An old cop visits the border


I walked out of the Storm Lake Police Station on Dec. 31 after serving 30 years as police chief and public safety director of one of the most diverse communities in the nation.

A few days later, I was at the southern border in McAllen, Texas, as a volunteer for Catholic Charities serving refugees waiting for a future. For part of the time, we went south of the border to a tent city in Matamoros, Mexico, where grateful families with fear written on their faces accepted food and supplies with a humble “gracias.”

What I saw was sad, gut wrenching and hard to understand.

The trip was at least a year in the making. In 2018, as I mapped out my retirement, I was reading and watching the news as I do with a vengeance every day. News outlets were beginning to report on new immigration practices implemented by our nation at our southern border involving the separation of families, the incarceration of children, and an overall deterioration of an already badly flawed immigration process.

For several days I watched and wondered what the mindset was that led to the need for separating children from their desperate families. What crime had these families — specifically these children — committed and what good did the family separation do?

I got angry. Much of it was over comments spewed about threats posed by immigrants, and the negative impact newcomers may have on our nation, states and cities.

That simply wasn’t my experience.  Storm Lake is a community of 14,000 or so people with 30-plus languages spoken, public and private schools systems with a super-majority enrollment of immigrant students, a huge diverse workforce, two large meatpacking plants, and a community bucking the norm of rural America — Storm Lake is growing, thriving and reinventing itself all because of the blessings of our new immigrant neighbors from around the world. 

Everyday I worked for a diverse community that embraced change and recognized the value in our immigrant neighbors. Storm Lake had become a mosaic of the world over my 30 years as police chief.  It hasn’t been without challenges, mistakes and the need to adapt. But the pros outnumber the cons beyond my ability to express it.

I needed to go to the border.  I needed to see for myself the folks who want to enter our nation.  How were they being treated?  Why are they here? Most of all, I was driven just to offer help in some small way to those in need if only for a few days. I also wanted to see for myself these alleged dangerous people.

With over four decades in law enforcement, I’m not naïve.  I “get it” that within all ethnic groups and all socioeconomic categories there lies evil.  That’s why you have cops.  But I also know that the great majority of people are good and want to do good.

On Saturday, Jan. 4, I departed on my solo trip to McAllen  to volunteer in the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley Humanitarian Respite Center under the supervision of Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director. 

The 1,300-mile drive afforded me time to think about my intent. The southern border had drastically changed over the past year from large numbers of folks coming to our country, and in many cases being detained. The border was being squeezed shut with the masses held south of the border in tent cities, or relocated to Central America by our government.

I washed dishes, served food, emptied trash, made sandwiches and more, while young families awaiting immigration proceedings spent a few days at the respite center and then were transported to sponsor communities and homes around the country. The center was dealing with approximately 900 people a day about a year ago, to less than 75 adults and children a day from South Africa, Peru, the Congo and more. I didn’t see anyone from Mexico or Central American nations. I soon learned they were not being granted entrance into the country but instead were sent to tent cities south of the border awaiting court dates. Some Mexicans seeking asylum in the US were being airlifted to Guatemala, in some cases allegedly not aware of where they were going. Also the Mexican government operating under financial incentives from the US was becoming more aggressive in stopping sojourners and refugees from Central and South America from crossing Mexico’s southern border.

On a few days I was assigned to accompany volunteers and staff to a border crossing at Brownsville, Texas, that took us into tent communities in Matamoros, Mexico, where so many refugees waited in stasis for appearance dates (some 24 months out) and other US immigration related proceedings.  We brought food and supplies.

As we walked across the bridge my cop senses kicked in. I was hyper-vigilant for the unexpected. I’ve heard a lot of stories about the bad people trying to get into the US. Reaching the Mexican side of the bridge and off to our left I saw tents, suspended pieces of plastic and other fabrics shaped into huts on pavement, in grass, under trees stretching for blocks. 

I watched young families doing their best to “make it”.  Parents taking a chance in coming to the US for safety, security and the hope for a better tomorrow.  You could see the fear in their eyes of an unknown future.  Most traveled with very few belongings. I witnessed so many loving parents to young children. Some fleeing violence. Some fleeing death and torture. All taking risks on behalf of their young families.

As Catholic Charities set up their tables and set out the food and other supplies for distribution the long line of people stood back, remained orderly and displayed the utmost respect.

A line of humble, thankful and kind families walked by and took what they needed.  They shared repeated thanks in English and Spanish.  They smiled.  They shook our hands.  And they received for repurposing everything we had to give, including empty boxes, milk cartons and plastic bags.  These requests for what I considered trash really made me understand that all of these families were truly in a survival mode. They walked away with that look on their face that said, “Okay, we’ve acquired some stuff that will get us through most of today or maybe tomorrow.”

This tent area was full of young families, small children and expectant young mothers. Were there criminals and bad elements there?  I didn’t see any. I’m sure a small percentage are but the vast majority were refugees seeking safety and the successes the USA has to offer.

One day I was volunteering in Texas, and heard on the news that our economy was strong, our nation was nearing yet another milestone record for our markets, and that unemployment remained low.  Then the news reported that the US had seven million available jobs at all levels that they didn’t have employees for. I looked across this tent community at so many people eager to call the US home and to join that labor force, and I wondered why.

My trip to the border caused me to sit quietly every night and process what I observed that day.

People seeking safety and escaping from threats of harm or death.

People seeking a better life for their families.

People asking for help and consideration from the strongest, most wealthy, most prosperous nation in the world.

People willing to withstand the accusations of being evil in order to prove their worth and value to our nation.

I saw my neighbors.  I saw Storm Lake and all its success in the fearful faces of refugees at the border. I saw an opportunity — truly a duty for our country to lead from the front — to welcome the stranger, to feed the poor and to cloth the naked by using just a fraction of our wealth. I saw a way to fill open jobs, grow our economy even more, fill dying rural school districts, and bring youth and vibrance to dwindling communities across our country.

I witnessed the best the US has to offer in the work of the many selfless volunteers under the guidance of Catholic Charities, the many behind-the-scenes businesses and entities that are regular donors of supplies, and I saw good people, scared of where they came from, unsure of where they’ll end up, but hungry to make a difference and belong.

Our immigration system is broken.  There is little debate about that. How do we fix it?  Reasonable leaders should spend some time at the border not for a photo-op but instead rolling up their sleeves and serving those in need.  If they spend a few days there legitimately helping it will be clear what to do.  Lead from the front.  Serve those in need.

As for me, I learned a lot.  I didn’t solve anything.  But I fed the hungry and served those in need.  Maybe I made a difference for a couple of folks for a few minutes.  Maybe not.  But the experience changed me forever.  I’ll go back.  I’ll help again.  Maybe I can continue to join others in some small way in being a better human. Maybe I’ll live long enough to see our immigration laws reformed and those seeking a new beginning welcomed. 

Our nation is better than this. Our leadership should be also.

Mark Prosser is the retired public safety director in Storm Lake.

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