The Del Rio area looked simple from the airplane window. The river cut a path, paralleled by a fence, between two mirrored cities that were surrounded by vast, open brushland. Questions prickled the edges of my awareness as I watched the land come into view: How did our society get to this point? Whose border is this? What can we do? Will we do what we can?
So many migrants congregated along the Rio Grande between Texas and Mexico in 2019 that I felt compelled to go too. The hundreds, and thousands, and then hundreds of thousands of people migrating northward astonished me. I wanted to witness that yearning for change among so many people from so many places, those who escaped terror and trauma as well as those who saw their only hope for a future on the other side of the border.
I wanted to feel swept along in that human vortex from over fifty countries—pushing strollers, walking side by side, riding buses, hiding behind trees, waiting in food lines, moving ahead, seeking a future, everyone breathing at once. I quickly said, “Yes!” when a Christian crisis-response team asked me to join them as a bilingual chaplain in Del Rio, Texas, for a week. I wanted to stand with others in their struggle for a new life. My voice rose with a thousand yeses in many languages, like uncountable monarchs released to the open sky. “Yes,” we cried. “Take me to the border with you.”
I live and work in both Iowa and Guatemala, and I’ve listened to people in both places describe their quest for the border. One year ago, a slight boy named Elver approached me in a rural church. We were volunteering with a mission team on a hilltop overlooking Guatemala, the farthest we could get from a border without trying. There was hardly any work or water. A robin’s-egg-blue, button-down shirt draped lightly and formally over this boy. Eleven years old, Elver had an elegant air, even when giggling and scampering around the churchyard with friends. He had studied me all morning while mothers and children coloured pages on the pews. Finally he sat beside me and confided a raw and tender worry. “Will my father ever make it to the United States?” His dad hadn’t left town yet, but the threat of his absence already affected him profoundly.
Elver had probed the options as thoroughly as an adult, seeing danger overflow with impossibilities. “Will my father come back?” “Why can’t I go with him?” His persistent questions ached both his heart and mine. “How far away is your country?” There was no easy answer, though the distance could be measured. A factual reply would only sting. We coloured the same page for a while, the scrape of the pew shifting on the floor the only sound between us. Guatemalans had welcomed me into their country. I didn’t believe this child’s dad would find the same welcome in my country. Our hearts were united, but our countries were worlds apart.
The community shelter where our team volunteered had opened in the spring, organized by city, business, and church leaders. The Border Patrol had requested assistance with the extraordinary influx of people across the international border, so these community leaders had formed the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition to offer hospitality and hope. The Coalition converted an old municipal building a mile from the river into a resource and respite centre for migrating children and families. Other organizations and people from all over the state and country donated thousands of hours and supplies.
Coalition volunteers and staff intentionally welcomed people for months from countries as diverse and far-flung as Angola and Chile. These men, women, and children had come across the bridge or “through the water,” as they called it. Once Border Patrol determined that individual migrants and families could be released into Texas with provisional documents, officers delivered them to the shelter. Over the summer, the shelter averaged 60 people a day. One day Val Verde served 226 people.
Anticipating new federal laws restricting migrants’ passage, the daily average dropped to two dozen people by the end of August. The Migrant Protection Protocols that took effect in late September effectively closed the border. The change at the Val Verde shelter was dramatic: The well-organized camp had more volunteers and staff than migrants needing respite. Thousands of people were still leaving their home countries daily. But most of these people were nowhere to be seen—with thousands more held in detention, and hundreds being deported monthly.
In early October, the epic human migration through the southern US border had slowed to the point of becoming almost invisible. I felt bewildered and speechless on my first day of deployment, alienated from the reality I knew was somewhere right in front of me. Thousands of people from dozens of countries were out of sight—quieted, quarantined, and controlled. Most people were turned away in accordance with the new protocols. We waited for Border Patrol to call us when someone could be delivered to the shelter.
After months of hosting thousands of the world’s people, those were solemn days of waiting to see what would happen in Del Rio.
On Monday afternoon, Border Patrol brought over a twenty-eight-year-old woman named Selia and her four-year-old daughter Paola. They’d come from El Salvador, eighteen hundred miles south, where Selia’s husband was involved in gang violence and drug trafficking. To preserve her daughter’s future, Selia had resolved two years before to meet the legal requirements for US entry. One day in 2017 she grabbed Paola’s hand and they just started walking. We met on the day they legally crossed the bridge over the Rio Grande and entered the United States in 2019, one step closer to reaching her goal to appeal for asylum.
She spoke like a person in shock, hoarding details as if they were a scarce resource. Paola played with shelter staff in another room decorated with cartoon murals over the institutional cinder-block walls. After a shower, a few meals, a good night’s sleep, and the assurance of safety, Selia began to relax. By the next day, she spoke with more ease.
Selia talked straight through the morning. She worked along the way at various jobs—at a store selling clothes, cooking for a street vendor, styling hair at a salon, cleaning a boarding house where they could stay. She confessed a deep shame that she also worked at a bar with other migrants in order to earn money for food. “They made you drink beer to get you drunk then they could do whatever they wanted,” she admitted. Selia eventually found stable employment as a waitress at a restaurant whose owner treated her well. Once she had saved enough money for the final stage of the trip, she and Paola spent fifteen days moving from Tapachula closer to the northern border, and waited for most of the last ten days in a Mexican shelter for a court hearing at the Del Rio crossing.
On Saturday and Sunday night, they had slept in a public park because the shelter had shut down as part of the effort to reduce access to the border. Communicating with officials at the point-of-entry office on Monday morning, perhaps the most important part of her journey, was surreal. “It was like living in a movie,” Selia explained. “I couldn’t understand anything they said because I don’t speak English.”
Now we sat together on metal folding chairs, an assortment of volunteers from several states who simply listened to her speak in Spanish in a cold room in Texas. We gave Selia our full attention as she shared some details about a journey many of us would never take.
Intermixed with the grief and the shame and the terror, this mother described how people came together along the way and volunteered to meet each other’s needs. Selia brought migrant kids up from the public park to the restaurant where she worked in Tapachula to make sure they would eat every day, telling the owner that these were her own kids—even though it was a lie. When she shared what little she had, she said, God kept giving her more. She was an ordinary person using the resources she had to act on behalf of others.
This exchange at the respite centre shrank the enormity of the migrant caravan down to a human scale, where we could see and hear and touch and be kind to each other. She was no longer an anonymous figure trailing a child on a dirt road in an unidentified picture on a news website.
The border was no longer a fixed place between us but simply a point of discovery beyond which our conversation could expand into a safer, deeper realm. Sharing snacks and juice boxes and hot coffee in the presence of the Lord, we lived together briefly in the sacred space between the now and the not yet.
The next morning also brought Maribel, a twenty-three-year-old woman from Honduras, two thousand miles away. She didn’t speak English either. She was seven months pregnant. Border Patrol officers had apprehended her after she crossed through the water. Volunteers helped Maribel choose clean clothing, shoes, and a backpack with snacks and supplies. Staff worked out transportation to her US contact for later in the afternoon.
When a volunteer outlined her options, I realized how much in Maribel’s life changed in Del Rio. “You know,” he said to her, speaking Spanish calmly, “You have a US contact and money for the bus, but you can go anywhere. You are not required to go to the contact. You are free to go anywhere.” I wondered whether she had ever heard this before. Maribel wasn’t familiar with many city or state names, but she was indeed free to go anywhere and, for her, that probably felt like a whole new world.
Both migrant women I met at the shelter were Christians, acutely aware that God had shown them favour. Both had been on strenuous journeys; Maribel was visibly exhausted and fragile. She described one terrifying week when she ran away from a bus that had crashed in an accident somewhere in Mexico. She kept running, she said, for days. When Maribel traded her socks and shoes for new ones, sand and dirt crumbled off her feet. She took a shower, extra-long by any standard. “That shower probably feels really good to her after being in the river,” Selia commented to us as we all waited to visit with Maribel.
Maribel looked refreshed when she came out of the shower trailer, as if spiritually cleansed. We offered her a plastic bag for saving her balled-up damp clothing and muddy shoes. Instead, she pitched them in the trash with the grand flourish of a magician, as if all the terror and exhaustion of the journey vanished with the black bag. This marvelous release showed me how someone could set aside all they had known up until that moment and take a step beyond their circumstances, leaning into the next life. Motivated by desperation, trauma, and a desire to preserve the future for their loved ones, these women said, “Yes, today is the day. Yes, I will leave now.”
Late Tuesday afternoon, Selia and Paola and Maribel boarded the bus to San Antonio and points east. Maribel would meet family in Houston; Selia and Paola faced a two-day bus ride to find relatives in Maryland. These brave women adjusted to their afflictions as if all they had let go of or lost had no ultimate worth. Only Selia asked for prayers, though not for herself. “Money is nothing,” she said, her face peaceful, speaking from a restored inner sanctuary of true value. Instead, she sought intercession for her migrant friends in Tapachula, Mexico—women and men from other countries who did not fare as well as she had and who still suffered in humiliating work. “A prayer opens the doors of heaven,” Selia assured us.
We had spent less than twenty-four hours together, each of us learning from the other. In a human crisis, the people carry the disaster with them. These women felt comfortable enough to lay down some of that burden and gather up the challenges of a new life ahead.
No other migrants came during that week to the Coalition’s shelter. Our assignment shifted to serving in and around Del Rio. The city was a typical disaster-response site: the storm has passed through and those left behind make sense of what happened and what’s next. We talked and prayed with people at the park, in the grocery store, at restaurants, in Starbucks, at the mall, even while picking up a few items at a fundraising garage sale. Some felt lost; others felt sad about the thousands who are held in detention on both sides of the border. Many people worried about those who are still coming. No one anywhere knows what will happen to everyone.
After finishing our chores on Friday afternoon, I asked my co-chaplain if she could take me to see the fence and the river. We loaded up the van with the rest of the volunteers and toured Del Rio’s west side, starting with the massive International Bridge to Ciudad Acuña, Mexico. The border fence ties into the cyclone fence and concertina wire that surrounds the bridge installation, designed like an interstate control point with toll booths and areas for truck inspection with police and ranger stations. A pedestrian walkway stretches between the two countries. There is no place to go but across—or back.
She made a U-turn and drove downhill along the river’s edge about a mile north, stopping at a clearing in the tall grasses where many people had come through the water. I imagined makeshift crosses with plastic flowers studding the dirt between cacti and sedges, impromptu monuments commemorating the people of many nations who lost their lives, or their history, or their family. Those who had cast their sanity into the current after a loved one lost their grip and drowned, drifting beyond reach. Footprints on the sand gave me chills. I imagined people latching onto a Border Patrol officer’s hand after a rescue, or teenagers scrambling up the ragged incline in the dark.
We saw it in the daytime. Just the thought of spending one night in the open rangeland after months on the run crippled my imagination.
The field of vision at the riverside was vast. Colonnades of trees and brush on dry mesas anchored an immeasurable sky. An ever-changing corridor of water rolled by effortlessly, as gravity pulled everything downstream. We walked along the sandbars in silence, squinting with an arm crooked over our faces to shield ourselves from the brilliant sheen reflected off the wide water. Each of us stopped now and then to size up the distance to the opposite shoreline, where mirages of migrants appeared in the flickering light of day, highlighting the terror of crossing over or of being captured.
The black steel see-through fence, about half a mile further east on dry ground, had an endless quality like the river, but it was neither coming nor going. It was just there, a stark inversion of the iconic white picket fence that marks off the front yards of the American dream.
My brother often shares photos from his neighbourhood in New York City, where the Statue of Liberty stands watch nearby. But I didn’t think the border fence could be imbued with any moral vision or timeless call for hospitality the way Lady Liberty beckoned viewers from all sides of the Upper Bay harbour, a gift from one country that became a symbol for the gifts of all countries. Even a poster of her poetry and her bronzed body, full of creative opportunity, couldn’t be attached to the fence—nothing could without being detected by electronic surveillance.
I took a picture just in case I ever forget what the rest of the world looks like from my country’s side of this border.
Each person has a story of how they got to the border and where they’re going, even if it means deportation. The stories are all different, and yet each one is the same as the last one or the next: no matter age, history, language, or country, they want to live.
The border is a place where the future changes forever. These survivors withstood the frightening interrogations: Who are you? Where are you from? Why are you here? Prove it. Once you cross over, there is no going back. And if you can’t cross over, there’s still no going back. There are thousands of people in US detention facilities, awaiting court hearings. At the border, all we have is now.
More people try but never cross over than those who are able to make it through. I stand with those who don’t make it too.
What are we trying to stop at the border? There will always be people migrating through southwest Texas, news writers say. Migration is a cycle, an economic reality. By the time some migrants head downtown for their appointment with the US court system on their asylum appeal, the conditions they fled in their passport country may have subsided. But are we wise to ignore the movement of the poor, or the people, or the economic cycles, or the wind?
When we let these legendary migrations pass us by, we stay unmoved by the presence of God. I thought I knew where I was going when I travelled twelve hundred miles south from Iowa to Del Rio for my deployment week. Yet the assignment to serve at the border challenged me to believe that divine intervention can bring justice to the Rio Grande: not because of new legislation or a cultural awakening but because, over time and one by one, God changes people’s hearts. God is always inviting us to cross the borders of our own imaginations into a gloriously better day.
Over a century ago, the Del Rio brushland was bisected only by a river, the tallgrass and bison so thick they slowed the wind passing through them. The wind passed through the border of the grasslands like time or a prayer. The wind keeps passing through because no one from anywhere can stop the breath of the living God from passing through our world.