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. Check back daily for current installments.
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.