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On the U.S.-Mexico border, pain eclipses politics. Refugees’ tears paint portraits of pure pain.

A pre-pandemic visit to immigrant shelters puts flesh and blood on agony and flickers of hope embodied in immigrants crowded across northern Mexico, seeking U.S. asylum.

  • Delila has a master’s degree and taught literacy in rural Central America. Because education threatens their power, gangs (think organized-crime syndicates) sought to quash her teaching.

When a gang assassinated Delila’s colleague, she and her husband gathered their two children and fled. They awaited asylum hearings with more than 80 refugees in a house in Nuevo Laredo.

“I didn’t want to come to the United States,” Delila said, echoing the vast majority of refugees. “But we knew I would be killed if we did not leave immediately.”

  • Jorge and Jorge Jr., father and son, fled to Piedras Negras, where they received shelter from Primera Iglesia Bautista.

They left their home for two reasons: Crop failure brought on by climate change meant Jorge struggled to support his family. In addition, he hoped Jorge Jr. could get medical treatment for wrists fused awkwardly at right angles to his arms.

Their trek illustrates immigrants’ ever-present danger. Harassed by Mexican cartels, they ran for their lives. When they tried to jump between train cars, Jorge Jr. fell on the tracks. Jorge pulled him to safety with seconds to spare.

Their encounter with cartels (think mafia) is all too common. In a Nuevo Laredo shelter among 50 to 60 immigrants, someone asked, “How many of you have been kidnapped by the gangs?” At least half the adults raised hands.

Their stories echo a pattern: Gangs kidnap refugees and hold them for ransom, calling families, demanding money.

Captives subsist on sips of water and one taco a day while their captors threaten to kill them unless their loved ones pay up.

Police are complicit – if not helping the gangs, then turning a blind eye to the violence, immigrants report.

  • A young Honduran couple stood in a makeshift apartment – a classroom of the church where Jorge and Jorge Jr. lived – their little daughters clinging to their legs.

Like Delila, they never intended to flee to the United States, but they had no choice.

Gangs extorted their family, seeking “protection” payments. The wife/mother’s father committed suicide, thinking the harassment would stop.

She told the gang they could not pay; besides not being able to afford it, they had to pay for a funeral. The gang gave her three options – pay up, leave the country or be killed.

So, this young family can’t go back home, but U.S. immigration protocols probably will block asylum.

Almost every day, they think about swimming the Rio Grande – two little girls in tow – and taking their chances at entering the country illegally.

They know even crossing the river is life threatening, but that’s the level of their desperation.

Fortunately, for these and hundreds of refugees on the border, pain calls out to pastors.

Fellowship Southwest, a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship network in Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, southern California and Texas, operates its Immigrant Relief Network to support borderland pastors who found refugees – almost literally – on their doorsteps.

At first, the immigrants awaited asylum on U.S. soil. Now, because of the U.S. government’s “wait in Mexico” policy, they wade through the asylum process south of the border.

Wherever refugees gather, these pastors reach out to help, and Fellowship Southwest funds their ministries. Fellowship Southwest supports pastors like:

  • Juvenal Gonzalez, a church-starting coordinator in Tijuana, Mexico, who has been organizing congregations to cook for refugees since the first caravan arrived in 2018. Now, because of COVID-19, he also teams with Fellowship Southwest to care for his volunteers – local pastors who cannot afford to feed their families.
  • Lorenzo Ortiz, a pastor from Laredo, Texas, who operates three shelters in northern Mexico, one of the most dangerous areas of the border. When the pandemic led to border-crossing restrictions, he stayed in Mexico to protect immigrants from cartels and to make sure they had food to eat.
  • Rosalío Sosa, a pastor in El Paso, Texas, who operates 14 shelters in the state of Chihuahua. He collaborates closely with Mexican government officials and nonprofit leaders to provide hospitality and safety to thousands of refugees. A natural entrepreneur, he also helps immigrants who want to live in Mexico start small businesses to support their families.
  • Carlos Navarro, a pastor from Brownsville, Texas, who operated a respite center for asylum-seekers as they headed to live with sponsors while awaiting their verdicts. When COVID-19 closed the border, Navarro continued to feed the homeless in Brownsville, including many immigrants who crossed the Rio Grande.

Border pastors are the heroes of the immigration crisis. They believe refugees are “the least of these” Jesus said to protect.

Fellowship Southwest does, too, and we will continue to stand with them.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series for World Refugee Day (June 20). Other articles in the series include:

5 Suggestions to Move Forward in Ending Racial Discrimination | Nell Green

Myanmar Army Seeks to Purge Muslim Minority from its Nation | Molly T. Marshall

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