Response: May 2017 Issue

More Than a Line

At the U.S.-Mexico border, mission remains a challenge amid shifting policies and changing times.

More Than a Line
Patricia Esquivel kisses her daughter, Yarely Arellano, at the U.S. border in Juarez, Mexico before the teen crosses into El Paso, Texas.

The sunrise is just a distant hint when Yarely Arellano leaves her home in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Juarez, Mexico, a scrappy border town marked by rows of maquilas—the assembly plants for everything from underwear to automobile wiring harnesses—and a string of unsolved murders of young women. Her mother, Patricia Esquivel, walks with her to a nearby corner where they wait to catch a bus together to the U.S. border.

“There are seldom problems, but sometimes as I’m going to school the drunks are just getting out of the cantinas, so my mother always goes with me,” Arellano said.

Yet Esquivel can accompany her daughter only so far. Once they’re within sight of the signs reading “Welcome to the United States,” they stop and share a kiss. Arellano proceeds across a pedestrian bridge to the United States, her U.S. passport in hand. She quickly passes through the immigration check and sets off walking eight more blocks to her school. Esquivel watches her go, then looks for a bus to head back home.

Twenty years ago, Esquivel lived in the United States, where her daughter was born. But she was there without papers, and one day she was caught and deported. So now she proudly watches from afar as her daughter gets an education. In the evening, when her daughter comes back across the border, Esquivel will usually be back at the bridge to accompany her home.

A place of encounter

The line that during the day separates Esquivel and her daughter looks different depending on where it’s seen from.

“From afar, the border is a geographic line on the map that separates two different worlds,” said the Rev. Laura Merrill, assistant to the bishop of the Rio Texas Annual Conference. “Yet for much of our nation’s history, and prior to us even becoming a nation, it was a nonexistent or porous line. Even in the early 20th century people came and went without bother. You had family on both sides, and the economy embraced both sides. It was a place of encounter between different peoples, a place where cultures change each other by the encounter that they have.”

Merrill, who served until recently as a district superintendent along the border, says that even among United Methodists, the border has been viewed in distinct ways. If you were a pastor in the largely Anglo Southwest Texas Conference, it was the place you got sent as punishment. But in the Spanish-speaking Rio Grande Conference, which overlapped the Anglo conference, “the border was like the Holy Land, the center of the conference’s life,” she said. The two conferences merged in 2014, and Merrill says the denomination now suffers from a kind of “split identity” about how it views the border. Many who haven’t been there tend to view it as a region torn by cartel violence and human trafficking and keep their distance out of fear, while others see the border as the future.

“Today there’s a robust, vibrant and growing economy along the border. Money is going there, and universities are opening new campuses there. It’s a much more dynamic place than a simple international line that divides two countries,” she said.

Five hundred miles to the southeast along the same border, the director of a United Methodist Women-sponsored community center agrees.

“When many think about the border, they visualize a checkpoint, a static place, something like the Berlin wall, but in reality the border is a very fluid place,” said Michael Smith, who runs the Holding Institute in Laredo, Texas. “If you live on the border you almost always have family on both sides of the border. You live and breathe on both sides of the border. In Spanish we don’t even see the Rio Grande as a river. In our slang we call it el charco, the puddle, a small thing over which we have been coming back and forth for years. We don’t see it as a barrier. We respect the laws and the physical boundary, but that boundary isn’t something that can’t be overcome every day.”

The border, Smith says, is a metaphor that has defined U.S. culture for more than two centuries.

“If you come to the border from somewhere else, you are welcomed. You find open arms and open doors. In Mexican and Hispanic culture, people share what they have. You can go to the poorest household and they will give what they have, they will serve you first. I have been in houses where people are obviously very poor, but they ask you to sit down and they serve you first, because that’s hospitality at its strongest,” he said. “But the border is a place of encounter, so we also have a U.S. culture that is maybe a bit more straight-laced and rules-oriented. When that blends with a culture that is very open and accepting, you get a true melting pot. That means that in Laredo you are neither here nor there. You are not fully accepted in Mexico, and you’re definitely not fully accepted in the United States, or even in Texas. If you live on the border, you are neither here nor there.”

“What’s good and what’s bad”

A child of the border, Yarely Arellano says she found genuine acceptance in the Lydia Patterson Institute.

“You’re treated as family here. Besides giving you an education, the teachers help you learn how to grow as a person, learn what’s good and what’s bad and the consequences of your decisions,” said Arellano, who attends school on a complete scholarship that she repays in part by spending two hours cleaning classrooms at the end of every school day. She also works on the school newspaper and is a member of the student council and other groups. With the lengthy commute, that can make for a long day. At times she doesn’t leave the school until 8 p.m. She’d like to do her homework on the bus, but it’s usually too crowded and the potholed streets make for a rather bumpy ride.

Arellano is a senior and wants to study nursing next year at the University of Texas in El Paso, continuing her daily commute from the far side of Juarez.

She’s one of more than 400 students at the school, whose roots date back to the early 1900s, when Mexican families began moving into El Paso. Public schools refused to open their doors to Spanish-speaking children, so a local woman named Lydia Patterson, working through the Women’s Missionary Society of El Paso’s Trinity Methodist Church, rode a horse and buggy into the city every day to hold classes in families’ homes, teaching children English and the Bible. When she died in 1909, her husband Millard built a two-story, red brick school just a few blocks from the Rio Grande. Named in her honor, the school pioneered teaching English as a second language in the 1920s. Today, the high school has a graduation rate of 95 percent, and 98 percent of its graduates go on to university.

There are other schools available to children in Juarez, but at a much higher cost.

“We couldn’t afford any of the good schools in Juarez. If you don’t have the money to go to school, then you go work in the maquilas,” Esquivel said. “Lydia Patterson offered us another alternative.”

Like Esquivel’s daughter, 70 percent of the school’s students cross the border every day. Joaquin Rueda did that for four years before graduating in 1991. Today he works for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, monitoring the entire border with Mexico for travelers who might introduce infectious diseases. He praises the school for teaching him English as well as for instilling a strong work ethic he acquired washing dishes in the school cafeteria every day.

“I learned you show up early or on time, and you stay longer if there’s work to be done,” he said. “The language training and the work ethic I learned there got me to where I am today. I wasn’t the brightest student in high school. I was number 25 of 28. But then I blossomed in college and graduated with honors. Lydia Patterson gave me the foundation for that.”

Carmen Perez also did the daily commute across the border to get an education, graduating from Lydia Patterson in 1976. She went on to university and law school. Today a lawyer in El Paso, she says the school helped her follow her dreams.

“When I was 8 years old I loved to watch Perry Mason, and I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. But I was very timid, afraid to speak around others. At Lydia Patterson I had a speech teacher who got me to open up about what I wanted to do in the future, and she helped me understand what I needed to study. That’s where my dreams really started rolling,” said Perez, who was the first in her family to go to college. “The teachers would sit with you and listen, and then they’d tell you that you could accomplish what you wanted. That’s what makes Lydia Patterson such a special place.”

Currently a member of the school’s board of directors, Perez says the school has weathered a series of crises, from the Mexican Revolution to cartel violence to massive devaluations of the peso. Throughout it all, it has continued serving children on both sides of the international border. The 2016 election of President Donald Trump, who promised to build a wall along the border and deport undocumented immigrants, is merely the latest of challenges.

“As a child of the border, it makes me sad to hear about the wall. But I’m confident that Lydia Patterson can continue being the sign of hope it has been for more than 100 years, bringing two cultures together,” she said.

Socorro Brito de Anda, the school’s president, says recent change in border politics provoked consternation among the school’s students.

“They were worried and wondered if they would start facing problems as they cross the bridge every day, so I spoke with them in one of our chapel services. I told them not to worry about that. ‘You worry about your schooling, and let us worry about other things,’ I told them. ‘It has nothing to do with you, and you have nothing to fear.’”

Worry is definitely part of de Anda’s job, whether it’s the effect of immigration policies on students’ families or the constant work of raising funds for scholarships. But after 32 years at the school, she says she’s just as motivated as ever.

“We get the privilege of seeing our students make something of their lives. We watch them develop hopes and dreams, and then they go accomplish those dreams. We watch them break the cycle of poverty, because a student who goes through here and then off to college will come back and help their parents and younger siblings. We’ve seen some of our students go into the ministry, and all of our students become strong spiritual leaders in a hurting world,” she said.

“Our mission is to provide bilingual and bicultural leaders who are needed not just along the border but throughout both countries, and our graduates are making a positive impact on both sides of the border. We are, in fact, a bridge between the two sides. If some want to build higher walls along the border, we will build higher bridges. That’s our mission, to be a bridge between the two countries.”

The rebirth of the Holding Institute

As border politics change over time, mission along the border also changes to meet shifting demands. The Holding Institute is an example. It began in the 1880s as a school for poor children along the banks of the Rio Grande, supported by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. As it grew over the years, it graduated some of the region’s premier leaders, including women like Jovita Idar in 1903. She was an activist on both sides of the border, supporting the Mexican Revolution while writing newspaper articles in Laredo that highlighted problems of income inequality, racial discrimination and a campaign of lynchings. Although the Texas Rangers destroyed the presses of her family’s newspaper in Laredo, in 1911 she was chosen as the first president of the League of Mexican Women.

Over the decades the school persisted in its mission, despite a flood in 1954 that wiped out its buildings. It mirrored the international nature of the border, drawing students not just from Mexico and the United States but from several countries around the world. In 1983, insurmountable financial problems led to its closing, but the facility was reopened in 1987 as a community center under the sponsorship of United Methodist Women. Yet that ministry also eventually ran out of money, and Holding closed its doors in 2011.

And then along came Michael Smith. A local United Methodist, he was fascinated by the potential of the institute’s shuttered compound, just a few blocks from the border. He began to clean up the tattered buildings, dreaming that Holding could once again serve the border community.

He got his wish in 2014, when a wave of asylum seekers from Central America, many of them children, hit Laredo and other border cities. The asylum seekers turned themselves in to immigration officials, who processed them and soon released them, often just dumping them at the bus station or public parks in the city. As church groups and others in the city sought to respond in an organized way, Smith offered Holding.

“We were like an old mothballed battleship being called back into action, all because we are at the right place at the right time. We had space, we had showers. It’s not that we were the best, but we were available, and we answered the call,” he said.

In a moment of rare ecumenical cooperation in Texas, Holding partnered with a range of organizations from a local Catholic shelter to a state association of Baptist men. Soon 70 people or more were sleeping on cots in Holding every night. Volunteers cared for them and helped steer them to relatives elsewhere in the United States. Smith says they quickly learned the potential of social media.

“As we opened our doors to the newcomers, I came to love Facebook. Someone would walk in from El Salvador and say, ‘I have a cousin who lives in North Carolina. Could you find her?’ And we would get on Facebook and usually find them. We’d communicate with them and arrange for onward transportation. We’d get them on the bus, with some food and a blanket from UMCOR to keep them warm during the long bus ride.”

Holding’s humanitarian response wasn’t appreciated by all, however. Smith’s car was vandalized, and he got frequent phone calls from people who complained they were helping “wetbacks.” Such intimidation was motivated by more than racism, however.

“Immigration is a big business in South Texas,” Smith said, where lots of people work for the Border Patrol, private detention facilities and other industries that profit from detaining and deporting immigrants, skewing any public debate about immigration and border politics.

None of this opposition dissuaded Smith. Instead, he says the immigration crisis offered the Holding Institute a new opportunity to engage in mission and reestablish a healthy relationship with the local community.

“We get our share of people who come here in their suits and want to donate something but insist on having their picture taken in the act. But we have much to learn from the people who live in ‘the land of less,’ the hopeless, homeless, jobless and documentless. Those people, the poorest of the poor, come here to help and want nothing in return,” Smith said.

When shipments of relief supplies began arriving in 2014, Holding had a hard time getting volunteers to help unload the trucks late at night. “We put out feelers on Facebook and got little response. But when the trucks arrived, the people of the neighborhood just started showing up. They were the people you might walk away from on the streets. They were covered in tattoos, and many were homeless or addicts. But they were the guys who came to unload the trucks.”

The Cuban crisis on the border

In early 2017, Holding was called to respond to a new crisis. Hundreds of Cubans who had left their homeland in recent months got stuck in political limbo across the border in the city of Nuevo Laredo. They had been headed toward the United States, planning to take advantage of the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy that for two decades had automatically granted parole status to Cuban immigrants once they touched U.S. soil. President Barack Obama did away with the controversial policy on January 12, meaning Cuban refugees are now treated the same as refugees from other nations.

That left hundreds of Cubans in Nuevo Laredo who couldn’t legally enter the United States, but neither were they interested in returning to Cuba. As the Cubans congregated in the Plaza Benito Juarez mulling their options, the churches of Nuevo Laredo opened their doors.

“Most Mexicans responded with caring and love,” said Jaser Davila, a Methodist pastor in Nuevo Laredo. Davila’s church members regularly cooked food for the stranded Cubans, and townspeople helped the Cubans avoid falling victims to human traffickers and thieves who kept vigil at banks and money transfer offices.

“Ten Methodist congregations and many churches from other denominations have provided food and medical care, and we have channeled the donation of things like blankets. Several other churches have offered shelter in their sanctuaries. And we’re developing a system of legal attention with volunteer lawyers so that the Cubans know their rights, including their right to request work permits here,” he said.

That ecumenical network in Mexico is getting help from the Holding Institute, which has served as a destination for trucks full of material supplies sent from Cuban-American communities around the United States. Volunteers unload and sort the supplies at Holding then transport them across the border to churches in Nuevo Laredo. While that border crossing is usually not complicated, when a volunteer tried to transport a pickup full of diapers and food and water to Nuevo Laredo on March 2, a Mexican customs worker charged a much higher fee than normal.

“If Trump is going to be hard on us, we can be just as hard on you,” she said.

Smith says that Mexico may be the refugees’ best option at this point.

“The Mexican Constitution offers far more rights and respect to immigrants than the U.S. Constitution, so if the Cubans would be willing to request work visas to stay in Mexico, that would buy them time to figure out what to do. Otherwise they will continue in a situation where many of their visas have expired, and they worry about being deported. Work permits are cheap and easy to obtain and would give them legal protection—and income—for one year,” Smith said.

Smith said the Cubans’ plight hasn’t provoked sympathy from everyone. “U.S. immigration policies treat most refugees as bad, but there were always ‘good refugees,’ the ‘sainted immigrants’ who had fled from communism. Mexicans would ask why the Cubans got a free pass all these years, because all they had to do was walk across the border, say they were Cuban, and they’d automatically get Social Security and other benefits. Mexicans have been migrating for years and no one ever offered them anything except deportation.”

Some of the Cubans didn’t help their case. Smith says one Mexican woman showed up in the plaza with 500 tacos for the Cubans.

“They were potato tacos, an inexpensive and common meal that you can make stretch a long way. The Cubans rejected them, and the woman was hurt. We had to talk to her and calm her down, and we took the food somewhere else,” Smith said. “But two months have gone by, and people aren’t so picky anymore. You don’t hear the Cubans complaining anymore. They now say thank you.”

Whatever happens to the Cubans, Davila says the faith community in Nuevo Laredo knows it faces serious challenges in the future as deportations increase under the Trump administration. And it won’t be just Mexican deportees. In recent weeks the United States has begun dumping non-Mexican immigrants across the border, including refugees from Central America and beyond. They are known locally as OTMs—“Other Than Mexicans.”

A call to action with Jesus

Just as the Holding Institute’s student body once had people from all over the world, the Providencia shelter in San Benito, Texas, some 150 miles to the southeast from Laredo, reflects the globalized nature of immigration. The Catholic shelter has hosted asylum seekers from 81 countries since it opened in 1989.

Randie Clawson, a member of United Methodist Women from Traverse City, Michigan, volunteers as an ESL teacher at the shelter, sounding out vowels with asylees from Pakistan, Angola, Eritrea and Honduras. All have been admitted to the United States while their asylum petitions make their way through the immigration bureaucracy.

Clawson, 74, says that when no one volunteered for the United Methodist Women social action slot in her conference, she offered herself.

“It changed my life, making me aware of new issues and perspectives. It made me see the overlap between my country’s foreign policy and problems elsewhere in the world, and challenged me to do something about them,” she said. “I had my head in the ground until I was 70, but then the readings and activities of United Methodist Women became for me a call to action with Jesus.”

Cindy Johnson, a United Methodist deaconess in Brownsville, volunteers at Providencia and another shelter in McAllen, driving clients to appointments and accompanying them to the bus station or airport when they travel elsewhere in the United States pending resolution of their asylum claim. It gives her time to listen to people’s stories.

“They have all passed through horrible experiences, both in their home countries as well as during their perilous journey here. Had those things happened to me, my world would have ended. But they are so forgiving, and hopeful, and their faith is so strong,” she said. “People spend a lot of time looking for Jesus in the world, but I’ve discovered that Jesus can be found right here at the border in the refugee and the immigrant. When I am with them I feel like I’m sitting with Christ.”

The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for response. He lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Posted or updated: 5/2/2017 12:00:00 AM