Restoring Human Dignity on the U.S. Southern Border

In one of the most violent cities in the Western hemisphere, we meet with immigrants in a shelter trying to make their way to safety in the United States. Reynosa, Mexico is just across the border from McAllen, Texas, and currently garners a Level 4 Travel Warning from the U.S. State Department: Do Not Travel. The same as Afghanistan and Iraq.

The drug cartels control Reynosa. The part we are in, the outskirts, the impoverished and desperate part, is not safe for anyone, especially immigrants trying to cross the border. To the drug cartels, immigrants are commodities. Money in human form. We witness scores of people who were trafficked, kidnapped and extorted, the children used as drug mules and the women and men gang raped.

No immigrant gets into Reynosa without likelihood of kidnapping. The Mexican military often works in tandem with the cartels, diverting the immigrants directly into the hands of kidnappers who strip them of all possessions, then torture and hold them for ransom. Families with no money are forced to pool resources to save a loved one.

While we speak with the shelter director, she gets a phone call. A family of five, kidnapped and tortured for 2 1/2 months, was just released after relatives scraped together a ransom. They will arrive shortly.

The director and her staff are overwhelmed, but work relentlessly, providing food, shelter, and dignity to people who experience none of these. She tells us almost every woman arriving was raped and as a result are often pregnant or test positive for HIV. Yet in the shelter, immigrants appear safe. High walls and heavy locks add protection.

As we are leaving, the family of five arrives. Like most of the immigrants we see in the shelters, they are too traumatized to speak. They disembark with a few small backpacks and make their way inside. They move slowly, bearing vacant stares. The children are quiet. Everyone appears numb.

At Casa del Migrante, another shelter in Reynosa, a teenage boy approaches me, perhaps 14-years old, holding a cell phone and pointing to the screen. He says something in broken English. Perhaps he wants to use Google translate, I think. To tell me something. The interpreter later says he was pleading for me to take him across the border. I’m an American, and he thinks I can save his life.

Senda de Vida has two shelters serving up to 3,000 immigrants. Pastor Hector Silva and his wife Marylou built a haven on what was once a garbage dump. They cleared the land, put up tents, built tiny sheds to provide shelter for families. Ecuadorians, Venezuelans, Salvadorans, Haitians, Guatemalans, and Mexicans all cook and rest together in temporary safety. A place of dignity spanning cultures, languages, and brutal tales of escape.

Four hundred years of colonialism— the first 250 by European powers and the last 150 by the United States— left countries throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean broken, bereft of any form of democratic government. Oligarchs and corruption thrived with the support of the U.S. An astounding transfer of national wealth from indigenous lands to U.S. banks and corporations occurred.

When these corrupt puppet governments weakened and fractured, the drug cartels moved in. The result: Millions of people fleeing their homelands because of gang violence and economic despair. Traveling to the U.S. is their only hope.

In 1994, U.S. Border Patrol adopted a new policy called “Prevention Through Deterrence.” They increased enforcement where it seemed easier for immigrants to cross, forcing them into deadly stretches of desert where they were likely to die, and where the desert is an effective tool in disposing of their bodies. U.S. Immigration weaponized the desert. It is estimated over 10,000 immigrants died in the desert as a result.

If an immigrant is fortunate enough to make it to the border, they must then run the gauntlet of the United States immigration system, a process so cumbersome and broken that the immigrants are handed from federal agencies to state agencies to municipal agencies to NGOs to nonprofits and charities.

And yet the United States needs immigrants to offset the declining birth rate in this country. Their contribution to the labor force, as well as their payroll contributions to Social Security and Medicare, are essential to sustaining the country’s economy. In short, an expansive and orderly process of legal immigration makes sense for economic and humanitarian reasons.

But politics stymies any real debate on a solution. Demagoguery is easier, and it gets votes. It also fuels fear and xenophobia.

On May 7, 2023, near a shelter in Brownsville, Texas, a group of newly arrived Venezuelan immigrants waited at the bus stop. It was 8 o’clock on Sunday morning. An SUV passed with the driver allegedly yelling anti-immigrant slurs. He was traveling at a high rate of speed, apparently lost control, and plowed into the group.

Bodies were split apart, skulls crushed, limbs torn off. Eight people were killed, and ten others injured. The driver, George Alvarez, intoxicated at the time with drugs and alcohol, was initially only charged with reckless driving, but police later added eight counts of manslaughter. He is still awaiting trial.

Even American nonprofits seeking to help find themselves a target of political and legal persecution. On February 7, the Texas State Attorney General, Ken Paxton, sued Annunciation House in El Paso, a Catholic nonprofit providing food and shelter to immigrants. Paxton alleges they’re human traffickers, an allegation not uncommon in border towns.

The El Paso Catholic Bishop, Mark Seitz, responded to the lawsuit:

“For generations, El Paso worked to build a resilient and welcoming borderland community. Today, however, we find ourselves in an impossible position, hemmed in on all sides. On one hand, we are challenged by serious federal neglect to provide a safe, orderly, and humane response to migration at our southern border. On the other hand, we are now witnessing an escalating campaign of intimidation, fear and dehumanization in the state of Texas, one characterized by barbed-wire, harsh new laws penalizing the act of seeking safety at our border, and the targeting of those who would offer aid as a response to faith.”

And yet despite the legal and political threats, local citizens respond to the need.

In Alamo, Texas, we listen as Arise Adelante holds classes empowering immigrants to speak for themselves, to advocate for justice in their communities. These neighborhood communities, colonias, are located on the rural outskirts of town. Residents seek dignity and camaraderie as they try to navigate the hostile U.S. legal, economic, and political systems.

In the colonias, the land is mostly dry scrub not serviced by public sewer or stormwater systems. And so, when it rains, the streets and homes flood. The meager septic tanks spew raw sewage into the streets. Developers bought the land here cheaply and then charged exorbitant prices for small parcels to immigrants, who sometimes sign deeds lacking clear title preventing them from taking full possession. Missing a month’s payment can result in quick repossession.

A giant lake abuts one colonia we visit in Donna, Texas. What could be a water and food source instead has official “No Fishing” signs posted around it. We see other signs that cut to the quick: “Danger – Cancer.” The lake is filled with PCBs, carcinogenic chemicals. Birth defects and cancer rates are notoriously high here. Members of Arise attend municipal hearings with colonia residents and lawyers, challenging the city to remedy the problems.

Team Brownsville began with just a few people rushing bottled water and food to immigrants forced to sit for days in 110-degree heat on the concrete border bridge. The group now educates and orients those newly arrived about the U.S. immigration process at their Brownsville center. We travel to a storage center where they have seventeen units filled with clothing, sleeping bags, tents, pillows, and 250,000 pairs of socks donated by the clothing company Bombas.

In McAllen, Texas, Sister Norma runs Respite Humanitarian Center, a Catholic Charities organization responding to the needs of families in crisis by providing food, safety, and comfort. They’ve hosted up to 1,000 people at a time in the center. Facilitating shipments of supply trucks, handling government officials, knowing the right people, Sister Norma gets things done. When asked to sum up what they do at Respite, she replies, “We restore human dignity.”

And in Weslaco, Texas, human rights lawyer Jennifer Harbury and the advocacy group The Angry Tias confront injustices perpetrated against immigrants by the American and Mexican governments. They harnessed their outrage to expose the Trump immigration policy of separating children from parents by releasing an audio tape of children screaming while torn from their parents inside a U.S. Customs and Border Facility. The tape made international news, revealing to the world the horrid conditions of children put in cages by U.S. Border Patrol agents.

“It’s an outrage,” Jennifer said. “All of it. The indignities, the politics, the cruelty to human beings. We were so mad we originally wanted to call ourselves The F**king Angry Tias.”

A country founded on democracy and respect for the individual now finds itself criminalizing the giving of food, water, and shelter to desperate families. “Human Trafficking” is the official response. And so, citizens work tirelessly on both sides of the border trying to meet the need, restoring human dignity when violence and poor policy have stripped it away.

Brad Wolf, a lawyer and former prosecutor, is director of Peace Action Network of Lancaster, PA and co-coordinates the Merchants of Death War Crimes Tribunal. His new book on the writings of Philip Berrigan is entitled “A Ministry of Risk” and was published April 2 by Fordham University Press.