PAUL BUTLER, HOST: It’s Thursday the 24th of November, 2022.
Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Paul Butler.
MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. First up on The World and Everything in It: protecting the vulnerable.
Last week you heard about the toll the illegal immigration crisis is taking on ranchers and law enforcement around Eagle Pass, Texas. The nearly half million people crossing the border there this year have dwarfed the city’s population of 30,000.
BUTLER: Today WORLD correspondent Bonnie Pritchett brings us her final story about the human toll of illegal immigration—this time on the migrants and those who care for them.
BONNIE PRITCHETT, REPORTER: A metal warehouse turned waystation reverberates with voices—mostly speaking Spanish. It’s a late Friday afternoon and Mission Border Hope staff and volunteers are helping new arrivals. The immigrants are contacting family, buying bus or plane tickets, wiring money. At one end of the 8000-square-foot room, a Texas National Guardsman hands out sandwiches to immigrants patiently waiting for the bus that will take them to New York City.
WHEELER: There is no bus station here and Eagle Pass is just a stop. It's twice a day…
That’s Valeria Wheeler, director of Mission Border Hope in Eagle Pass. She’s small in stature and eight months pregnant, yet deftly maneuvers through the crowd. Each day, Immigration and Customs Enforcement transports about 800 people to the mission from a Border Patrol processing facility. The mission assists migrants on their journey north.
VALERIA WHEELER: And so when they arrive, they come here they sit in here and we have intake processors that receive them…
Within about 8 hours, most are on their way to other cities throughout the nation.
Last fiscal year, U.S. immigration authorities arrested about 475,000 people crossing the border illegally into the Del Rio Sector, where Eagle Pass is. U.S. authorities turned some away under a pandemic policy known as Title 42. But many of them got a chance to apply for asylum and were released into the United States with orders to appear before an immigration court. Since April, Mission Border Hope has processed 70,000 of those asylum-seekers from around the world.
The ministry used to help the 30,000 residents of Eagle Pass.
WHEELER: Well, we are a 501c3, our what we used to do is to support the community, vulnerable population like children, elderly people and families in poverty…
Then, in 2018, Border Patrol agents realized that scammers were victimizing newly released immigrants with promises of assistance. They asked the ministry for their help.
WHEELER: They need a lot of help in every way, you know, spiritual, psychological, economic, they've been through a lot of things…We don’t provide economic support. We don't provide travel for them. We help them to communicate to their families, to help them make things easier for them, so they can continue their journey…
Transportation company representatives stationed at the mission book travel beyond Eagle Pass.
WHEELER: They are in here because as they have passed through a lot of fraud, a lot of price gouging, a lot of different unfair things. So, they charge them in here in front of us, and if they need to get money back or something they have to. And we guarantee that they are getting the service...
Some bus rides are free courtesy of the State of Texas. And there’s a waiting list.
One of those buses is going to New York. Venezuelans Ronald Aguilera and Carlos Araujo will be on it.
Wheeler interpreted our conversation.
WHEELER AND AGUILERA: (IN SPANISH)
Economic conditions forced Aguilera and his wife to leave Venezuela for Colombia. His government job paid $8 a month – enough to buy two pounds of rice and two pounds of flour.
AGUILERA: He wants a better future for his family.
Araujo also came to the U.S. via Colombia. He was in the Venezuelan military but left fearing President Nicolas Maduro’s persecution of his political rivals, including Araujo’s family.
WHEELER: He wants to work and he wants to make money so he can support his family because he they are farmers…His mom always tried to do her best to give them food. And he has 11 siblings…
Araujo’s story reminded Aguilera of his mother.
WHEELER: Something he wanted to share is that his mom passed away four days after he left. And he wasn't able to go to her service or anything. So that's something that was very hard for him…
Aguilera looks older than his 41 years. He’s also 40 pounds thinner than when he began his two-month journey. He lost 12 of those pounds as he, Araujo and their fellow travelers passed through the Darien Gap. It’s a treacherous route through the mountainous rainforest between Columbia and Panama.
That 8-day trek haunts them.
Ajauro describes what they saw.
WHEELER: It's corpses on the left and corpses on the right…Because they just get too exhausted. The jungle it's river. It's animals. It's the mountains are so steep. The mud goes up to here...
Guides offered aid—for a price. Those who couldn’t pay got left behind.
Migrants survived the jungle only to find themselves at the mercy of armed bandits in Mexico and Guatemala. That grieves Wheeler.
WHEELER: I feel very bad because a general comment is that the worst of their trip was in Mexico. And I’m Mexican! So, I feel horrible to hear that…
The daily logistics of getting each person beyond Eagle Pass consumes the ministry’s 14 employees and 10 volunteers. They convey the gospel message through a weekly worship service and pastoral counseling for those who ask. And, more fundamentally, by treating each immigrant with the dignity worthy of an image-bearer of God.
Wheeler understands Mission Border Hope is doing God’s work for this time. She’s humbled to witness his provision for the task.
But she also longs to restore what’s been lost in the wake of the bigger crisis.
WHEELER: So, we want to help the community again. Because we are in pause. We are doing this, but Eagle Pass also the residents need a lot of help, too.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Bonnie Pritchett in Eagle Pass, Texas.
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