Letter from El Paso


Port of entry in downtown El Paso

Three weeks ago, I silently filed into the back of a federal courtroom in El Paso, Texas, less than a mile from my home, roughly half a mile from the international border, to witness groups of twenty migrants being sentenced en masse for the federal misdemeanor of illegal entry.  In two hours’ time, I witnessed forty migrants plead guilty.  One defendant was from Mexico, and thirty-nine were from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The average education level was third grade.  Ten of the twenty in the second hour had been separated from their children, according to their public defender.  The migrants struggled to take the oath, raising their hands only inches, as they stood chained, and as people in both sections of the courtroom wept.

Two weeks ago, I marched two miles to a detention center with my youngest son on my back, protesting the idea of family separation for migrants who are really refugees, who have undertaken journeys of more than a thousand miles to save their lives, and if not their lives, then the lives of their children.

One week ago, I crossed over to a neighborhood in Ciudad Juarez to take some supplies to friends of mine in the Tarahumara colonia of that city.  A woman my age, with children my age, asked me if it was true that the Americans were putting children in cages.  I didn’t know what to tell her, as our children were playing peek-a-boo under the ironing board.

It is frustrating to so many in my city, which has been called the Ellis Island of the Southwest, to be once again the focus of worldwide media attention due to a situation beyond our control.  Even our mayor, who happens to be a strong Republican, disavowed national policy and rhetoric at a meeting in Tornillo’s tent city this past week.  We have long suffered from a broader misunderstanding of the border, of this place, of the benefits and the threats we face.  To have a global leader spew falsehoods about our home is just the latest manifestation of a broader fear of a mixture of cultures.  The dehumanizing language used by this administration should be denounced; the use of words such as “infestation” and “invasion” is language that leads to war and genocide.

On May 7, 2018, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions openly declared the administration’s “zero tolerance” stance, leaving communities that are on the frontline to deal with the consequences.  I am heartened by the moral outrage that was fueled worldwide, and it was inspiring to have an overwhelming response from diverse political sides saying that, of course, families belong together.  However, there have been so many ongoing human rights problems that this border experiences, including the mass sentencings, the systematic denial of the right to asylum, and now the potential long-term detention of families.

What is lacking is any fundamental compassion for the migrant.  At a time when the U.S. took in a paltry 30,000 refugees as of last year, it is time to reexamine our commitment to peoples in mortal danger.  Those of us alive in the 1980s should be reminded that President Reagan took in upwards of 200,000 refugees annually, at a time when the U.S. population was much smaller.  And we also seem to forget that El Paso, Texas is a microcosm of what the entire country is – a beautiful country of immigrants and refugees from all over the world.

I am fortunate to be surrounded by compassionate and open people in my city, from my neighbors to my church to my elected officials.  I live in a beautiful historic neighborhood within walking distance of our downtown international bridge.  My children play soccer in the alleys and ride bikes around the block without any fear, Spanish and English mixed in with their laughter.  We want our children to grow up in a bilingual, bi-cultural and bi-national place.  We know that bridges are so much more important than walls.

Many people worldwide have wanted to do something to help. Monetary donations are the most needed means of support at this moment; both helping take care of the immediate needs of migrants and providing bond money so that families can be reunited are at the heart of most organizations’ missions.  Heartbeat’s Refugee Fund has aided refugees all over the world, including in El Paso at Annunciation House.  This is not a short-term crisis, but a slowly growing humanitarian disaster that could be avoided. Thank you for reading this far, and please keep all migrants worldwide in your prayers.  And come to the border to see for yourself what a magical place this is!  I and my neighbors will welcome you.

Vanessa Johnson, former Chair of Heartbeat
El Paso, Texas

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Last year, Heartbeat granted a $5,000 grant to Annunciation House in El Paso to support their work with refugees. Annunciation House not only meets the immediate needs of individuals and families (many being released from detention), but also advocates for a humane response to the plight of migrants and fights against the rampant misinformation that is influencing recent policy decisions in the US. Heartbeat is committed to continuing to support the work of Annunciation House and other similar organizations working to support migrants and refugees. You can contribute to this work by giving to Heartbeat’s Refugee Fund by clicking here.