This morning brought the team to a local ranch where we were able to participate in a search and recovery exercise with Border Patrol and the Sherriff’s Office. I was very excited to participate, as part of my last trip to South Texas with the Beyond Borders team this past May focused on search and recoveries. I’m not sure if I was more excited because it reminds me of my first trip, or maybe it’s because I have had not had the time to reflect on the effects of this season, but something about participating in searches really resonates with me. I feel a closeness in walking the same paths that migrants are taking and observing materials they left behind. Water bottles, sweaters, and jackets – all necessary for the journey, and all items that we carry around ourselves. It’s a reminder that these are living and breathing people, with wants and needs just like our own. I was happy to be able to share the experience with Sammi, Sidney, and Arden, not only for the physical act of performing a search, but in all the other parts that encompass it: the sandy soil that requires a little more effort to walk in, the various spiders and wildlife we come into contact with, the mesquite and cacti that have to be dodged, the feeling of being completely alone and not knowing where you are because everything looks exactly the same. I have presented on our previous trip a few times over the most recent semester, but hearing about searches and actually doing them are completely different things. The team was even fortunate enough to be covered in ticks by the time the search was over – a truly authentic part of the search and recovery experience! Though we only participated in the search and recovery exercise in the morning, I feel like the whole team was able to take something away from it. A quote from Sister Pam that I stated in my final reflection post from last season still applies here, “You become different people when you put your feet in other people’s shoes…it changes you”.
Today was very different than the last four days we have experienced. We were able to take a day and rest our bodies, so we could be fully recharged to continue searching for the unidentified at Sacred Heart Cemetery tomorrow. However, the true purpose of this day was to take some time to immerse ourselves in the other side of the humanitarian crisis occurring at the US-Mexico border. The side that we are used to includes the sadness of previously voiceless decedents who died in search of a better life, but our experiences today extended beyond that. We found that the side in which you interact with the people living with the consequences of US immigration policy are equally heartbreaking in so many ways. Last night, the UIndy team purchased a few bags full of useful food items and supplies that we wanted to donate to the Humanitarian Respite Center operated by the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. Today we were fortunate to be able to bring our donations to the center and receive a brief tour of their facility.
I have never woken up wondering if I would be pulled away from my family and held in a detention center. I have never feared that my family would be deported, that I would lose the progress of my education, that I would never see my home again, or my family, or my friends at school. Today I saw some of the sweetest and happiest children in the middle of some of the most difficult moments of their lives. I saw exhausted parents who had been desperately holding their family together after days in an ICE detention center, hoping to be granted asylum in this country. There were women and children who just wanted a meal and some guidance before heading on their way. They were helpful and grateful for the assistance, not greedy. They were lost in an unfamiliar place. They were non-English speakers. They were in need of bus tickets back to their family members. I tried not to think about it too much in fear that I would start crying. It was deeply heartwarming to see that so many people in the community volunteer their time and resources to help keep this operation running to serve vast numbers of people on a daily basis.
After leaving the Respite Center, we headed over to the border wall. This was my second time seeing it and it still gave me chills. The Rio Grande River marks the official border between countries, but there are tall walls with barbed wire or massive, rusty metal fences on the US side of the land by the river.
Within 90 seconds of walking over to the wall, a Border Patrol truck rolled up on us to interrogate our purpose in the area. He left us alone after hearing that we were white folks from Indiana just interested in seeing the wall, but I know he kept watch from afar. There was a broken ladder, probably from the journey of one traveler as he/she shimmied up and over this 20-foot fence.
We imagined the fear and adrenaline coursing through someone’s blood as they committed to this risky journey knowing they too, may only have 90 seconds before Border Patrol discovered them. Yet, all we could do was gaze at the other side of the fence, never knowing what it would feel like to make a run for our lives that could determine our future or the well being of our families in a faraway home.
The end of our day was marked by the most wonderful dining experience. Peggy and Bill Clark invited the entire team of volunteers to their house for dinner at their beautiful ranch home. We were able to gain some insight into the other side of the Falfurrias community; the thoughts, experiences, and daily lives of those outside our immediate circle of human rights volunteers. We arrived early to help set up and were incredibly thankful to develop relationships with the two of them. Peggy’s grandfather founded the town of Falfurrias, so she shared some incredible stories and family photos with us. Overall, they were just honest, kind, fascinating people who welcomed us into their homes with open arms and wanted to get to know us. I hope to be able to see them again in the future and value the conversations I was able to share with them.
There is a quote from Sister Norma Pimentel, the director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. She says, “Helping another human being is never wrong. It is never a wrong thing to do.” That really resonates with me, and I hope that people of all backgrounds can see the good in humanitarian work being done. I know we all learned a lot today, and I look forward to everything else to come.
13, 66, 79, 160, 23. These are so much more than random numbers. We have worked tirelessly over the past week and today was no different. Our last full day in Falfurrias began bright and early for two reasons. First, we wanted to try and beat the triple digit Texas heat, but we were also so anxious to get started as we knew this would be our last chance to get as much done as we possibly could. The team was incredibly efficient with our line searches this morning and covered approximately 5 miles of the ranch with the assistance of Don, Eddie, and a third volunteer.
After a quick lunch break we serviced 34 water stations by splitting the route between two groups. Haley and myself traveled with Eddie and were lucky enough to come across a rancher who was so kind and supportive of the work conducted by the South Texas Human Rights Center (STHRC), and it really speaks to the character of the people of Falfurrias.
For the evening we headed to McAllen to meet up with Sister Pam who has assisted previous field seasons but whom I had never met (all the wonderful things I had heard about her are absolutely true). We visited the border wall before going to Palenque Grill for dinner and live mariachi music. It was the perfect way to end our evening.
Our time in Texas has come to an end and I am so proud of all we were able to accomplish here. Our mission was to provide humanitarian aid to those who desperately need it, including both the living and the dead. Without the support of the ranch owners, the expertise of Deputy Don, the endless work Eddie performs on a daily basis, and encouragement from people like Sister Pam, our team would not have been successful. We are so humbled and extremely grateful to have such hardworking and generous people to work along side. There is so much work that still needs to be done. It can be overwhelming when we’re standing on an acre of land among thousands that still need to be searched, but with every inch of land covered, and with every water station built and filled we are making progress. 13, 66, 79, 160, 23: five numbers that mean so much. We installed 13 new water stations. We serviced 66 additional stations resulting in a total of 79 water stations that were filled with 160 gallons of water. We covered approximately 23 miles of rough terrain under the Texas sun by foot. For us these numbers represent lives saved by available drinking water, these are areas of land that have been narrowed down for future searches, recoveries and identifications that can bring families closure on missing loved ones. These numbers are proof that every small action can have a big impact. Thank you Texas, you have forever changed me and I hope to continue this humanitarian work in the future. Until next time!