By Billie Greenwood
For the past several winters, I’ve attended a daily human rights class conducted in Spanish. Considering I first learned the alphabet in Spanish only when I was 50 years old, I didn’t ever expect to be learning human rights en español.
But, surprisingly, my new, broken Spanish became good enough to allow me to volunteer for the last 14 winters assisting migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border.
At the Mexican soup kitchen where I help, providing a hot meal wasn’t the only service. Migrants also learned a daily lesson on their 30 human rights.
Just as important, the migrants taught us daily, simply by being there. They showed us that human rights guaranteed aren’t necessarily rights received. Each could cite human rights they didn’t have.
So, their brave spirits impelled them to leave home and family. They sought to live where they’d find the rights I take for granted.
But, routinely, I saw my nation thwart their praiseworthy quest.
Immigrants as Blessing
I puzzle because it doesn’t make sense. We need immigrants’ labor, their skills. We need their values of family and community and faith. We need their strength of character—their ability to work hard, to risk, to create.
Why are we pushing them away, keeping them out? Who’d expect that?
Is it because we’re afraid of “the other?” Maybe unfamiliar people intimidate us. Different is hard. Change is uncomfortable. Breaking away from the usual is challenging.
We don’t like unexpected.
And, immigrants bring new languages, new customs, new perspectives and experiences. So, rather than taking advantage of their positive contributions, we’d rather not have to change.
Maybe our hospitality’s deficient.
Maybe we miss what’s most important because we don’t go past the surface. Pope Francis explains how to look deeply:
“Only those who see with the heart see things well, because they know how to ‘look into’ each person: to see a brother or sister apart from his or her mistakes, hope amid difficulty.They see God everywhere.”
Look deeper. Find God. Recognize a brother, a sister in migrant asylum-seekers.
There are many rewards.
Working in a different country, navigating in a foreign language was uncomfortable enough that in the beginning I almost quit. I didn’t, fortunately. Now, I’m rewarded there every day. I went–hoping to help. But, I am helped in unexpected ways:
I learn what the world’s really like. According to the World Bank, nearly half of the world’s people live on less than $5.50 a day. Hard for us in the U.S. to imagine! You may not know even one person like that. But, as a border volunteer, I’m with many all the time.
Knowing, liking and respecting people who don’t have basic rights or resources (e.g. the migrants), I learn to see life differently. It helps me question my expenditures: Is this purchase necessary? How am I spending this money on myself when kids on the border have only flipflops and no socks in the winter cold?
Working in a foreign place in a language where I can’t communicate well teaches me humility. I learn to step back. Overcoming ego is a vital spiritual lesson. I become grateful to others who, despite having important roles, adjust to my special needs.
When I volunteer, I’m surrounded by people who inspire me. I’m surrounded by heroism. The migrants are heroically brave, family-oriented and industrious. The aid workers are heroically altruistic and generous. It’s the opposite of impressions from national news reports. There, migrants are fearsome invaders. And most other news-worthy people are dangerous and selfish. From my own experience, I know that’s not true.
Both political parties have agreed for decades that the U.S. immigration system isn’t working. Like many, I’ve pushed for years to repair immigration. So far, our leaders lack the political will to accomplish this. It’s frustrating. But, in the migrant soup kitchen, I actually can alleviate a little suffering. By chopping veggies or scrubbing the coffee pot, I help the team bring nutrition and a warming beverage to people in need. Making a difference gives me satisfaction.
COVID-19 on the Border
The pandemic’s unexpected arrival has worsened many things on the border–for me and for migrants. In fact, after 14 years, this winter I can’t volunteer there. The border is closed to non-essential people. No U.S. volunteers help in the Mexican soup kitchen. But, the disruption for asylum-seekers is horrifyingly worse.
In March, the U.S. abruptly began returning asylum-seekers who are fleeing danger in fear for their lives—as well as other people in migration–to Mexico. Migrants are not receiving due process! All asylum processing at the U.S.-Mexico border has simply shut down.
During a pandemic, when everyone’s safety and health are at risk, our nationhas turned its back on our international obligations, on any commitment to public health, on common decency.
Especially during a pandemic, we must uphold human rights, international law, and due process. But, instead, we’ve forced the creation of impromptu, makeshift migrant camps in Mexico where thousands now live in legal and humanitarian limbo. They don’t know if they should return to their likely deaths in their places of origin or remain in suspension without support on the border indefinitely.
And, outraged, we anguish that 666 migrant children may never see their parents again, after our national policy deliberately separated them at the border.
We Rely on “The Other”
COVID shows us how far we’ve fallen from a fair immigration policy. Our nation can prosper only if we keep everyone safe and healthy. America needs effective immigration policy for economic and social progress.
Immigrants bring skills, labor, entrepreneurship, and ideas. Money they contribute to our economy adds to our tax base, raising our standard of living. They fill jobs that Americans can’t or won’t do. Their customs and culture enrich the diversity that makes our country dynamic and exciting. Our national policy must match this reality.
Look deeper. Find your brother, your sister in “the other”. God is in everyone. Is that really unexpected?
Cousin Billie Greenwood has made a difference. Billie volunteered for the last 14 years assisting migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border through Kino Border Initiative. She has witnessed the many challenges and injustices migrants face. Billie is an Associate in the Catholic religious order, The Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (P.B.V.M.).
Presentation Doorways, Winter 2020, Page 4