I recently spent two days in Laredo with a group eager to learn more about what is happening on our southern border. We talked to Bishop Tamayo of Laredo, whose mission is to welcome every new arrival to our land, to give them clothes, food, shelter, and to help them on their way. We met with agents of the Border Patrol, whose current mandate is to detain anyone coming into the country without the required documentation.
Both of them see dialogue and storytelling as the most important tool for moving forward and improving our immigration policies. The people in the thick of this problem, no matter what their own opinions and professional responsibilities may be, unanimously see dialogue and friendship as the key to getting us out.
They are the experts. I believe them. We all should.
Bishop Tamayo’s request to our group was, “tell our stories.” In Federal court, we saw first-hand what happens when stories cannot be told. We observed a group court proceeding for migrants charged with the Federal misdemeanor of entering the United States, not at an official port of entry, without proper papers. Some of the defendants could barely see the judge, in a courtroom designed for trying one or two people that was crammed with 70 defendants. Each defendant met with a lawyer for at most a few minutes before court convened.
In this proceeding, each defendant is simply a river crossing without papers. Some pleaded guilty to crossing on foot, some on a boat or inner tube or raft, some swimming. The different modes of crossing were the only sign of the individual human stories that must be told for true justice, composed of both fairness and mercy, to take place.
We can’t see people’s stories on their faces. We can’t see abuse, or threats from gangs, or family separation. Unless people tell their stories and we listen when they talk, we can’t know what drives someone to cross the river. Who couldn’t afford a boat and swam instead? Who used an inner tube because they can’t swim? Who came to join family in the United States? Who is afraid for their lives? Is the man in the second row, slumped nearly double and barely able to see where he’s going as he leaves the courtroom, sad, or afraid, or angry?
I’ll never know; I’ll always wonder. In this courtroom, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that someone crossed the river without papers.
We were not able to hear the stories of these people traveling across the border region of the Rio Grande. From our conversations with residents, we did learn something of the story of the border area itself. It is a broad region without firm boundaries, not a sharp line.
The people who live in the border region are simultaneously of both the United States and Mexico and also of neither one. The Rio Grande in Laredo is about as wide as Town Lake, the section of the Colorado River that runs through the center of Austin. It has the same lack of functional importance in distinguishing one community from another. Yet the Rio Grande has been assigned an enormous administrative and legal significance that it has never had in the lives of the people who live along it. It is not surprising that this policy is not working out very well.
At our final meeting, we participated in a wide-ranging and substantive dialogue that included Catholic Sisters of Mercy, DACA youth who run an immigrant advocacy organization, members of several religious congregations in Laredo, and the Border Patrol. The Border Patrol leader, like many others we met, told us, “it gives us hope that you take the time to come here and have this dialogue.” He also said, “there are people that wear this uniform.”
There are people wearing the uniforms. There are people crossing the river. There are people in communities all along the Rio Grande that have many undocumented residents, where a stream of migrants flows from the river through town and there is widespread poverty. There is also fishing and family and hard work and bike riding. We are all people. We all have stories to tell, and to hear.
Deborah Beck is an associate professor of classics at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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