Jesu Te Ama, my child.
As we walked into the cramped courtroom in Harlingen, TX, a sea of young faces turned to look as we entered right before court began. With wide eyes and slumped shoulders, twelve young children sat quietly on stiff wooden benches, patiently waiting their turn. Their bodies spoke of humility: heads down, hands in their laps, and eyes averted. There was a hush of deafening silence over the room. Was it even silence, I wondered, or was it the rise of fear? Could it be the fear that in a few minutes their lives will be forever changed with the loud thud of the stamp of injustice? The sound of sniffles, turning pages, and whispers from the lawyers came and went as they prepared for court.
The clerk looked up over her thick rimmed glasses on the bridge of her nose and asked: “Are you here to observe?”
Our pastor nodded affirmatively, “yes,” he said.
“What group do you represent?”
As the court began to proceed, mixed feelings rose in my chest. I looked at the boy directly in front of me. A slight boy who I thought could be no more than ten leaned against the armrest, head down. I wondered if he would understand what was happening. He reached up to touch his hair and I saw his bracelet. My heart leapt up into my chest.
It hit me with a brick, these three words: Jesus te ama. Jesus loves you.
I wondered how this boy could still believe this, even after all He has been through. He had to leave his family and his home just to live. Yet he and many other refugees I met had a deep and unending faith in God.
As the children each got their minute for justice, my friends and I sat and kept watch over these young ones. Most of them didn’t understand what the words meant, even with a translator. They did not understand the concept of illegal entry, appeal, or voluntary departure, yet they represented themselves. They were responsible for their life, without representation, in another language, and without their parents.
Finally, the boy stood to take his turn. The judges demeanor changed. This boy may have been fourteen but he looked no older than ten years old. You could see some compassion in her eyes. She proceeded to tell the boy that since he was 14, the court sees it fit that he can represent himself and make his own decisions. Then stated, as if to another audience, “he’s 14. How much can he really understand?”
She then began to tell him his rights.
“You may be eligible for voluntary departure but you must be willing to go back to your home country. This would wave your right to an appeal. You could not go ask another judge to grant you refuge. Do you understand?”
The boy sat still. After a few moments he quietly spoke, “not very much.”
“Did you go to school in your home country?”
“Three years.” His shoulders slump more. “But I didn’t understand very much. It was in another language.”
She continues to try and explain: “so you know when you get a bad mark at school? If you stay here without permission, you get a bad mark but if you went home and became a doctor or wanted to go to college in America, you could come back easily.”
Without hesitation, my head began to shake back and forth. “No, no! You can’t do that!” I wanted to scream.
“Do you understand?” She asked yet again.
“Not very much.”
Without a lawyer, without an adult to explain to him what the big words meant, he sat, with resilience like that of a hardened 90 year old. He didn’t understand but he kept forging ahead into this unknown, complicated, foreign universe for one reason: freedom from fear.
We call ourselves the land of the free yet we are not. We take children from a foreign country and put them in prisons. As I set looking at the barrier between the judge and the children, it hit me again. The thick wooden slats that separated us from the judge and the stamp containing the words “department of justice” was just another barrier for them, another wall, keeping them from justice, from freedom.
So they wait... months, years, so they can once again return to court to plead their case and once again sit behind those bars. Somehow they can’t seem to ever get away from these barriers that continually surround them.
As we left I knew we were going home, while they were returning to yet another obstacle, another cage. Yet somehow, even with the many walls they face, that boy still wore his bracelet. He still believed in a God that loved him unconditionally. The question is: do we?
Do we believe in a God that loves? And if we truly want to embody the love of God in the world, why can’t we love this refugee? Why can’t we make him part of our bigger universal, human family? If our God is a God of no borders, a God of unconditional love, a God that loves that little boy, how can we turn our backs on him? How can we say he isn’t worthy of working for a better life?
I believe in that God and I believe in that boy. The question is, will you? What will you do to help these refugees? These children of God? What can I do? What can we do together?
Look up, child. Jesus te ama. And so do we.
Photos by Laura Watson Byrd at the border between Brownsville, TX and Matamoros, Mexico at the Rio Grande River.