A Special Report From the Border
A member of our admin team is volunteering for two weeks in June at Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas, one of the organizations running respite shelters for people seeking entry and asylum at the southern border. The goal of Annunciation House and similar organizations is to provide sanctuary and hospitality to refugees and the migrant poor, and to help them get to their loved ones in the United States. This is an account of her time there, which we hope will give others an up-close view of this humanitarian crisis and the wonderful organizations working to address it. Click on the links below to read each entry and check back daily for current installments.
Our government is forcibly deporting people across the border to Juarez, so every day hundreds of people we would have been getting in our network of shelters in El Paso are being simply let off just across the bridges with no money, no food, no shelter, no water. They will be easy prey for traffickers of various sorts. The number of arrivals at our shelter has gone way down, so we are not frantically busy helping new people. All of us agree that the less crazy days are kind of a relief, but that we’d rather be full and know that all these people are safe with us.
With no big buses arriving, the day seemed marked by “weird things.” Things we wouldn’t have time for if we were in a constant frenzied state with new arrivals. While on phone duty, I took a phone call from a guy who is the contact for a woman and a kid at our shelter. He’s also the contact for the husband and a daughter, who are still in detention. The guy was calling because he’d been contacted by DHS or by this guy in detention and had been asked to send picture of the father’s birth certificate and the daughter’s birth certificate, to prove that he’s the parent. But this guy on the phone said he didn’t have the email address he’s supposed to send this to, and he didn’t know what to do. I gave him the Border Patrol number for El Paso (from a list posted on the wall), where he said his friend/relative was detained, and I also called that number myself. I asked what the address was to which they were having people send these documents. The guy said it could have been any one of lots of addresses, so he couldn’t say. I asked if he could find out if I gave him the name. Would it be in their case file? He said no, tell them to call their consulate and the consulate would help them. I called back to tell the man this news (although another volunteer tells me that the consulates don’t actually do anything to help), and he said, “Well, I have the email address. It’s just that it doesn’t work.” Then he read me what he had, and he had a period after the “at” sign and also at the end of the whole thing. I told him to take out those periods and try it again. He didn’t call back, so maybe that worked. I thought, “Wow, I might have helped prevent a kid from getting separated from her dad just by knowing that!” But then another volunteer told me that they always lie to these people and tell them “we just need this one thing and then you’ll be released,” but that’s not the case. There will be some other reason they don’t release them. But this was the first time I’d had that particular question from someone.
Joe had a more difficult issue to solve. He’d been trying to help a family staying at our shelter to change their court date. The court date had been scheduled for New York (I think) in just a few days. But the woman had been hospitalized for a few days, and it looked unlikely that their Greyhound trip would get them there in time. There is a number on the DHS forms to call if you need to change the court date. It doesn’t work. Either there was no answer, ever, or there was a recording saying the number was out of service. He called several other numbers we have for different offices or numbers he found on the paperwork for some other thing. Many of them didn’t get through or had an “out of service or disconnected” recording, including a number that two other offices had both given him. It just shouldn’t be this hard to do a basic thing. Why can’t they put accurate phone numbers on their forms? How can people who don’t speak English and aren’t used to navigating any government bureaucracies be expected to navigate this? It’s worse than getting an answer to a tax form question from the IRS, and there are lives at stake.
Then there was the missing guy, Francisco (not his real name). This man and his teenage son had been at our shelter. We got a call from their sponsoring family member (using the number he’d used when calling us back to let us know of reservation details) asking if they’d left. I checked, and yes, they had. We had a yellow slip for him in the yellow slip box (for guests who’d left, with a note about his departure time for the airport run on it). But he hadn’t turned up at the final destination. Yes, he had a layover somewhere, in a big airport. I had visions of this guy and his son just getting lost and missing the connecting flight. I gave the sponsor the confirmation code again and encouraged him to ask the airline if they’d been on both flights. He seemed to like that idea and said he would. But then he called back a half hour later and asked the same question again, seeming to not have registered (or done) what I was suggesting. So I called the airline, sat on hold for about half an hour, and at least learned that they did make both flights. But they must have found each other because the sponsor didn’t call back. But how do you connect with someone at a huge airport if you don’t have a cell phone, especially if you have never been on a plane and have no idea where to go to meet those who are picking you up?
So it was a day of weird issues, issues we couldn’t have taken on if we’d been crazy busy.
Today was the last day for Brittany, another volunteer I’ve come to like a lot and will miss when we go back to our normal lives. Brittany is one of the Peace Corps alums here. She served in Cambodia. After her volunteer stint, she’s actually headed back to Cambodia for a little while to train incoming Peace Corps volunteers who will be teaching English there. Brittany arrived here thinking there would be a place for her to stay at the shelter she was assigned to (like me, she had started at another one but that one had been closed down so she was reassigned), but when she arrived, there was no room there. So one of the Catholic sisters working there arranged for her to stay at their convent. It was on the way to the shelter from where I was staying, so I gave Brittany some rides, and we went out one evening for margaritas to celebrate her 30th birthday. I’ll miss her. She was fun.
This afternoon the woman I took to the ER last night left with her family for her 3-day Greyhound trip. They were waiting for their volunteer driver in the comedor (our “staging area” for departures) on one of my trips into the building. They greeted me and thanked me for my help last night. Even the kids looked delighted to see me, like we were old friends, even though I didn’t actually interact with them all that much last night. Their mom looked like a whole different person. I guess that doctor was right that she’d be OK to travel after all. I wasn’t sure the food bags that we give them for their trips contain the healthiest food in the world (or enough food, frankly), so I had brought in a bag of those little oranges that I had bought and didn’t expect to finish before I had to leave town. I had been hoping to connect with them and give these oranges to them, so I’m glad that happened.
But mostly today was all about airport runs. I did two runs to two different bus companies, too, but the really memorable parts of the day concerned airports and getting our guests to their flights.
When I arrived, I learned that last night someone had forgotten to notify our shuttle drivers of the next day’s airport ride needs, so it was all hands on deck for volunteers who had cars to get 26 people to the airport at once for multiple flights. We just hoped we didn’t get another bus with new people arriving while so many of us were gone. Out came all the car seats and booster seats, and off we all went. Not all the drivers spoke Spanish well enough to explain things once we got there, so I did a lot of that, while another volunteer dealt with the thankfully very helpful TSA agent who was handling all these arrivals, whose travel documents were the immigration papers issued by the Department of Homeland Security when they were released from detention.
We managed to print everyone’s boarding passes at the machines with the confirmation codes – except for the three parties (all of them women traveling with kids) for whom there’d been weather delays that meant a complete change of their travel plans. Those people all had to return with us to the shelter until tomorrow for their new, rebooked flights. After their arduous and dangerous journey to get this far, hearing that it would be one more day before they could see their sponsoring family members, was hard. One mom looked especially disappointed when I broke this news to her (although she quickly rallied), but the other two took it in stride and said that with everything they’d already been through, this one-day delay was nothing. None of the people in this group had ever been on a plane or in an airport. I had done a couple airport runs before today, but never with a group this size and never with people who had so many questions and fears. When you get to thinking about it (which you typically don’t), there really are a lot of complicated details to know about flying and airports.
Among those things:
- How to get on an escalator if you’ve never seen one before. (The kids are thrilled at the sight of the escalator, parents not so much.)
- No, you don’t have to know the pilot’s name (really “driver,” since she used the word “conductor”) because you’re not going to have to ask for the driver to find the right plane. No, nobody knows the driver’s name ahead of time. Well, none of the passengers. Yes, it’s OK to get on a plane without knowing who the driver is. I promise. Although that is kind of weird, when you think about it.
- There are different companies that run planes. If you have questions about your flight later in your trip, you need to find the counters where the words on the wall behind the counter match the one on this travel slip from the shelter right here. See?
- No, really, really, really, I PROMISE that there is no way you can possibly get off at the wrong stop. Each flight will only go to one place, and then everyone will get off at the same time. It’s not like a bus.
- No, there is also no way you can possibly get on the wrong plane because they are going to scan (let’s say “check”) this weird black and white thing here before they let you on, and they won’t let you go onto the wrong plane and end up in the wrong city.
- You do, however, need to go to the right gate to catch your plane. But the word “gate” (“puerta”) is misleading because you’re not really looking for a door (“puerta” is the word for door in Spanish). So don’t think about doors. You’re really looking for a waiting room area with chairs in it and a counter where the agents stand and a number that corresponds to the one right here on your boarding pass. Each of these waiting rooms can be found by going to the section of the airport that corresponds to this letter here. (See up there where that sign with an arrow is that says “B”? You’ll go to the right to “part B” of the airport and then look for the number next to the B on this paper.)
- No, I PROMISE you can’t get off at the wrong stop.
- You’re going to have to get off this first plane and onto a new one in Dallas-Fort Worth or Los Angeles or Atlanta. (Thinking to yourself: “Oh, God. That’s going to be so stressful for them. Please, Universe, be nice and help them.”) Those airports are much bigger than this one, and you might have to go to a whole different “terminal,” which is like another airport like this one we’re in now, a different building, but it will be close to the other terminals, kind of like a neighborhood of airports. Just ask for help, but just know that you might have to go to a different building. That’s OK.
- In every airport, there will be screens like this one here. You’ll look on the Departures screen. There’s just Arrivals and Departures. “Departures” means “salidas.” If you forget which one is which, remember that you’re looking for the longer word. Oh. I guess if you can’t read, just ask people.
- If you have to go to another terminal, there may be a bus or train to take you there. These buses and trains only go around within the airport (the neighborhood of airports). No, they don’t cost any money. And you DON’T LEAVE THE AIRPORT to catch one. You are not going to look for a bus or train station per se, but it’s OK if you find yourself going on a bus or a train. That won’t mean you’re in the wrong place.
- No, I promise you that you can’t get off at the wrong stop.
- In your travels through airports, there might be more escalators like this one, and there might be sidewalks that are mechanical, where you just stand there and they take you. Just watch what everyone else is doing to get on them. It’s OK.
- No, your gate number for your other flights will not be the same as this one. This one is just for this first flight, in this airport that we’re in right now.
- Yes, I am absolutely certain that you can’t get off the plane at the wrong stop.
- Yes, there are bathrooms in the airport. (You show them the standard “pictures” for men’s and women’s bathrooms, which some of them seem not to have ever seen before.) No, you don’t have to pay to use them.
- Yes, there are bathrooms in the planes, and no, you don’t have to pay to use them, and no, you don’t have to ask to use them in English, either. Just go to the back of the plane. That’s where they are.
And since our guests come from countries where the police are in bed with drug traffickers and murderous gangs and since they’ve recently been in detention here, where people took their shoelaces and personal effects and dumped out their prescription medication in front of them:
- You’re going to have to remove your shoes, jacket, and anything electronic and put everything in those gray plastic bins that you see over there. But you will get them back. They’ll come out the other side of that machine. Don’t forget to get them before you leave this area.
- They are probably going to pat you down (apparently they do this more for immigrants traveling on DHS paperwork). This is normal and common. It does not mean you are being arrested or detained. Women will pat down women, and men will pat down men. But don’t worry. It’s OK.
- If you brought your water bottles with you and they still have water in them, they will tell you to dump them out in that blue container over there. That’s OK. That does not mean you are being arrested or detained. It’s just a rule for everyone going on the plane. Keep the water bottles themselves and refill them in the bathrooms and things along your journey. Remember, the water is potable everywhere. Yes, I drink the water from faucets myself.
The fear and anxiety over flying surprised me, after everything else they’d survived to this point, but then I realized it probably shouldn’t. This was, as I tried to tell the fearful people, the least difficult part of their arduous journey. They would be in comfortable seats, be out of the hot sun and weather, not preyed upon by any gangs or traffickers, be served drinks and maybe meals, and then in a few hours they’d be in the arms of their loved ones. But of everything they had experienced in the course of getting to this point, this was probably the least familiar setting and some of them probably felt the most disoriented by it. Everything else was more dangerous, but at least more familiar.
Today a really surprising thing happened. I was working on the intake process, meeting with people newly arrived to us to call their sponsoring relatives to tell them their loved ones are with us and explain the process for buying a ticket for her transportation. And there was a single woman, 72 years old, traveling alone. This is the first time I have met a guest who wasn’t crossing the border with minor children. People never come to us alone. The first thing she wanted me to know was how important it is that we are here doing this work, and how she wants to volunteer herself someday because this is such a great thing. But first she has to learn English, she said. I told her that there were places she could volunteer and help people without knowing English, so maybe she could look for them as soon as she got settled.
The next thing she wanted me to know was that she almost wasn’t here. And actually, her 40-something-year-old daughter, who was traveling with her, had been sent back across the border. She told me that the women guards were meaner than the men, and the Mexican law enforcement meaner than the Americans. But she seemed to be the beneficiary of several people who simply cared and did what they could, and she was marveling at it all. She wanted to tell me about that, too. First there was a doctor who saw her in detention and had a fit and demanded that the guards take her to a hospital. Whatever she had going on medically (or maybe just the trip itself and the small amount of food in detention?) caused her to lose 20 kilos, which meant that her clothes, which were in tatters, then no longer fit, either. So a different doctor, a woman who treated her in the hospital, went out and bought her some clothes so she’d have something to wear when she left the hospital. Then she was in a line or on a bus for people being deported to Juarez, and a (male) guard saw her standing there and told the others, “İSácamela!” (“get her out of there (for me)!”) and told them she would never survive being dumped on the streets of Juarez and could not be sent there. So THAT explained her highly unusual presence among our group of new arrivals—a troubled DHS employee who wasn’t comfortable sending an older woman to her death. Well, that’s encouraging. And interesting.
She also said that some DHS agents she encountered were actually encouraging people to get lawyers to help with their cases. I heard that from people yesterday, too. Some of the people arriving yesterday told me they had been treated well and had been urged to get lawyers. We hear all kinds of stories: horror stories about hostility and gratuitous cruelty on the part of the government workers and sometimes these other stories of people being decent. I think it must be incredibly hard to be a decent person and work in that environment and see what is happening up close all day and feel powerless to do much against it. And part of me thinks there’s no way a good person could do this for a living, so all good people should quit and refuse to be a part of this. But then the stories we hear about how everyone is treated in detention would only get worse. It’s important that people who are humane and treat these traumatized people with dignity remain in their jobs, right? It’s hard to wrap my mind around. Most days there isn’t enough time to ponder this dilemma.
Today also saw my third call to Dr. Gutierrez, but the first one in which he recommended that we take someone to the emergency room rather than bring them by his office. This was a 20-something-year-old woman who was clutching her abdomen, just under her right front ribs, and having trouble standing up due to the pain, which she said wrapped around her side to her back. She said it was a pain she’d never had before, and that it started right after eating. She looked pretty miserable. He said he’d rather not take any chances on this, so take her to the university medical center, which has the local emergency room. I was told that it is Annunciation House policy not to separate families, EVER, so the entire family had to go to the hospital. Such a nice family—mom, dad, two little kids—and I felt so badly for them that on top of fleeing a horrible situation and enduring this trip, now they were dealing with this, too. I dropped them off at the entrance and then went to park and walked back. In the meantime, she threw up in the garbage can outside the door to the emergency room. The dad ended up staying with the little kids in the waiting room while I went in with her. I also filled out the registration forms at the desk for her.
One of the first things to observe about our new surroundings was how calm the emergency room was compared to the warehouse that was serving as our hospitality center. Everything was so orderly and quiet! The second thing that struck me was how kind everyone was. The nurse who greeted us at the arrival desk came back to check on her after her shift was over, before she went home. All the other people we dealt with (nurses, ultrasound tech, doctor) treated her with respect and kindness. One time when I went out to update the husband on what was happening, he and the kids were eating, and he told me that nurse at the check-in desk had bought them dinner. After a blood test and a whole bunch of ultrasound pictures, they ruled out anything really scary and the doctor said it was most likely gastritis, which was a process-of-elimination diagnosis. He thought this was very likely the problem, but if she didn’t get better in a couple days, she should be re-evaluated. He said the remedies were over the counter, like Pepcid and another one I can’t remember, but when I said they didn’t have any money, he said he’d prescribe them and then they’d be covered at the hospital pharmacy.
It turned out that the pharmacy he’d told us to go to had just closed for the night, so we had to go to a different one elsewhere in the hospital, which said they’re not supposed to give out meds directly (??). But when I explained the situation, the kind pharmacist said that since these are OTC meds and cost pennies on the dollar anyway, he would just put some in zip-lock bags for us. He said it wasn’t even worth doing up the paperwork to dispense them normally, in this case. When I told him they had a 3-day bus trip that was starting the following afternoon, he put 5 days worth in the baggies. The hospital printed out an explanation of her diagnosis and its remedies in Spanish and English, and I pointed out to the husband that the Spanish was behind the English in that packet. (The patient was three sheets to the wind and not fully with it.) And explained the dosage of the meds, too. Since those were just in the zip-lock baggies, they didn’t have bottle labels, but I showed him where in the instructions it said how often to take each one.
Given how miserable this poor woman looked and how much trouble she had being upright and how little energy she had, I was skeptical when the doctor said she should be fine to travel the next afternoon. She didn’t look anywhere close to fine to me, and her bus trip would start in about 15 hours. He said that she should avoid fatty and spicy foods, and that gastritis could be caused or aggravated by not eating enough, too. When I told her this, she said that they had been in detention for five days, during which they were given an apple, a bowl of brothy soup, and a piece of bread per person per day.
She had given hers to her kids.
So many acts of kindness that I witnessed or heard about today. It felt like the whole day was an extended meditation on kindness and its impact.
The very hardest parts of doing this happen when you’re meeting someone who had a family member who was separated and taken away. And today we had two of these. Two that I was involved with—maybe more at our center today in general.
The first one was the 19-year-old daughter of one of the women who arrived at our shelter with a younger child. She is so worried about her daughter, who has been deported to Juarez, and she is right to be worried. Her daughter has a good chance of being kidnapped or assaulted. The migrants are very vulnerable, and probably especially a teenager/young woman on her own. Her mom was streaming tears as she asked if we could do anything. I hate it that we can’t. But maybe if they can find a pro-bono lawyer who will work with them, they could get the daughter here. Maybe I’m just telling myself that to make this more bearable. I have not seen anyone 18 or older allowed to enter unless they had one or more kids.
It’s so hard to sit with someone whose loved one was taken away, especially their kid. These parents face a wrenching choice of which child to save: the younger child, who’s still with them and who will be much safer in the U.S. than in Guatemala or El Salvador or Honduras, or the older one who is now in a dangerous predicament in Juarez on their own, but who, being older, might be able to manage and eventually join them. So they sit in front of you and weep, and you tell them how incredibly sorry you are that they are suffering this. You give them the list of pro-bono legal groups around the country and encourage them to contact them, but you don’t know if there’s anything anyone can do, and you don’t know if someone that devastated can even take in information like that. So you sit. And you just be there.
The second separated person we learned about was the 72-year-old father of one of our guests. The man has prostate issues and high blood pressure, and of course they confiscate all medications when they take people into detention, so his daughter was worried about that, too. Our guest didn’t want to make travel arrangements to join their family sponsors because she wanted to wait until she was reunited with her father. Her kids and husband were at our hospitality center. She was convinced that her father could not still be in detention because surely they wouldn’t do that to an older man with health concerns, right? We tried to be gentle as we told her that actually, yes, they would. They often don’t allow the grandparents of the kids to stay, just the parents.
She thought he might be at a shelter like ours now, and she wondered if we could find out where he is. But all of the area hospitality centers for migrants and asylum seekers use the same system we do, where they call the sponsoring friend or family member. So if he was at one of them, her family in the U.S. would have heard from them by now so they could make his travel arrangements. She told us that her dad had talked to her sister, in fact. But no one had made or asked about any travel arrangements. Someone had called her and said, “Here. I’m giving the phone to your father. He’s crying. Talk to him.” And then her father had cried on the phone for a few minutes, and then the phone call ended. So that couldn’t have been one of the hospitality centers in our network. But she said it couldn’t have been a detention center because they tried to call the number back and got a private person’s number, and no one answered it. It sounds like one of the workers at the detention center felt some compassion for this elderly man and used his personal phone to let him call his daughter. That probably breaks all kinds of rules, but it certainly intrigued us as a possibility. Someone on the inside trying to be humane? What would it be like to have to enforce these separation policies as your job? What would it have been like for a daughter to get a call like that from her father? And will either of these sisters see their father again?
That family had another mystery connected with them. We have gotten several calls from a guy asking for them and offering to drive them to Florida, for a fee. He also offered to drive any Cubans staying with us to Florida (only Cubans). The sister in Florida, who’s sponsoring them, has never heard of this guy and has no idea how he knew them by name and knew to call us to ask for them. She’s alarmed. So are we. The family members staying with us have never heard of him, either. He called back again today. We put a notice up on one of the bulletin boards we use to post travel slips that no one should give any information to this guy about any of our guests. He might be just a concerned person who genuinely wants to help—or he might be trafficker. The whole thing has all of us unsettled.
One of the volunteers here, Kim, is a first-grade teacher and relates really well to the kids even though she speaks hardly any Spanish. She bought one of those bottles of bubbles that you blow. It was a big hit. I mean, a REALLY big hit. A lot of the little kids have come up to us volunteers today, hours later, asking for the “bubble lady.”
I had some fun today with a little girl who was sitting with her family in one of the small rooms in which we do the phone calls to the sponsors. The room had been decorated with pictures of animals taken from a wall calendar or something. She was touching each picture and naming the animal in it and we were saying the animal names together. Until she got to one and turned to me, totally mystified, and said, “What’s this?” And I realized I had no idea how to say “manatee” in Spanish. I told her the name in English and told her I didn’t know how to say it in Spanish. She repeated the word a couple times and told me she’s going to learn English.
And so it goes. A day of sitting with grief-stricken people afraid for their loved ones’ lives, manatees, and the bubble lady. It feels surreal that all of this could be part of one day.
We had quite the day today in Juarez. Joe asked to come with us, and we were glad to have him. Joe just finished his sophomore year at Saint Louis University and is majoring in physics and philosophy. He’s here as a volunteer all summer. The three of us first had breakfast at Denny’s to kind of get on the same page about what our plans and goals were, and some ground rules, such as that if any one of us is not comfortable with a place or a course of action, we would stop and not do it, and that we would be open to whatever seemed to unfold, and that our goal was simply to learn what we could about what was happening with the migrant crisis on the other side of the border.
Without any assistance of a phone or GPS (both not working in Mexico), we managed to find our way to Casa del Migrante, which I’d read about online. It’s a diocesan shelter (and it looked quite nice) for migrants. They have tight security there, as they should. (Migrants are in acute danger of becoming victims of trafficking.) We talked outside the gate with a woman who was coming by to volunteer, and then someone went and got someone to talk to us. We explained that we were volunteers at a shelter helping migrants in El Paso, and we’d been hearing about many more people being dropped off in Juarez. We all had the day off, so we decided to come and learn more. She told us where the Mexican border people usually drop people off (at a couple specific offices/places just over the bridges) and what they could most use for their work (underwear, both men’s and women’s) and gave us an email to contact if people want to volunteer to help. While we were there, some American lawyers came by for a weekly talk or meeting they did on how the process works to apply for asylum here. We were glad to know they were doing that.
Then we headed to the downtown area, since the woman at the Casa del Migrante said most of the shelters for migrants are downtown in the churches. While we were there, we checked out the cathedral, and as we left there, we were actually approached by a guy who said he’d been deported from the U.S. that morning at 6 and hadn’t eaten. Could we help him and his two brothers eat? We took them to Wendy’s for lunch—since we didn’t have any pesos and we thought Wendy’s looked more likely than the other places around to accept credit cards. So we sat and ate with them and asked them about what they had experienced, if they didn’t mind talking about it. They didn’t. They had been headed to Kansas, where they’d heard about a center that helps immigrants, but they got arrested and were detained for a month, although they were glad they hadn’t been separated, at least. They were told that they had been entered in the system (photos, etc.) and that if they entered again within 5 years, they would be imprisoned for 3-6 years. They were hardly given any food in detention. Very little every day.
The bus that dropped them off at the bridge that morning in Juarez had people on it from lots of countries, including Cuba. The Cubans are able to apply for political asylum, but Mexicans can’t. They said there are LOTS of people at the bridge. There were people there before they arrived. They were heading home, which was a town in the same province as Ciudad Juarez, about 8 hours away. The people at the diocesan office at the cathedral had told them there were trucks leaving for their town at Monument Square around 7, and for about $20 each, the truck drivers would take them. (Did we have any work they could do?) They did not know what the people from Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador who were on their deportation bus were going to do. They had nothing. We asked if anyone is helping the people being deported with food or anything, and they said there were some Christian Brothers who came and gave out food, and also just different people from Juarez. They had people form a line. These guys had gotten there later than most, and there wasn’t any left, though.
While we were sitting in Wendy’s, another customer came up and said she wanted to give them money for their travel back home to their kids. We asked how she knew, and it turned out that they had approached her back at the cathedral before us (she’d brushed them off then, apparently), and then they’d all ended up in the same Wendy’s together. So she gave them enough pesos for two of the bus rides. We decided to give the ~$20 for the third one, and we found an ATM so we could get pesos and do that. We also gave them what was left of our own bottles of water that we got at Wendy’s. They were incredibly grateful and kept asking God to bless us. I told them that God had already blessed us plenty and there was really no reason that we should have such good lives and these guys shouldn’t.
We also went to the market just off the cathedral, just because I like to explore markets when I travel, and my wonderful travel companions were up for it. There were both indoor and outdoor sections of the market, with the usual fascinating and eclectic combo of produce, ceramics, plastic statues of Jesus and various other figures, luchadores action figures and masks, small animals, herbs with signs promising all kinds of medicinal benefits, etc.
It took us FOREVER to find our way back to a bridge to come back to the U.S. because the tourist map we scored at the travel agency (one of many places we stopped to ask directions) didn’t designate one-way streets (our apologies to all the drivers we freaked out by going the wrong direction somewhere!), and there were a lot of roads cut off with construction or something. We felt so jubilant and accomplished to find ourselves finally in the long line of cars going for one of the bridges (we didn’t even care which one we crossed at, by that point). Since we’d bought nothing other than the lunches at Wendy’s, crossing back over was so easy for us, other than waiting in traffic at the bridge. The contrast between the ease of our arrival in the U.S. and the dangers faced by everyone we’ve been working with in order to cross that border was striking.
Tomorrow Sister Pam and Joe are meeting at 4 a.m. to go back over to Juarez to try to check out the scene when these deportation bus drop-offs take place. I told them I don’t feel up for that (physically and also emotionally, I suspect), but that if they do that and then decide to go back and bring food or something another day, I’d be up for that. Sister Pam knows someone who wanted to donate to precisely this kind of effort, so she has access to some funds for this if they can find out exactly where to go. (We have a pretty good idea from what the people at the Casa del Migrante told us and then these guys we met, too.)
Sister Pam texted me and asked if I wanted to go to Juarez tomorrow to check out what’s going on down there. Border Patrol or Homeland Security or whomever does these things has been arresting just as many people, but numbers in our shelters have been way down, so everyone’s been wondering where these people are. We think they’re being diverted to other U.S. places and also bused across the Mexican border into Juarez as part of this awful “remain in Mexico” policy, but we really don’t have a sense of things. Am I interested in going to Juarez? Hell, yes! We agreed to touch base to plan this later today at the site.
The big “Oh God” thing that came up today was that one of the local volunteers who’s been coming to help three days a week for the past year alerted us to an issue with the papers from Homeland Security that people are coming with. I don’t always look at those papers when I’m working with someone because so often things on them are inaccurate anyway, and I just ask people all the information we need (name and sponsor’s address, full names of people traveling, and their birth dates, etc.). But we’re now seeing different-looking papers than when I started doing this (not all that long ago!). The new paperwork doesn’t contain any photos of them. Which means it can’t be used to get on a plane. So when we call to tell their family members that they’re here and that we need them to purchase tickets to get them the rest of the way, we have to tell the relatives of anyone who has this kind of paperwork (the other kind, with photos, is still in circulation, too) that the travel can only be by bus (or train, but that’s rare). So I had to tell this poor woman with little kids in tow, who was expecting to be traveling somewhere up north by plane, that it would have to be by bus. But apparently there have been cases where we’ve taken someone to the airport for a flight, and they’ve been turned away because of the lack of a photo ID. So this is important.
Speaking of God, though, God seemed to be a major theme of the day. When I arrived at the shelter, Joe (one of the shift coordinators) asked if I minded sitting outside in the little hut that’s at the gated entrance way to the warehouse. My mission: If any press people come with cameras, chase them away. If any new volunteers come, or people with donations, show them where to go. If any new buses with migrants and asylum seekers come, call the phone number of the shift coordinator and alert that person that we have a new bus, and then unlock the gate for the bus to come around the building. And if we got any new buses, I’d be off guard hut duty and be needed for phone calls, so come back inside. He asked me to sit there for a couple hours and offered to bring a book if I wanted. There were a couple book possibilities, and I opted for the one Joe said he is reading now, too: Following Christ in a Consumer Society. It seemed relevant to my realization in Las Cruces that I really didn’t need anymore place mats or handbags. It was good enough for me to write the title down and then get it on my Kindle once I came back to my friends’ digs.
We did get another bus eventually, so I went back inside to do phones. I typically invite the next family into the phone room and welcome them and just acknowledge that it’s been a long and hard trip, huh? Then I explain what we’re going to do here and that the next stop is one where they’ll get a bag of things like toothpaste and shampoo, just so they know what’s happening, so everything doesn’t feel all unexpected and strange. As I started this conversation with one person, she looked me straight in the eye, and she said, “The trip was not just long; it was extremely dangerous. I swear to you that the only reason we even arrived was by pure grace of God.” And that she just needs to thank God for her and her children’s safety. I told her that we have a little chapel on site that’s been set up in one of the rooms between the main office and the dining room, if she’s interested. She kind of laughed and said, “Seriously?! Yes, I am interested!”
Then later two of the little girls from Honduras who’d been at our coloring table as I talked with their mom presented me with drawings they had made, as a gift for me. One of them has a heart with wings on the side of it and it says “Dios es amor.” “God is love.” I will treasure them forever and will frame at least that one, although I expect that every time I look at it, I will worry about them and wonder what happened to them. Asylum cases are hard to win. Most of these people will be deported back to these countries (including Honduras) where Doctors Without Borders has said conditions are similar to what they normally see in war zones. God, please protect these kids.
This entry will span the highlights of the past few days, which have been kind of a blur. I’ve arrived home (i.e. my friend’s place) each night exhausted and without much energy to write anything. Today I found myself home a little earlier than usual because they needed someone to take a woman and her 13-year-old son to the bus station, and it’s on my way home and was close to the end of my shift, so it didn’t make sense for me to return to the shelter after that. More on the bus station run later.
Day 7 was my day off, so my friend and I went to an exhibit at the University of Texas–El Paso’s Centennial Museum of art done by young people, aged 13-17, who were in detention at the Tornillo detention center near here. It was open from June 2018 to January 2019. The exhibit, called Uncaged Art, included drawings, paintings, and handicrafts that were produced when a couple teachers were allowed in to Tornillo to provide activities for the students. The kids’ work put me in a weird mood, joyful and celebratory to behold such resilience and creativity and sheer beauty, and fury and anger at their detention in the first place. The exhibit included some information on art produced by kids in one of the Nazi camps, and it explored common themes in the art from the two camps, like ways the art envisioned transcendence of the imprisonment. Now they’re not allowing teachers or art in the camps, so kids in detention don’t have access to this kind of expression. I hope they do prove as resilient as their art hinted because they have been brutalized by our system and by the violence and extreme poverty in their countries of origin. Yesterday I read a recent report by Doctors Without Borders, which said that the conditions they are seeing in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are ones they typically only see in war zones. I have no prior experience doing anything like this, but the stories I’ve heard here have struck me as absolutely horrific. I can’t imagine staying somewhere where things were as bad as I’ve been hearing; no wonder they’re leaving. It’s sobering that Doctors Without Borders folks are comparing the situation to war zones because those people know what they’re talking about.
Then my friend and I went to Las Cruces, to the old town there, and just walked around a little and had lunch at a historic restaurant and browsed in shops and then spent time on different work-related things on our laptops in a coffee shop. We went in to exactly one shop in the historic district of the city, and it was full of handcrafted, fair trade items, many of which I really liked. Normally I have a soft spot for such things, and I spent a lot of time admiring and considering buying a woven handbag, some place mats, and a small Nativity set from Peru in which the figures are skeletons, from the Day of the Dead tradition. Back in the old days, before a couple weeks ago, I probably would have spent some money there. But I kept wondering what right I have to own more placements—even though these were beautiful and way better than the chain store ones I now own—or yet another Nativity set (for a while I actively collected these from different cultures) when the people I’ve been meeting every day for the past week have basically nothing and are fleeing for their lives. Really, I should be downscaling my expenditures so I can divert more money to helping people like them. I wonder what other ways the experience of being here will change me.
There is something surreal about stepping away from the grief and trauma and just chaos of the world of the migrants and asylum seekers and walking back into the “normal world” (or my normal, anyway), which involves browsing around museums and lingering over coffee with a friend. It messes with your sense of reality because it doesn’t seem possible that both worlds can be real, or at least not so close to each other, and both of them experienced by one person within a 24-hour period. It’s like I’m inhabiting two parallel universes at the same time. It was great to spend this time with my friend, but my thoughts also kept drifting throughout the day to Maria and others I’ve met. I wonder how they are faring and sent up good wishes for them as I browsed the handwoven handbags. And felt weird about having both of those worlds in my head.
Back at the shelter over the past few days, I’ve worked the phones a lot. The busiest times for phones are when an ICE bus arrives with a new group of people. After meeting with another volunteer for intake paperwork (used in making transportation arrangements for our guests to join their sponsors, usually family members), the “phone people” meet with them and call their sponsors. You explain that you’re here in this shelter in El Paso with So-and-So, and that you understand they are the person who will be buying their bus or plane tickets so they can travel to [their destination]. You explain that we take people to the bus stations and airports, and in order to do that, we need all the information, such as the airline or bus company, date and time of departure, and the confirmation code. Will they please make the reservations and then call this number back with the info? If they have no questions after you explain everything, you pass the phone to their loved one so they can talk a little while, and the next station they visit upon arrival is a little room where Brittany gives them a little bag full of items like toothpaste. After the initial round of calls, the paperwork goes into the main office on bulletin boards by alphabet so that when people’s relatives call back, we can easily find the family’s slip and write in the travel details.
As I have described it, it sounds pretty simple. But it isn’t. Sometimes the person in front of you cries silent tears through all this because her husband is still in detention and she doesn’t know if she will ever see him again. Sometimes the intake form notes (in the section on health issues) that the 30-year-old woman you are speaking with has high blood pressure, but Border Patrol took away her meds, and she tells you she’s not feeling very well right now, so you end up placing a call to Dr. G., a local bilingual doctor who’s kind of on call for the shelter’s needs (pro bono, I think), who tells you to have a volunteer drive her to his nearby office. Sometimes you go running out the door of the phone call room to chase a 2-year-old who’s bolted off and is halfway across the warehouse before you catch him and bring him back to his mom, who’s nursing an infant. Sometimes you have to speak really slowly because the indigenous Guatemalan you are meeting with is a lot more comfortable speaking Quiché than Spanish. When you pass the phone to one of the Guatemalans to speak to their sponsoring family member, almost always the conversation will be in Quiché.
The family and friends that you speak with by phone sometimes cry as they tell you how grateful they are to you for helping their family members. You commiserate with them about how awful this situation is and share the hope that someday, we will have no need for people to embark on the dangerous flight from their countries and no need for shelters like this one. Some of them speak English, tell you they’re going online right now to look for tickets, and ask you for the airport code for the El Paso airport. Others seem bewildered by the process and need a lot of coaching and explanation. They tell you they don’t know how to use a computer, and you realize that you don’t actually know a good way to price shop for plane tickets without a computer. You give them airlines’ phone numbers (from the laminated list on the table) and tell them to call around and ask about prices because they can vary a lot, and they seem surprised to hear that. They tell you their kid knows how to use a computer, and you tell them to tell their kid to try Kayak.
Yesterday I was on the phone for probably a good half hour with a guy who had called us back really worried because he’d bought plane tickets for his niece and her family, and then he realized he’d made the reservations with the wrong birthdate for his niece. So he was calling to get his niece to tell them at the airport and get the ticket changed because they’d told him he couldn’t change the ticket without paying more. I told him that his niece wouldn’t be able to change a ticket any more easily, and she’d already left for the airport, but let’s just wait and see if the check-in people notice it because I bet they wouldn’t check her documents that carefully. He wanted to know if she could then get stuck in Dallas in the airport because they would discover the discrepancy then and not let her board the next plane. I said no, if they don’t notice it in El Paso before printing out the boarding passes, she’d be good to go for the rest of the trip. So I’d wait and see what happens and not buy another ticket and not bring anyone’s attention to it at the airport. And he wondered what would happen if they did realize that her birth date was wrong and didn’t let her board the plane—would that mean he also had to buy all new tickets for her husband and kids? No. But it took a lot of convincing and explaining to allay his fears. Since we didn’t hear anything else about it, I assume all was well and no one noticed that the birthdate on her ticket didn’t match the one on her papers from ICE.
Usually we group people together who have a flight or bus more or less around the same time of day, and we do group departures for the airport or bus station. Yesterday when I was on phone duty we got a call from a guy who said that he bought a bus ticket for his wife and 2-year-old son for today and had called before to give the details, but they were at the bus station now, a day too early. (Oh, God. Not sure how that happened.) She had asked to borrow someone’s phone and then called her husband, who called us at the number he had from calling back with the ticket details. So I went to go pick her up. Good thing I thought to bring the GPS with me here because it’s come in handy. I apologized for not having a car seat for the child. She didn’t know what I was talking about.
My run to the bus stop today was for a woman and her 13-year-old son. We learned about their departure with less notice than usual, so they weren’t with a group departure. The bus station is about 20 minutes away. We chatted about the scenery going by, and she commented about how flat El Paso is. El Paso doesn’t strike my Midwestern self as flat. There’s a big ridge of mountains that was straight ahead, and the road we were on was pretty hilly. But this Indigenous woman was probably from the Guatemalan highlands, and her observation reminded me of the pictures I’ve seen of that region. And yeah, El Paso would strike someone from there as flat! I told her that she would see much flatter land than this in her journey to Indiana, and she was excited to learn that she’d see huge fields of wheat and corn. She commented on how big the houses are here compared to back home, and I said yes, but these buildings here aren’t actually houses—they’re stores (like Kohl’s). When we got to the bus station, the agent printed out the tickets and asked the woman to sign for receipt. She said she didn’t know how to sign her name, and the agent said just to put an X then. Her son explained that his mother didn’t know how to write at all, even an X, but that he could do it. So he did.
We got the tickets and learned where they board and at what time. There will be four buses between here and Indiana, God help them. Just the first one, to Dallas, was 12 hours or so. The tickets came printed out in a huge line, all attached together with an itinerary at the end of it. I sat with them and explained the itinerary and wrote in Spanish (so the son could read it) the words for “arrival,” “departure,” and “length of stop.” I circled the cities where they’d be changing buses (the ones that required a new ticket) and explained that at all the other stops they wouldn’t be getting off, just stopping so other people could get on. I told them that the water is potable in all the bathrooms, so they should keep filling the water bottle they had with them from the shelter and would not need to buy any more water. I showed them the screen on which the departures are listed with the times and gates (and explained gates—and said that I think sometimes they might be letters and sometimes they are numbered) and told them that there would be something like this in all the cities in which they had to make a transfer and to look for it when they arrived at the station. And to ask people as needed because there are nasty people and kind people everywhere, and a lot of people in this country who speak Spanish. The woman looked pretty apprehensive about all this, but her son seemed to get it all and to realize that he was going to have to manage this. He looked proud and serious when I told her playfully to just consult with her son. Then I hoped that hadn’t been offensive to her culturally somehow.
He’s 13 and very reserved. I’ve found that in general the kids around that age and older are quiet and wary and just taking all of this in. They’re old enough to know how screwed up all of this is, how dangerous the trip was, and how precarious their lives are. They probably also realize that their parents chose to make this dangerous trip because of them. The parents sometimes tell me that they left because the gangs were threatening to rape their daughter or to kill their son unless he joined them. The younger the kid is, the less he or she seems affected by all of this. I’m sure they must be, on some deeper level, but it always surprises me to be sitting with a parent and little kids and see the little kids seeming bright-eyed and curious and excited and happy. They play with any object around and sit with other kids happily coloring at our big coloring book table. Babies get excited if you give them a bright pink sticky note to play with while you talk travel arrangements with the parent. Yesterday a group of preteen boys (who at least aren’t being killed or recruited into a murdering gang while they’re in our shelter) had a soccer game going. From what I can tell, soccer balls have a kind of spiritual healing power.
Another day with no buses from ICE. After today’s departures, we were down to only 10 guests for dinner tonight. So we weren’t surprised to learn that Annunciation House will be closing our site—possibly temporarily and possibly forever, depending on how things go—in the near future. Probably as soon as the people currently staying with us depart. So we were told to “give away the store” by feeling free to give out more than 3 items of clothing from the ropa room, give every kid a toy or two to play with while they’re here (usually they get one only when they leave in case we run out and then a bunch of kids see other kids getting toys and they are not given one themselves), etc. Tomorrow we will learn more about whether we will completely pack up all our supplies (medical supplies, sandwich-making, basic essentials, serving utensils, water bottles, etc.) and move them out of the space in this hotel that they’ve been renting for the shelter, or if they’ll be leaving everything there for now but maybe releasing the rooms the guests have been staying in. Those of us volunteers whose time here is not ending will likely be assigned to other sites run by Annunciation House. I hope so. I hope there’s a need for us and they don’t have so many volunteers that they don’t know what to do with us. If that’s the case, I might see if I can be of help across the border in Ciudad Juarez, where more and more people are being kept as they await their hearings. The humanitarian groups must be overwhelmed down there.
Sometime around 1 pm or so today, Maria came to the office and was distraught once again because she had learned (through a lawyer’s inquiries? we’re not sure) that her three daughters had been deported and were in Mexico, and they were at a center there where they could stay only one day, and they had no money or anything. And then she thought they would be returned to Honduras, where they would be raped and murdered. She was considering going and finding them in Juarez and then coming across the border again with them and hoping that this time it would work and she’d be able to enter with all of them. We didn’t like the sound of that. Too risky. We thought she’d be better off going to Florida as planned and then finding a pro-bono lawyer who does immigration law and working from there. But that meant a big emotional hit for us to hear about this development, too.
By 3 pm or so, we’d learned that they were in Juarez, which is just across the border. They’ve been given court dates in August and November for their asylum cases. They’ve been taken in by a Catholic church in Juarez, and she even was able to talk to one of her daughters, who told her not to worry about them because they were safe and had just been taken out to a restaurant to eat, and they are together now, and also together with some other family members who’d been in their group.
Maria and her family left our shelter at around 4 pm today for Florida. They are supposed to arrive on Saturday morning. When I was discussing with them how long this bus trip was going to be, they said they’d already had two long bus trips of 15 and 12 hours to get to the border here, and they thought they could handle it. Maria’s husband then chimed in and said that he’d had to stand for those entire trips because they were only giving the seats to women and children. So at least I got to reassure him that he would be able to have a seat on this trip. He was so relieved. There is that, I guess.
It’s overwhelming to be close to this horrible situation, even close enough to hear about it. I can’t imagine how Maria is still on her feet, and I told her that. She said she’s not sure. And that the worst part of all this is that she feels so helpless about not being able to help her daughters. But she was so happy to learn today, after being freshly terrified for them earlier this afternoon, that at least for the time being, they are safe and well and together.
I am still worried about how this will go. Sexual assaults used to be grounds for asylum – before Jeff Sessions’ tenure as Attorney General. Now it’s not enough to be raped; you have to have been raped because of your religious or political beliefs in order for it to count. But I think if she can document that she and her family would be targeted because of her report of the first rape, that might improve their chances. But what do I know?
I guess one thing I know is that I will never forget Maria and I will always wonder what happened to her and her family.
Tomorrow I have the day off to spend with my friend Matt, with whom I’m staying. Matt will be leaving on Tuesday, and we wanted to have some time to do some things in the area, so the site coordinator said I should take the day off. Especially because we have so few people anyway. Either she or the overall volunteer coordinator for A.H. will let me know tomorrow what will happen after that.
Today was an eerily slow day. We didn’t get a bus from ICE, and I think none of the sites did. Something weird is going on. We know they’re packed. There is a rumor that they’re planning to release a whole lot of people on Saturday, “saving them up” for days in order to release them all at once, and then alert the media to come and film the utter chaos this causes so they can use it to bolster the narrative of some dangerous crisis going on. This seems especially cruel and devious, but given what we’re hearing and seeing, it also sounds plausible. The people coming here are FLEEING danger, and the only crisis is the humanitarian one about how they’re being treated. Rumors are interesting, and there are two parts to this one: that we’re going to get slammed on Saturday and that this is intentional. Neither one of these came through official channels in Annunciation House leadership. So we’ll see. Could be nothing. We ended the day with only 19 families staying with us.
The heat wasn’t as bad as anticipated, so Geri’s fears didn’t come to pass. Which is good! This gave her more time to tend the poor woman who’s having morning sickness in the midst of this madness and can’t keep any food down.
Since we didn’t have a rush of intakes from a bus, we were able to do a lot of organizing and cleaning. Both the main office area and the dining area got thoroughly vacuumed (carpeted sections) and mopped (floor sections), and all the folding chairs washed down. Some people who showed up yesterday wanting to help were given a shopping wish list, and they returned with a lot of items that we took out of their individual packages and put in our bins and bags that we grab from when assembling the baggies of essentials (like toothbrushes). Some volunteers who got moved to our site from another one that they temporarily shuttered because of this week’s low numbers don’t speak Spanish, but they’ve been terrific about doing anything that needs doing around here. They did the vacuuming and went around to all the rooms that are empty now and took out any items that had been left behind. Michael, one of the college students here, sat with a group of little kids as they colored, and he propped up his phone on something at the table so they could watch cartoons (Tom and Jerry in Spanish).
The lawyer who was supposed to come and get Maria and her family did not show up, but she and her family are leaving here tomorrow afternoon for their bus ride to Florida. She hopes the lawyer comes in the morning so she can meet with her, but she’s confident that they will have the assistance of a lawyer because her family is on it in Florida, too, so she will still leave here even if she hasn’t seen that lawyer. We also send them off with a bag of food for the trip and a handout of organizations all over the country with lawyers who work on these cases (Maine’s Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project is on the list). Two of the three adult daughters she’s so worried about are still together, but the other one has been separated from those two. But their father, who’s in Florida and arranging their transportation, has been contacted about all of them (which is how she knows this), to verify that he will sponsor them, etc. So she knows they’re still in the process. She will head to Florida without them and she feels relieved to know that when they are released, they will come to a shelter like ours – either ours or another one. I hope so. I hope they don’t release them somewhere else in the country where the situation on the ground is not as well set up for this. Since El Paso’s numbers in the shelters right now are low, it would make sense to bring them to a local shelter. But nothing about any of this makes any sense.
Some significant energy was spent today trying to figure out what to do with all the leftover food that we have. The people of El Paso have been amazingly supportive of all these shelters, including providing lunch and dinner for about 700 people a day who are in these shelters. Different churches and other faith communities, restaurants, families, and other groups sign up to provide these meals. But since our numbers have been lower than usual, the food has been way more than we can use in a single meal. We managed to get it all into the fridge somehow and will use it for breakfasts (which we always do) and just hope that we get more buses in in the next few days. Usually when a new group arrives, we feed them when they get here because they don’t get much food in detention, and they’re usually hungry.
I got to talk with more of the volunteers, including Noemi, a local young woman who works in healthcare advocacy as a navigator. Originally from Mexico and now living in El Paso, she comes by Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings and is really good at handling the phone calls that come in as relatives call back to give us the info on their loved ones’ trip details. She’s delightful.
And Yolanda is a local volunteer and a professor at U Texas El Paso who teaches about border issues. She was there today and gave all the volunteers some info on the history of how this situation got so bad.
Dinner conversation today (having recovered my bearings some from yesterday’s stories, I opted to eat dinner with the guests again) involved hearing about how in Chiapas, the multinational corporations that are now basically the only form of employment pay people 1800 pesos (someone told me this is a little over a hundred dollars, but I haven’t looked it up) per MONTH to work from 8 a.m. till 10 p.m. And a lot of people working in these factories are young women, and all the gangs and traffickers know what time they will be leaving the factories, so they wait for them along the roads to rape and kidnap them and put them into the trafficking networks. They threatened to kill the woman telling me this. (She made a slicing gesture across her neck as she said this.) But she’s more worried about her daughter than anything else, and didn’t want her to have to grow up in that or lose her mother. Her daughter looked to be about 10.
Instead of writing this one at night when I return to my friends’ house, I am writing this entry the next morning. Yesterday was too intense, too raw to sit down and write last night.
For one thing, Annunciation House is closing (temporarily) one of its centers here because we’ve had lower numbers lately, so we had about 20 (I think) new guests arrive from there, in various states of having their intake completed. Some already had plane or bus tickets purchased by their relatives and for some, the relatives had not yet been contacted. All the Annunciation House sites use the same forms and basic system of noting everything down, which helps, but it still was complicated getting the new arrivals settled because they weren’t all at the same stage of things.
So that intensified the chaos level for a while.
But what really knocked me down yesterday was what I heard from Maria (not her real name) who was sobbing on a chair by the door as she was talking to another volunteer. That volunteer’s Spanish is kind of shaky, so I went over to help. Maria was crying so hard that it was hard to understand what she was saying, and she kept saying she couldn’t leave El Paso without her kids, and she has their papers, all the documents, and she doesn’t want them to be raped. It turned out she was talking about 3 adult kids of hers, 19, 22, and 23, all young women, who are still in detention. She is here at our shelter with her husband and two younger kids. We thought she meant that she had their ICE papers, and we couldn’t figure out how that could have happened because ICE wouldn’t have let someone leave with another adult’s papers. And we were worried about why she thought they might be raped in detention. That seemed unlikely to me, since they keep everyone in a huge room and they’re guarded day and night like criminals, but we hear so many stories of just sheer cruelty by ICE that who knows, right?
As our nurse practitioner volunteer got her to breathe deeper breaths so she could physically calm herself, and she explained more, we learned that either she or her daughter was raped in Honduras (I forget which rape happened first), and she called to report this to the police. And that’s when the real trouble started because the police are all mixed up with the drug traffickers, who I think had been behind the rape. So they came and raped the other woman to retaliate for being reported, and they murdered her 22-year-old daughter’s husband and a cousin of hers and threatened to kill the whole family, and drove by and shot up their house twice. If her adult daughters are sent back there, they will be raped and killed. And she has their documents.
So we asked to see the documents. It turned out she was talking about documents from a Norwegian NGO that had taken them in when they had to flee their home, which certified that this family had been in mortal danger and had been given refuge by that organization and detailing what had happened, and documents from Doctors Without Borders, which had treated her or daughter (or both?) in the aftermath of the rapes. She also had newspaper articles about the violence there. And the people from the Norwegian NGO (I think – anyway, someone from one of these organizations that had helped them) had sent her a long email (which she showed me on her phone) giving them contacts to call now to work with a lawyer. One of the organizations on the list was Al Otro Lado, which I knew about from following the immigration issue and places that are trying to help. They are terrific. We told her that the best way for her to help her adult kids was probably to get to her sponsors, her family in Florida, and then start to work with a lawyer there right away. But to call the groups they recommended and see what they said.
I am not a lawyer, but I recently started volunteering with an organization that does legal work for asylum seekers and have researched a lot of others in the course of finding out who’s doing what. It seems to me that that documentation she has must be GOLD because from what I know, the asylum cases hinge on being able to prove that you would be in danger if you returned, and official declarations on letterhead from organizations like Doctors Without Borders and that Norwegian NGO (I’ve heard of them before, but I forget their name) can only help. And probably help a lot.
We held her, physically, as she cried, and reassured her that she could stay here more than just last night if her relatives in Florida were having trouble coming up with the money for the tickets. That’s another thing that had her really upset. It was going to take some time for them to get the money together, so they hadn’t called back yet with reservation details for today, and she thought everyone had to leave the next day because she heard so many people talking about their travel plans for the next day. And then they’d be out on the street with nowhere to go. No, no, no, no, you can stay here! I mean, not for weeks or months, but if it takes a few days to get travel money together, you can stay here! Just that seemed to calm her down a lot.
So that was pretty rough. It was the first time here (so far) that I’ve cried. Dinner was soon after this, and usually I like to go sit at the tables with the guests and meet them and try to be welcoming and all that, but I just couldn’t take any more awful stories or even the more common oblique references to “yeah, things are really bad at home, really bad” or “they treated us like animals in detention.” So I went through the serving line and took my dinner back into the office area where we have the phones and paperwork.
Sometime in the next couple hours, as I and others who’d heard all this continued to process it all, one of our phones rang, and it was someone calling to tell us that a lawyer would be stopping by to pick this family up today. This is unusual because usually it’s relatives calling to let us know travel arrangements. And when we hung up, we saw that it had been a call from Mexico. I went to the room that Maria and her family were staying in to let them know of this development, thinking they probably already knew because probably they had called one of those contact numbers that had been emailed to them. But no. Maria was so happy to hear this, and she said she had left a message with a Mexican lawyer who had said that she had colleagues on the U.S. So I’m thinking this is probably the Al Otro Lado group, since I know they work on both sides of the border. I have no idea what happens from here, but apparently the volunteer who took the phone call said that no, the lawyer isn’t coming by just to meet with them somewhere and bring them back. It definitely sounded like she was going to pick them up and they’d be leaving our shelter with her for good. I told Maria that that’s what we understand to be the case, but that if we’re wrong, and this organization doesn’t arrange for shelter, just know that the lawyer can bring her and her family back here. She was now crying tears of joy and hope and said that she might actually sleep tonight.
This hit hard emotionally – all of it. First Maria’s story and then the profound, humble gratitude to Doctors Without Borders and that Norwegian NGO and all the other organizations (I suspect this includes Al Otro Lado for this next phase of things) that are working to save the lives of this family. So much awfulness, so much real evil, and yet so much goodness. Thank God for those people. I don’t know how they deal with kind of thing day in and day out. I know that Doctors Without Borders only goes where things are really bad, so they must see this kind of stuff all day long, every day.
I won’t even tell you about the two cases of kids with exploding diarrhea episodes, which prompted Geri, our nurse practitioner who’s a volunteer here, to make us take all the chairs out of the room, bleach down the whole floor, and wipe down every single chair in the waiting area with a bleach solution.
Or about how livid Geri is that ICE confiscates all medications and gloatingly holds up the prescription bottles in front of people as they dump them into the trash. Today we heard from the volunteers who’ve been transferred over to our site that they recently had a diabetic whose insulin was taken away, and they had to take him to the hospital, where his blood sugar registered at 500. Geri pointed out that not only is that endangering HIM, but it’s costing the health care system thousands of dollars that did not have to be spent.
Or about how worried Geri is that today it’s going to be over 100. The plan is for us to be constantly telling people to drink water (and drink it ourselves) because otherwise we’re going to have a lot of people with heat and dehydration issues.
We’re out of shoelaces. And apparently the budget doesn’t currently allow for purchase of any more shoelaces, maybe because of all the toothbrushes we recently bought. So tomorrow on the way to the shelter I will try to stop by a Dollar General store, of which there are several around here, and buy a bunch of them. ICE takes shoelaces away, so most people arrive without them.
Sixty-five people arrived today, and about the same number were driven to the airport or bus station for the next leg of their journey to join (usually) family.
I continue to be fascinated by all the systems and moving parts that have to be working in sync in order for this place to work. Today I learned more about how to make and record room assignments, and I did a brief stint as a “room runner.” Room runners work after intake is done and rooms have been assigned. The person coordinating room assignments writes some family information and the room number on a post-it note, which you pick up and assemble the little essentials bag that each family gets: 1 toothbrush for every person over 3 (I think), a travel-sized tube of toothpaste, a razor for adult men, a comb for adult women (and men if they have long hair, but none of them do), and a dixie cup about 1/3 of the way filled with shampoo (for a family of 4, I added a little more). Then you take the family to their room, put the post-it note to the right of the door, and hope that you can get the key to work. There are just 2 or 3 keys to all of the doors, so guests don’t get a key. We ask that they leave the door propped open when they’re not in the room. But the keys or locks or both are old and it’s hard to get them to work. If you can’t get it, you can ask them to try. So far that’s always worked eventually, and the kids, especially, feel very proud of themselves when they get the door to open. Then you explain things about the room: shower curtain goes inside the tub so we don’t have water everywhere, toilet paper goes in the toilet and not in the trash can (and show them how to flush the toilet, since this is not always clear and they don’t all come from places with real plumbing), how the AC works, and how to turn the TV and lights on (not all light switches or lamps work).
One of the local restaurants brought lunch today, and it was really good! Apparently they are regulars in our meal donation line-up. Dinner was also really good, also brought by regulars (who seemed to be family or a group of friends), and they said they would take some of the bountiful leftovers over to the main Annunciation House shelter (which is larger) and leave the rest with us. The leftovers, which included lots of bananas and oranges, will be used for breakfast tomorrow and maybe beyond. How all this meal donation stuff gets coordinated remains a mystery to me. I bet it happens through the central Annunciation House office and not our site directly, since I haven’t heard anyone planning for it or talking about it. We do not have a kitchen on site, although we do have a big fridge, and we use the hose outside in the yard area and some dish soap to wash the serving utensils.
I spent part of the day sorting through the 7 garbage bags of secondhand clothing that a family came by and donated yesterday. I was so glad to see that most of it is, indeed, very usable and needed. The storage and staging room for the ropa room, where people can come to pick out items of clothing, is next door to the ropa room proper, and the system is that you put any clothes that we will be donating to Goodwill in the bathtub, and periodically someone gathers up what’s in the bathtub and makes a run to Goodwill. That’s where I put Ninja Turtles Halloween costume. But most of the items were definitely useful.
I did intake with a mom and her daughter whose sponsor lives in the Minneapolis neighborhood I lived in in grad school. We could have been neighbors!
During intake, I learned that one little kid had been diagnosed with chicken pox, but her mother assured us that she was fine now because they gave her some medicine yesterday. (Um, what?) Upon some further questioning, for which I solicited Andrea’s help, it turned out that she’d been diagnosed earlier, but had been given a clean bill of health yesterday. The mom said ICE had made them stay there for 12 days in the detention center because of this, until it cleared up. So maybe ICE did something right, and maybe this little girl got appropriate medical care. (Thank you, doctors who are trying to do well by the people in ICE detention!) I hope to God they put them somewhere other than one of those overcrowded warehouses because a chicken pox epidemic is about the last thing anyone needs. Since we had the space today, we put that mother and child in their own room without any other families sharing it, just out of an abundance of caution.
Another kid today had a fever of 104, which we successfully got down by the use of wet washcloths and the fan.
One woman who’s headed to somewhere in Kansas with her toddler wanted to know if her bus ride was going to be more than 3 hours.
A little girl who was at my dinner table informed me that her mom is afraid of going on a plane, but that she’s not.
I was doing intake with a guy from Guatemala and his son, who looked about 11 or 12. The dad looked clearly indigenous, although he did speak Spanish. He didn’t know how old he was or his own date of birth, or how old his son was, either. He also didn’t know the year he or his son was born. I’m really not sure how that works in terms of buying airline tickets. Later I ended up taking them to their rooms, too, and it was raining (chilly and rainy here today, after the 100-degree heat the past couple days!). We had to go over to another building, so we got wet in the process. He said the rain made him happy because rain is always a blessing from God because it makes the crops grow. When rain falls on you, you’re being blessed.
Around 8 pm, Rich gave me a ride back to my friends’ beautiful home about 15 minutes away, and I went online to reconnect with the rest of the world and learned that former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who has compared immigrants to rats and praised the practice of family separations, started his new job today as acting head of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Today I spent about 10 hours at the site, and I’m so tired that it’s kind of all a blur. And this was even though most of the day was pretty calm. We didn’t have any new buses arrive until later in the afternoon, so we had the people from previous days who weren’t on their way yet, but we were operating at significantly less than capacity.
Since we were slow, Sister Pam took me with her to clean any stuff out of the vacant rooms that people might have left behind in the drawers, etc. We filled three trash bags of worn out clothes, etc. This was the first time I had been inside any of the rooms. The people we are helping are thrilled to be in actual beds and have a bathroom with hot water and have some privacy. In a room with two double beds, we will put two families, one in each bed. Other local shelters for people coming across the border are just cots in a huge warehouse, so the fact that we’re in a hotel is unusual. There is AC and TV and a bathroom in each room. But let’s face it. This is a pretty low-end motel, despite the dedication of the four cleaning staffers who are assigned to our block of rooms and work very hard to keep the place decent. Some of the other volunteers are staying there, and I am profoundly grateful to my friends for letting me stay with them. Every day I will return to their beautiful home and enter a different world.
We also tried to impose some order on the “ropa room,” where we provide clothing. Each person can select three items to take, and it gets pretty chaotic in there as people rummage through things, and Sister Pam was not happy to see that socks had been separated so they weren’t in pairs, and no one had taken the men’s underwear out of the packages and put them in the men’s underwear box. Later a family came by with clothing donations in several large trash bags, so I took all of that to the next room over, which is storage and staging area for the ropa room. Someone will have to sort all that, which maybe will be tomorrow’s task. The same family came back later with bags of things like shampoo and deodorant. When people are assigned a room and given a little bag of essentials, we give them a little dixie cup of shampoo. I hope the clothing is mostly usable because it will take a lot of effort to sort. I totally understand now why organizations like Annunciation House say that cash donations are the most helpful because they can go and get whatever they need.
Today there was need, too. Pam noticed that we were running low on bread (used in making peanut butter sandwiches for people to take on their journeys), so people went out in search of bread and came back jubilant because they’d found it for .89/loaf somewhere, which meant that there was now some money left over to buy toothbrushes. Someone was dispatched to go buy some toothbrushes, but instructed to get them only if they could find the ones for a certain price with 4 in a package and not just 3.
Jessica has been working with room assignments, which entails putting information about a party (mother with 1 male child and 1 female, for example) on post-it notes of two different colors and putting one of those on the bulletin board layout of the hotel sections we’re using and the other one on the door frame of the room, outside the room. The room runners (a task I haven’t done yet) take the post-it notes to the rooms when they bring people to their rooms. Jessica explained this system to me today. There are so many moving parts to this whole operation. It fascinates me.
Hiram, who’s here from Miami, has been working phones, which means sitting after all the intake meetings are done with the half dozen or so phones that we use to call people’s relatives and advise them that their loved ones are with us and that they need to purchase their tickets for transport and call us back with the info (airline or bus company, date and time of departure, and confirmation number). Hiram is leaving in a couple days, I think, and he was explaining to me what he does. Once we have airline info from the relatives, he also verifies everything directly with the airline. For some, it’s easier to do this online, and for some airlines he usually calls.
One of the local groups brought lunch, which was pizza. Since we didn’t have to serve or make it, we got to sit and mingle with the guests, all of whom arrived yesterday or the day before. From them I learned that in ICE detention, they only got one roll or piece of bread (un pan) and a sausage or maybe a hot dog (un chorizo, he said) per person, per day. And it was hard to sleep at night because the guards were playing cards and yelling to each other at 3 in the morning. So this place is wonderful because there’s food and they can sleep.
In the afternoon, we got a call from ICE that they would be dropping off 81 more people, so it was all hands on deck for a while as we oriented the new arrivals and then did all the intake interviews. I did these all by myself today and also called the relatives, both for the ones for whom I did intake and for another volunteer who was doing the intakes, but didn’t feel confident enough to handle the phone conversations in Spanish. People came from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Cuba today. They are headed to Miami, New York, Colorado, California, elsewhere in Texas, and other places I don’t remember. And again, all of them incredibly gracious and nice. The kids are so well behaved!
During the intake process with this group, one of the volunteers came over and asked what we should tell a family that she was working with. They consisted of two parents and two kids, but they said the mother of one of the adults was also traveling with them, but ICE had separated her from them. How could they reunite with her, and how could they find out where she is? We told her that the only way was for them to contact their sponsoring family member and just know that this mother (in her 50s) would be contacting the same person if she ends up in a shelter like ours, so right now they would all be trying to get to their sponsor, but separately. We didn’t tell them the full truth, which is that most likely this woman is in detention and not at a shelter like ours, and she will be deported — or already has been deported. They’re more likely to let people come who have little kids, and the parents would qualify, but a grandparent wouldn’t.
I did the intake for this father and his son, and the father said that ICE wrote his son’s name down wrong on their forms. Like many of their names, there are four names in the person’s name (like first and middle and then two last names, like in Spain). It was the second one that was wrong. This was an issue because their contact/sponsor didn’t answer the phone when we called, so I had to leave a message explaining this mess so that when they buy the plane tickets for this kid, they are sure to buy them with the erroneous name that’s on the form and not the name they actually know this kid to have. Otherwise they won’t be allowed on the plane. Or refunded the money. The father told me that I’d done a good job explaining all that, and I put a post-it note about this on our intake form for the benefit of Hiram or whichever other volunteer might pick up that phone when the family member calls back, in case the guy has questions or something. I hope it works.
I came back from running around doing various things and saw that one of the volunteers was talking with a woman in her mid-20s I’d helped do intake with yesterday from Guatemala, who was crying hard at one of the tables. She was one of my favorite people to meet yesterday, and we’d had more interaction than usual because her daughter had a fever, and I’d been helping her cajole the daughter to letting us take off some layers of clothes and put a cool, wet wash cloth on her neck. So it was painful to see this woman crying so hard. It turned out that nothing new had happened today. I think the magnitude of all of this hit her. She told the other volunteer that she’d been getting death threats in Guatemala, is terrified of having to go back there if the U.S. doesn’t let her stay, and is also terrified for her husband, who is still there and who has their younger child with him. Her daughter became upset at seeing her mother upset and at hearing that she feared for her husband’s life, so a volunteer was dispatched to go over there and try to lure the little girl away to color (by the way, the word for “to color” in Spanish is pintar) so she wouldn’t be seeing her mother this way and hearing all this, but the mother could keep talking. There is nothing else we can do. Guatemala really IS a dangerous place right now, and her sense of terror is well placed.
Since it’s Sunday and I had to be mindful of the last bus leaving to come back to my palatial digs, Richard told me that he could drop me off again, but only if I came with him to the airport first because he had to take a mom and son to the airport. Sister Pam said this was good for me to see, too. The guy who comes with the van for drop-offs of larger groups apparently doesn’t go into the airport with them, but we do. It turns out there’s a special place in the security area where you have to go if the only form of identification you have is your paperwork from ICE allowing you to be in the country for now. And not all TSA agents can deal with this, so you might have to wait a little while. We took this mom there to show her where it is and explain this, but she was told she can’t or shouldn’t go through the security line for her flight tomorrow morning until 3 or 4 a.m., so they’ll hang out downstairs until then, which is pretty comfortable and has bathrooms and things. This is what happens when their flights are booked for before 10 a.m. – we have to drop them off the night before because we just don’t have capacity to be doing the rides 24/7. But at least she has flown before and didn’t seem flummoxed by the airport or anything. The guy at the airport check-in counter was kind to her, and Rich and I were grateful for that.
Who knows what tomorrow will bring? Sister Pam said it really is different every day.
The email I received from the volunteer coordinator asked me to arrive tomorrow at noon, but I wanted to do a dry run with the bus route from the friends’ place where I’m staying and introduce myself, at least. It’s about a 5-minute walk to the bus and a 15-20-minute bus ride, a straight shot down a main avenue with lots of stores and shopping centers. I didn’t necessarily expect to be staying long today, but I ended up there for a little over 3 hours. The site I’m working at is one of several run by Annunciation House in El Paso. This one is at an old, budget motel, which seems partially be to operating as a motel ($35/night according to the sign out front). I guess A.H. has rented out part of the hotel, plus some other larger rooms that serve as administrative and eating rooms. Our operation is separate from the normal hotel, but when I went in the front door of the building, there was a normal hotel check-in desk and staff, and they directed me through some doors and to the right.
When I arrived, a friendly volunteer came over to greet me. A busload of people had just been dropped off by ICE, and Pam (a nun, the site coordinator) was explaining to the new arrivals how things work. So I sat and listened to that. Things like everyone keep your water bottle that you were just given because you can refill it from the containers over there or from your room or even anywhere on your journey to join your family members. The water from faucets is safe to drink. Also, leave the door to your room open when you are not in the room, but at night while you’re sleeping you can lock it from the inside. Please do not change rooms with anyone else because when it’s time for us to take you to the bus or train station or the airport, if you’re not in the front room here, we will go looking for you at the room you’re assigned to, and we may have to leave without you if we can’t find you if other people in the same vehicle also need to go. We have a clothing room at which every person can select 3 items of clothing (pairs of shoes/socks count as one item), but we also have soap for hand washing the clothes you have with you. That kind of thing. The volunteer who greeted me noted that Pam is speaking slowly and using humor. She also picked up and rocked one of the crying kids as she continued delivering her remarks. That’s intentional, Julie-the-other-volunteer said. She’s speaking slowly because the border patrol people they’ve encountered are often barking orders at them fast, and she’s using the kids as props so that her treatment of them can show that this is a safe place and we care about them. It’s to set a tone that is welcoming and signals to them that this is different from the government detention centers.
Then I was invited to observe as Andrea, who was described as “great at this” did “intake” with the new arrivals. This involves taking down their information, one family at a time while they are seated at a round table with you, and getting the following info entered (by hand) onto the form: full names, correctly spelled (verify this with them instead of just copying it off the ICE forms because they screw those up all the time), birth dates and ages (some of them actually don’t know this about themselves – in which case, kind of guesstimate), number of people in the party, final destination, name and phone number of the person who’s sponsoring them, and some government control number that’s on the upper right hand corner of the forms they have from ICE. We also have to ask if all members of their party are here right now or if they’ve been separated from other members, and if there are any medical issues that need attending. They said don’t bother putting down a cold or something, but if someone is pregnant or diabetic or a kid has a fever, definitely note that and alert the nurse who’s also a volunteer. She is currently the only medical professional on site. The contact info and personal details will be used for when you call the person who’s sponsoring them, who is responsible for making the reservations for their transport to wherever they’re going. Andrea explained that we’re here at a shelter in El Paso with So-and-So and we understand that you are the person who will be making their travel arrangements. Please make them and then call us back at this number (they have several cell phones they use to do this) and keep calling until you speak with someone because we can’t receive voice or text messages. When you call back, we will need the date and time of departure, the airline or bus company name, and the confirmation number. Please make a reservation for a departure between 10 am and 10 pm. If it’s before 10 am, we will drop the travelers off the night before because we don’t do 24-hour transportation, only beginning at around 7 am. Emphasize to them that the reservation must be made from EL PASO, and not from some other city in Texas. Not everyone gets that El Paso and Houston aren’t close to each other just because they’re in the same state. Airlines do NOT let them change the ticket because of a mistake like that. Every single person we were trying to contact answered the phone, and after Andrea handled all that, she’d put the family member on the phone with the person she’d just talked to so they could connect. Andrea said the policy is to call twice, and if they don’t answer, leave a message explaining the situation and ask them to call back.
After the family is finished with “intake,” they proceed to get assigned a room, and they’re given a sort of basic essentials bag containing things like soap and laundry soap, shampoo, deodorant, etc. I didn’t get trained on that stage of things today. Andrea told me that when you walk them to their room, you have to explain that they can put toilet paper in the toilet (apparently that’s not the case where many of them are from), that the shower curtain goes on the inside of the shower, etc. There’s a pool (which isn’t operational because some parents don’t stay with their kids all the time, and they’re worried about people drowning since there’s no lifeguard or anything) and a little enclosed courtyard area where people were hanging out after they got settled. Little kids were playing and running around, which was great to see.
I got to do some of these intake interviews and then Andrea made sure I wrote down everything in the right place. Once I forgot to verify the phone number of the sponsor, and it turned out it was wrong on the ICE form, so we couldn’t reach that person and the woman we were helping noticed that the number was wrong. But I got the hang of it. Andrea said always verify everything because ICE screws up the information all the time.
At 6 one of the local groups that brings meals came by with a dinner of rice, black beans, zucchini, some tortilla chips, cookies, and an apple. After all of the guests had been through the line once, volunteers could go up and get food. We sat down at the tables with some of the guests (some were done eating by then), and they were talking about how great the food was and how grateful they are. Breakfast is coordinated by volunteers, but usually it’s from leftovers from dinner the night before. If there aren’t any leftovers, we use cereal.
The people Andrea and I did intake for were from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Ecuador. Most were a single parent and one or more kids, from 1 year old to 17. Some had two parents. There was one super cute and vivacious 6-year-old named David who cracked me up with his reactions and questions. The parents are usually in their 20s. They told me of journeys of 18 days or 12 days. Some weren’t sure exactly but said “a long time.” ALL of them were extremely kind and gracious. Except for the general weariness you could definitely see, you’d never know these people have fled for their lives with nothing but the clothes they are wearing and have been through hell. They smile at you, and there’s no anger. They’re extremely patient as all this intake stuff happens, even as Andrea took the time to explain things to me as we went. The places where they are headed included Florida, Newark, NJ, Charlotte, NC, somewhere in Missouri, Fort Worth. (Those are the ones I remember, anyway.)
After dinner, it was time to clean up the dining room area, and a lot of them got up to help sweep and clean tables. An extremely cute little girl about 7 or so was having great fun squirting cleaner fluid on a cloth and then folding it up and moving it over the table. I don’t think it was actually cleaning all that much, but I told her she was doing a great job because it looked like this was creating tons of fun for her, and she could probably use some fun. She gave me the biggest smile you’ve ever seen when I told her that.
Some of us volunteers were talking afterwards, and a family that was about to leave for the airport or bus station came over and hugged every one of us (maybe 8 of us were there) and thanked us so much. I don’t think I’d seen them before, so they weren’t selecting out people who’d directly worked with them; they just came to thank all of us. We wished them a buen viaje and buena suerte with all this.
I want to say some things about the volunteers I’ve met so far. Julie is leaving tomorrow morning. She’s the one who initially greeted me. She is a retired sociology professor who now works (or volunteers, maybe? not sure) for an organization in D.C. that does whistle blower protection law, and it happens to be the one that was consulted by those three doctors who are publicizing the conditions in the migrant detention centers. You might have heard of them. She said that they initially were just going to write an Op-Ed about what was going on, but sought legal advice and learned that that wouldn’t protect them as whistle blowers, so they filed an official report, notified Congress, and now are doing interviews and things in the press, but they had to go the official reporting route for their own legal protection somehow. I don’t understand all that, but I’m glad there are people who know that and that they had the good sense to consult with someone first.
My awesome trainer, Andrea, just finished her first year at St. Louis University, where she is studying public health, and she is actually from Honduras and came here to go to college. She speaks great English because she began studying it at a young age. When we had guests from Honduras, she asked where in Honduras and told them where she’s from, too. I said it must be even more gut-wrenching for her to see people in these conditions because it’s her own country’s predicament, and she said yes, definitely, it’s really hard. She’s here with a couple other students from SLU and Jessica, who’s the engagement/outreach coordinator there.
Then there’s a whole family that’s here volunteering together – Mom, Dad, and college-aged son and daughter. The kids spent time studying abroad in Spain, one in Sevilla and one in Madrid. (At least I think so. I might be confusing them with some other volunteers I was talking with in the food line, but I think these two were the two kids in that family of four.) The dad teaches in religious studies, possibly at some kind of seminary (I forget), like a religion and film class that he’s preparing now.
Then there’s Richard, who gave me a ride home this evening. He’s new, too. He had been told to show up at 7 am there this morning, his first day, and we left just after 7 pm. He is staying in an AirBnB not too far from where I’m staying, but up a mountain, so there’s no way he could have stayed there without a car. It would involve returning home up a steep incline every day in this heat. So he has a rental car. Richard lives in California, and when I asked him what he does there, he said he’s retired now, so he does whatever he wants, and a lot of that involves travel, so he’s not even in California much these days. He is a Peace Corps alum, and he said a big old notice went out to the Peace Corps alum email and social media lists asking people to please consider volunteering with one of the groups doing this kind of work at the border. He didn’t respond right away, but he learned about this from that Peace Corps notice that went out, and he knows of other Peace Corps alums stepping up to help with this crisis.
In the three hours I was there today, I didn’t spend a lot of time talking to the people arriving because we were trying to get all this paperwork done and people fed. But in the time I did spend talking to them, they impressed me as just incredible people – really nice, interacting lovingly with their kids, and SO grateful. One of them asked us, “So we are in the United States now, right? I can’t believe it. Finally.”
I heard later from another volunteer at one of the other intake tables that he had a mom and a kid, and they had been separated from the husband and the other kid and boarded on buses and sent different places. They wanted to know if we knew where the husband and other kid were. We don’t, although we can call around to the other sites that are in our network and see if they happen to be there, but really ICE could have put them on a bus and transported them anywhere else in the country, for all we know. There is NO REASON for that. At this point, the two separated parents will be separately traveling to reach their sponsor. Hopefully the dad and the other kid will end up somewhere like this where they have assistance with this process, and at least learn from the sponsor where the other half of the family is. Andrea said there was a family recently that that happened with, and the sponsor managed to get them all to the same intermediate destination and then travel together from there, and we only learned about it from the conversations with the sponsor.
She also said that just yesterday, one of the families she was working with for intake had a horrific story. There was a woman who came with two kids, one of them her own and the other her 5-year-old nephew. The nephew’s mom was their sponsor, so she’s the one they had to call to make the reservations for their travel. But ICE had separated the nephew and taken him off somewhere, since he counted as an “unaccompanied minor” because he was not with a parent, only his aunt. So Andrea had to call his mother and tell him that she was here with the mother’s sister and her child and could she make the reservations for them and then call this number back? She had to explain to this poor woman that her son wasn’t with them, and of course the mother got really upset, and the aunt was bawling. And when this happens, Andrea said, there is no way to find out where the kid is. You can’t just call ICE and say, “Hey, we are on the phone with the mother of a 5-year-old kid who’s supposed to be sponsoring him. Can you tell us where he is?” Apparently, they just get sucked up into the ether and they could be anywhere. Including at that awful Homestead place in Florida. I can’t even imagine.
The email I received from the volunteer coordinator told me to come tomorrow at noon, but Sister Pam said that usually the buses from ICE arrive earlier on Sundays, like around 10:30 or so, so if I could get there before 10 tomorrow, that would be helpful. So that’s what I’ll do. Richard will be there tomorrow, too, and will probably give me a ride back here again. There are buses that go down the major thoroughfare to get to the site from where I’m staying, but they don’t run as much or as late on Sundays.
In between things today, different volunteers kept coming up to welcome me and introduce themselves. I learned from one of them that when they saw me come in and someone said I was a new volunteer, they all wanted to know if I speak Spanish. When Andrea said I do and I actually sound like a Spaniard, they said, “Oh, thank God!”
I don’t know what I’ll be doing tomorrow, but probably more intake interviews because there are people arriving every day, and the people who do that need to know Spanish. But there are lots of other things that people do, like running the clothing room, assembling the travel bags for people, doing airport and bus station drop-offs (which involve going inside and getting them situated, not just pulling up and dropping people at the curb). I’m sure it will be a full day. I hope to get to spend at least some of it visiting with the people arriving and listening to their stories because I am in utter awe of these people – their resilience, their graciousness under so much stress, their gratitude. I want to learn from them and let it soak into me.