Attend any grassroots social justice event in the Rio Grande Valley and chances are Mike Seifert helped organize or promote it. Seifert is the seemingly tireless organizer for RGV Equal Voice Network, a coalition of nonprofits that tackles issues in the region from education to immigration reform and health care.
“I see myself as a bridge,” he says. “It’s a privilege to be here and work with so many strong leaders, almost all of them women living in the colonias. They are the ones who really get things done.”
On a recent morning, Seifert was busy setting up a room at the Harlingen Public Library for a conference on militarization at the border. Out-of-state congressional members were in Cameron County to attend a fundraiser for Democratic Congressman Filemon Vela. Seifert and RGV had seized the opportunity to educate the elected officials about the negative effects the border security buildup is having on families. The recent increases in Border Patrol agents, Texas National Guard troops, and Texas state troopers’ use of gunboats and spy planes, in addition to an already heavily armed federal presence on the border, means there are a lot of people with guns near residential areas.
At the event, visiting Congressman Frank Pallone, a Democrat from New Jersey, tells the audience he’s never thought about the issue of border militarization and its impact on communities. “I’ve never looked at the immigration reform debate from the militarization point of view,” he says. “It was worthwhile enough just for me to be here for that, because it’s not something we talk about in New Jersey.”
It’s moments like these that energize Seifert. The Valley region is one of the poorest in the nation, and is often overlooked by congressional leaders unless they are debating spillover violence or border security. But border communities, like any others in the country, want better schools, health care and job opportunities. The Rio Grande Valley may be economically disadvantaged, Seifert says, but it also has one of the fastest-growing and youngest populations in the nation.
“This region is the future. It’s a brown community, a young community and it’s a mistake for any politician to ignore this region,” he says. “Because this community won’t forget, and those politicians are working on borrowed time.”
But it works both ways, Seifert says. Border communities also need to participate in elections and engage with their elected officials. “It’s a steep climb getting there,” he says. “But what keeps me going is the energy of the youth and the wisdom from the veterans.”
Seifert grew up in Alabama, but he considers the Valley, where he’s lived for the past two decades, his real home. As a former priest who worked for many years in Mexico and Brownsville’s Cameron Park colonia, Seifert says he learned two important things: “You need to be a citizen of the community you are working in,” he says. “I also learned that too many times, society assigns undeserved credit to people like priests, doctors and lawyers when they haven’t earned it.”
The 59-year-old has taken those lessons to heart. He’s exceedingly humble about his contributions to the Valley. “The best thing I can do is stay out of the way,” he jokes. In 2008, he left the Catholic Church to marry Dr. Marsha Griffin, chief of pediatrics at the Brownsville Community Health Center. Together, the two are a dynamic and potent force in supporting social justice causes in the region and abroad. “It’s a privilege to be here,” Seifert says. “This is one of the poorest communities in the country, but you don’t see homeless people in the streets. Here people take care of one another.”