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I had to go see for myself. After speeches, news reports and op-eds of all kinds about the “crisis” at the U.S. border with Mexico, it was time to go see and listen to some of the people involved in this issue daily.

So a week ago I joined more than 100 clergy representing a variety of denominations in Texas in a two-day workshop in the border town of McAllen, including a trip to nearby Brownsville, a walk over Gateway International Bridge into Matamoros and part of an afternoon spent talking with some of the 150 people waiting for their names and numbers to come up on lists to formally appeal for asylum. They endure in small tents in a very crowded piece of the public square right across the bridge, and with very limited access to bathrooms, clean water, laundry facilities and food. We were told there are often about 500 people in the same area, but this was a very hot afternoon. The conjecture: Many had gone off to find shade.

Our group divided into groups of eight to 10 clergy, each with a Spanish interpreter. We spent time talking with groups of 10 to 20 migrants from Central America. Our group’s interpreter was a Methodist pastor from Sherman. We talked with eight to 10 adults, mostly couples. Their children either held on to them or were cradled by nursing mothers. They came from Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and a few from southern Mexico. We were told not to bring food, give money or take photographs because members of Mexican cartels would be watching and might target those who looked as if they received something from us.

Here’s what I learned from this small group as well as lawyers and other advocates working with immigrants and asylum-seekers at the border.

1. No one looked or acted like a gang member trying to get in. Of course, they would not have talked to us in such instances. We saw families with children and a few older people. Workshop speakers said this is the case by far.

2. Those with whom we spoke said they left their countries because of the violence, extortion and lack of economic opportunity. A common theme for many of these former small-business owners or farmers was that gangs in their country demanded sums of money they simply did not have. The cartels told them if they did not pay, specific members of their family would be targeted, including children. These families had seen enough threats carried out that any loving parents would take the children and flee if they lacked the means to protect themselves. Two sons of one mother in the group we talked with had been killed. It had taken about three months to reach the border. Why did they want to come? Because they had relatives in the United States and because they wanted to be safe.

3. Up till May of this year, asylum-seekers could cross the bridge and formally request asylum. This was a perfectly legal process in a nation that once was the worldwide leader in asylum law. Now, new Trump administration policies including “Migrant Protection Protocols.” Collectively, they say many such migrants cannot apply for asylum unless they have applied first in another country and that, in any case, they must wait in Mexico even if they have applied for U.S. asylum. To enforce this, the United States has stationed agents in the middle of the bridge so no one can come across without some authorizing document or identification. These protocols and policies have prompted many to swim the Rio Grande and try to enter “illegally” because they have become targets of cartels in Mexican border towns. Even swimming the river means you must pay for a piece of land from which to launch. A former border agent said every piece of turf from Matamoros to Nuevo Laredo is controlled by some criminal cartel.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has not voided the laws that have protected migrants and refugees in the past, but they have been steadily adding disincentives for anyone to come. Thus, the controversial separation of children from families. (We did not visit any U.S. detention centers). Thus, more red tape and more barriers hindering formal application or due process, as well as making it harder and harder for lawyers to see their clients in person or be with them in court. Applications must be filled out in English, following exact directions, so refugees almost have to have legal representation to even get a hearing. As one former border control agent said, “Applying for asylum is completely legal. Now, we seem to be trying to criminalize people who do so. Plus, overstaying one’s visa is a civil infraction, not a criminal one.”

In short, Trump administration protocols do not protect potential immigrants or asylum-seekers. It makes their lives more dangerous because they are powerless against Mexican cartels. They certainly cannot go home and face the gangs and conditions that led them to flee in the first place. They now face similar thugs in Mexico. Thus, “protocol” becomes just another name for putting more impediments in front of desperate people. In one respect the word is accurate, because its true purpose seems to be to protect the United States from immigrants or asylum-seekers, especially from Central America. We once accepted about 90,000 refugees each year from around the world. This year it will be around 30,000, with that figure projected to drop to 10,000.

If this is our country’s message to the world, then we are in full denial of our history and the laws and policies that made the United States a beacon of freedom and opportunity. We are in full denial of the fact that immigrants and refugees have brought new energy, hope and vision to our country. We are in full denial of the fact that they come because they know their extended families in other parts of our country will help them fit in. If we want to really help, we would up the number of immigration judges and courts so asylum-seekers could be seen promptly.

The people I met just wanted their kids to grow up someplace safe. Even the U.S. detention centers amid their overcrowded conditions are safer than where they are now. But cross the border and listen for yourself. If we were in their shoes, you and I might not only swell the ranks seeking asylum but wonder about everything we’d ever heard about the land of the brave and the free.

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Rev. Bill Gaventa, formerly of Woodway, is director of the Collaborative on Faith and Disability and a consultant, trainer and author. He lives in Austin.

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