Border crisis: Volunteers rally to help migrant mothers and children

The border crisis isn't just about unaccompanied children. Thousands of Central American women with children are also part of the situation, and some groups are trying to address their basic needs.

Rodolfo Gonzalez/Austin American-Statesman/AP
Three-year-old Nahiely Alfero, of Honduras, stands next to her mother as they wait to board a bus leaving the city, in McAllen, Texas. In recent months, an influx of immigrants from Central America has caused a contentious political struggle over immigration policies.

Nearly every day, the women trudge into the Greyhound bus station here, offspring in tow, and their bewildered eyes come upon an unexpected scene: strangers welcoming them with kind words, hot meals, and bags full of gifted clothes.

The mostly young mothers seem exhausted from long journeys and days spent in detention for entering the United States without legal authorization. They say little initially, but slowly savor the stew, rice, and beans they eat at tables set up in a makeshift intake room where volunteers help toddlers pick a choice toy.

"They're in a state of trauma," volunteer Mike Wilson says of the primarily Guatemalan arrivals.

The women are part of a massive influx in illegal border crossings from Central America in recent months that has caused a contentious political struggle over immigration policies. But like other volunteers around the country, Mr. Wilson steers clear of politics, focusing instead on lending a helping hand to families that immigration authorities drop off at the bus station. Most are just passing through Tucson, on their way to join relatives in states such as Alabama, Florida, and New Jersey.

Wilson stops by the intake room frequently to take in families who need a place to stay for a night or two. He is among scores of volunteers, nonprofits, and private groups from around the country stepping forth to provide aid, even as anger over the highly publicized surge takes the form of protests in hundreds of places.

On July 15, Tucson resident Jeff Fawks joined a protest in the town of Oracle, Ariz. He has nothing against incoming children being sheltered in the US, he says, but the government needs to take care of its own first.

"There's lots of children starving in war zones all over the world; we can't bring them all here," he says. "Where does it end?"

From Oct. 1, 2013, through June 30, 2014, 55,420 families with children have been detained crossing the Southwest border illegally, compared with 9,350 for all of fiscal year 2013, according to US Customs and Border Protection. Many are later released with a notice to appear in immigration court. Most who arrive at the Tucson bus station are on their way to other states to be reunited with relatives.

At the same time, the Department of Homeland Security has turned over more than 50,000 children crossing the border alone since Oct.1 to the Department of Health and Human Services, which is tasked with care and shelter for unaccompanied minors from countries not bordering the US.

But when it comes to the migrant families, once they're released, they have to fend for themselves.

In south Texas, where the vast majority of migrants with children are from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, residents and faith organizations have taken a lead in assisting the migrant families. In McAllen, hundreds of volunteers turned an old church hall into an immigrant relief center that has fed, clothed, and sheltered thousands of border-crossers headed to the US interior.

Similar efforts continue in New Mexico to help Central Americans arriving there. At a church hall turned hostel, volunteers quickly answered a call for help, says Lonnie Briseño, program manager at Immaculate Heart of Mary Cathedral in Las Cruces.

"We have provided shelter, food, a place to shower, and assistance in making travel arrangements," Mr. Briseño says.

Aid also is coming from volunteers in non-border states. In the nation's capital, the American Immigration Lawyers Association put out a call to attorneys willing to provide pro bono legal services to the Central American minors detained after crossing the border alone. The nonprofit Human Rights First, with offices in Houston, New York City, and Washington, is recruiting lawyers to expand assistance to recent detainees.

"We work in partnership with volunteer lawyers at law firms to represent individuals seeking asylum, including children," says Eleanor Acer, director of the nonprofit's Refugee Protection Program. "It's a very complicated system, and without a lawyer standing beside you, it's basically impossible to navigate a very complex immigration court process."

Since Central America is noncontiguous to the US, the repatriation of its citizens from the US is also complicated. Most of those crossing the border illegally will have a chance to go before an immigration judge and state their case for staying in the country legally, according to a 2008 anti-trafficking law that critics in Congress now want to change. The court process can take years.

In Tucson, the women enter the bus station clutching a notice to appear in court at their final destination. Volunteers help them make sense of the paperwork and offer phones so the women can call relatives.

As long as migrants keep coming, they can count on getting help from someone.

"Tucson's response has been so great to this need," says Dan Wilson of Casa Mariposa, which was formed to support immigrants in Arizona detention centers.

The nonprofit led the initial push to help out the Central Americans. But the large number of arrivals called for more resources and collaborations. Some 200 people signed up as volunteers, and Catholic Community Services is now coordinating the effort. In fact, it's making plans to open in early August an intake center at an undisclosed location to better accommodate weary travelers and protect them from exposure to protests.

Mike Wilson, who is not related to Dan Wilson, needed only to see the relief on the women's faces to know that he and his partner, Susan Ruff, will continue offering dinner and a warm bed in their Tucson home to migrant families who would otherwise be stranded.

"The first thing they do is shower and bathe their babies," he says of the dozens of mothers he and Ms. Ruff have fed and housed in the past month.

In large part, Mr. Wilson helps out because he empathizes with the families who are leaving Central America to escape violence, gangs, and poverty.

"I grew up very poor," says the volunteer, who made the Army his career and is now retired. "I understand poverty firsthand; I understand hopelessness firsthand. The difference between them and me is that at least here in the United States, there was a social safety net intact."

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