Melinda Menzer is not a politician or an immigration lawyer, but she cares about refugees and she sure can swim.
So last weekend Menzer, 50, a professor of English at Furman University in South Carolina, headed to the U.S.-Mexico border, suited up and jumped into the water to raise awareness and money for HIAS, on a 10.2-mile swim that took over 5 hours. At the time of publication, she had already raised over $10,000.
Menzer has long been passionate about the role of the United States as a sanctuary for refugees and asylum seekers. This was the second swim for HIAS that Menzer has completed; her first was a 9.2 mile race in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 2017, which raised nearly $4000.
“I decided I could swim through a border too, to show that water connects us more than it divides us,” Menzer said.
It was windy on the morning of November 2, and Menzer had to delay her start by a few hours. But then the wind died down, and with a clear blue sky and the sun shining, she got into the 67-degree water on the American side of Lake Amistad, located on the Rio Grande north of Del Rio, Texas, and started swimming toward Mexico.
Her family and friends supported her – some kayaked next to her the entire way, helping navigate and providing nutrition, – but while Menzer declared the experience “a joy” her thoughts were never too far from her mission. Menzer is all too aware that refugees seeking sanctuary often risk their lives crossing water. In particular, she remembers how asylum seekers from El Salvador Oscar Alberto Martínez and his 23-month-old daughter, Angie Valeria, drowned in the Rio Grande in June 2019.
Menzer knew when she was crossing the border because she could see two flags in the distance, one American and one Mexican, and there are buoys that mark the boundary. But in the middle of the lake she felt there is no barrier.
“The water is the same (on both sides),” she said, recalling that meaningful moment. “It’s the artificial nature of these borders that keep people out or in.”
Menzer grew up knowing how important borders were in her family history. Her grandfather, as she put it, was born on the “right side” of a border: German territory, in what was then East Prussia. His German birth certificate allowed him to come to the United States but his siblings, born on the other side of that border in Lithuania, could not immigrate. In 1941, all but one of his family members were murdered.
The arbitrary lines of borders frustrate Menzer and she felt a sense of that frustration and its potential impact when she reached Mexico. She realized she was free to turn and head back home but so many who get close cannot reach the safety and freedom that is within sight.
“It’s that last step that’s hard and that’s where HIAS helps,” she said.
Before her swim Menzer visited the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition in Del Rio where she and her team dropped off scarves that were handmade by Menzer’s mother for people coming through this winter.
For Menzer’s fellow South Carolinians and most Americans who do not live near the border, Menzer understands that a border is often just a line on a map. But she would like people to consider those on either side of that sometimes artificial construct.
“Think more about the common humanity with the people on the other side of that line,” Menzer said. She also wants people to contact their elected officials to continue what she sees as the country’s obligation to help immigrants.
“People need to think about loving the stranger and their own experiences of being the stranger, and then they can empathize and help people who are the stranger today,” Menzer said.
You can support Melinda Menzer’s swim directly here.