MCALLEN, RGV – Community leader and former Catholic priest Michael Seifert gave a homily to around 100 faith leaders from across Texas who visited the Rio Grande Valley recently.

The two-day trip was organized by the Texas Interfaith Center for Public Policy and sponsored by U.S. Christian Leadership Organization, North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church, North Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, San Antonio Regional Justice for Our Neighbors, and American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

Texas Impact Executive Director Bee Moorhead said the purpose of the visit was to equip clergy to influence public policy on immigration. 

Michael Seifert

“The characterization ‘humanitarian crisis’ masks the reality that It’s actually a crisis of congressional leadership. Congress makes the laws and spending priorities for our nation,” Moorhead said. 

“Of course, faith communities are heartbroken when they see pictures of dead parents and hear recordings of wailing infants. Our job is to help them advocate from their heads as well as their hearts. As long as faith communities focus on humanitarian response at the expenses of policy advocacy, Congress gets a free pass and the Administration co-opts charity to enable its cruelty.’

Texas Interfaith Center for Public Policy will be taking faith leaders to Washington, D.C., this week to advocate for a change in immigration policy. 

A highlight of the trip was walking across the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville to meet with asylum seekers.

Seifert’s homily came towards the end of the trip. He told the faith leaders that when he did his theology studies he was “always struck by this notion of the transcendental love of God being made categorically present in Jesus of Nazareth. That is a nice way to think about that. This big, big thing becoming very, very specific. Then I came to the border and found that specificity almost every single day of my life.”

Seifert has lived in the Valley for almost 30 years. Speaking of the region, Seifert said: “It is an incredible place to be, it is a lovely place to be. It is also a challenging place.”

In his homily, Seifert played a body-cam video showing a Department of Public Safety officer stopping a car because a brake light was not working. A young couple were in the car with their baby. “She is a classic girl from Brownsville, polite, respects authority,” Seifert said. When the DPS officer learned the young man did not have the required paperwork to be in the country legally he contacted Border Patrol. Seifert said the young woman threw up when the scale of what had happened kicked in. 

“Deportation is like a nuclear bomb. It is an extraordinarily awful experience that has all kinds of collateral damage,” Seifert said. 

Seifert said the militarization of the border region “has gotten much worse” in recent years. “We pay into the coffers of the Department of Public Safety – $2.4 billion over the last three legislative sessions so they could come down to the border.”

Asylum seekers

Seifert said the deportation of undocumented immigrants has been going on for a long time, a lot longer than the recent high profile separation of parents from children. He said the new Trump administration policy of sending asylum seekers to Mexico while their applications are being processed was not good because border towns like Matamoros are not safe. He pointed out that a priest had been killed there recently. 

“Every single one of those people you saw at the bridge today is walking around with a dollar sign on their head. They are coming to this country because they have family here, most of them. Someone out there loves them. Maybe that someone is a maid who cannot make more than two hundred bucks a week but by golly she will find the $3,000 to pay that ransom. They are extraordinarily vulnerable,” Seifert said.

If the faith leaders had visited the Valley a few weeks earlier, Seifert said, they could have visited 800 asylum seekers at the McAllen Respite Center. Now, however, there is just a trickle of people passing through because of the Trump policy to keep asylum seekers in Mexico. “You would have learned of their hopes and dreams,” Seifert said. 

Seifert said an incredible response to the immigration crisis “blew up in a beautiful way” during the months of May and June, 2018. “The creativity just came out all over the place,” he said, referring to the launch of the Angry Tias and Abuelas group. Its members have shown “extraordinary generosity and creativity” by responding to the needs of immigrants left stranded next to the Valley’s international bridges, Seifert explained. “It is the categorical love of God coming home,” he said.

Seifert said that under international and national law, asylum seekers have a right to have their application reviewed if they set foot on U.S. soil. However, he said, the Trump administration has prevented this from happening by putting up road blocks in the middle of international bridges. 

“So they cross the river,” Seifert said. The coyotes who help migrants cross the Rio Grande have a simple message, according to Seifert. “Once you cross the river, keep walking until you get to this thing called the Border Wall. Sit down there and wait and the Border Patrol will come along and you surrender to them. So, Trump’s Border Wall does not slow immigration. It is a lighthouse. It is home plate.”

All asylum seekers “want to be in the system,” Seifert argued. “They will tell you, I am tired of hiding and running. We have come here because we trust you. I am here because it is a way for my family to be safe once again.”

Seifert said he is bothered by the way immigrants are portrayed in the media. 

“The way we see them, (it is) a crush of people, we are being invaded, it is problematic. They are so depressed. If we focus on that and lose the piece of hope that is there or the joy that they also experience, believe it or not, they really do become de-humanized. There is a piece that is taken away from them. It is a horrible situation, it is a terrible situation,” Seifert said.

“People ask for condoms, because rape is there and it is on demand. It is a horrible situation. And yet when you sit and talk with them there is also this other thing. They still have this hope. You talked to them today. They said, are you coming back? Can you change things? And they are still there, waiting.”

Seifert said the response of Valley residents to the influx of migrants has been welcoming and generous.

“You see the response of this community, one of the poorest communities in the United States. For more than a year, every day someone shows up at that bridge and they bring them their tacos and peanut and jelly sandwiches and they listen to them and they talk to them. It is an extraordinary example of the hope that is there with us,” he said. 

Wrapping up the homily, Seifert urged the visiting clergy to meet with their local elected officials.

“What then must we do? There were very specific, concrete actions, even back in the time of John the Baptist. It is not about sharing your coat. For us now, in this circumstance, in this very specific moment, you go to your elected and you say enough of that,” Seifert said. 

He noted that President Trump backed down when a recording emerged of a separated child crying.

“You cannot listen to that and not be moved. It really is a moment of a call to action, it is our moment,” Seifert said.

“In a specific way for people of the book, this to me is an undeniable call to action. I would find it shameful if we can’t find the courage and the creativity to do something about it in this moment. 

“Here is the hopeful thing, the elected officials in Texas are nervous. I love nervous officials. There is one thing they do very well, they count. If the United Methodist Church of Dallas shows up I can guarantee you, you are going to get a lot more attention than if you come from the Valley.”

Seifert concluded his homily by acknowledging the Valley trip had been tough for the visiting leaders of faith. He said the Valley was a liminal, in between, place.

“They (the asylum seekers) looked at you with hope, that is hard. I really do believe we can flip this and turn this, because this is America,” Seifert said.

“We are in an in between place. Liminal, that is the border. It is just so ripe with life. This is a really interesting one because the odds are not in the favor of those people you saw on the other side of the bridge. They really are the weak and the vulnerable. And they need a helping hand. They have the courage to ask it.”

Editor’s Note: Rio Grande Guardian reporter Patricia Martinez and Rio Grande Guardian presenter Mario Muñoz contributed to this feature.