In early January, the Reverend Karen Campbell, the rector at Sag Harbor’s Christ Episcopal Church, was sent to Brownsville, Texas, through the Community Justice Ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, to bear witness and protest what was occurring at the border to refugees and other asylum seekers. It was a haunting journey that left Ms. Campbell with a solidified mission to bring information and awareness to the forefront and, hopefully, change what she witnessed happening at one of many border crossings into the United States.
“The only hopeful thing we can do is share our experience. And we need to dump letters on all of our government representatives and make them aware of what is going on, because I am not positive that anyone who hasn’t been there really knows the extent of this evil, which is pervasive, and that there is really no way out for these people,” Ms. Campbell said in an interview in late January.
Ms. Campbell is not the first member of Sag Harbor’s clergy to go to the border or the only one to issue statements opposing a border wall and current U.S. policy regarding asylum seekers. On Thursday, February 27, from 6 to 7:30 p.m., Ms. Campbell will be joined in the sanctuary of the Christ Church by Temple Adas Israel Rabbi Dan Geffen and the Reverend Kimberly Quinn Johnson of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork for a panel discussion, “Our Experience of the Crisis at the Border,” moderated by Patty McCormack.
Ms. Campell traveled southwest on January 10 to be a part of the “Witness at Brownsville, Texas,” a humanitarian protest that began on January 12, organized by Josh Rubin, a Brooklyn software developer who founded the “Witness at the Border” movement in 2018 at the Tornillo tent detention facility that held migrant children. That protest moved next to Homestead, Florida, in January 2019 then home to the country’s largest holding facility for migrant children before moving to Brownsville to bear witness to the tent courts that are processing asylum seekers and the nearby Matamoros camp — a place asylum seekers live in what is essentially a tent city, with little food or clean water.
“The important thing for people to know is that these people are not breaking any laws,” Ms. Campbell said. “They are following the longstanding rules we have had in place, which is that if you are living in fear of your life, come to an international border crossing, present yourself, and we will figure out your case from there. These are asylum seekers, not criminals.”
What Ms. Campbell witnessed in Brownsville was the court tent system, where she said judges heard cases remotely, via a television screen, and often proper translation was not available to those making their cases. While Spanish interpreters are available, many at the border are from countries like Guatemala, home to 23 native languages.
“Everything is working against these people, some of whom are fleeing certain death,” Ms. Campbell said. “In November, 10,000 people applied for asylum and 11 were granted asylum. And we are just turning the rest away. All of us said that we felt like we were peeking into the death camps during Nazi Germany, because these people are assured of being killed when they go back to their home country.”
Ms. Campbell was with roughly 150 to 200 protesters that weekend, many attorneys hoping to work pro bono on cases, although the reverend noted Spanish-speaking lawyers who can stay at the border through a trial process are really needed.
Despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Ms. Campbell said many still have hope. She met a woman, JoAnna, who had walked two months, carrying her 2-year-old daughter, Italia, in her arms, across the border to Brownsville. JoAnna, Ms. Campbell said, told her they had hope — whether she was granted asylum or not is not known.
“I met these 12-year-old girls — they knew how to operate my phone better than I did,” Ms. Campbell said. “They had this energy, this creativity, and I remember thinking, ‘We want this.’ They stand and look at us with new eyes and see the very best of what our country has to offer. And that is what has happened every time a new group has come to this country and brought new culture, new food, new music, new traditions. Unless you are a Native American, you came from someplace else. You didn’t just appear here.”
On February 27, Ms. Campbell said she hopes a diversity of residents from in and around Sag Harbor come to the sanctuary to hear what she bore witness to and to what Rabbi Geffen and Ms. Johnson experienced on separate travels to the Mexico border with Arizona.
“We need to each get out what we know about what is happening, so that people have awareness of what the reality is down there,” Ms. Campbell said. “Since I have returned, I am even more fervent, if that is even possible, about this issue. I want people to write letters, to call their elected officials. I hope to have everyone else start to have that fire burning inside them that says: ‘This is not right. This is not who we are.’”
“You must treat the foreigner living among you as native-born and love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt,” Ms. Campbell read, quoting the Book of Leviticus.