For Lorenzo Ortiz, a Mexican American Baptist pastor, welcoming asylum seekers is the way to live God’s will.
Pastor Ortiz and his family live in the border community of Laredo, a place that has become the leading U.S. trade port, but also has the highest concentration of poverty in Texas. Its sister city, Nuevo Laredo, is both a manufacturing center and dangerous battleground for cartels and Mexican authorities.
Pastor Ortiz has been living and working with asylum seekers since 2017. First, when the Obama administration ended the decades long “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allowed Cubans who reached U.S. soil to stay in the country, he helped Cuban asylum seekers in Nuevo Laredo. Then, in 2018, when the Trump administration had the Border Patrol drop hundreds of asylum-seeking families at the Laredo bus station each day, he first arranged to shelter them at the Emmanuel Baptist Church and then brought them to his home.
Pastor Ortiz recalled one particular story about an asylum seeker from the Congo. He was a teacher. When a student in his classroom fell ill and later died, her influential parents arranged for him to be jailed and later violently attacked his wife and children, forcing him to flee Congo. After a long and arduous journey to the U.S. border, DHS almost deported rather than release him, as he did not have a close relative or friend to stay with. But, while staying at the Pastor’s church, he connected with a friend from his hometown living in New York and moved there to pursue his case. The moment of welcome the Pastor gave this man surely saved his life.
When, in the summer of 2019, the Trump administration began forcing asylum seekers to wait in danger and deprivation on the Mexican side of the border for their court hearings, Pastor Ortiz opened shelters for them in Nuevo Laredo. He also shuttled them to security in Monterrey and back to the port in Laredo for their hearings. A bricklayer by trade, Pastor Ortiz built a pizza oven so that asylum seekers could support themselves and contribute to the community while they waited.
The Pastor’s approach stems from his faith and his own background. In 1982, when he was 16 years old, his father brought him to the United States from Mexico in the hope of finding a way to support his large family. “We didn’t choose the country we were born in. We also didn’t choose the social position that we’d like to have. From there we have to try and do more.”
This is all part of a ministry focused on the idea that everyone, no matter their station, be a good Samaritan. A border network of Baptist churches—funded by private donations—works to cultivate this approach to supporting asylum seekers and migrants. “If with so little, we’ve accomplished a lot… As a nation, without a doubt, we can do much more,” he said. And certainly, provide for the basic needs of people seeking protection at the U.S. border.
The Pastor put himself at great risk of harm by the cartels in order to help asylum seekers in Nuevo Laredo, claiming that “God calls us to give our lives if it’s needed for his service.” The Pastor felt compelled to do this, too, since neither the Mexican nor U.S. government was ensuring the security of the asylum seekers or providing them with any support.
His experience reaffirmed his belief that a better approach is to allow asylum seekers to wait for their hearings with relatives and friends in the United States. “These people are not criminals, and I am sure about this because we have eaten meals together, and I slept near them.”
In late March, the Biden administration began to allow select asylum seekers in the Remain in Mexico program who had been waiting in Nuevo Laredo and had tested negative for COVID-19 to enter the United States to pursue their claims. Pastor Lorenzo is helping ensure they have temporary shelter and coordinate their travel arrangements. He would gladly do the same for other asylum seekers who have been, and continue to be, expelled to Mexico ostensibly because of the pandemic, but without a truly persuasive public health rationale. There is no “cause for alarm,” he says, and remains focused on the work of safe and humane welcome.
People seeking refuge at the border “are simply looking for a chance to live,” he says. “The more we live knowing the specific needs of these families, the more that God will show us what we can do about it. We can be those people that form a part of that help, that hope.”
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With smart and humane policies, the United States can welcome people seeking safety and treat them with dignity. Read more at wecanwelcome.org.
PHOTO CAPTION: Pastor Lorenzo Ortiz is also a humanitarian who helps asylum seekers, like the boy in the photo, who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border.