Travels with Nancy, to the Northern Triangle and the Southern Border
The invitation should have come with a warning: when Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi leads a congressional delegation, her motto is “No rest, no rust!”
Three weeks ago, I was invited to accompany the Speaker and a bipartisan delegation to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, three countries that are the birthplace of most migrants seeking refuge at our southern border. I jumped at the chance. The trip gave me the opportunity to see and hear firsthand why so many people are willing to uproot their families and undertake the dangerous journey to our border. It also afforded a chance to check on conditions in U.S. border facilities which, according to news reports, had worsened considerably since my visit in February.
I was told to be at the U.S. Capitol at 6:45 a.m. Thursday, and that I would return there Sunday evening. As the designated tour guide for my immediate family, and a closet control freak, it was a challenge to be told that, for security reasons, I would not receive an itinerary until our flight was “wheels up.”
But so the adventure began. I boarded an Air Force jet early that morning with 12 other members of Congress, a group that included Speaker Pelosi, four senior committee chairs, and three other freshmen. Five were Spanish speakers, and eight, women. We also had a flight crew, security, and Congressional staff. On each of our seats was a 6” thick binder of briefing materials to give us background and context for our meetings over the next four days. The four hour flight afforded just about enough time to get through the first packet.
We landed in Guatemala City at 10 a.m. (give or take a few time zones), and given a police escort to a shelter for migrant children. We met youngsters who had been returned from the U.S. and Mexico — one 15 year old boy had already tried to cross twice — at this shelter dedicated to addressing conditions driving migration, providing the children with food, medical attention and education. Still, Guatemala’s weak economy, violence, and rampant corruption create strong incentives for families to leave. Boys as young as eight are recruited to join murderous gangs. Girls are routinely subjected to sexual assault. Many babies at the shelter had teen and preteen mothers. Rural areas are so impoverished that half of all children suffer from stunting, permanent physical and mental underdevelopment due to chronic malnourishment.
From the shelter, we proceeded to the residence of the chief of mission (two of the three countries we visited did not have a permanent U.S. ambassador) for a briefing by U.S. government agencies and a series of meetings with representatives of U.N. sponsored anti-corruption agencies, civil society organizations, international NGOs, members of the judiciary, and business and economic development representatives. We heard a lot of frustration that the recent foreign aid cuts to the region have seriously undermined programs that (1) reduce migration, (2) fight corruption, and (3) combat drug trafficking.
Five hours later, we loaded up the convoy to return to the Air Force base, and a press conference, before the short hop to San Salvador. We arrived in time for a late dinner at a restaurant in a converted mansion, at which senior members of the delegation shared stories of legislative battles. By 10 p.m., most of us were struggling to keep our eyes open, much less contribute to the conversation, but Pelosi was indefatigable. We finally reached our hotel and collapsed.
The pace never slackened. On day two, we were up, packed, fed and ready to roll by 7:45. (Forget about an early morning run — traveling in a Congressional delegation, particularly with the Speaker, brings security challenges which preclude extracurricular exploration.) We headed to the U.S. embassy in armored vans, where we were met by a Marine detachment and embarked on another round of briefings with U.S. agency personnel and anti-gang task forces. We then visited a special court complex and victims’ assistance center which addresses gang and sexual violence.
After lunch (and a brief earthquake) we toured the University of Central America and laid a wreath at a memorial garden and chapel marking the site where six Jesuit priests were assassinated by military operatives in 1989 during the El Salvador civil war. We discussed responses to war crimes with scholars, investigators and survivors of the 1981 El Mezote massacre, in which over 800 civilians were killed by the Salvadoran Army. As in Guatemala, the focus was on measures to rectify corruption and impunity — a lack of accountability for government misconduct.
From UCA, we travelled to the Presidential palace to meet with Nayib Bukele, the newly elected President of El Salvador. A military escort met us; a red carpet led us to join the 38 year-old President and his cabinet in a reception room, complete with chandeliers, gilded draperies and all the trappings of state. The formality of our surroundings was tempered by President Bukele’s warmth. He and his cabinet (half of whom are female) spoke at length of their plans for reform and desire to work with the U.S. Our hosts shared Salvadoran flatbread pupusas and sweet corn tamales, made especially delicious by the long hours since lunch!
A short flight took us to Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. The next morning, we remained at the hotel due to continuing protests in the capital arising from a U.S. drug trafficking case that implicated the Honduran President and his brother. We were briefed by U.S. and government officials, civil society representatives and NGOs. Later, we met with the family of Berta Caceres, an advocate for the environment and indigenous people who was assassinated in 2016.
We flew in military helicopters to the airport, where we were greeted by military personnel from each of our states — I met six Pennsylvanians stationed in Honduras; of course, Speaker Pelosi greeted them all. Then it was on to McAllen, Tex., where the two local congressmen hosted dinner for us at a favorite Mexican restaurant.
Our final day, Sunday, began with a quick trip to La Lomita, an historic chapel in Mission, Tex. The chapel has served the community for over 150 years, but has an uncertain future, as the administration’s border wall proposal would leave the chapel on the Mexican side.
From there, we toured the border patrol station and processing center. As in my prior trip, border patrol agents talked of and showed why they need more people, updated facilities and technology to secure our borders, not additional physical barriers. While not as crowded as a month ago, the processing facility was still awful. People awaiting an initial determination of eligibility for asylum are held in cement block cells and chain link holding pens. They have no beds or bedding other than Mylar blankets. Some family units are held together in pens with dozens of parents and children, while others are separated.
When we arrived at the Humanitarian Respite Center run by Catholic Charities, we found out why the processing center had been relatively empty. More than 300 migrant parents and children had been released at the local bus station at 10:30 p.m. the night before we arrived. HRC is a nonprofit that feeds, houses and clothes migrant families after they are released from custody, usually with no money, phones or food - nothing but the paperwork for their next court date. The nonprofits help them contact friends or family with whom they plan to stay until their asylum claim is heard, and help arrange travel.
The contrast between HRC and the border processing facility was stark. HRC serves hot meals every day, and provides showers, clean clothes, and sleeping mats. Volunteers from across the country work with the children, serve food, help with travel and restock the commissary with supplies donated online. I met a retired university employee from Iowa, two comediennes from New York, and a nun from Pittsburgh, all of whom had volunteered to help out. I was especially moved by the visit to HRC, both because it affirmed that a humane response is possible to the current surge of immigrants, and because good people from across the country had stepped up to serve with kindness.
After one more press conference, we headed to the airport. Speaker Pelosi headed home to spend time with her family (after all, she had spent the previous week with another delegation in Africa) as the rest of us headed back to D.C. There was a lot of napping on the final leg of the tour, with no more briefing books to read, and the end in sight. A sprint from the plane to a train, and I was back in Swarthmore Sunday evening — four days after I’d left. I definitely had “no rest and no rust,” but a lot to process.