Within days, my perspective on immigration was changed with a visit from a river to a harbor.
About this time last year, I flew to New York City with my mom and my four-year-old to babysit my nephew for a week. I had just returned from a trip to the Texas-Mexico border the day before. The juxtaposition of those two trips made a big impact on me.
Since my sister lived in New York, I tried to visit regularly. The year before, we brought our whole family for a visit. But doing New York as a family of five, even with a free place to stay, meant that we were doing it on a budget. So, along with lots of hot dog stands and pizza slices, our Statue of Liberty “experience” was a free ride across the New York Harbor on the Staten Island Ferry. The ferry does not drive very closely to the statue. But we took selfies with Lady Liberty in the distance and appreciated her from the deck of the ferry to Staten Island and back. Or so I thought. We all had a good laugh, when, upon disembarking, three-year-old Sloane said, “Wait! I never saw the Statue of Wibbety!”
So for her next visit to New York, this was Sloane’s one request: visit the statue, on the island, up close and personal. It was everything she hoped it would be. Enormous, majestic, and turquoise. She was enraptured with it, and very proud to check it off her tourism bucket list. She even chose to be the statue for Halloween that year.
While my mom chased Sloane and her cousin around Liberty Island, I was having a much more emotional experience, reflecting on my previous few days at the border of Texas and Mexico. I followed amazingly brave ministry partners around the refugee and immigration camps in Matamoros, across the river from Brownsville. I walked the streets of Nuevo Laredo, careful not to make eye contact and feeling both guilty and very grateful that I was obviously American, for the cartels weren’t targeting Americans. I lingered on the porch of a non-air-conditioned old church-turned-shelter for refugees in downtown Piedras Negras, while a diapered Guatemalan baby practiced taking her first steps.
When I walked back across the bridge into the United States, I felt a surge of despair. The Rio Grande is not a symbol of welcome like New York Harbor. Most of the people I met that week would never get to live the American dream.
The asylum process has always been, and I believe should be, rigorous and thorough. It’s only one piece of immigration, but it is the piece most at play on the border in recent years.
Only a small percentage are able to prove a “well-founded fear” in their credible fear interviews, traditionally the first step in the asylum process. Without proof of credible fear, asylum seekers are sent home. (Today the asylum process is essentially nonexistent due to COVID-19; asylum seekers are immediately returned to Mexico or their country of origin.)
Before the coronavirus was on our radar, immigration policy had become far more restrictive than in recent decades, especially with the 2018 implementation of the “Migrant Protection Protocol,” commonly referred to as “remain in Mexico.” Formerly, asylum seekers were able to wait for hearings in the United States with a sponsoring family member or friend. But now they wait in Mexico for several months, which is why refugee camps like the one in Matamoros have popped up. And the shelters in Nuevo Laredo that are literally surrounded by cartels, waiting to prey on unsuspecting refugees.
I met a mother who told me about the “nice” coyotes she found to guide her and her daughter here from Honduras. She told me she wasn’t very afraid, except for the one night she thought they would die when they had to hitch a ride in a refrigerated truck. She showed me the bruises on her arms from holding her daughter tightly enough to shield her from freezing.
I talked with a mother and her six-year-old son. He was supposed to start first grade that fall, but the schools where they lived were unsafe, unlit, and without teachers. She told me, “All I want is for him to learn to read.”
Another woman told me about the harrowing moments in her journey with her teenage son. When they finally joined the line of people at the border to declare asylum, her son cried. It was his 16th birthday that very day, and all he wanted for his birthday was a new life in America.
I carried their faces and their stories with me to New York. I imagined their journeys across Central America and Mexico. What if, instead of a river lined with barbed wire, and a high pressure interview during which they have to convince a stranger that their fears are real, they were welcomed by the Statue of Liberty and greeted with Emma Lazarus’ poem: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”?
Dave Eggers’ children’s book about the Statue of Liberty, Her Right Foot, points out the statue is portrayed as being on the move. Her feet are in the walking position, and her right heel is lifted up in mid-step. The statue faces the ocean. It’s as if she’s rushing out to meet the newcomers in the sea. She can’t wait to greet the new Americans.
The contrast between the river and the harbor are unreconcilable. I picture all the people being lured to America’s safe harbor, only to be confronted with an unfordable, unforgiving river which dares to drown their dreams if not their very selves.
I don’t assume to have the answer to our country’s immigration system. But I know this: the more we can humanize people who have different experiences than we do, the more we can empathize. And the more empathy we hold, the more motivated we will be to find solutions that recognize the humanity in each of us.
My sister and her family have just relocated (to San Antonio!), so my excuse for regular trips to New York is gone. Or is it?
My little sister isn’t luring me to the harbor anymore, but maybe another kindred spirit still is: a copper lady who stands firm atop tumultuous waters, who fixes her gaze on the possibilities that lie ahead, who steps out with determination toward an unknown but promised future. I will be back soon, because it’s her spirit that I want to embody in my work, my parenting, my politics—in every part of life.