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Local stars: Team Brownsville receives national recognition

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Posted: Monday, November 11, 2019 3:00 pm

The work of Team Brownsville founders Sergio Cordova and Michael Benavides to feed and shelter asylum seekers stranded in Matamoros is being recognized nationally.

The pair started Team Brownsville in July 2018, launched a GoFundMe campaign last January to help support their humanitarian efforts, and in April received a nonprofit designation from the IRS.

GoFundMe, an online crowd-funding platform, announced in September that Team Brownsville’s fundraising campaign was among five in the nation chosen from thousands of nominations for the first GoFundMe Community-Nominated Heroes Award. Benavides and Cordova will be presented with the honor in San Francisco on Nov. 14.

Cordova said he doesn’t know who nominated Team Brownsville but that he remembers well the day that inspired the all-volunteer group’s founding. Cordova and Benavides, friends and coworkers in the Brownsville Independent School District’s special education department, were invited by fellow coworker David Lucio to accompany him and his wife across the Gateway International Bridge to hand out bags of food to migrants camped out on the bridge.

“ It was July, I remember,” Cordova said. “It was so hot, and they had no cover. They had nothing. They were basically baking in the sun. ... I had no idea, because I hadn’t crossed into Mexico in years. It was shocking.”

The asylum seekers were on the bridge because of the Trump administration’s enactment of “metering,” in which U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents are stationed in the middle of the bridge to limit how many people are able to request asylum each day. According to U.S. law, any foreign national who sets foot on U.S. soil has the right to request asylum. Under metering, however, asylum seekers were being put on a waiting list and made to return to Mexico.

More recently the administration implemented Migrant Protection Protocols, or the “remain in Mexico” policy, which forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their initial asylum hearings rather than allowing them to stay with family in the United States.

“ MPP is the worst thing that’s been passed,” Cordova said.

The fact that the U.S. State Department includes the Mexican state of Tamaulipas on its highest do-not-travel advisory list, yet is willing to endanger thousands of foreign asylum seekers, including many families with young children, he characterized as immoral.

“ The level of danger is so much, they’re telling U.S. people not to go, but we’re sending innocent families there,” Cordova said. “How crazy is that? So if it’s not safe for us, what makes them think that it’s a safe place for people who have nothing, that are vulnerable to everything?”

Migrants in Matamoros numbered about 1,200 in a recent count. The tents many of them now have for shelter were provided by Team Brownsville. Most of the asylum seekers traveled from Central America, though some are from countries such as Cuba, Cameroon and Uganda, Cordova said.

“ It’s horrific,” Cordova said of the conditions. “We can’t get tents fast enough over there.”

The fact that asylum seekers are willing to endure such squalor and unsanitary conditions says much about why they’re seeking asylum in the first place, he said. Many are from Honduras, a country with the world’s third highest murder rate. Leafing through a stack of death certificates and graphic photos of murdered family members provided by an asylum seeker in Matamoros, Cordova said the man’s story is a common one among the migrants.

“ I talk to many, many of them, and they have the same stories,” he said. “They’re running for their lives.”

Cordova said it’s ironic that the Trump administration’s justification for its border policies is that they’re needed to keep out murderers, rapists and cartel members.

“ I’m in that camp almost daily I haven’t seen one,” he said. “There’s no cartel members there. There are people who are running from the rapists and the murderers and the cartels.”

Team Brownsville’s efforts have been reported on by media outlets across the globe. Cordova said he welcomes the attention if it helps generate more help for asylum seekers — which it appears to be doing. Each week a group of volunteers from somewhere in the United States comes for a week to pitch in.

Team Brownsville provides breakfast and dinner to the asylum seekers every day of the week. The out-of-town volunteers, from as far away as California and Virginia, hold fundraisers of their own before coming to Brownsville in order to pay for two meals a day for 1,000 people for a week. There’s so much interest from out-of-towners that Team Brownsville has had to designate a scheduler, Cordova said.

“ We have them scheduled all the way to March,” he said.

Besides providing food and tents to migrants in Matamoros, Team Brownsville helps asylum seekers either released from detention or allowed to cross from Matamoros to join family members while their asylum claims are processed. At Brownsville’s La Plaza Bus Station, volunteers distribute water, backpacks and snacks to those about to board a bus for a cross-country trip with nothing but their clothes on their backs, Cordova said.

Highlighting Team Brownsville’s efforts isn’t about getting his picture in the paper or on television, he said. Rather, it’s about helping vulnerable, desperate people who would have no help otherwise, Cordova said.

“ It’s about getting the word out so people will continue to donate,” he said. “I always tell everyone we cannot give what we don’t have. We can only give what you’re giving. The reason we try to promote it so much is because we’re totally funded through donations, and so we have to get the word out there.”

gofundme.com/f/teambrownsville

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com

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