“I Will Fight Like Hell Until I’m Absolutely Certain I Have Done Everything Possible”

Fran Schindler, 81, is a former psychiatric nurse from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She is attempting to sponsor two brothers from Guatemala who sought asylum at the border after Melvin, 21, was shot six times by gang members. Melvin and his brother Enrique, 23, fled North and arrived at the border late last summer. On Friday, they were denied asylum and returned to Mexico. They are appealing the decision with the Board of Immigration Appeals and do not currently have an attorney.

“Last year I volunteered for three weeks at a shelter in El Paso that was associated with Annunciation House. That was when they were letting people out, processing them – letting them out within 24 hours, then sending people on their way to sponsors. It was the work of my heart. After I left there, I kept looking, and found Witness at the Border.

I was familiar with Josh Rubin because of the work he did in El Paso and Homestead. So, I came down here. The second day, I crossed into the encampment. I had a pack of plain drawing paper with me and some markers. I sat down on the concrete steps. There was a young man sitting next to me. We had no conversation. I handed him a marker, tore off a piece of paper, and set it down next to him.

I put my hands on the paper, drew around my fingers, and drew a face on the finger. Next thing I know, boom! He does the same thing and he says to me – he obviously had a little English – ‘May I draw a picture of you?’ 

I said, ‘Yes! Absolutely!’ He did – an excellent picture of me. His brother was sitting next to him and he drew a picture. Both of these young men are incredibly talented artistically, to start with. We started a conversation.

They came here from Guatemala. Melvin is 21. Enrique is 23. Melvin was shot six times and was in the hospital for quite a while with a chest tube to take care of the gunshot wounds. Enrique tried to help him. The gang came after him. He got away. Then, as I learned a little bit later, they went away to an area where there wasn’t as much gang violence happening, and then they found their way to the border. 

They arrived around July or August. I have paperwork detailing this. They explained to me that they had been refusing the gangs because they have a Christian belief system they ascribe to and I guess their family does, as well.

We would meet every day and talk and hang out together. I went home and we stayed in touch on Whatsapp. We talked back and forth. The relationship grew. In time, I also learned that their father has been in the United States for 14 years.

I was a psychiatric nurse. I understand boundaries. Something was tugging and tugging at me. I thought, ‘Yes – boundaries are boundaries. But boundaries are not walls’. They gave me their father’s name, and I called him. I said, ‘Sir, I just want you to know, I was at the camp. I met your sons and they are fine young men and they are healthy and safe.’

He said, ‘I have not seen my sons in 14 years’. And I said, “Well, sir – I have a photograph of your sons. Would you like me to get it to you?” I did. And he contacted me. And the man was so grateful. I promise you, if I never get anything else, the gratitude that man expressed to me was a total gift to all of us. A simple photograph of his two sons.

I asked Melvin about his health. We haven’t been able to explore that very much. He has some knee pain. But, as a psychiatric nurse, I am certain they have PTSD. I would bank on that after going through that kind of a trauma – then the trauma of coming here, then the trauma of being kidnapped. How could you not?

They made a poor decision in October after their second hearing. They walked into the city and were promptly kidnapped. They were taken to Reynosa and were held for five days. They were not given anything to eat and were beaten up a little bit. Fortunately, they were not sexually abused. They had to get ransomed out by their father for something like $3,000. And now, they’re of course terrified.

I got home in late February. Enrique and Melvin were due for their final hearing on March 13. I didn’t know if I could come back. I thought, “I cannot abandon them”. My 55-year-old daughter was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer when she was 50. The worst kind. It’s one that is a progressive cancer, and they give you maybe two to five years to live. She did the whole thing – radiation, chemo, surgery. But, she had an oncology appointment for another scan coming up this month. She told me I should go to the hearing. I went, and now we’re back at the beginning of the story.

I really and truly feel that we have become a family of choice. I talked about it with some people here. They gave me some information. I wrote out paperwork explaining why I wanted to do this and submitted it. I said I’m willing to be responsible for them, to make sure that they get to their continued court hearings.

I have that paperwork. I have the signatures saying Enrique and Melvin wanted me to have permission to come into the court. During their final hearing, the judge let me in. Enrique and Melvin told the judge that they wanted me to speak on their behalf. The judge let me speak. She swore me in, then I had to wait until she heard their testimony, and then I came back in and said mine. Then I sat in the courtroom until the end of the hearing.

The judge refused them asylum. 

I had been trying to find a lawyer when I was at home – for their father to talk to. I did get a referral from a lawyer that I knew in Washington, D.C. I sent those recommendations back here hoping that maybe a lawyer would look at that and pick up the case. So far, that has not happened.

I’ve worked in substance abuse, all of that stuff. I understand the difference between what I can change and things I cannot change. But, I will fight like hell until I’m absolutely certain I have done everything possible. That’s why I want this story out. 

I asked the lawyer why I cannot sponsor these young men. I was told, “They’re in MPP. And that’s why you can’t.” I asked, ‘Why?’ The attorney said, ‘Because it’s the law.’ 

Well, I am not ready to accept that law. That law is an unjust law. It is akin to genocide if these men are sent back to Guatemala. I am just about 100% sure that sooner or later, they will be murdered. I am not going to stand for that. Until the end – whenever that may happen. Or when they’re free, really, to stay in Mexico. But, they were kidnapped in Mexico.

Many years ago, a man named Schindler helped the Jews in Nazi Germany. And now there is a woman named Schindler who is trying to help these two incredibly intelligent, competent young men to avoid being murdered. Two brown-skinned men. Until somebody tells me, reasonably, why I cannot do this – stop telling me I ‘can’t do it because it’s the law’. The law is unjust. The law is inhumane. And I don’t care what the law is. I want them out.

I got each of them a job at the Sidewalk School and I am paying their salaries. So they’re working. And they’re helping, because – you know what’s happened in the camp. They’re asking volunteers to stay out to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus.

Enrique and Melvin are helping with work in the camp that people are now having to do for each other. These young men would not be a drain on the welfare system of the United States. They have work. They are willing to work. They are competent and intelligent in construction. In Guatemala, Enrique wanted to start a cyber cafe. 

He was telling me, ‘Oh, when I come to the United States, I want to start a business.’ And, you know – I am now their abuela. And yesterday, when I was texting them and telling them to do something and wash their hands and all that, and they said, ‘Ok, Mom.’ They also they call me ‘grandmother’.

Enrique and Melvin took an appeal. We were trying to convince them to ask for a continuance to see which option would give more time to research this further. They didn’t do that. They told their stories to the judge. The judge deemed their testimony credible. She deemed my testimony credible. All I know right now is they don’t have a lawyer. And then they’re going for this appeal, if the courts are going to be operating.

They’re going to say “Too bad for you, out you go.” I say, what good reason is there for them not to finish whatever trial, whatever needs to be done for me to become a sponsor? It’s like nobody cares if they go back and get killed. People say, “I’m just following the law.” I’ll scream as loud as I can for as long as I can. This law is unjust.

All photos by Denise Cathey for The Brownsville Herald.