Looking for the Helper in the Rio Grande Valley

By Symone Saul

In December of 2018, I observed first-hand the humanitarian crisis at the so-called Texas-Mexico border and found volunteers and activists working outside traditional bureaucratic systems to address long-term and immediate needs. In the Rio Grande Valley, it is not government or major NGOs but individuals and small, informal groups who are making huge waves in people’s lives and in protecting our future.

Somi Se’k Village

The indigenous people of Somi Se’k (what we call Texas and Mexico) are known as the Carrizo-Comecrudo tribe, or Esto’k Gna in their language. Juan Mancias, the tribal chairman, is leading efforts to monitor border wall construction, because it will obliterate the natural habitats of endangered species and burial sites on sacred land. The tribe is accomplishing this by developing a series of sustained encampments to physically resist the construction.

The proposed path will travel mainly through private property, including that of the National Butterfly Center and the Ramirez gravesite, near Mission, TX where construction began on February 4th, 2019.

The Carrizo-Comecrudo are welcoming peaceful activists of all backgrounds from around the country to join their encampments. They are putting their bodies on the line to protect our lands from further destruction and colonization. For them, it is not a matter of choice, but a matter of survival. As Juan often says, “Our existence is our resistance.”

Asylum-Seekers in the Rio Grande Valley

Dozens of adults and children, as young as 2 months old, are living under tarps, cot-to-cot, on the Port-of-Entry bridge in Brownsville, TX. As they await their turn to legally request asylum, Team Brownsville brings them dinner and donations every evening. Without Team Brownsville, the migrants would often have no access to food. It is a small operation. People cook meals for Gaby Zavala and her volunteers, who walk the carts of hot, delicious food approximately ten blocks into Mexico to be served to asylum-seekers. She’s built relationships with the neighbors she serves. She is able to bring specific donations for new arrivals and learn about the safety issues they face, including monetary and sexual exploitation by the border agents.

After crossing the border (whether between or at a Port of Entry), our neighbors are detained at ICE facilities and some are released, ankle monitors in tow, to a temporary Catholic Charities shelter before being transported to a local bus station. Angry Tias & Abuelas is a volunteer organization that coordinates asylum-seekers at the Greyhound stations, helping them get safely to their sponsors.

Tornillo Detention Center

Fierce public outcry in 2018 regarding the separation of families led to policy reversals and heightened awareness of children’s detention camps, such as the one in Tornillo, Texas. Its largest population in December was around 2800 children. It was built as a temporary facility and has since been shut down. Many people credit the monitoring efforts of Josh Rubin of Witness: Tornillo and many other unaffiliated campers/activists who came to bear historical witness to a site where lack of transparency and NonDisclosure Agreements were a higher priority than background checks on Direct Care Workers.

As we walked the perimeter of the barbed wire fence, watched closely by security personnel, cameras, and invisible sensors, Mr. Rubin Thomas Wainwright explained that camps like these cost $700-$1000 per day per child. It is another type of privately-contracted, for-profit prison. There are hundreds of these camps across the country costing taxpayers over $3 billion in 2018 alone even though many have compared them to U.S. Internment camps and Nazi concentration camps.

We found a deflated soccer ball in a sewage drain and Josh, who’d been there for months, said he used to kick the balls back over the fence to the children’s delight. The guards’ response was to hang opaque black tarpaulin on the fence to detach them completely from the outside world. There are an estimated 14,000 children being detained in immigrant prisons daily in the U.S., a number that was tripled since 2017. We have already seen how much public outcry can make a difference in these children’s lives.

Self-determination is all one needs to find practical ways to create an indelible impact and all should feel encouraged to do what is needed in situations that may seem insurmountable or distant to us here in Pittsburgh.

For more information and to support the groups mentioned in this article, visit: AngryTiasAndAbuelas

Symone Saul is a newly-elected board member at the Thomas Merton Center.

(TMC newspaper VOL. 49 No. 2 March 2019. All rights reserved.)

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