Border Crossing: The suffering of asylum seekers

December 10th, 2018

Border Crossing is a series of stories and essays from people who are serving in ministry at the US-Mexico line. We hope these reflections help church people discuss boundaries, borders, and border crossings.

In early November, the Rio Texas Conference of the United Methodist church allowed me to be a part of an immersion trip to the border between Mexico and the United States. This was hosted by the UMC churches and pastors in and around McAllen, Texas. This space, or ‘the valley’ as it known there, is a liminal space. The root of the word liminal means ‘threshold’. It is a transitional space; a neither here, nor there, a place between coming and going; or in other words, it is the in-between. The Valley is not only the geographical border, it is also a place where both the best and worst aspects of humanity coexist. Seeing this expanse of humanity’s capacity was both difficult and rewarding, disheartening and inspiring.

I have wrestled with how to articulate the depth of human suffering, acknowledge the indomitableness of the human spirit, and accurately describe the things I witnessed there. I grew up as a missionary kid in the Philippines during the 80s and 90s. I have experienced abject poverty, corrupt governments, revolutions, and natural disasters. Despite these experiences, this trip still shook me. I believe that part of the reason I struggled with this trip, despite my childhood experiences, is that what I was seeing was on American soil. There was no distancing possible, no safety of the feeling of a ‘detached otherness’ afforded by witnessing humanitarian crises throughout the world. But it is exactly the privilege of that detached otherness that has created this problem in the first place. There is no divorcing ourselves from this, and that is why I think what I have witnessed has haunted me so.’s word of the year for 2018 is “misinformation.” I cannot think of a better word to describe the discrepancy between what I thought I knew and what I saw. This disconnect was deeply unsettling, especially because this misinformation was widely circulated despite our freedom of press. said that choosing misinformation as its word of the year was more about selecting a word that trended in our country, they considered it, ‘a call to action’. These words are my response to that call. 

The typical process for asylum seekers was shared with me by a federal public defender in McAllen, Texas, who is tasked with representing these families in criminal court. She is also a member of a local United Methodist congregation. Hers is the counter narrative—not hyperbole, not rhetoric, not propaganda, just facts.  Here is what she told us:

First, 85% of the people she represents are asylum seekers. She also said that the number of criminal cases she represents as a public defender has jumped from 15-20 per week, to up to 200 since the ‘zero tolerance’ law was enforced. They have been labeled criminals, and technically they are, but there is more to the story. This liminal space they reside in truly places asylum seekers between a rock and hard place. It is a “Catch-22” created by us. We limit asylum seeking by restricting it to ports of entry, then severely limit access to and through these ports of entry creating an immense backlog. While waiting, these families are essentially sitting ducks, vulnerable to the Mexican cartels while they wait for access to the port of entry. To avoid that danger, they cross the border somewhere other than a port of entry and voluntarily surrender to Border Patrol agents. They are immediately arrested and charged with a misdemeanor and then placed in the detention while they await their appearance in criminal court. It is here that families are being separated. Families can be detained in separately in detention centers scattered throughout the Valley but also in privately run prisons as far away as Seattle and the Bronx.  

This is our call to action. The world is watching how we treat “the least of these.” What I saw at the border was nothing short of a humanitarian crisis. I don’t have a clue how to sort this out politically, but what I do know is that we as a church have an opportunity to practice the purest form of our religion, its essence of “Love God, Love Others,” distilled down into caring for widow and orphans. We are creating these broken families out of the fallacy of scarcity, out of disdain for anything different, foreign, or “other.” Families are being torn apart out of fear and protectionism, families who, regardless of why, are here and are hungry and desperate. They are just looking for room in the inn, grateful for a place to stay even if it is just in the manger.... They are here on our doorstep. They are on the threshold of desperation and hope, and they are hungry. Lord, help us feed your lambs.

I will be forever changed by the opportunity to bear witness to this tremendous need while also seeing some of the beautiful ways many are already responding to it. I bear witness and use my voice as a counter narrative to the pervasive misinformation that exists around this issue. I am honored to and give voice to those who have none So, today, I lend my voice to the migrant families to say, “Ayudame! Ayudanos! Help me. Help us.” 

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