Author John Grisham calls for migrant crisis solution

Brownsville Pastor Mark Redwine and Team Brownsville co-founder Sergio Cordova lead a sing-along with asylum seekers at a tent camp in Matamoros on Sept. 4. STEVE CLARK/THE BROWNSVILLE HERALD

Volunteers with Team Brownsville cross into Matamoros seven days a week to feed the hundreds of migrants stranded there, mostly Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States, including a number of families with young children, the luckier ones with tents for shelter.

On Sept. 4, the group of volunteers going over Gateway International Bridge to serve dinner had famous company. Author John Grisham and his wife, Renee, accompanied the volunteers to survey the migrant’s plight themselves and help serve beans, rice and bolillos on paper plates.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, came along, as did Dorothy McAuliffe, wife of former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe and national policy advisor for Share Our Strength, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit, founded in 1984, whose primary mission is ending childhood hunger in the United States through its No Kid Hungry campaign.

“Terry was elected in 2013,” she said. “We worked on the ground in Virginia. They helped us lead our statewide effort around fighting childhood hunger.”

McAuliffe said it was her first trip to the Rio Grande Valley, though she’s been keeping track of the border situation.

“Really since last summer when that parent-child separation policy went into effect, it’s been hard to sleep at night as a parent, thinking about what our government policies are doing to families here,” she said. “I’m just happy to be here and learning first hand and kind of bearing witness to be able to tell the story to others.”

The Share Our Strength team included Billy Shore, founder and executive chairman, and Chuck Scofield, the group’s executive vice president.

“We’ve been working in all 50 states, but Texas is a priority for us,” Scofield said. “We’ve been supporting a variety of efforts here focused on feeding kids. … We’ve been working with Team Brownsville and trying to assess what are the ongoing needs here and ways that we can help.”

Part of it involves bringing in interested people from across the country to learn about the situation on the ground “so that we can amplify both the challenges and the solutions and work on those together,” he said.

Shore said Share Our Strength has been to Matamoros with Team Brownsville several times, and that raising awareness is meant to generate specific types of support, such as financial backing for migrant legal services in addition to humanitarian relief.

“We’ve found that a lot of people from D.C., Boston, New York — we have a lot of East Coast supporters — they’ve just never been to the border and they don’t really understand the complexity of the issues here,” he said. “I can’t say I understand them all either. We’re still learning.”

Shore said his organization’s name is based on the idea that everyone has something to give.

“Our principal work has always been around children, particularly around school meals for kids, and we do a lot in Texas, making sure kids are enrolled in the school breakfast programs, summer meal programs, that type of thing,” he said. “But what’s been going on on the border has just been so compelling that we thought we should get involved in that as well. It’s just tragic to see people hurting this way, and so much of it feels unnecessary.”

On Sept. 4, members of Share Our Strength pulled carts loaded with tarps and snacks to augment the dinner being provided that day by a church group in Matamoros, with financial help from Share Our Strength. Team Brownsville provides the meals through donations and volunteers every day of the week but Wednesdays.

Thousands of migrants who made the risky journey from their home countries through Mexico to the U.S. border hoping to claim asylum are stuck in cities like Matamoros as a result of the new U.S. “remain in Mexico” program — officially “Migrant Protection Protocols” — which returns migrants to Mexico to wait for their initial asylum hearing rather than letting them stay in the United States.

In Matamoros, the migrants are a soft target for kidnapping and extortion by cartels on a daily basis, said Brownsville Pastor Mark Redwine, who led the migrants in a sing-along before dinner.

“This is like a shopping cart for them, the cartels,” he said. “We’ve never done this as a nation. … I saw two women that were breastfeeding. They have kids that small. They were bounced back and are living out here on the streets. That’s the human toll. It breaks my heart to see people with babies sleeping on the street without anything. It shouldn’t be that way. … One of the problems is that people don’t believe it when you tell them.”

Looking over the sprawling tent camps and the hundreds of men, women and children lined up to eat, Redwine noted that “this is the human side of it.”

“Everything else is numbers and talking heads,” he said. “What we’ve got here is the reality of it.”

Team Brownsville co-founder Sergio Cordova said the remain-in-Mexico law needs to change.

“It’s causing a lot of harm and it’s causing people to be desperate, all these people being put in danger,” he said.

Team Brownsville launched in July 2018 with a dual purpose: to help asylum seekers released from detention on the U.S. side “without a penny in their pocket,” and also feed the hundreds stranded in Matamoros, Cordova said. The group normally has 10 to 15 volunteers on a daily basis but can always use more bodies and more donations, he said.

“When you feed 500 people a day you can never have enough,” Cordova said. “And hands, someone to physically cook the meals. I don’t know if you’ve ever prepared a meal for 500 people, but try doing it day after day after day for over a year.”

McAuliffe, Virginia’s former first lady, is friends with the Grishams, which led to their involvement with Share Our Strength and the No Kid Hungry campaign. Renee Grisham, interviewed with her husband while they were waiting to serve food, is on the board of No Kid Hungry.

“It’s to make sure that kids get three meals a day at school so that they are ready to receive that education we want them to,” she said. “Statistics have proven that grades go up, behavior problems go down. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

John Grisham said he and his wife were having dinner with Shore some months ago when they learned that Share Our Strength was also engaged on the border.

“We’ve been watching safely from afar for years,” Grisham said. “One conversation led to another. We didn’t know Billy was active down here — No Kid Hungry, Share Our Strength. We said we’d like to go see it, so here we are.”

He described the migrants’ predicament as startling, overwhelming and a “national disgrace” for the United States, which Grisham said should “stick to the Constitution” in the way it handles asylum seekers, “obey the law and adopt a sensible immigration policy.”

“We did some work with (Hurricane) Katrina,” he said. “I’ve done some work in Brazil, so I’ve seen the tent cities and long lines of homeless people. I’ve seen that in Washington, D.C. You never get used to it, but you just think there should be a solution. We should be smart enough to fix this problem. It’s fixable.”

Amy Zganjar, senior vice president of development for Share Our Strength, said her group has been taken aback by how devoted Team Brownsville and others locally are to helping those stranded in Matamoros.

“We’re sort of struck by how hard everyone works here and how much they care,” she said. “They’re at it every day, and they’re tired, and they need someone to listen and they need to know people care and people are interested in helping.”

Team Brownsville has an online GoFundMe campaign and a “donate button” on the website for those who want to donate money. Anyone who wants to volunteer, which Cordova strongly encourages, can also sign up on the website.

“Join us,” he said. “It will change your life more than it changes theirs. I promise you that.”