Dr. Roger Anderson, Assistant Professor of International Languages & Cultures
Central State University
*Views expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of OFLA.
Who are the people at the US-Mexico border, and what languages do they speak? After one week of volunteering at the southern border, I can provide some snapshots to my fellow language instructors.
Brownsville, Texas is separated from Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico only by the Rio Grande River that snakes through both cities.
The Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) with whom I was volunteering provide basic sanitary kits, snack bags, legal documents to complete, and whatever clothes and shoes were in supply. Most importantly, I suspect, they offer a kind face along with a simple orientation.
Every few hours, the city of Brownsville employees, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), or Border Patrol agents would bring a busload of people to our welcome center. They have been processed and registered into the system by Border Patrol. As asylum seekers, according to US law (signed by Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s), they have the right to ask for asylum in the US.
Asylum-seekers fear returning to their home countries for fear of violence or death. Ultimately, a US judge will determine their case, its credibility, and whether their fear aligns with one of the categories of US law that grants one asylum.
Once off the bus, we take scissors to cut their identification bracelets. They are free to contact their friends/ family around the US to make arrangements to meet them. Of the hundreds I saw that week, most had a destination where a relative was living. Very few said they had no idea of where to go once inside this big country.
The people getting off the buses had either been in detention centers, most of them reporting for 2-3 months. Some were caught illegally crossing the Rio Grande, while others applied for asylum from the Mexico side. Similarly, people reported waiting months in a horrendous camp in Matamoros along the river.
The vast majority of the people we served over my five days were from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Haiti.
(I am no lawyer, so I report only what I know, saw, and was told. I did not venture over the border to Matamoros since the State Department warns all Americans against visiting Tamaulipas state and all border states due to violence and kidnappings).
It is no simple thing to start conversations with people who have fled their homes and undergone brutal treatment. As a white non-Hispanic male, I did not want to intimidate anyone in any way or lead them to believe I could help more than I actually could.
Retelling three encounters will suffice. I report these stories, though not my own, so my community of educators can be better informed.
A family of white, well-dressed folks arrived with luggage. Most people do not come through the NGOs doors with luggage. They were Russians: a man, his wife, and two tween blond girls. They had been let across the bridge by Border Patrol. They lived in Moscow, but were escaping because the father was being conscripted into the Russian military to fight Putin’s ongoing war in Ukraine. The man spoke English, but the others did not. They were very grateful for the small things we could provide.
Geoffrey (pseudonym) was from Cameroon, an English speaker. He left Cameroon because it was too violent. Some English-speaking Cameroonians want a separate, independent nation from the French-speaking Cameroonians. According to Geoffrey, the government crackdown on these insurgents is violent and indiscriminate.
He left with his girlfriend, who is from Malawi. To get to Mexico, they had to sell one of their two smartphones. Geoffrey sold his, but she gave him hers. After months of waiting in the camp in Matamoros, having completed the necessary paperwork to register with US Border patrol, they crossed the Rio Grande on an inflatable bed they bought in Mexico. They were caught by the US Border Patrol. What they hadn’t anticipated was that they would be separated, with males going to one facility and females, another.
It seems there is no coordination between the two centers when people are processed and released. Nor is communication available between detention centers. This meant that Geoffrey had no idea where his girlfriend was taken, no way to get a hold of her, nor when she’d be released. He feared he’d never see her again. The NGO worker, who lives in Brownsville, told him that oftentimes Border Patrol will take people caught crossing illegally to detention centers far from one another (Brownsville to Laredo) to separate them by design. (I have no way to verify this information).
Geoffrey asked if he could leave a note at our NGO to give to his girlfriend in case she was taken to our welcome center. I found a pen and pad of paper for him. While standing, he wrote, “Dear Sweetheart,” I saw clearly on the top of the page. He continued for many minutes. His penmanship was flawless. Just flawless. He took so long writing that I found him a chair to sit in. The note included numbers from her phone of her relatives and Geoffrey’s relatives’ number. (Whether their families knew of their relationship or even spoke the same language was unknown to me).
I asked him if he could email her to contact her. He said she only used email on her phone and likely didn’t know the email password if accessing it from elsewhere. He looked broken.
I was speechless. I remain speechless. Will Geoffrey ever see his sweetheart again? When would she be released? Where? Texas is massive, with millions of people. How could he reach her?
“God bless you.” Geoffrey said gratefully for the small things we could provide.
A young woman, smiling, came in asking for new shoes. She had already been through our organization, having received the standard-issued bags we give out. Among all things, shoes were the most precious commodity. As a temporary volunteer, I learned I must defer to the full-time employees of the NGO regarding gifting shoes. Yes, the girl’s shoes were busted, but I knew the policy: shoes were kept mainly for folks who arrived barefoot. The employee said, in Spanish, sorry, we are out of shoes. The girl was still smiling.
Sensing that she was seeking socialization more than anything, she stood, chatting with us. She and her family of five walked from Venezuela to Texas. Walking through Panama was hell, just as so many reported about the horrific Darién Gap, or the stretch through the jungle upon entering Panama from Colombia. There, she had been raped, like six of the ten young girls traveling with her group. Nonetheless, she felt fortunate to be alive since four of the ten were killed. From Panama all the way to Mexico she was chased/followed (“perseguidos”). Heartbreaking, infuriating.
“Yet you’re still smiling!” one employee remarked! “Yes, because it’s a miracle I arrived.” She was 15 years old. She was very grateful for the small things we could give her.
During my time at the border, I witnessed so many people with so much need. It was overwhelming to Haitians fleeing gang violence, a Colombian teacher fleeing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) violence (despite the much-publicized ceasefire), Mexicans from Chiapas, and a random Chinese young man or woman who are people with stories that remain unknown to me.
After leaving our welcome center, most go to the bus station or to money-wiring booths and then the bus station to buy a ticket to join family, friends, or sponsors of their cases. They must call the courts and update them of their location. According to eleven years of government data, 83% of asylum-seekers attend their court date.
I don’t have the answers to the flow of people into the US, nor how to fix the broken societies from which they come. What I do know is that these asylum-seekers, immigrants, refugees, or newcomers, are people with stories and hobbies, like all people, who deserve to be treated with dignity. I hope that US immigration judges are fair in their rulings and never cease to see the humanity of all people that come to the US.
To hear more, I will be presenting on this experience at the OFLA/CSCTFL Conference in Columbus in March.