“Do not come. Do not come,” Vice President Kamala Harris told would-be migrants from Guatemala to the United States last month. “If you come to our border, you will be turned back.”
But thousands are already standing at the gate, running from danger and corruption in their home countries, and encouraged by President Joe Biden’s plans to lift the immigration cap, fast-track the country’s estimated 10.5 million illegal immigrants to citizenship, and accept unaccompanied minors (except those from Mexico). The climbing number of illegal border crossings is headed for a two-decade high this year, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Finding a good political response to immigration—both documented and undocumented—seems, so far, to be impossible. Balancing compassion and justice—a land of opportunity with effective border security—is far easier dreamed than legislated.
“Immigration is like a big ball of yarn,” said Rondell Treviño, founder and director of The immigration Coalition (TiC). “How long would it take you to unravel that perfectly? It’s a complex, tangled-up ball of yarn. It’s going to take years for meaningful immigration reform to happen.”
But that doesn’t mean nothing can be done now. Last year, in the middle of the pandemic, Rondell moved from Memphis to Austin, Texas—about four hours from the Mexican border.
Once there, “I wanted a way people could serve immigrants and not feel like all they could do was call their representative,” said Rondell, who reads a lot of Tim Keller on biblical justice.
The high poverty rates, temporary housing, and scalding summers made it easy to see the need for clean water. So he partnered with water companies in his town and with local Christian leaders in the small villages—colonias—along the border he wanted to reach.
“We took off,” he said. In the last 18 months, TiC has attracted more than 400 monthly donors, who have helped pay for more than 21,000 people to drink and wash in 160,000 gallons of water.
“We do need border security,” Rondell said. “There is human and drug trafficking happening. We do need to secure the border. But we can also show compassion for those in need—we can do both. Because everyone is created in the image of God. We want to see people that way first, rather than through a news outlet or a political position.”
Jesus and Laura in Memphis
Rondell grew up in an unusually multiethnic Texas family—Hispanic biological parents, African American stepdad, Asian aunt, Caucasian aunt—who generally believed being good would get you to heaven. But the summer after his sophomore year of college, Rondell headed north to work with an uncle at Memphis Athletic Ministries.
“He recruited me by saying it was working in athletics,” Rondell said. “When I got there, I was like, ‘What is this? A ministry?’ and he said, ‘Oh, you just have to teach a Bible lesson here and there.’”
Rondell learned about Jesus right along with his athletes, and “God really used that time to stir my affections for him,” he said. Instead of heading back to Texas, Rondell enrolled in a discipleship program called Downline Ministries. So did a girl named Laura, who was there on scholarship from El Salvador. Her English wasn’t great, and he didn’t know Spanish, so they didn’t interact much. But two years later—when Laura was back in El Salvador working on her business administration degree and Rondell was enrolled in seminary—they started exchanging Twitter messages.
“I added him as a Facebook friend, and he liked all my profile pictures,” Laura said. “I was like, ‘Oh, I guess he likes me.’”
He did like her. Ignoring the Spanish-speakers around him, he asked her to tutor him in Spanish over Skype. “We set up calls for Wednesday nights,” she said. “I’d teach him Spanish for like three minutes and after that we’d talk forever. We couldn’t stop laughing.”
Nine months of long-distance dating later, they were engaged. Two months after that, they got married.
“We got married so fast because we were crazy in love, but also because we knew it was going to take a long time for my visa,” Laura said. They figured if they got married quickly, they wouldn’t mind the wait as much. But that wasn’t how it worked out.
Immigrating to the United States
“It’s insane—the connection you get with your husband after being married,” Laura said. “It’s brutal to be apart.”
On the advice of an immigration attorney, the couple waited six months to submit Laura’s paperwork, so the government would know their romance wasn’t a fraud. They waited to hear back, then got preliminary approval, then waited, then got approval for a medical check-up, then waited, then got approval for an interview.
Laura was scared to death to mess up in the interview, answering questions about how much time Rondell spent studying, where he was right then, his phone number, his birthday, his exact age, his hair color, how they got to know each other. “I had to get everything right, with no mistakes,” she said. “It was nerve-wracking. I took every single document I could think of. I had a folder as thick as a book.”
When she was finally approved, the two were so excited they bought plane tickets right away. But then her passport was delayed a few extra weeks, and they had to buy the tickets again. After she arrived in Chicago, she went through another immigration checkpoint. “You’re in the U.S., waiting for someone to be like, ‘No, we don’t believe you,’” Laura said. She had waited 18 months to be with her husband. Another 45 minutes later, she was on her way.
Objectively, Rondell and Laura know their experience was relatively smooth and quick. They had access to paperwork, attorneys, and financing. But “up to this day, we can still see how those years affected our relationship, because of the long distance, the waiting, how hard it was,” Laura said. “It’s so painful to be waiting for the one you love, and not be able to go to him. There was a lot of miscommunication because we were on the phone and English is my second language. And you can’t hug him or reach for his hand to show him you still love him even when you’re mad. A lot of wounds come from that.”
But so did a purpose.
The immigration Coalition
While he was waiting for his wife, Rondell got up close and personal with both theology and immigration.
“I became aware of the complexities of immigration, and also how divisive it is in the church,” he said. “I ended up studying my own history as a fourth-generation Mexican American on my mother’s side, and with an immigrant biological father.”
He learned that most immigrants are running away from two things—physical danger and poverty. Without strong democratic governments, “there are gangs, human trafficking, drug trafficking—a lot of kids are targeted,” he said. As many of the brightest and most motivated—those who would be good entrepreneurs, government officials, teachers, or doctors—head to America, the situation for those left behind never gets better.
“Immigrants love their homes, but feel forced to leave,” Rondell said. “They want a better life, and they want security for their kids. . . . One of the biggest ways to help is improving their lives in their home countries.” But the millions of dollars in U.S. aid needs to come with lots of strings, he said—it does little good to give it to corrupt governments.
Rondell could also see ways to improve the situation at the border: offer security and compassion for asylum seekers who have legitimate claims. Establish asylum centers in the countries, instead of at the border, so people could apply before leaving everything to trek north. Aim for a faster response time—right now it can take years, which is too long for a parent to wait for a child’s safety. And design an effective process for undocumented workers and their children who do make it into the country. Largely ignored, they’re unable to move forward or backward, and can easily be abused by employers.
Rondell spent a year working for the National Immigration Forum—he’d send emails to churches offering to come and speak for free on a biblical perspective on immigration. “You’d get four emails back after sending 500,” he said. It was 2016, and immigration was a hot topic.
Rondell would draw on themes from Genesis (everyone is made in the image of God) through Revelation (songs from every tongue and tribe). He’d talk about the need for justice, for order, for following the authority of the immigration system. And he’d talk about compassion, about sharing a cup of water or a warm blanket with someone who has nothing.
“That was intense,” he said. “There was definitely some pushback. Immigration was becoming so polarizing. But it was also fruitful to be able to build relationships and connect folks with understanding the scriptures.”
Wanting to do even more, he started TiC in 2017—just a few weeks after beginning a job at a PCA church. “I mainly wanted to equip people with podcast articles and sermons,” he said. (His articles have titles like The Reformation and Immigrant: Sola Scriptura and The Deep Theological Truth of Being Immigrants as Christians.)
Last year, after taking a call to associate pastor at Hope Community Church in Austin, he immediately started researching ways to give physical help to those at the border. While COVID restrictions pushed down the number of migrants, it popped back up in 2021.
After Biden took office, “the very next day the coyotes (human traffickers) were here organizing groups of children to take them to the United States,” Guatemalan president Alejandro Giammattei told CBS News the day before Harris’s visit in early June.
As a result, the camps near the border are swelling.
“The colonias are heavily underresourced, with a lack of food, clothing, and water,” Rondell said. “Sixty percent are living in poverty.”
So Rondell called a local water company and asked if he could buy water at a discount. Then he looked around—not for social services or government partners, but for churches and pastors.
TiC is sandwiched between churches—on one side, about 10 American churches pitch in to help fund the delivery of water and the gospel message. On the other, colonia churches serve as distribution centers.
“We want to come alongside those colonia pastors and leaders, and to support the work they’re already doing in their communities,” Rondell said. So he’s careful to vet them, and to stay in touch. Next week, he’s gathering with five of them for dinner to celebrate the progress so far. (“They’re all within 20 minutes of each other,” he said. “They all know each other.”)
He wants them to know TiC is around for the long haul. “Many of them are spending their own money to care for the community,” he said. “When we can come alongside, there’s a ripple effect. Just the other day we got a call from a church that is trying to do a VBS in a colonia community. They asked if we could help fund the food and sharing of the gospel. We love that.”
As post-pandemic travel becomes easier, Rondell hopes to bring his American pastors and church leaders to the border to connect with the colonia pastors. “That’s our heart behind it—how we can get the church involved,” he said.
One of the leaders they’ll meet is Connie Villanueva, who traded a six-figure salary to work with people who often don’t even make minimum wage.
“Today I was contacted by a father who lives in one of our colonias,” Villanueva posted on Facebook recently. She runs a community center in Monte Alto, Texas. “He asked if I could give him a ride to go sell some bags of aluminum cans and some copper to be able to get money to buy water at the Watermill for his pets and drinking water for the family. This family has no vehicle for transportation, no electricity at the house and no running water at the time.”
His is a family she visits often with water bottles and jugs supplied by TiC. Villanueva grew up in Texas with a Mexican-born father and Michigan-bred mother. For more than three decades, she worked her way up to litigation specialist at Farmers Insurance Group. Last year, after she stopped working, she began caring full-time for her aging parents. Any spare time goes to helping those around her.
“We don’t have police here, so we tend to get more undocumented people,” she explained. Monte Alto, which is less than an hour from the border, has about 3,000 residents. “I’d say the poverty rate here is about 80 percent.”
She has delivered TiC’s water to families living in RVs, families who light fires indoors to keep warm in the winter, families sweltering in triple-digit summer heat.
“We had a kid get run over by a truck, so they airlifted him,” Villanueva said. “I went to go talk to his mom. Her house doesn’t have any doorknobs, so anybody can go in there. She lost her job at a little drive-thru store because she missed too much work taking her son to therapy. She was telling me what a good job it had been because it paid $6 an hour. She thought it was a high-paying job.”
Villanueva visited a family that had asked the school to stop sending food to their home—not because they didn’t need it, but because they couldn’t afford the electric bill, and without a working refrigerator the food would spoil.
She knows a welding contractor—an undocumented immigrant himself—who pays his undocumented welders $20 for a day of work. “It reminds me of the story in the Bible of the guy who asks the king for a pardon, but who won’t pardon his servant,” she said, referring to Matthew 18:21–35. “The people are not doing well financially, so they take advantage of the next person down.”
Situations like these are dark, and can be discouraging. No matter how much water or food or clothing you deliver, no matter how much health education or job training or COVID vaccinations you offer, the need is always more than you can supply.
“But I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” said Villanueva, who carries gospel tracts with her for when conversations turn spiritual. “I have seen our poorest people have so much faith. They have to trust in God for them to make it.”
She’s often the answer to their prayers. “What keeps me motivated—man, you should see the looks on their faces when I show up in my truck,” she said. “One lady tells me, ‘Every time something happens to us—we have no electricity or no hot water—you bring us water or a heater.’”
They call her an angel, though she knows they don’t mean it literally. “They’re just so thankful,” she said. A lot of her supplies come from people who see the needs she posts on Facebook. The rest comes from TiC.
“We’re very blessed to have Rondell,” Villanueva said. “We’ve been doing this forever, and this is the first time I’ve had somebody commit to invest this much in our community.”
Over the past five years, TiC (originally The Immigration Project) has picked up more than 20,000 followers on Instagram and another 30,000 on Facebook. Four hundred of them give monthly—some as little as $4—which provides 80 percent of TiC’s budget.
With the money, TiC delivers clean drinking water every two weeks to more than 200 families in Monte Alto, more than 800 families in Edinburg, Texas, and about 170 families in two colonias on the Mexican side of the border. In addition, TiC provides water and food to more than 1,000 asylum-seekers in Reynosa, Mexico. “Many times people come by the churches to pick up water and end up joining the church,” Rondell said. “Sharing the gospel and providing for tangible needs—like Jesus did—goes hand in hand.”
Once you start meeting needs, it’s easy to see more you can address. “My father-in-law has a successful construction company in El Salvador, and we partnered with him to build a well there for 780 families,” Rondell said. This was significant for TiC, since having consistently clean water means those families are less likely to risk migration.
Back at the border colonias, he’s added food and clothing deliveries.
Rondell’s read When Helping Hurts, so he knows he’s providing a band-aid for a much deeper problem. He knows people need more than a glass of water—they need immigration assistance, job training, and language classes. They need economic opportunity, stability, and education. They need Jesus, a healthy church community, and solid gospel preaching. “The hope is we’re not doing this forever,” he said. “Down the road we need to see more sustainability. As we’re doing this, we’re learning what that looks like.”
But he also knows that people don’t need less than a glass of water. “I’ve had conversations with some folks who started a well but didn’t implement it for three years because they wanted long-term sustainability and community ownership,” he said. “But people also need water now.”
“We both have so much passion for this—we cannot stop,” Laura said. “We keep pushing toward people, knowing that we can love them and help them, in the name of Jesus.”