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

banners

banners


nice breeze for flags

the requisite dog

on the street


Juan Mancias speaking

band

tents from parking lot

banner


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.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

June 2019 Respite Center

and lots of misc, covering past several days, not necessarily in order.

Met Miss Plus Rio Grande Valley. She came to volunteer. Very nice young woman.

We had two women who'd just had C-sections and been released from the hospital. We were told the baby of one was still in the NICU and I felt so bad for her, not being near her baby. Turns out that was a cover story. The baby had been stillborn. How awful to carry a child to near term and have it die.....

Josh Norman, Washington "Redskins" player...came and donated $18,000 to the respite center. Looked him up and he does many good things. Met him last spring when he first visited and he remembered me! Got a selfie but I look dreadful so I cropped it. Good person.

Noted yesterday a lack of communication...no one seems to know who the young woman is who proclaimed that she is the asst. volunteer coordinator. Our 2 drivers mixed up who was taking who to the airport when....our boss and one driver were at odds over how many snack bags to keep by the exit door. The occasional staff meeting would be good, ha ha.

Yesterday pm went upstairs for diapers. Woman with nametag practically accosts me (in my volunteer t-shirt) and announces to me that SHE is going to make everyone wear a name tag (I, obviously, was not). She continued: "Y'all aren't doing what WE are doing!". I should have asked what that was supposed to mean...but instead gave her a dismissive look and slight head shake and moved on. Wonder if she will be there today....

Not OCD but like tidy and organized, and the area behind the bar counter is a mess. Most of the mess is under the counter, at least out of the way. But stuff spills out and it's hard to walk and not only a mess but a hazard if we need to get out from behind there in a hurry. The rotating volunteers tend to do whatever so although stuff moves around, it is pretty reliably always a mess. I want to organize it this coming week. Wish me luck.

Still on the counter. WHY a bin of large containers of baby powder? We don't give it out, except maybe in doses in small cups. So we sure don't need a bin full. We're avoiding soap, since it clogs the drains (they get body wash in hygiene kits). But there are more than one bins full of bar soap. And they are heavy. And they need to go upstairs, which means smaller and more containers and someone to haul them. 

Was called on to meet and assist a delivery of 3 pallets of hygiene products at 10 on Thurs, I think it was. I was there at 10. At 1020 I left but kept checking back to the delivery door on the alley. At 1230 I went to lunch and of course that's when UPS showed up, in a semi, in the alley.....I got back and it was one pallet, not three. And it was cubicle walls, not hygiene products. And the driver complained about being late on his route. Not MY fault! And we had to get two guys each for one cubicle panel because they were so big and a bit heavy. All stored safely upstairs now. The semi blocked alley traffic for well over half an hour and there were donors lined up behind. Glad that mess is over.

We now have an "isolation room" upstairs, AC, place to rest etc. We've already had one chicken pox in there....And the clinic is being set up, very nice, we've had a couple of moms with 2 or 3 day old kids there.

We ahd a couple of days where we got folks out and new folks hadn't come. Volunteers get out a jump rope and harmonica and lots of playing and fun ensues. Coloring books, books to read corner, even a soccer ball! Time to braid and work on each other's hair. Singing! So awesome to see.

and a couple of reunions. We only see if people are actually picked up by family. I love to greet them, hug our detainees, wish them well, see them off.

possibly more later. It's 7 am and about time to start my shift.