Editor’s note: The author taught English at Conant High School in Jaffrey from 1990-2011 and is now retired. She lives in Sharon.
Giving frees us from the familiar territory of our own needs by opening our mind to the unexplained worlds occupied by the needs of others.
— Barbara Bush
This is my second year in retirement, and it’s been difficult adjusting to the good fortune of free time. After passing much of last winter indoors, I swore to find a way to be in warmer clime this winter. So, for January, I decided on El Paso, Texas, not only to get a break from our winter, but to have an adventure in a locale entirely new to me where I could witness the human
crisis at the border that has dominated the news.
This is what I learned:
There is no illegal immigration crisis at the southern border. However, there is a human crisis of migrants escaping violence and poverty who immediately turn themselves in to the Immigration and Naturalization Service upon reaching the border. Unfortunately, our country is grossly unprepared to process the hundreds of immigrants who turn themselves in each day. These people are seeking legal immigration to the United States, and several must wait weeks, months and even years before being released from detention.
In my two weeks in El Paso, I met hundreds of these brave people who, like my grandparents, traveled in dire conditions to bring their children to a new world, away from violence and hopelessness.
I’ve never seen a city like El Paso. I visited the Grand Canyon and northern Arizona last spring, but it did not prepare me for this wide expanse of desert brown, punctuated by this city and its Mexican sister across the bridge, only a few blocks away from the city center. El Paso is literally the pass on the 16th century highway, the Camino Real, that runs from Mexico City to Santa Fe, N.M.
The horizon is everywhere, and the Franklin Mountains divide the east and west sides of the city. They are always in the background, providing a landmark for navigation, so it’s always easy to know which direction you’re driving. The mountains look like brown jagged hills made of compacted mud; however, they are higher than anything on the East Coast.
One can drive up a ridge of the Franklins and look out on two countries and three states — yes, all the way across New Mexico into Arizona. The visuals are misleading — so much sky makes everything look closer.
El Paso is quiet. Between here and Juarez there are 1.2 million people. El Pasoans brag of their low crime rate, some attributing it to the lithium that naturally seeps into the water system. Desert days are warm, in the 60s, but the nights plunge into the 30s. But there is always sun, so my stay in the Chihuahua Desert was a great break from the ice and snow from where I came.
The border is everywhere. Highway 10, which gets you most places, is parallel to the border, and around here that means a wall of tall metal slats.
I was in El Paso as a volunteer with Annunciation House, a “hospitality center” sponsored by a Catholic organization that, for the past 40 years, has helped migrants settle. It operates 13 sites. I was assigned to a welfare hotel, the Mesa Inn, which reeked of stale cigarette smoke and had yellow-stained toilets and tubs in all the rooms. Most of the volunteers stayed there, too — they reminded me that these rooms are like castles to our guests, especially after what they have been through.
I have to hand it to the wonderful volunteers I met, several millennials who committed a full year to Annunciation House. Supporting the efforts of these full-timers are the local volunteers and visiting volunteers like myself, many of whom are nuns or active Catholic lay people (got to love that Dorothy Day ethos) who regularly minister to the poor in a variety of settings. Others, like myself, came also to serve at the border as an act of protest against the hateful political discourse that scapegoats the poor and powerless.
Each volunteer is assigned an eight-hour shift, but it seems that the volunteers living at the Mesa Inn begin their day at 7 a.m. and are still there to lock up the office at night. However, I never left the shelter after eight hours. During my time there, immigration dropped off groups of 30 to 75 people each day, sometimes giving us at the inn a few hours’ notice. Other times there was no notice at all.
My shift ended at 2 p.m., but often I stayed on through dinner. There was so much to do. Almost everyone I’ve met came from Honduras or Guatemala, though I met one family from Cuba that had to travel through 10 South American countries before it could get to our border. Every adult was traveling with a child, and they had all been in detention for at least four days. I could only hope that the gratitude of having finally arrived in the United States helped them to mute the trauma endured during their journeys.
Many arrived empty-handed, literally with only the clothes on their back, but each adult carried a heavy battery pack for their locked-on ankle bracelets, which need to be recharged every eight hours. Needless to say, they are weary and dirty, and many are sick.
When they arrive, we welcome them with big smiles and applause. The guests then wait in yet another line for “intake.”
My fellow volunteers, with far better Spanish than mine, then interview each guest and call their sponsor, who has agreed to buy their plane or bus ticket. I’ve been told these sponsors must sign a document stating they will be responsible for their guests for 10 years and will make sure they never receive aid from the government during that decade.
Those released from detention have somewhere to go, from Orlando to Maine, from Los Angeles to Omaha. INS officials schedule court dates in their sponsors’ states, often several hours from the sponsor’s home city or town. I have no idea how they are expected to charge their batteries on a four-day bus ride, never mind for the months or years until they see a judge.
We supply each family with toiletries and take them to their rooms; often, two families in two queen beds, and, boy, are they happy. Annunciation House stocks two rooms of donated clothes, so these people have something fresh to change into after bathing. Their faces become animated, some women wear lipstick, and children run around like children. And that’s why this work, amid such a depressing circumstance, is joyful, even hopeful.
Despite the trauma they endured, the children are still children, with too little life experience to believe they can’t be happy. And they are so beautiful and affectionate; they bring light to our lives.
Except for breakfast, the food is great. Some of the city’s best restaurants are committed to making the migrants feel welcomed. Joined by some of the city’s religious institutions and nonprofit groups, they come weekly to feed the newly arrived. In fact, every El Pasoan I spoke to is horrified by the treatment of migrants as criminals and angry at the bad rap their peaceful city gets.
I rented a car, so one of my assignments was to drive people to the airport or bus station. This was not as simple as it sounds — remember, they have neither a phone nor money. Twice I drove guests to the airport to find out the credit card used to purchase their ticket was declined. Otherwise, it was my job to interface with the ticket agent, explain their itinerary and prepare them for security, where they are patted down. Often, I had a gate pass and could escort the family to that point. I was always touched by the courtesy shown to these families by everyone at the airport, especially TSA and immigration officers who, at the time, were not being paid.
And I thanked them again when I left El Paso recently.
In fact, it is gratitude that Annunciation House has gifted me. I am grateful for the clean and open beauty of our state, to have met so many brave and good-hearted people, but most of all, I am grateful that my grandparents endured the hardships of an Atlantic crossing in steerage so that their children could live with hope and security. They have given my family the dream they sought.
I wish the same for all newly arrived Americans.
However, the White House announced it intends to keep these families in Mexico while awaiting a court date. That results in months or years of waiting, despite the fact that they have sponsors waiting to receive them and to offer them the safety for which they traveled hundreds of miles.
This response has the potential to turn our southern border into a string of refugee camps holding masses of migrant families in the dangerous cities along the Mexican side. If U.S. and international laws cannot protect migrants seeking asylum, it is not a stretch to think that they will turn to non-legal, even violent, means to keep their families safe. Perhaps then, the president’s deceitful description of a dangerous border will become accurate.