Pastors from Northeast Texas and across the state went to the Mexican border late last week on a fact-gathering mission in preparation to lobby Congress later this month on U.S. policies they believe are placing asylum seekers at greater risk of death and injury.

“Down in that area, the cartels are running the refugee camps,” said the Rev. Terra Pennington, parish associate at First Presbyterian Church in Longview.

Pennington joined about 100 pastors of several Christian denominations who spent Thursday through Saturday in Brownsville and its sister city across the border, Matamoros. Organized by a Henderson minister, the group listened to policy experts and met immigrants gathered in Mexico awaiting asylum hearings before an immigration judge.

Along the Rio Grande, Pennington heard immigrants’ horror stories, including that of a Guatemalan woman whose husband and 15-year-old were kidnapped and killed when she couldn’t pay their ransoms. The woman fled north with her daughter.

“They could still kidnap her daughter,” Pennington said. “So, now instead of seeking asylum from her country, she’s seeking asylum from Mexico, as well.”

Pennington said she took the short mission trip to see firsthand what’s happening along the Texas border.

“A big part of it was going across the border and seeing for ourselves what’s going on,” she said. “Because people can argue religion, but you can’t argue with experiences.”

The Rev. Steve Miller, pastor of Mount Hebron Baptist Church in Henderson, said about 100 Texas ministers of all denominations responded when he began making calls to organize the quick trip. As opposed to a relief mission, this trip was a fact-finding trek for the group to arm itself to lobby Congress later this month.

Miller said the group was briefed on the newly changed policy that requires immigrants to exhaust asylum claims in each country through which they pass on the journey north from Central American countries. The U.S. authorities at the border now also require asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their hearing request is processed.

“What we learned is the United States government has made it almost impossible to immigrate legally,” Miller said. “Now, while these people are fleeing, you have to go through the asylum process in country after country that you pass through. And when you’re running for your life, who’s going to do that? That’s a huge change in policy. All these pastors are going to go to Washington, D.C., on Sept. 24 and Sept. 25 and lobby Congress to make these legislative changes and to appropriate more money ... for them to take showers and brush their teeth.”

Miller, who said he’d never before crossed into Mexico, said the ministers encountered about 200 immigrants on the riverbank.

“They are in mortal danger when they’re waiting,” he said. “It’s not safe. ... I can’t believe that, as a country, we don’t have compassion to bring safety to people who are running for their lives.”

One man Miller met was on the run from the Nicaraguan military he’d deserted after refusing an order to shoot civilians.

“And the judge believed his story because he had pictures,” Miller said.

Miller said pastors from Longview, Henderson, Shreveport, Dallas and other Texas communities joined the trip.

“They were all faiths,” he said. “There were Baptists, Presbyterians, Church of Christ, nondenominational, Methodist. It was everybody — black, white, Hispanic, women, men. It was very diverse.”

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