Sid Earnheart, executive director for Justice for our Neighbors North Central Texas (DFW), reports from the U.S. – Mexico border in Brownsville, Texas.
Why did you go to Brownsville?
Initially, I was asked to go to the Rio Grande Valley to help my colleague at Texas Impact, Sarah Cruz, gather more information about restarting a program called Courts & Ports. Also, I wanted to better understand how JFON – North Central Texas, and the JFON Network might be able to help asylum seekers that were coming to the South Texas border. When I am trying to learn more about an issue or topic, I have learned how invaluable it is to meet with people and organizations that are involved with an issue on a daily basis rather than just rely on what is available in the media. Part of that education process includes physical presence and observation.
As I understand from our allies that work and live in the Rio Grande Valley, the situation related to the needs of the asylum seekers themselves, and the organizations serving them, remains very fluid. However, one constant need is access to high-quality legal services for free or low-cost. There are also needs for volunteers and donations for clothing, food, toiletries, money, toys, etc. if you are looking to directly get involved
Please tell us about Courts & Ports. Why is it important?
Courts & Ports is a program created by Texas Impact in 2018, and the architect of the program was Pastor Ezequiel Herrera, among others. It is a two-day immersion program where people have the opportunity to observe first-hand the operation of the U.S. immigration system and current policies related to border security and the treatment of people seeking entry to the U.S. It aims to demystify the stories we hear about immigration, asylum, detention, and deportation on the border.
One of the positive parts of this program is its ability to adapt to the fluid needs of the asylum seekers and our allies who are providing resources and support to the asylum seekers on a daily basis.
In our daily lives, most of us are physically far away from what’s happening at the border. However, the injustices happening to these immigrants speak to our humanity and our hearts. Together we are bearing witness to the proceedings in court, to the treatment of people as they attempt to cross the international bridge, and to the services community members provide to those who are fleeing danger in their home countries.
Just as we are changed by the events we see and experience, others can be changed by the stories we tell about what we’ve seen. After participating in the program, the participants often speak about their experiences with their congregations, other community groups, and public officials.
What can you tell us of the work Good Neighbors Settlement House is doing in Brownsville?
Good Neighbor Settlement House is a United Methodist ministry that has a close relationship with the City of Brownsville. Specifically related to the asylum seekers, they partner with other organizations, and together they provide meals, clothing, toiletries, toys, etc., to asylum seekers as they are processed by the government and dropped off at the bus station in Brownsville. This is critical as most people being dropped off do not have food and basic necessities, and face hours or days-long bus rides to get to their family member or sponsor. Others might be going to a colder climate and do not own a jacket.
Additionally, Good Neighbor specifically offers a respite program, where they offer help to those seeking asylum after being released by Custom Border Patrol (CPB) and Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) by providing basic needs like a hot meal, showers, a bed, and other helpful resources.
Beyond programs and assistance that are specific to asylum seekers, Good Neighbor provides three meals per day, five days per week, to anyone in the Brownsville community at no cost. They also offer a variety of other programs and services in the Brownsville area.
What was the process for allowing asylum seekers to enter at Brownsville and what did you think of it?
There are many ways I could answer this question, and I don’t think I have enough room to fully discuss all of the processes and possibilities that could occur. Generally speaking, as I understand from our allies that work and live in the Rio Grande Valley, the situation related to how the federal government is processing asylum seekers remains fluid. So, my personal observations on the process may become outdated [from March 2021] in some respects.
When I saw asylum seekers who had been processed and were being dropped off at the bus station in Brownsville, they only had whatever items they brought with them. They were not being provided with any food, water, clothing, pocket money, etc. That is where Good Neighbor, Team Brownsville, and other organizations, stepped in to help.
Additionally, the asylum seekers were being tested for Covid-19 with a rapid test. If they tested negative, they were allowed to continue with the process of boarding a bus to their next destination.
Contrasting that to the bus station in McAllen, there did not appear to be volunteers waiting at the bus station and handing out necessities. However, there is a respite center directly across the street from the bus station in McAllen which provides shelter and necessities.
For an example of how fluid the situation was/is in another part of the process, while I was there, we saw people cleaning up the remnants of the “camp” in Matamoros from the Remain in Mexico Policy. Meanwhile, the “camp” in Reynosa was formed because of the current administration’s misuse of Title 42 and the turning away of people seeking protection from the same life-threatening dangers. I’ve also been told the government is flying certain migrants from the South Texas area to El Paso as part of the process.
What is Title 42 and why is it a problem?
Title 42 refers to Section 265 of U.S. Code Title 42 which is a provision of U.S. health law. On March 20, 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued an emergency regulation to implement a specific part of U.S. health law. It allows the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to prevent individuals from coming into the U.S. when the director believes there is a serious danger of the introduction of disease.
The Covid-19 pandemic paved the way for the prior administration to use this provision in the law. Although the current administration has promised to restore the processes for asylum seekers at the southern U.S. border and has made an exception for unaccompanied children, Title 42 remains in place.
The implementation of Title 42 is a problem because it is being used to circumvent both U.S. and international law protecting refugees. Migrants are being expelled at the southern U.S. border without being afforded the opportunity to seek protection in the U.S. The U.S. government needs to restore protections to asylum seekers while taking steps to welcome them in a humane and dignified way.
Finally, what is JFON’s role in helping these asylum seekers?
A very important part of JFON’s role in helping these asylum seekers is to provide them with legal representation and services once they are inside the U.S. However, JFON’s role also includes being advocates outside of the courtroom/legal process.
Part of that role includes educating congregations, religious groups, secular groups, and the public-at-large about the stories of these asylum seekers and the reasons they are coming to the U.S. to seek asylum.
Additionally, JFON’s role is to help humanize these asylum seekers from what is covered in the media and politicized by both sides, and to help welcome them with dignity and respect to the U.S. Also, we help plant extension ministries like English as a 2nd Language (ESL) courses, etc.
As disheartened as I am about our government’s continued actions, I would like to leave you with a message of hope: God continues to find a way to work in and through people and organizations in the Rio Grande Valley, and their allies, like JFON, to try and serve the migrants and help bring about justice on their behalf.