For Nathaniel Jackson, marrying the love of his life had bigger consequences than frustrating in-laws. His worries were directed elsewhere: at the fact that he was white, and his wife was Black. And it was the mid-1800s.
Eventually, the consequences became drastic, and Nathaniel, his wife and their family had to flee from Alabama. But instead of going north, they went further south — to the Rio Grande Valley, right along the U.S. and Mexico border.
South Texas’ image as a place of refuge has largely been defined by its recent role as a haven for newly-arrived immigrants from Central and South American countries. But over 150 years before the current conversation on migration began — before asylum seeking was defined and the Department of Homeland Security was formed — South Texas was offering sanctuary to citizens of its own country.
Nathaniel was seeking refuge from the racial intolerance he found in the American South. After marrying his wife, Matilda Hicks, Nathaniel encountered hostility from his community and faced the threat of their future children being born into slavery, which was law at the time for children born to a Black parent. In the 1850s, Nathaniel and Matilda, along with their children and a group of Black freedmen, left Alabama for the Río Grande River.
In San Juan, TX, Nathaniel established Jackson Ranch, his home and a future refuge for runaway slaves escaping the inhumane treatment of Black individuals in the Antebellum South. Located on what was once the official border between the U.S. and Mexico, Jackson Ranch was a route to freedom for many Black Americans. On the property are the Eli Jackson Ranch — established by Nathaniel’s son, Eli, after he died — and first Protestant and Spanish-speaking church in the Rio Grande Valley. The cemetery now serves as an eternal resting place for members of the Jackson family.
Throughout history, the border has been a safe haven for different groups of people: travelers looking for rest, workers looking for respite and migrants looking for safety. Less than 15 miles down the river from Jackson Ranch, another small church served as a refuge for local field workers, like Mario Moya, who came to the chapel looking for relief from the harsh South Texas sun.
La Lomita Chapel was built in 1865, the same year Nathaniel Jackson died. The tiny white chapel is located in Mission, TX, less than 1,000 feet from the Río Grande River and near acres of fields that offered work for individuals residing both in Texas and Mexico. In the mid-1900s, Mario would leave his home in Mexico and cross into Texas, where he spent his days working before returning to Mexico in the evenings.
In addition to its Sunday morning services, parishioners at La Lomita Chapel would serve meals to local field workers like Mario, offering them sustenance during otherwise grueling and draining days. The chapel’s reputation as a refuge has been passed down generations, and Yonathan Moya, Executive Director of Border Perspective, can see the significance of the service La Lomita Chapel has offered the Valley.
“This geographical region has become a place of sanctuary, a place of refuge, a place to rest, a place to serve people,” says Yonathan.
The significance isn’t lost on Yonathan’s mother, either. Eunice Moya came to the U.S. after marrying her husband, Hugo — a naturalized U.S. citizen, and Mario’s son. But Eunice didn’t want to leave her hometown of Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas, Mexico. While her husband saw the U.S. as an opportunity to start a large family and continue pursuing his role as a pastor, Eunice saw the loss that would come with leaving her own family.
“I was still seeking refuge in my parents,” Eunice says.
Thirty-five years later, Eunice and her family still live in different countries, but her source of refuge comes from something else: her faith.
Eunice’s relationship with God and trust in him give her access to relief and a place of rest. When her husband, Hugo died in 2021, he took with him the haven Eunice had found in their relationship — but because of her faith in God, she can still find sanctuary despite his absence.
“I find it in community, in church, in my family,” she says. “It’s more like a relationship.”
As the pastor of Iglesia Misionera Cristo Vive, Eunice leads a majority immigrant congregation that reflects the demographics of the community. By serving a population that faces financial instability, food insecurity and often a lack of access to resources granted to natural-born Americans, Eunice finds safety and security in the relationships she builds and God’s restorative hand in the community.
“For me, refuge means searching for God’s kingdom and his justice more every day,” Eunice says.
Refuge is what brought the migrant community that Eunice serves to South Texas, and it continues to draw more individuals across the border. But many of these individuals don’t stay in the Río Grande Valley — instead, the area serves as a temporary source of relief and refreshment for hundreds of asylum seekers each day.
By the time an individual or family arrives at the U.S.and Mexico border, they have likely already completed weeks of exhausting travel with little sleep, minimal food and barely anything with them besides the clothing on their backs. But their journey doesn’t end once their feet touch American soil.
Asylum seekers must be physically in the country in which they wish to seek asylum, and once individuals and families present themselves to U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, they are relocated to centers where staff and volunteers can get them in touch with their financial sponsors. From there, migrants make the second half of their journeys to their final U.S. destination.
Catholic Charities of the Río Grande Valley acts as one of these centers. Asylum seekers from countries such as El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Haiti that cross the southernmost part of the U.S. and Mexico border are transported to the two-story building that consumes half a block in McAllen, TX. But inside the blacked-out windows, migrants find a taste of the refuge they left their homes for.
Warm soup and water awaits asylum seekers as soon as they step through the doors — the first hot meal they’ve likely had during their journey. Catholic Charities staff and volunteers hand each family a hygiene kit that includes items like toothpaste and hand sanitizer. Yellow fleece blankets cover sleeping parents who lie on thick blue mats, and shelves filled with medicine, soaps, lotion and toothbrushes line a wall behind volunteers at the makeshift pharmacy. A large sign in Spanish at the registration counter lets migrants know they are in McAllen and notifies them of nearby bus stations, airports and local taxi services.
Items that were once guaranteed at home — like shoelaces and shampoo — become treasures. Individuals can request any item of clothing from a warehouse of donations to replace the only clothes they own. And children from different countries who don’t all speak the same language can color, read and play as their parents watch them smile despite the challenges of the days before.
Most individuals and families don’t stay longer than 48 hours in the respite center. Once contact is made with their sponsors and transportation is arranged, they begin the next leg of their journeys. But their brief stay in McAllen offers asylum seekers the comfort and rest they lacked during their travels and welcomed nourishment to give them energy to continue toward their next destination.
The border has offered itself as a haven for millions across centuries, providing people like Nathaniel, Mario and Eunice with refuge in times when they most needed it. And as cultures shift and the state of the world continues to change, the border will continue to serve as a sanctuary for generations to come.