As Title 42 ends, a coalition of local religious groups prepares to help migrants in need

TRI-COUNTY — On May 23, the Biden administration plans to end Title 42, a Trump-era policy that allowed Customs and Border Protection to immediately expel undocumented migrants from the United States, including those seeking asylum. With a potential influx of asylum-seekers just a few weeks away, a coalition of religious organizations in the Big Bend has banded together, ready to offer aid to folks in immigration limbo. 

This coalition has been meeting in an official capacity for a few weeks, but has its roots in a roadside encounter Rev. Michael Wallens, priest-in-charge of the Big Bend Episcopal Churches and co-chair of the Rio Grande Border Ministries, had shortly after relocating to the Big Bend from Dallas five years ago. Early one morning, Wallens was driving between Alpine and Marfa when he stopped to pick up a Border Patrol agent stranded by the side of the road. 

“We just started talking — I’d never met someone with the Border Patrol. I started asking him, ‘What that’s like, having to do things related to your job that might not feel good in the heart’?” Wallens remembered. “The agent started crying and we had a long talk. And then after that, I asked him, ‘What do you want people to know about you?’ And he said, ‘I want people to know that I’m more than the uniform’.”

After that encounter, Wallens made a point to reach out to local Border Patrol agents and the sector chief, offering humanitarian assistance to the migrants and a listening ear to the agents. He earned an unofficial post as someone who could be counted on to help house and transport asylum seekers in limbo. Wallens mostly serves people who have passed their credible fear interviews, a critical part of the asylum process that allows migrants to legally stay in the country, and are awaiting the opportunity to be reconnected with loved ones already in the U.S.

“As an example, there was a 19-year-old father, a 17-year-old mother and a six-month-old baby and they needed to get to Detroit. They passed all their interviews, but Border Patrol would have had to separate them because the father was an adult and the mother wasn’t. They didn’t want to do that, so they called me.” 

Wallens helped feed and house the young family while they waited for transport. Now that he’s enlisted the help of dozens of other churches and laypeople — representatives from the Episcopal, Methodist, Catholic and Presybterian churches in Marfa and Alpine, members of the Young Life organization, among many others — he’s hoping to be able to extend a hand to more migrants in need. 

“Our goal and role is to get them on their way to their final destination. What we do is welcome them and figure out what their transportation needs are. In many cases, they already have tickets, so they just need a ride to the airport or the bus station,” he explained. “I think the most anybody would spend the night would be for two nights, but it’s all tied into transportation available.”

Mimi Smith, who helms the Big Bend Gazette and is a member of St. James Episcopal Church in Alpine, has been attending coalition meetings as a volunteer. “The coalition has some of the best organization of logistics I’ve ever seen,” she said. “I signed up for transport, mostly, because I think it suits me –– I’ve driven these routes for 27 years, driving to jails and prisons and courthouses. I hope to make the trips relaxing for my guests, rather than prolonging the trauma of their long journeys.”

Smith still keeps in touch with some of the migrants she’s transported, including two women who escaped the evacuation of Kabul in August 2021 and tried their luck with the asylum process at the U.S.-Mexico border. “It’s a frightening passage, from their countries of origin, into this country, into this Big Bend region of Texas,” she said. “But each project has a beginning, middle and a happy ending — getting people to their sponsors, families, destinations.”

Like Wallens’ early-morning encounter by the side of the road, Smith was touched by the revelation that there were local Border Patrol agents looking to extend a hand to people in transition. “When a big ol’ federal agency, a boots-on-the-ground agency, tackles a humanitarian project, and invites us civilian locals to be part of the solution, I’m jumping on board. Everyone who is touched by this will benefit.”

As a man of faith, Wallens believes that serving refugees — and Border Patrol agents — is deeply entwined with the religious ideas he preaches to the five congregations he serves in the region. “There’s a biblical mandate to welcome the stranger and care for those who are orphans and widows and people in need. If you look at the fact that Jesus was also a refugee — we’re called to treat everyone with dignity and respect.”

Big Bend Sector Border Patrol did not respond to a request for comment.