BROWNSVILLE, Texas (Border Report) — From a bus stop in downtown Brownsville to a refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico, a group of retirees tugged and pulled squeaky wagons filled with donated holiday stockings and toys to deliver to migrant children, whom the volunteers fear Americans have all but forgotten.
The retirees are part of the volunteer group Team Brownsville that has for over a year been crossing daily to Matamoros to feed and clothe the migrants and to administer love and care.
This particular subset call themselves “The Riverbenders” — because they live in the nearby Riverbend senior community. On Monday afternoon, they were literally stopping traffic as they meandered through the downtown streets of Brownsville, helping one another to catch the goods as their cartons and boxes kept toppling out of their stuffed carts.
“These wagons have seen many a day. We’ve made many a trip in them,” group leader Kathy Harrington told Border Report as she led the group to the base of the Gateway International Bridge where they walked over to the awaiting families to celebrate Dia De Los Reyes, or Three Kings Day.
This Christian holiday, also called the Epiphany, is a big deal in Mexico and Central America and marks the day when the Bible says the Three Wise Men following the star to Bethlehem, arrived bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the Baby Jesus.
Some of the volunteers said this year’s Epiphany celebration had even more significance because this week also is National Migration Week, a time when the Catholic church highlights the plight of the migrants.
The group of 20 volunteers delivered a total of 600 stockings, which took them two weeks to prepare. The stockings were filled with toys, toothbrushes, hats, mittens and candy to help sweeten the day for the children, Harrington said.
“They need help. They have no way of getting food. We take them tents and mats because they have no shelter at all. They need us. They need somebody,” Harrington said as she steered a cart alongside her sister, Barbara Roettger.
They need help. They have no way of getting food. We take them tents and mats because they have no shelter at all. They need us. They need somebody.”Team Brownsville volunteer Kathy Harrington
The siblings, who grew up in Minnesota, are frequent and familiar faces at the refugee camp. Harrington said they feel blessed to have so much in this country, and they want to give back and help to cheer the migrant families who have so little.
“We’ve all been in this together to try to make life sustainable over there, not comfortable but doing as much as we can,” Harrington said.
“It’s just about being a human being and because we’re blessed. We need to be a blessing to other people. That’s what we’re called to do. I get more out of it than I give: the hugs, the love, the smiles. I just don’t try to feed their tummies. I feed their spirits,” said volunteer Gerry Page, as she used a cane to hold her steady with one hand and steered a heavy wagon with the other.
An estimated 2,500 people, including 600 migrant children, live at the fetid refugee camp, squatting on federal land owned by the government of Mexico at the base of the Gateway International Bridge, which is where asylum cases are heard in a makeshift judicial court tent on the U.S. side.
The migrants live for months in donated tents, wearing donated clothing and existing on food brought by volunteers from nonprofit organizations like Team Brownsville, Angry Tias and Abuelas and Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, as well as several area churches.
The majority of them are called MPPs, because they must remain in Mexico while they await their asylum process under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols program. Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf said in a November visit to South Texas that 60,000 asylum-seekers have been enrolled in MPP since it was first started a year ago. The program was first begun in California and shortly thereafter started in El Paso. It was implemented in South Texas in July, and last week began in Arizona. (Read a story on the most recent start of MPP in Arizona).
The week that MPP began in South Texas, Harrington and Roettger said their group went from feeding 200 people one night to feeding 600 people a couple days later. That week they ran out of food and were forced to cut the meals into quarters to feed all of the refugees. Now, the pair say, they are accustomed to cooking for 2,500 and often have leftovers because they don’t want anyone to go hungry.
Harrington and Page say they have since even learned a few words and phrases in Spanish, such as how to tell refugees to keep their plates for seconds. They laughed at each others’ accents on Monday afternoon as they waited with others inside the La Plaza at the Brownsville Terminal bus station before trekking in a line through the city streets to the bridge.
As they waited for other volunteers to arrive, many in the group reflected on why they cross into a city in Mexico that the U.S. State Department has warned Americans not to travel to, to go help these migrants.
“These are the folks who are being very patient and enduring hardship to follow the legal process to become American citizens and I value that effort on their part to follow the rules and so I try to support the families,” said Randy Simmons, of Shenandoah, Va., who comes to South Texas a couple times a month to help. The retired pastor and former elementary school educator said it saddens him to see the children suffer in the camp.
“The little faces looking up at you when you lend a helping hand. Those big old eyeballs and the smiles. That’s a pretty neat thing,” said volunteer John Borja from Pueblo, Colo., a retiree who worked for the federal prison system who now comes monthly to Brownsville from out of state to help.
Retiree Mark Fliegel is fluent in Spanish and serves as one of the group’s translators. He says many migrants come up to him and tell him harrowing stories about their travels to get this far north, and their frustrations of being turned away to wait in another country where they can see America, but cannot cross into it.
“A lot of them are getting exasperated and desperate because they’ve been there many, many months. And they are just getting the runaround. They go for a court date and they’re sent right back. They have another court date months and months in the future. They have no idea. They hear that they have only a 1 percent chance of being granted asylum. So they’re getting very discouraged,” Fliegel said as he pulled a wagon with his wife, Jan, and 4-year-old granddaughter, Gwendolyn.
A Reuters analysis of U.S. immigration court data from the Executive Office for Immigration Review found that only about 1% of asylum-seekers in the MPP program had their cases transferred off the MPP court docket, allowing them to wait in the United States while their asylum claims are adjudicated.
When asked how long they will continue to drag their squeaky wagons filled with food and goods across the bridge from Brownsville, Harrington answered: “Until the last one crosses over to the United States. Hopefully soon.”