Saturday, January 11, 2020

January 2020

and I've been bad at keeping up...there hasn't been much change. Since MPP (Migrant Protection Protocols aka Remain in Mexico) we haven't had a lot of people to care for.

Those who cross along the border in our area are bussed to Brownsville, E. TX, and across the bridge to Matamoros, Mexico. The numbers fluctuate and might be unreliable but some 1500 asylum seekers are camped by the bridge over the Rio Bravo/Rio Grande. On the US side is a huge tent facility where hearings are supposedly held. There is little chance to get legal representation; the judge is via video; the judges don't know what the rules are either; and virtually everyone is sent back to Matamoros to wait for another date, which may be fake (recent evidence that ICE is intentionally making up dates).

Those camped out--some have tents, as volunteers from Brownsville, McAllen, and elsewhere have hauled those over and distributed them. They don't keep anyone cool in the strong heat nor warm in the cold nights. Blankets have been taken over, some mats for sleeping on instead of cement or dirt.

Portapotties are insufficient. Shower facilities even fewer, and some require payment. Meals? Team Brownsville makes dinner some 5 days a week. McAllen Cath Charities has taken to making and hauling and distributing sandwiches and milk several times a week, sometimes every day (depending on how many volunteers there are).

It's all taken over on foot, with wagons, thru customs, and distributed as fairly as possible.

Neither the Mexican gov't nor the USA gov't is providing resources such as food, shelter, sanitation, opps for school or work, opps to plead their cases.

The Respite Center in McAllen still receives some asylum seekers--pregnant women, families with special needs children. Recently Catholic Charities agreed to accept some Haitians & Congolese who do not have family or friends in the US. Normally, we receive detainees with such connections and we help them get there. The refugees we currently have are living at the Center as sponsors are sought.

We can't simply send them out with nothing--and to where? So Cath Char is looking for church or other groups who will commit to helping, which means helping with housing, cooking, groceries, money, school registration, getting to appointments, and the list goes on and on. It's a big commitment but necessary to keep these vulnerable people from falling through cracks.

So at least every other day a group of volunteers with supplies of sandwiches, milk, diapers, wipes, formula, bottles, gloves, blankets, etc loads vehicles, drives to Brownsville, unloads into wagons, draws wagons across the bridge, distributes supplies, and returns to McAllen.

I've gone several times but generally stay in town, at the Center. If there are few volunteers, our help is critical. Preparing breakfast, serving breakfast, cleaning up, preparing lunch, making sandwiches for journeys or for Matamoros, portioning formula, diapers, wipes for Matamoros, and dealing with whatever comes up. The staff person in charge focuses on finding sponsors, transportation, and so on and the volunteers do the rest.

There was a period of 3-4 days when I was the only person other than the staff member. Had I not been there, she would have had to do all the meals/serving etc on her own--tho of course we involve the asylum seekers with cleaning and helping out. It's good work for me, I am not complaining. But it's why I tend to stay at the Center. I am familiar with routines, where things are, how to find things, etc so I can be more effective here than going to Matamoros.

We need the policy to change. The people camped out here (and elsewhere along the border) are in difficult and dangerous situations. Cartels, kidnappings, rape--constant dangers. These are not criminals! They are seeking safety, which is their legal right. We should not be forcing them to camp indefinitely in dangerous places.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Catching up; October 2019

Haven't been writing much and it seems like a good time for an update.

After coming to McAllen nearly every month, for longer stays each time, I decided it would be more efficient to get an apartment so as of July 1, I have an apartment with a bed, table & chairs, and sofa. Two plates, 3 bowls, etc, ha ha. But I do prefer being able to cook for myself even without all the supplies I have at home in Iowa.

It's been very slow at the Respite Center. The administration policy MPP, Migrant Protection Protocols, aka Remain in Mexico, means that asylum seekers who cross the river are immediately detained and returned to Mexico.

There are some 50,000 asylum seekers along the USA-MEX border, along the river. McAllen is across from Reynosa but detained families are bussed to Brownsville, about an hour east and south, and taken across the river to Matamoros.

There are 1500 to 2000 asylum seekers camped out just on the Mexican side of the border. Some have dates to plead for asylum while others are waiting for dates. They don't want to leave the border area because they are afraid they won't get back to the border to cross for their dates.

With little access to portapotties or showers or water to wash clothes, people use the river, which is rapidly becoming even more contaminated.

The USA has set up large tents. Asylum seekers enter the tents and speak via video to a judge somewhere far away. Few have legal representation. Reports are that many of the US people running these "courts" don't know what the laws are anymore; refugees without lawyers have little hope of understanding the system, which can vary depending on who is hearing what from who and where and so on and so forth.....

The 1500-2000 asylum seekers typically have very few resources. They've spent money, maybe borrowed money, to pay their way north, to coyotes, to police, to military. For food, shelter, paper supplies, shoes, etc. They are camped in Matamoros, at the bridge, with no way to earn money and no money to pay for anything. And Matamoros is dangerous; there are cartels, kidnappers, extortionists, and so on.

Fortunately there are groups trying to help. Team Brownsville, a volunteer group, tries to provide dinner for all these people at least 5 days a week. Sometimes breakfast is donated. Some people have tents, which were also donated. The Mexican gov't does little to nothing to help them. The USA gov't of course just wants them to disappear.

The Respite Center in McAllen, under the auspices of Catholic Charities,  has a large facility, staff resources of clothing, showers/bathrooms, diapers, hygiene products, foods, and volunteers. We can, and have, helped up to 1200 people in a single day. These were folks picked up and detained after entering the USA, kept in detention, and then when the detention centers were overcrowded, those with family or sponsors in the USA were released to us.

They'd enter, receive a hygiene kit, register (getting in touch with family who will buy the tickets), get a clean set of clothes, shower, and have hot meals. Depending on the time of day, it would be lunch or dinner. During the afternoon, we'd have hot soup from the Salvation Army plus tortillas and perhaps fruit. They'd only gotten cold sandwiches in detention so hot meals are much appreciated. Most had also gone days without bathing, so showers and clean clothes made a big difference.

The Center's motto is "Restoring Human Dignity" and everyone who works or volunteers there treats the asylum seekers are real human beings, worthy of being treated decently. More than anything tangible we can give them, we give them respect.

But since MPP, we have had few detainees released to our care. Pregnant moms, moms with preemies, families with special needs children. Lots of capacity and no one to share it with.

So we've begun going to Matamoros. As is not unusual, it can be challenging for different entities to work together and probably outlining different areas to be in charge of is the best choice.  At first we made just 1-2 trips a week but we have been going almost every day now. We pack up in the morning and head down in a caravan of private vehicles and volunteers and sometimes staff. We take baby supplies: diapers, wipes, formula. We take hgygiene kits with soap, deodorant, shampoo, comb, hair ties, etc. We take OTC medicines with a nurse or doctor plus translator. We take chips and water. We take ball caps. We take bundled clothing--Women Small t-shirt, underwear4, socks, and also men/babies/children.

Most recently we've been taking sandwiches, since no one provides lunch. We make peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, put 2 in each paper lunch sack, and distribute them along with milk (white and/or chocolate) and 2-3 snacks each (granola bars, chips, pretzels, crackers, cookies, etc).

Every trip we park together in a parking garage, load everything into wagons/carts, and haul the supplies across the bridge into Mexico. We usually get through without problems but one day when I was there, a zealous guard checked the expiration date on the chips, found some expired, and insisted we go through all of them and throw away any that were past their due date. It really hurt throwing perfectly good food away when we were so close to so many hungry people. Trash--they made us throw them in the trash. Damn.

Asylum seekers remain at the border because they worry that they will lose their opportunity. Mexico doesn't want them there and tries to convince them to go home or go further into Mexico. The USA is running sham courts that virtually always send the asylum seekers back across the border into Mexico. If they owe money to coyotes, going home means they'll never earn enough to pay it off.

And the USA gov't continues to try to make things worse. They whittle away at eligibility, outright demand that asylum seekers prove they won't ever use social benefits (struck down by court), lower the numbers of those permitted to enter, and deliberately make conditions so bad that asylum seekers, who have the legal right to request asylum, simply give up and either leave or don't come in the first place.

Now the Mexican gov't, already doing as little as possible to help the people, has decided to forciblty move all these people 10 kilometers further into Matamoros, to be (dare I say) interned in a convention center. 1500-2000 people. Will they be fed? Will there be enough bathrooms? Clean drinking water? Showers? Sleeping mats or cots? Blankets? Protection from the elements? Given the track record, one might expect even worse conditions.

But there had been a bridge protest, non violent, families simply sitting or standing on the bridge in protest, forcing the bridge to close down for some hours. This is their punishment?

Is no one speaking out on behalf of the LEGAL asylum seekers? Who have NOT broken any USA rules but who have been treated like animals or criminals. Why are there only volunteer and charitable groups trying to help? Why are volunteers and charitable groups often denied the opportunity to help, at no cost to any government?

This should have NOTHING to do with politics. It has EVERYTHING to do with humanity and compassion. All of us who have more than we need, who taken indoor running water for granted, whose major decisions today might be what kind of expensive coffee to buy, we did nothing to deserve this. We were simply born into this good fortune. The asylum seekers? They did nothing to deserve violence, gangs, poverty, illness. They were simply born into that bad fortune. We are not better than them. Why can't some people see this?

Of course there is much more to the story, the history of USA involvement in Central America, climate change, relationships between Mexico and its neighbors, colonialism, etc etc. Knowing more about all of those makes us realize our own complicity, and that we have some responsibility for the "bad fortune". It is ALL important to teach/to learn.

Meantime on the border we wait anxiously for some good news for a change, believing surely it can't get worse, seeing it get worse, yet hoping each new day anyway.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

MPP and other illegal policies....and effects

so people have a legal right to request asylum in the USA. By not permitting them to enter via "approved ports", the USA gov't has forced them to cross at "unapproved" locations,  which are often dangerous and have resulted in deaths.

That being seen as insufficient, the gov't put in place the "remain in Mexico" policy (MPP). So now, in my area for example, CBP is meeting refugees on the USA side and sending them directly back to Mexico. In some cases, along other parts of the border, we are evidently shipping them south to Monterrey with no support, or worse, Chiapas.

This means there are fewer detainees and fewer detainees to release into our care. So our shelter, with support, resources, volunteers, is mostly empty. We have food, clothing, hygiene supplies, energy and desire but no one to help.

The 9th Circuit Court said it had to stop, but also said that its ruling only applied to its own jurisdiction, which does not include Texas.

There is no change on the horizon, though change seems to be the only constant.

At this point in time, we are exploring options. There are shelters in Reynosa, across the border from McAllen. We could transport human and physical resources there to help asylum seekers who have been turned away and have nowhere else to go.

But Reynosa is dangerous, in large part due to kidnappings by cartels. An associate told me that if we are in marked Catholic Charities vehicles, we should be ok. But in these early days, Catholic Charities has not decided whether it's a good idea to send supplies over. So no CC vehicles and too dangerous in personal ones.

It's possible, and highly desirable! that the 9th Circuit will review and revise its order and make MPP enforcement illegal all along the border. Or that some other event will occur to force a change in the policy (it seems unlikely that this admin would change it willingly). Until then, we are helplessly watching the cruelty and illegality of forcing asylum seekers to remain in dangerous situations.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

El Paso and beyond....

so we're scared.

We work at a Humanitarian Respite Center and now we are afraid that white supremacists or copy cats will think our shelter is a great place to "stop the invasion". They don't know our numbers are down due to the remain in Mexico policy--though we still get 150 or more per day from detention centers.

I went to work Monday feeling despair inside but focusing on helping and compassion outside. Long time volunteers and staff mentioned to me several times during the day that they are afraid of a shooting incident too.

One begins to think. I had Active Shooter Training--what would I do? What are the exits and which are permanently locked? We have two guards 24/7. Are they armed? I don't know. I doubt the front doors/windows are bullet proof. They're tinted so you can't see in but that's about it.

Would a shooter know that you don't have to enter by the front guarded door? I don't plan on publicizing it....

Would I run to get kids? Stand in front of refugees? Approach the shooter to interrupt the carnage?

I don't know. I hope I don't have to find out.

and we had a visit from the bishop, the mayor, and the police chief, reviewing our security and making recommendations. It's upside down for a human shelter to have to protect itself....

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Carrizo Comecrudo Protest

July 27, noon, Los Encinos Park, McAllen, TX

Mix of Indigenous activists and others; ARISE was there as was Proyecto Azteca. There is a cemetery with ancestral graves, and the proposed wall will go through it (it's near the wildlife refuge as well). My friend and I visited the camp; leader Juan Macias and others camping out to protect the graves.

This protest opened with songs of the earth; I didn't understand the words but the rhythm, singing, movement were deeply calming. Speakers addressed the historical crossing of "the border" and noted that the border, to many Indigenous peoples, is an imaginary line that simply complicates their lives and separates them from family and communities. Others noted that the people haven't moved--the border has. And that is exactly true.

The protest was well planned and attended and music continued after we left. A few pictures.

on the street

stage to left, audience right

I like flags



nice breeze for flags

the requisite dog

on the street

Juan Mancias speaking


tents from parking lot


Friday, July 26, 2019

Pictures Summer 2019 Respite Center

Entrance to Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center, McAllen, TX

Entrance to bus station

Main entry/room inside center

Dining area

the "bar"

Clothing area, needing to be restocked

Volunteers serving lunch

Mats for sleeping, piled up during day

Waiting in line for clothes

upon moving in; now quite full

donations waiting to go upstairs and be sorted

water to send with families as leave

Snack bags for bus travelers: 2 waters, 8 snacks, 4 sandwiches added just before leaving

we spend hours making sandwiches & snack bags....

making money selling mats for sleeping

one donated coconut

July & Aug 2019 #1

been away but busy, general catch up below

The "new" center
It's been over a month, but still settling in and figuring out systems. We are downtown, literally across the street from the bus station, in a large building that used to be a night club of some sort. There's a large central room with a long bar; a raised platform along one wall, and a couple more large rooms that we use for clothing, showers, bathrooms, dining, & sleeping. Also a nice big commercial kitchen.

We also have the entire upstairs (though not air conditioned). The old storage warehouse was closed and all brought here. It's cavernous and currently struggling a bit between two identities: a ware house and a restocking center. Traffic is an issue at times, with multiple known and unknown volunteers dashing up, getting stuff, and taking it down to the bar or kitchen. Makes keeping inventory a huge challenge, plus there's an uneasiness about so many people having access to so much stuff.

Most of those people do not realize there are cameras EVERYWHERE...up and down stairs. Ha ha.

The border situation
Unchanged. We still receive hundreds of asylum seekers a day, most 2 to 3 person families: one parent plus one or more kids. Most from Central America. All from detention centers where have stayed 4-12 days, without showers, clean clothes, adequate food, any medical care at all.

All have family or sponsors in the US so our task is to connect them to families, who buy bus or plane tickets for them. While that is taking place, they can get a clean set of clothes, a shower, hot food, a place to rest. We often have a nurse for several hours a day and have a clinic area where the doctor(s) come several times a week. In emergencies, we will take them to an ER or clinic. I don't know who pays, but I know Catholic Charities has at least one pharmacy acct and I imagine other arrangements are in place. I have not been asked to pay when I've taken folks.

The numbers have been slightly down, which helps us do a better job, but fluctuation is normal and there is no expectation that they will stay low, and by low I mean under 600 per day. That's about our normal. Not sure how we do it all but somehow, a small group of staff and an always varied number of volunteers manage to distribute hygiene kits, clothes, meals, information, assistance, respect, and comfort.

Meantime, as we do our damndest to respond to a contrived crisis, we are aware that:

seeking asylum is a legal right;
preventing asylum seekers from crossing at authorized ports of entry is illegal;
separation of families is cruel & illegal;
mass detention of asylum seekers in overcrowded, unsanitary, poorly resourced/staffed centers is unconcionable;
deaths of individuals in these centers is preventable but there appears to be no interest in preventing such deaths;
ICE raids across the country are targeting homes, not workplaces, and are designed to invoke terror and uncertainty for no gain other than invoking terror;
anyone, anytime, can be detained by ICE indefinitely, without legal recourse, regardless of whether one is a citizen, DACA, green card holder;
being brown in this country IS the sin.

And this is unacceptable. Local protests and efforts at the state and national levels are ongoing and need to begin producing change immediately.

My new living arrangements
It was getting expensive, these trips. I saved money this summer by apartment sitting for cheap but when I saw that a car rental would cost over a grand, I decided I'd rather sink that money into something that I could recoup. So I bought a car. Then knowing that the apt sitting wouldn't last past 8/1, I rented an apt. Then I needed just a few basic furniture and kitchen items. Then I needed to get the kids up in Iowa in the loop.

All is well except for the guilt tripping by the kids.....but I find if I call them on it, they back down. That's a good thing. So now I am a borderlander--never a Texan--as well as a Midwesterner. I do look forward to winters down here....and the volunteer work continues to satisfy my soul. When the time comes, I haul my modest possessions back north. In the meantime, I have a sanctuary, wheels, and good work. Yay.