The papa held up a yellow T-shirt to his six- or seven-year-old daughter to make sure it would fit, to make sure she liked it. She nodded and grinned. He smiled. “Esta bien,” he said as he accepted her clothing and the change of clothing we gave him. He thanked us, and as they left to get in line for lunch, I wished them buen viaje – a good journey – because I was at an utter loss as to what to say.
This father and daughter were like the other parents with children in line for a change of clothing, so I didn’t truly appreciate them the first time I encountered them. But later I noticed that they’d each picked up a broom and were sweeping. This act of thanks and kindness triggered my tears so I hid behind the shelves of clothing to collect myself. Soon they came to where we were sorting clothes in preparation for the next arrivals and we began to talk. I asked the father where they were from. El Salvador, he said, and somberly began to describe their difficult journey. But as his little daughter approached with a swish swish of her broom, his eyes lit up and in a grand gesture raised his arm toward her in presentation and exclaimed, “Es mi hija!” This is my daughter! I asked her name. She giggled and said,” Hazel.” His pride and love for her were evident, even as his upturned lips belied the trauma of their arduous journey. This man and daughter came more than three thousand miles, many of them on foot, and in spite of the horrors they suffered along the way, they gave thanks for the small comforts we offered with their labor, the only thing they had to give.
This took place on my second day volunteering at the Humanitarian Respite Center (HRC) in McAllen, Texas. The HRC, founded by the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grand Valley in 2013, is the first stop of immigrants once they’ve been released from the detention camp in McAllen. At the HRC they receive one change of clothes, a meal or two, a bag with toiletries, and a chance to shower. The staff help them understand what’s next in the process, purchase bus or plane tickets to their next destination in the United States, and send the ones who are sick to the sparsely equipped onsite medical clinic— if a volunteer doctor is available; often one isn’t.
The HRC occupies a corner in downtown McAllen. It’s a poorly lit cavernous space divided into three large rooms: one for processing which has a play area for children, a waiting area for their parents, and a hygiene bar where they can get extra supplies like diapers, shampoo, feminine hygiene products; one for distributing clothing which also has thin sleeping mats piled high on either side; and one for serving meals. There’s also a kitchen, bathrooms, a small shower area, and even a tiny chapel. It’s a humble space with a meager staff and a collection of rotating volunteers from around the country. But it is a light in the darkness for refugees and for those of us who spent time there.
My journey to McAllen began in my body: in my in my stomach that churned as I read and watched story after story about what was happening along the border and about the conditions in the detention camps; in my eyes that began to randomly expel tears thinking about families in crisis; and in my brain that fed me terrible dreams about people in cages and children torn from their mothers’ arms. For all the rage I felt about this administration’s detention policies, I felt a thousand times more heartbroken. Calls and letters to my representatives, being outspoken —all the hallmarks of being a politically active citizen— were accomplishing absolutely nothing. I felt helpless. I was a bystander to the atrocities being reported. I needed to do something to keep the feeling of helplessness at bay, to do something tangible and immediate. I felt called to go to McAllen because of the notorious camp there. I wanted to see it for myself, to bear witness to what our government is doing, and to learn. I’d found HRC online and then a friend who’d volunteered there last year confirmed it did good work and encouraged me. I posted on Facebook about my sadness and wonderment about what we average citizens could do about the crisis as this “calling” was being formulated in my head. That led to three of us deciding to go together. A little team of fed up, determined, heartbroken women was formed, and we booked a flight from Philadelphia.
Upon our arrival at HRC on a Monday in late August, it was empty. This was a surprise. We’d understood that this facility had been seeing hundreds of refugees per day. We were told that over the weekend the government had quietly closed the borders of Texas and New Mexico and not only were no new refugees being allowed in, the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was also releasing fewer from the detention camp. We were crestfallen and wondered if our trip had been in vain. We searched for news stories to confirm this; we found none. [It was finally reported more than a month later, after the administration made an official announcement.] After about an hour, however, someone at HRC got an insider tip from CBP that 47 people had people had been released. And sure enough, 47 people showed up about 20 minutes later.
The border patrol bus pulled up and we watched these souls come into the center. I wasn’t prepared for the surge of sadness, panic, and the range of inexplicable, overwhelming emotions I felt when my eyes first took them in. It was as if they weren’t real until I saw them. I guess they’d been heretofore theoretical, even as much as my brain knew this wasn’t the case. It’s one thing to see photos of the immigrants which allows you several layers of mental protection and distance from the reality, but it’s another thing altogether to witness fellow human beings in crisis right in front of you. The many children made me stagger. They were bewildered. Some children were crying, some were too stunned to emote at all. The red-ringed eyes of their parents connoted recently fallen tears or prolonged fear or illness or fatigue or trauma or…all of the above. I couldn’t hold back tears and neither could my teammates. But we gathered our composure to get ready for our service. This would continue throughout the week—encountering a person, a story, or information that was too much to bear and we would take turns sneaking off to hide our tears.
It’s important to explain who was coming to the HRC. None were from Mexico. They were from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. These asylum seekers were the “lucky ones” that had been allowed to enter the United States. Hundreds of others remained in the McAllen detention camp, untold others were taken back into Mexico. They came to us directly from the camp with only the clothes on their backs and subpoenas for future court dates at which their claims for asylum would be heard. Most had family or sponsors all over the U.S. and that’s where they were headed after the HRC. We were never able to properly determine how CBP decided their fates, but it appeared to be random. One day we heard they were releasing those with sick and disabled children and about sixty people were then dropped off. Another day a few more were dropped off, but with no explanation about why they’d been released. It seemed as if confusion and uncertainty were an intentional tactic.
I was surprised to learn that even at the HRC, the refugees are still not “free.” Once deposited to the HRC, they are not permitted to leave. There are security guards and the facility is kept locked. The refugees must wait for their buses or flights at the facility to keep them safe. HRC volunteers must escort them to the bus station and airport. The guards were there to keep us all safe, one guard told me, “especially after the shooting in El Paso.” It was sobering.
Our Philly team was stationed at the clothing distribution area where we helped them select clothing and shoes. The clothing at the center has been donated or purchased on behalf of the center by people from all over the country. There is a warehouse upstairs at the facility where the donations are stored and sorted. It is remarkable how much clothing, food, and supplies are there, and it was a a glimmer of hope for me that people from across the country have responded to this crisis in impressive numbers.
After the refugees are fed and settled, it is a waiting game for them. I marveled at what I saw in their waiting moments: helpers. As with the papa and Hazel, they sprung into action. Many found the mops brooms and cleaned the floors. They cleaned the tables in the dining area. They took out the garbage. They helped us distribute shoes and fold and sort clothing. They were sick, sad, tired, and worried, and yet they helped us. One volunteer asked a young man why he and others were mopping instead of getting much needed rest and he said, “It’s the least we can do for you.”
The first day I joined the food line to help give out sandwiches and fruit for lunch and when we gave them two sandwiches, they often declined the second sandwich saying they had enough and that there were other people in line to feed. I was astounded that hungry people declined extra food, that tired and traumatized people found the energy to do chores in repayment for the care they were given.
Their Stories, The Facts
Because I speak Spanish, I had the opportunity to talk to many who came through the center. I have never been more grateful for my shitty, rusty Spanish because it allowed me to learn more about them and to hear some of their stories firsthand, stories that were often as surreal as they were sad. A few examples:
- An almost-seven-months-pregnant woman in her early 20s told me she walked by herself from Guatemala to escape constant violence in her village. Although it was painful to leave her parents and husband, it was more painful to raise her baby amid violence, she said.
- Some parents reported that they didn’t want their sons to be forcibly recruited by the gangs who have overtaken their towns and countries. These recruitments by the drug cartels at gun or knife point are common, and families are helpless to stop them. Resistance is often met with murder.
- A woman told another volunteer that during her family’s journey they were kidnapped by gang members. But somehow they managed to escape together, running for their lives in the darkness of night.
- Another explained why she left her village in simple but gruesome detail, “The gang slit my brother’s throat and burned my house down. I cannot go back there with my baby, it’s not safe. They will kill us, too.” Read that again.
Thousands of miles they all traversed, escaping unsafe homes, in search of safety for their children and different kind of life – the kind of life we all want and deserve. We learned that many would travel a few days, stop to work to earn some money, then continue to make their way north, so that their journeys to the border sometimes took several months. They would walk miles, then hop freight trains to cover more ground, then walk again, often meeting up with other refugees to walk in the safety of groups. Sometimes they paid “coyotes” with the little money they had to protect them from the gangs. They would sleep on dirt under the stars some nights. Other nights they’d hole up in a shanty along the way. Imagine a trek like that. Imagine the strength and perseverance it takes. Imagine getting to the border, at last, and being thrown into a cage.
One day a volunteer asked me to help translate for a man who seemed upset. When I began to talk to him he was frantic and panicked. He had misplaced his Bible (the HRC gives a small Bible to each family) and needed help searching for it. I found one and brought it to him and he flipped through the pages then said sadly, “This is not mine. I wrote something in my Bible. It’s special.” I finally located it where his child had been playing. There were scribbles on the inside of the back cover, but I felt it was an invasion of his privacy to read the words, so I didn’t. When I returned it to him, he was overcome and tears welled in his eyes as he thanked me. In it was the name and contact information of a family friend in the U.S., he explained as he showed me the page. Scribbles of connection in his little Holy Book. It struck me how they have already lost everything and yet, in an instant, they can still lose more.
On Thursday of that week, a striking young Honduran woman, who was waiting for her flight to New Jersey with her 15-month-old (an active, adorable boy with a twinkle in his eye), came to where I was sorting clothing to help. After some small talk, she began to talk about her experience in the detention camp, folding clothes while she spoke. With each bit of information she offered I became more comfortable asking her questions. I had not asked most refugees deeper questions than “Where are you from?” or “Where are you going?” as I did not want to further their trauma by asking personal questions; instead I waited to hear what was offered. But this woman, whose name I’m protecting for her safety, seemed ready to talk. She confirmed what we’ve heard in the news and offered details I’d not known.
When migrants are detained, all of their belongings are taken from them —necessities like toothbrushes, diapers, sanitary napkins, hair ties, and even their rosaries, which seems particularly cruel and unnecessary. The CBP strip men of their belts and hats, and all must relinquish their shoe laces. [One volunteer, a gentleman who was on his second stint at HRC, explained one of the reasons for stripping them of their shoe laces: to mark them. Individuals with no shoe laces are easily identifiable by ICE and CBP. We gave out hundreds of shoe laces.] The camp is kept very cold, so the refugees have dubbed it “the icebox.” The bright florescent lights are kept on at all times. The CBP agents rattle the cages at all hours to keep the refugees awake and uncomfortable, and they taunt them and call them perritos –little dogs. They “sleep” on concrete floors. They are always hungry. They are fed only twice a day and one meal is cereal. She described how the children drank down the milk too quickly (making a sucking sound as she spoke) and then begged and cried for more. She was at the detention center a week and was permitted to shower only once. She said that they were told nothing during their captivity, so that when their names were called they didn’t know if they were being deported or being released, which left them in constant fear. They were put on a bus not knowing where it was going. All the refugees on her bus were completely surprised to end up at the HRC—they thought they were being deported.
I wasn’t sure if I should ask about family separation, not knowing if one of her children had been taken, but I nervously tip-toed ahead since she seemed so open. I told her our government claims that it has stopped taking children from their parents and she shook her head furiously and said, Eso no es verdad – that is not true. CBP agents took babies and children from some women, and it was not clear to her to why certain children were selected to be whisked away never to be seen again. She described how their mothers then wailed and cried constantly. Que sonido tan triste, she said in a near whisper. “What a sad sound.”
This part of our conversation leveled me. I didn’t know how to respond, how to offer her comfort. I felt weak, felt my stomach churn, felt the tears well, willing them not to fall in her presence. But she was stronger in relating these details than I was in hearing them, I’m quite embarrassed to admit. Her eyes were sad, but she was stoic and exhibited a strength that must be reserved for those who endure extreme hardship. After a few moments of silence I looked in her eyes and said, “I am so sorry for what my country is doing. I hope you understand that most of the people in America want to welcome you.” Lo siento, lo siento, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I muttered. She nodded, her eyes now full of kindness and understanding, and she smiled and touched my shoulder. Then she went to tend to her son who was beautifully oblivious, playing with boxes and upturning laundry baskets like any toddler would. Later, I quietly offered her an extra set of clothing for her and her baby (since we were only supposed to give out one set) as a gift for helping us and she declined saying it wasn’t right for her to take more. I cried myself to sleep in my hotel that night.
Much has been made in the right-wing media of children being used as pawns to get over the border, so it deserves mention here. While it may be true in some cases, those we met were parents or relatives of the children with them, without any question. Their parenting behavior stood out to me for its absolute normalcy in abnormal conditions. Like the gentleman who, after showering, came to our area with his daughter to model their new clothes and thank us. We ooh-ed and ahh-ed and they walked away smiling, hand in hand. The mama who found a soccer ball and kicked it around with her son shouting, “GOOOOAAAL” when he made a great kick, both of them dissolving into laughter. The father who fussed at his son to throw away his lunch plate instead of leaving it on the table, “Don’t leave it. Find a garbage can, mijo [my son].” The father who asked us if we could find a headband because his little girl preferred it to a hair tie. All of these are moments of parenthood, moments we all have in common.
What has been reported about the severe condition of the camps, how refugees are being treated, the continued family separation in spite of the June 2018 order to discontinue it — it’s all true. One refugee told a volunteer that she was raped in the detention camp confirming previous media reports that sexual assault is happening in the camps, often to children. It’s notable, too, that the reports of flu and illness being untreated are accurate. At first we couldn’t understand why, with blazing Texas heat, the refugees kept asking us for coats and sweaters. We soon figured out it’s because they were cold and shivering from fever. And to remove all doubt about half of the volunteers, including me, became terribly ill with the flu as well. A report released recently confirmed the death of several children in the camps from the flu and untreated illness. These practices are designed to be cruel and to strip these individuals of their dignity. All of it is inhumane, most of it is criminal.
These are but minuscule fragments of a week that fundamentally changed me. I have left out so much of what we experienced for it is impossible to relay it all. I recognize that it is unfair (perhaps even wrong) to use the word “traumatized” to describe an experience with truly traumatized individuals, but I can’t think of a better word just now. I am traumatized and haunted by what I saw and learned. I cannot unsee or unhear any of it. The image of the immigrants’ faces linger in my mind. Their stories have taken up residence in my heart. Their plight burns a hole in my soul. My visceral responses to the experience remain with me still. The smell of cleaning solution mixed with sweat, fear, tears. The lump in my throat that nearly choked me as I gazed into the eyes of traumatized women. The feeling of a sweet baby’s skin against mine as I held him while his mother tried on a shirt. The roiling of my stomach as I watched mothers and fathers clutch the envelopes with their court papers, those flimsy possibilities of freedom. The tingle in my ears and dissonance I felt when several uttered the words Eres muy amable (You’re very kind) to me, which I believed I hadn’t earned. The children at play who conjured up images of my own daughters when they were small. The lingering worry about those children and their fraught, complicated, and uncertain futures in a country where a third of the population reviles them, where they are targets for violence and hate crimes. The mouth-gaping awe for the refugees’ astounding strength and resilience. While these feelings bring me pain, I hope I never forget them because forgetting would be inhuman.
I am so grateful that I had this experience and that perhaps the volunteers and I gave moments of relief. But I am now more profoundly heartbroken, enraged, and ashamed of our country. My feelings of helplessness have not abated at all. In fact, I feel more helpless than ever because the situation is worsening. The dreams of suffering children have only increased and become more horrifying because now they are informed by reality. My friend who’d been there last year warned me before my departure, “It will bring you no peace.” She was right. I have found no peace.
But I did find hope in the midst of it all. It came in the form of volunteers from all over the country who have given their time and money to be at HRC, the staff of the HRC who have made this space to provide welcome and care, and our little Philly team. I met ordinary/extraordinary Americans who wanted to do whatever they could to offer comfort, to counterbalance hatred and ignorance, and to welcome refugees with outstretched hands and open hearts. Their energy and spunk was contagious. Each was a light that shines with the best of human nature and represents how good Americans can be. Their care and kindness was a salve for my wounded soul. I was heartened, too, by their networks of friends who raised money, who donated goods, who helped spread the word, just as my awesome friends have done. As I’ve experienced before, intense shared experiences create a family out of strangers. I will be ever grateful for this family forged in crisis.
So What’s the Point?
I know that human history is shamefully littered with groups of people demonizing and dehumanizing other groups of people so that cruelty, abuse, and murder can be chewed up and swallowed by the masses at Sunday dinner. But I’ve never truly understood it and I’ve certainly never seen it up close until now. It is the most heartbreaking fact of my life that people I know and not a small number of fellow American citizens are susceptible to the forces of hatred and bigotry, eager to buy into the notion that human beings deserve this kind of treatment, that it’s somehow a deterrent. (It’s not.) I could blather on about how we’re all immigrants (living on stolen land, but that’s another story – well, not really). I could remind you that your ancestors didn’t come to this nation with embossed invitations or citizenship applications in hand and your claim that they did it “legally” is nonsense. I could repeat ad infinitum that it is not only legal but also necessary to present oneself in person for asylum on U.S. soil. I could point out that all the vitriol is aimed only at brown immigrants. I could talk about how immigrants are necessary for the economy. I could scream for days about how immigrants aren’t stealing your jobs, but automation and greedy employers are. I could tell you again that immigrants are not taking public resources and benefits (seriously, for the gazillionth time, they are ineligible for nearly all benefits and they pay billions into social security and do not receive any benefits). I could try to explain how U.S. foreign policy has contributed to the rise of violent gangs and crisis in Central America and how Trump’s policies are actually contributing to the rise of immigrants seeking asylum. Yet I understand, sadly, that the people who need most to understand these things are averse to the facts, and, frankly, just don’t give a damn.
But none of that is the point. The point is that we are living in a country that has adopted cruelty, torture, and fomentation of fear and racism as a de rigueur, official response to immigration. Full stop. There was a time that I thought we could all agree, no matter our political party or how we disagreed on myriad social and political issues, that caging people, torturing them, and ripping children from their parents’ arms was amoral. That sexually abusing children was a crime. That sending babies off to God knows where and then LOSING THEM was unthinkable. I’m astounded that these practices are not universally condemned. What is being inflicted on these children and families is evil. An administration who enacts these policies is monstrous; those who carry them out are monsters. I am profoundly disappointed and confused by those who support this, and I am perplexed by the silence of those who don’t.
What about you?
I ask of all the questions I’ve been asking myself: What would you do to protect yourself, your child, your family? What would love make you do? What would fear make you do? Would you cross a line, a bridge, a river, a desert, a country, an ocean, a planet for your child? How high would you climb for safety and freedom? Would you climb a wall, a tower, a mountain, to the moon? How far would you walk, run, ride after you watched your family be murdered, your home burned to the ground? What would you risk for the possibility of a better life? I suspect your answer would be: anything.
Were it not for the completely random fortunes of our birth, the refugees could be us. And as a nation of immigrants, they are us. It is our duty as human beings and members of a civil society to protect one another from harm. It is our obligation to act in a way and support policies that reflect our values. It is our responsibility to rise up against atrocities committed in our names. I believe we are called to understand and embrace the things that connect us and make us similar – because we are all more alike than we are different. Because that little girl swish swishing her broom? She is my daughter. She is your daughter. She is our daughter. And her father is all of us.
Note: the Humanitarian Respite Center is no longer encouraging volunteers at the moment because of the change in the Trump administration’s recent decision to disallow any asylum seekers over the southern border.
If you want to get involved, Team Brownsville remains active at the border taking meals to families in Matamoros, Mexico, where refugees are waiting for asylum. RAICES provides low-cost legal support to separated and detained families, unaccompanied minors, and asylum seekers. If you want to put pressure on your member of Congress to reverse these policies and close the camps, please contact them. Here’s how.