It’s a hot day in Brownsville, Texas. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine sits shotgun in a silver Mercedes SUV, talking to her driver, a Brownsville city official. She turns around, leaning over her left shoulder, and explains what it was like earlier in the day when she spoke with a group of migrant mothers in a nearby U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility.
“That was the place where it was just truly confirmed in our conversations with the women who were being held there that they didn’t know where their children were, they didn’t have a chance to communicate with them, they didn’t understand, before their children were being taken, that their children were being taken away,” she says.
Pingree is part of a Democratic delegation that includes members of Congress from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine and New Hampshire who traveled down to Brownsville, which lies along the Rio Grande and the border of Mexico. They were there to see for themselves the results of President Trump’s back-and-forth on families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
They all say their constituents, distraught over reports of children separated from families at the border, are flooding their offices with phone calls.
While Trump last week reversed his administration’s policy on separating families, there is still a lot of confusion, distress and waiting.
The women Pingree talked to were waiting behind barbed wire, she says.
“That was gut wrenching,” she says. “I mean, that was me and my colleagues in tears with a lot of women in tears, you know, trying to say, ‘We want to do something to help.’ ”
We head out to the nearby border crossing. Pingree wants to see the asylum process with her own eyes after hearing reports of people being turned away, sometimes instructed to come back later.
“We hear stories about people sitting there for days on end with their families, it could be raining, it could be this oppressive heat; they can’t leave,” she says. “Border Patrol told us that women can be raped, they can be beaten, there can be all kinds of horrible things that can happen if you leave that position so to say to people, ‘Well, you know, just get up and wait.’ It’s not like that.”
At The Border
It costs a dollar — payable only in quarters — to get into Mexico at this point of entry. You drop the change into a turnstile, like the kind you’d pass through to get onto a roller coaster. We cross a pedestrian bridge over the chocolate milk-colored Rio Grande and enter Matamoros, Mexico.
In the other direction, there’s a makeshift U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) checkpoint — just two CBP officers and a podium. Locals say they’ve never seen a preliminary checkpoint like this on the bridge into the U.S.
A few people are waiting here, including a woman with her 19-year-old son, and 15- and 8-year-old daughters. Her 3-year-old granddaughter is peering out through the holes in the chain link fence running along the bridge.
The family is from Honduras. Speaking in Spanish, Rosa, the mother, says she had her own business there where she’d sell clothes, shoes and some food, which was going fine, until the gang MS-13 started trying to extort her.
She and her husband refused. So, Rosa says, the gang killed her husband and tried to kidnap her oldest children. That’s when she took her family and fled to Mexico, where they’ve been living for a year.
But the gang found them in Mexico, she says. And so now, they’re seeking asylum in the U.S. We’re only using Rosa’s first name because she’s afraid that if the gang can find her in Mexico, they may be able to find her in the U.S.
She tells me she has a friend in Boston who’s expecting her. But first she has to make it through the makeshift checkpoint. If she and her family are able to apply for asylum, they’ll likely find themselves waiting again at the border patrol station, possibly in a detention facility and maybe, if things go according to their plan, they might wait for a few hours with Sister Norma Pimentel.
Pimentel heads up a humanitarian respite center run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. It’s in McAllen, Texas, about an hour west along the border. It’s a place where immigrant families hoping to get asylum in the U.S. can go to take a hot shower, eat a meal and get supplies for the next leg of their journey.
“They can look forward to reuniting with their family and continuing that process,” Pimentel says, “[and] hopefully they’re able to secure some sort of political asylum case.”
Pimentel says the center receives around 50 families a day, most of them from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Everyone in the facility looks exhausted. Some are slumping forward, resting their elbows on their knees and holding their heads in their hands. Many of the adults are sitting in blue plastic chairs, sort of staring off into the distance waiting for their bus to bring them closer to their family.
And in the corner, there’s six or seven children, playing with volunteers, laughing and at least for these few moments, carefree.