At the border

I once visited a man in prison who I was told was among the worst of the worst of offenders. His list of crimes included drug smuggling and distribution, assault and murder. I was told that he was part of the “Mexican Mafia,” which was dealing drugs and bringing violence to our area. It is not my position to be a law enforcement officer. I am not a judge. I was there only because a man requested the opportunity to have a chaplain pray with him. He may or may not have been telling me the truth. I’ve been lied to many times. But he said that he loved his wife and children. He said that he wanted to make amends and change his ways. He said that he was sorry for his crimes. That is pretty much what most prisoners say to me. Talking to me has no effect on their status within the facility nor the status of their legal proceedings. I only bring up this story because part of the story he told me was of his coming to this country from his native Mexico. He didn’t sneak across the border. He didn’t swim across a river. He didn’t trek across a desert. He drove across the border in a late-model car and passed through a regular border crossing without incident. At least that is what he told me.

I want to emphasize that one experience with one person in jail doesn’t make me any kind of an expert. I’ve had enough experiences with those who are incarcerated, and with those who are not in trouble with the law, to know that not every story that you hear is the truth.

Most people in jail will tell me that they are innocent. I once had a man swear to me that he was innocent of the crime that had landed him in jail. We were stirring at a small metal table with him ini his prison uniform and a guard peeking in through the window. The only thing on the table was my bible, from which I had just read. So he didn’t exactly swear on the bible, but he came pretty close. I am not a judge, but a jury of his peers under the supervision of a judge did convict him. I know that the court system does make mistakes, but another possibility is that he wasn’t telling me the whole truth.

I remember a man who told me, in no uncertain terms, that he would do anything to save his marriage. He didn’t. Perhaps it was because he couldn’t. Addictions are powerful and his was severe. I believed at the time that he was serious about making changes and amends. Things didn’t work out the way we had imagined when we were together.

I’ve heard some pretty incredible stories from people who come by the church in need of money. There was a woman who I helped with groceries and an occasional tank of gas who spoke of her love for her children and the trials of being a single mother. She seemed genuine and sincere. But I could tell the street price of a hit of methamphetamine by her requests for cash. She always had a story about why she needed cash instead of groceries, even though she knew from experience that I don’t hand out cash.

I don’t make any attempt to figure out the guilt or innocence of those who come to talk to me. I occasionally remind them that it is God who is the ultimate judge and it is God who brings justice. I have occasionally interrupted a story to remind the person telling it that they don’t have to convince me of anything. I try to provide food for hungry people. I try to do what I can to help. I sometimes believe that giving people what they ask for is not helpful. I am not a banker. I don’t loan money. I am not aware of any place where you can get free gas. It is something that has to be paid for if you are to obtain it.

I write this only to say that I am no expert. Still I can’t believe that a group of families with children trying to get out of Honduras to escape poverty and impossible living conditions are all drug smugglers and rapists and murders. Some of them are the victims of brutal gangs and terrible crimes. They have a dream of coming to the United States to make a better life for themselves. They have been told that if they present themselves at the border and ask for status as refugees they might be allowed to enter the United States. It seems like a desperate dream. We have read plenty of articles about people being turned away at the border. We know that the tightening of immigration policy has led to separation of families and detention camps for children. But these people are taking incredible risks in part because they are desperate. They want to find a better life than the poverty and victimization that they have known.

It is not my place to judge who should and who should not be allowed to cross the border. I just want to observe that it seems that some people who are innocent and desperate are being turned back while some violent criminals are crossing the border without problems. The system is imperfect and proposed solutions such as building a wall and closing the border crossings don’t seem to hold out much hope of providing for safety and security for those who suffer.

I’m sure I have much more to learn. I am no expert. But I look at the pictures of children sleeping on the ground in the refugee camps and I read the stories of desperate parents trying to build a better future for their children and I am convinced that the refugees are not our enemies.

I didn’t just carry a bible with me when I visit in the jail. I also read it. It is pretty clear in its instructions on how we are to treat immigrants and strangers in our land. It would be a good read for the policy makers and politicians as well.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!