afterwards that the little books (everyone got a book/bracelet to keep – thank you Lynn Coonce) were treasured – the people could not believe that a group of people showed up to extend kindness, and to tell them of the love of God. After the wordless book, the children would color or play with pipe cleaners or water spheres. By this time there was a lot of interaction between our kids and the children. (There would be calls for our kids to make pipe cleaner tigers, or princess crowns.) We would let the children keep a handful of crayons and some construction paper – and they were thrilled. That simple, little thing.
What we did this week was provide a brief moment of respite for the parents, a few hours of play for the children, and the message of God’s love for each of them. The phrase that ran through my mind all week was the need to be the hands and feet of Christ to a hurting world. We didn’t solve any problems. We just reached out to those in need of some human compassion. It didn’t make a difference in the situation at the border, but hopefully it did make a difference to the people we encountered.
The first couple of days of this were a blur – but around Tuesday I think it was the emotional impact hit me. There was one little girl, I would say she was 8 years old or so, who wanted me to draw Elsa (from Frozen) for her, and Anna for her sister. It was that request – such a normal little girl thing to ask for – that just struck me. I couldn’t help but start thinking of how she and her family had gone through so much to get here – abandoned all they knew – sold all they had – just to seek safety. But because they had been fed a lie, they crossed the border illegally – and will likely be sent back. These people are being used as pawns. The issue is complex because of the competing agendas of those inside and outside the US who are trying to manipulate these people to advance their own purposes. Pastor Lorenzo is anxious for the flood across our borders to be stemmed. There is a crisis on the border. But no matter the politics – the people are here in his city – and they need help. He cannot turn a blind eye and walk away.
A Glimpse of the Mexican Side
Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, directly across the border from Laredo, Texas used to be a touristy town. Its population has now swelled (75% of the people are immigrants). We visited the center where the Mexican deportees are processed and assisted. [Parenthetical comment here: when the deportees are deported, they are handcuffed, walked half way across the bridge, and turned over to Mexican officials. From there, they are taken to a processing center where they are sorted into their country of origin. After that, the Mexican deportees are taken to a different center -and it is this center that we visited]. The director of the center called our group to his office so that he could give us some insight into what he is dealing with on his side. He was anxious to share the magnitude of the task before him – and to give us just a little bit of understanding of what is happening there.
At this center, people are assisted in obtaining a bus ticket home. We only saw adults because the children are separated for a while from the adults who accompany them – this is so that the center can ensure that the adults with them really are their parents – many children have been kidnapped in the past. They are given phone and internet access. The Mexican government pays for ½ their bus ticket home. They now use private bus companies for transport – because they found that at the public bus station, the people were prayed on by cartels – looking for victims they could forcibly enlist. So now the private buses are accompanied by a police escort to return the people home.
The people in the center are fed by a group of small churches who rotate days to prepare and serve meals. This came about in this way: the director was one day approached by the pastor of a small church who asked if he could provide pizzas for the deportees. A little surprised, the director agreed – and watched as the pizzas were distributed. As he was turning away, he heard the pastor ask a question – and this caused him to stop dead in his tracks. The question was, “How many of you are considering suicide?” The director turned around and saw that nearly every hand was raised. It was at this point that he was struck with the enormity of the problem. He now shares with each group that they are the people that Mexico needs most. They look at him – uncomprehending. What do they have to offer? They have lost everything – and they are powerless. He tells them that they are the ones with courage. They have the determination to try. They have overcome hardship. They have survived for a reason. They have the inner strength, courage and will to survive. Mexico needs them.
It is so easy to be cynical here – or to think the problem hopeless. May God raise up leaders now for this time of need.
The trip to the center ended with us visiting with a group of deportees who were eating lunch. Ruth explained who we were – and some shared their stories. She asked if anyone wanted personal prayer – and one young lady (she was only 20) came over to Kimberly and me to ask for prayer. She told us that she had always been told by her mother to trust in God – always. She said that as she was crossing the border, and two helicopters where flying overhead, that she cried out to God, asking Him to spare her. She told God that if He would save her, she would serve Him always – but if not, she would serve Him anyways. She did escape then, but was captured later and returned. With tears streaming down her face, she told us that she just wanted a chance – she just wanted a chance. She wanted to be safe.
So now as I end this narrative – I’m sitting here in North Georgia – it is breezy and cool. This all seems so far away and long ago. It was so much easier before. Now it hurts. Now there are faces to people whose stories were before unknown to me.
Yes, there is a crisis at the border. I don’t know what the solution is, but I know the One who does...