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Immigration | United States

Writing the Handbook for a More Humane World, Part I

What Five Texas Teachers Can Teach Global Leadership About Running a Refugee Camp and Containing COVID-19

Founding members of Team Brownsville, left to right: Juan-David Liendo-Lucio, Dr. Melba Salazar-Lucio, Michael Benavides, Andrea Rudnik, Sergio Cordova (photo collage by Sarah Towle, 2020)

Team Brownsville: An Oral History

There are few souls as big, or hearts as expansive, as those of the original members of Team Brownsville. All educators, these five full-time volunteers, as well as a grassroots crew of likeminded cohorts, bootstrapped a humane response to Trump & Co’s inhumane and criminal immigration agenda in their own back yard — the Texas/Mexico border — all while holding down 9-to-5 jobs. They went from providing dinners for a few dozen stranded asylum seekers to spearheading a collaborative management structure for the 2,500-person refugee camp in Matamoros that is so resilient, it has yet to report — four months after COVID-19 was first detected in the US — a single case of the deadly virus.

It is because of Team Brownsville that Jim and my Texas Road Trip went awry right away. Swept up in their movement from our first day, we hated to leave. This oral history records the birth of their efforts to slay Goliath by bringing dignity to those caught in the web of its policy of deterrence by cruelty, simply because, “We are blessed when we help others.”

That’s the voice of Juan-David Liendo-Lucio, special education, adaptive PE teacher, and Special Olympics coordinator for Brownsville Independent School District (BISD). David is one of the co-founders of Team Brownsville, along with his wife, Dr. Melba Salazar-Lucio, instructor of writing and literature at Texas Southmost College, as well as Sergio Cordova, Michael Benavides, and Andrea Rudnik, all special education teachers for BISD — and best friends — for decades.

This is their story, in their own words, though some quotes have been edited for clarity and continuity.

What Sparked You to Act?

At the June 28, 2018 Families Belong Together rally, Brownsville, Tx (photo REUNITE by @mrkmully)

DAVID: It started like an accident in June 2018. Mike Seifert [border advocacy strategist for the ACLU-Texas] emailed asking for help at the McAllen bus station. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was dumping asylum seekers right out of detention, dazed and confused and without resources. I told Melba. Then I called Sergio. He and Mike drove.

SERGIO: We walked into chaos. There were hundreds of people. They had nothing but what they’d been wearing when they crossed. Many were victims of family separation and had no idea what had happened to their children. They were terrified.

MELBA: Another volunteer, Cindy Candia, of the [then-forming] Angry Tías & Abuelas of the RGV — although we didn’t know that at the time — ran over to us. ‘Thank God you’re here!’ she said.

DAVID: As soon as we saw what was happening, we asked, ‘What do you need?’ Cindy told us, ‘get backpacks, toilet paper, water, snacks, diapers, whatever!’ Michael and I left Melba and Sergio at the station. We went to the Dollar Store and emptied the shelves. Everything we bought was gone by the end of the day. The needs were that great.

MIKE: We stayed there all night. The second time we went to help, Cindy suggested we check the bridges in Brownsville. Sure enough, the same issues had come to us. We resolved to stay and help right there at home. That’s when Andrea joined.

ANDREA: For me the June 28 Families Belong Together Rally was the catalyst. We all marched together under this banner Mike made of baby onesies strung on a clothesline that read: R-E-U-N-I-T-E. People came from all over the state. Mike Seifert spoke. It really opened my mind to the plight of immigrants in our own community.

What Team Brownsville found on their first bridge crossing in summer 2018, (photo courtesy of Michael Benavides)

In June 2018, the Trump Administration, aka Trump & Co, enacted a policy called metering, which slowed the processing of asylum claims to a crawl. Migrants were made to take a ticket and wait in line, in Mexico, for their initial asylum interviews. The numbers of those entering the US dropped precipitously, creating bottlenecks at each of the US/Mexico ports of entry — some of the most dangerous places on earth — and adding to the humanitarian crisis ignited by ‘zero tolerance’ and family separation.

ANDREA: Family separation brought Trump’s immigration agenda to our eyes. Metering brought it to our doorstep. And if the Christian church has any message at all, it is to take care of our neighbors. I wanted to do something but I didn’t know what. Sergio suggested we gather water and snacks and go together to meet the people stuck on the bridge.

SERGIO: She said, ‘yes, I can do that.’ Then she couldn’t stop. None of us could.

What Did You Do?

Andrea Rudnik seeing to the needs of asylum seekers processed and released at the Brownsville bus station (photo courtesy of Andrea Rudnik, 2018)

The five friends started by replicating in Brownsville what the Angry Tias were doing at the McAllen bus station. They worked with Tía Elisa, handing out backpacks stuffed with clean socks, travel snacks, soap, toothbrush and paste…They sent the refugees off to their final destinations with food and maps with their itineraries marked, explaining their travel routes and where they’d need to change buses. They’d coach them in handy English-language phrases.

DAVID: Because we are teachers, and summers are less stressful, we had the time. We were able to be present.

ANDREA: We were also predisposed to help. As special ed teachers, it’s in our nature to take care of the vulnerable and needy. It’s what we do.

MELBA: Then we started trudging across the bridges, carrying water to the asylum seekers, bags of clothes and shoes…

Left: Sergio Cordova and Andrea Rudnik crossing the Brownsville-Matamoros bridge in the early days of metering. Right: A shelter rigged with tarp and rope to keep asylum seekers waiting at the bridge shielded from the blasting Tex/Mex summer sun (photos courtesy of Team Brownsville, 2018)

MIKE: We rigged tarps to shield them from the sun and brought mats to sit and stand on to keep their feet from burning on the scorching hot asphalt.

SERGIO: I remember a colleague donating all these trial-sized toiletries. I posted a picture on Facebook. I wrote, Look what my friend gave me! After that, people kept showing up with supplies for me to take over.

MIKE: Then we got the idea to bring dinner. It was just boxes of pizzas at first, when it was just 20–30 people.

DAVID: Yes, crossing over to feed people was Team Brownsville’s idea.

MIKE: Although we weren’t Team Brownsville then. People like to say that we were the love child of the Angry Tías, and it’s true — our action was born out of theirs. We might even have become part of their group: The Angry Tías y Tíos.

ANDREA: But our identity has always been tied to Brownsville. Whereas the Tías are spread across the Valley, as is their work. We’re here, focused on our community. We were the first local boots-on-the-ground group to support the asylum seekers here and in Matamoros. We were the only ones here when metering began in July 2018 and until MPP came in July 2019. We’re here still. Even COVID-19 hasn’t stopped us.

From Grassroots Team to Agile Movement

Left: Andrea Rudnik, Michael Benavides, and volunteers serve dinner to asylum seekers trapped in Matamoros, Mexico. Right: The cooking crew, including Melba Salazar-Lucio, Sergio Cordova, and Juan-David Liendo-Lucio, prepare Christmas dinner 2018 at the Good Neighbor Settlement House (photos courtesy of Team Brownsville)

MIKE: The name just happened. I think it was Sergio’s idea.

ANDREA: At the beginning, I thought Team Brownsville was a silly name. The Angry Tias had such a strong, activist name. But now I love it. It says exactly who we are. It speaks to our identity.

SERGIO: And we were already a team. We’ve been colleagues and friends forever.

ANDREA: We wanted the asylum-seekers to know: we see you, we hear you, we recognize your pain, and we will do for you what we would do for a neighbor.

“Welcome immigrant friends” sign at the Brownsville Bus Station, 2018

SERGIO: Because they are our neighbors! My mother emigrated to Texas from Mexico. She met and married my father here, so I was born here — a 1st generation US citizen. I kept thinking: if my mom had stayed in Mexico, that could be me there on the bridge with my kids. Just because she crossed when she did, I have what I have. Being born in the US, makes you lucky, but it doesn’t make you better. Humans are humans. Our hearts all beat the same blood. We all suffer the same pain.

DAVID: All through the summer of 2018, people just kept coming — sometimes 100 came through the bus station a day.

MIKE: We calculated that the population on the bridge grew each week by 10. On average, for every 10 that crossed, 20 more took their place.

MELBA: We realized pretty quickly, buying food was too expensive.

SERGIO: So we started cooking food and taking it over.

DAVID: Team Brownsville hasn’t missed a dinner since.

SERGIO: I started making these little videos, which I posted to Facebook. They got shared and shared.

MIKE: People sent money along with their donations.

Sergio Cordova, Andrea Rudnik, and Michael Benavides collecting donations for victims of metering at Sam’s Club, Brownsville, Summer 2018 (photo courtesy of Sergio Cordova)

SERGIO: They really wanted to help. There was one day — I posted on Facebook that I would be at Sam’s Club all day, accepting donations for the asylum seekers. I parked my 7-passenger Honda Pilot in a visible place and opened up the hatch. People showed up with stuff from their houses or stuff they’d just bought for the asylum seekers at Sam’s. By the end of the day, I couldn’t fit another thing in the car.

MELBA: I remember this woman… Her name was Susan. She was from Austin, TX, and was wearing a hot pink embroidered Mexican dress. She came up to me at the bus station and handed me $1000 in $10 bills to give to the asylum seekers so they’d have money for their bus journey… It was like that.

ANDREA: We rented a small apartment near the bridge and we pulled in Brendan Tucker, this big, sandy-haired kid from the Texas Hill Country — he’d come to Brownsville to protest family separation and his car broke down, so he stayed. Sergio invited him to be our cook. He cooked all that fall.

SERGIO: And different people came on different days to help. My mother cooked…

Melba Salazar-Lucio and her mother, Maria Elena, with their Pillows of Love (photo courtesy of Juan-David Liendo-Lucio)

MIKE: And Kathy Harrington and the River Bend retirement community. They cooked twice a week from about October 2018 — BBQ chickens, rice, beans. They’ve been our most valiant supporters from the beginning.

MELBA: My mother, Maria Elena, sewed these little travel pillows for the backpacks. She calls them Pillows of Love. She’s made thousands of them by now.

ANDREA: The apartment was always crowded with different people helping. When school started up again, Tucker crossed with dinner everyday. And Victor Cavazos stepped in a lot. The rest of us took turns helping ‘Super Tucker’ and manning the bus station.

SERGIO: I kept making videos and they kept getting shared until one day I got a call from a New York Times reporter. ‘We would love to do a story on you,’ he said. It ended out on the front page!

MIKE: One day in December [2018], after we’d been feeding dinner to the asylum seekers for about six months, I heard someone say that for many, it was the only meal they got all day. So I started a breakfast club. I woke up at 6am and bought breakfast tacos at Garcia’s Restaurant in Brownsville. And I’d pull the tacos and a couple of coffee carafes over in a canvas wagon, then cross back in time to get to work by 8am. In 6 months, I made, on average, 14 round-trip crossings each week. One day, I crossed back and forth five times!

ANDREA: That was about the time we lost Tucker as our cook. He left to set up a similar kitchen in Tijuana, and when he was gone we realized how much we relied on him. He thought he’d be away for a month, but he didn’t return until July 2019. Things were a bit hectic through the holidays, everyday scrambling to make sure there was someone to cook and serve. Then, I came up with the idea of organizing a rota. I’d assign each group of Brownsville-based and visiting volunteers a day and make a weekly announcement about who was doing what and when on a new Facebook page: Team Brownsville Volunteers. That’s how I do it still.

MIKE: And we let go of the apartment and moved into the Good Neighbor Settlement House. It had much more room to cook and pack and store food supplies. And was already supporting refugees whose buses did not leave right away, providing them a place to sleep and shower and get a new set of donated clothes.

SERGIO: In January 2019, we started a GoFundMe campaign. Until then we’d been buying food with donations and out of our own pockets and leaning on the Angry Tías for financial support. But as the numbers of asylum seekers grew, we were running out of money.

MIKE: As an example, I was feeding 40 people breakfast in December. By May, I was feeding 100 and had exhausted my savings.

Sergio Cordova and Michael Benavides at the Brownsville Bus Station 2019

SERGIO: The GoFundMe did really well and it brought a lot of awareness. In July 2019, Mike and I had been chosen GoFundMe Heroes of the Year. That helped raise a lot of money. It also landed us a corporate sponsor:

MIKE: But to get their monthly contribution, we had to incorporate as a nonprofit, which Salesforce helped us to do.

SERGIO: That was official in May 2019. We had access to a lot more money then. But things became more official, less grassroots. We had to create a Board, make decisions by committee…

MIKE: But it was worth it. Just as I was running out of money, I didn’t have to pay for breakfast anymore.

Also just as suddenly, the bottleneck at the Gateway International Bridge began to grow. It was getting harder for Mike to pull across enough food to meet the demand.

MIKE: One day, I showed up with breakfast from Garcia’s and I was short. I went to a local restaurant in Matamoros to get some more tacos. They were really good. So we started paying them to prepare breakfast for the asylum seekers. They are cooking for us still.

July 2019: Something Wicked This Way Comes

A tent city grows in Matamoros, Mexico, following Trump & Co’s Migrant “Protection” Protocol, aka Remain in Mexico policy (photo Sarah Towle January 2020)

By spring of 2019, the team was humming like a finely tuned engine. Andrea oversaw the volunteer rotation and managed the money; Sergio kept his eye on the bus station; Mike continued to run breakfast club; and they all took turns crossing for dinner with local and out-of-town volunteers.

Metering had slowed CBP’s processing of asylum seekers to a trickle, but they were still getting through to the US, eventually.

MIKE: Most of them were here long enough, they became like family. We heard their stories. We knew why they left home. We knew what they aspired to be. We knew when they crossed. We knew when they’d been released from detention and were on their way to their sponsors. I’m in contact with a lot of them still.

At the start of the summer, Team Brownsville was serving about 200 people. But July brought the big bang: metering had evolved into the Migrant “Protection” Protocol, which barred asylum seekers from awaiting resolution of their cases inside the US. [Read more about the real effects of MPP here:]

MIKE: I remember our first victims of MPP. A Cuban couple. On the day of their hearing, I said goodbye and wished them well. But they were back in Matamoros the next day. They’d been told they had to remain in Mexico for the duration of their asylum trial, rather than the US with their sponsor, which is common legal practice.

The population of the tent city exploded then. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) closed the Reynosa-Hidalgo port of entry in McAllen, sending asylum seekers to Matamoros. When the bus station emptied, the Angry Tías shifted their focus to helping Team Brownsville. Instead of adding 20 and losing 10 a day, the migrant community was growing at a rate of over 100 each week. Ports were closing, and no one was leaving. They were stuck. Tents crawled from the foot of the bridge across the border plaza, right up to the buildings of commercial Matamoros, then up the embankment to the park along the Rio Bravo, as the Rio Grande is called in Texas.

ANDREA: That’s when other groups started to show up, too.

The director of Global Response Management, Helen Perry, showed up with a skeleton crew to respond to basic healthcare needs. Doctors without Borders appeared to offer psychological counseling. Tucker returned from Tijuana and teamed up with Gaby Zavala to help oversee “camp management” and to provide resources the asylum seekers lacked — cellphone charging stations, computers, printers — under the umbrella of Resource Center Matamoros. Lawyers for Good Government, a consortium of US law firms, created Project Corazon to bring legal support to asylum seekers trapped on the wrong side of the border. In Matamoros, they installed a full-time Border Right Fellow: Charlene d’Cruz.

ANDREA: There was a bit of jockeying when they all came in. All these services were needed, but we had to figure out how to function collaboratively, share minimal resources, and not duplicate efforts. When MPP burst the plaza boundary, we felt like we were losing touch with ‘our people.’

Michael Benavides paying homage to those asylum seekers who will never make it to the United States (photo courtesy of Team Brownsville)

MELBA: The mission was growing into something we never thought it would be, and with it the mood changed. Before MPP, migrants still had hope of getting across the border and eventually winning asylum. But MPP offered only ‘false hope.’

The refugees still believed that if they held out long enough, their asylum dreams would come true. We could see that they weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Continue to Part II

Thank you for reading Episode 9 in my travelogue of a road trip gone awry: THE FIRST SOLUTION: Tales of Humanity and Heroism from Trump’s Manufactured Border Crisis, rolling out on Medium as fast as I can write it because the issues are Just. That. Urgent. Click here to access the Project Forward followed by links to all other articles in the series.

“Let us be reminded that before there is a final solution, there must be a first solution, a second one, even a third. The move toward a final solution is not a jump. It takes one step, then another, then another.”

— Toni Morrison, 1995



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Sarah Towle

Sarah Towle


Award-winning London-based author sharing her journey from outrage to activism one tale of humanity and podcast episode at a time @THE FIRST SOLUTION on Medium