Drawn to the US border, volunteers weave a safety net

Why We Wrote This

The immigration debate tends to revolve around government policy. At the U.S.-Mexico border, our reporter found an army of everyday citizens compelled to offer help where officials cannot.

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
Luis Guerrero double-checks the ticket of a migrant waiting to board a bus at the McAllen, Texas, central bus station. After migrants are released from federal custody and their immigration cases are proceeding, volunteers in the Rio Grande Valley have been helping them unite with family elsewhere in the country and directing them to legal support.

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Juanita Salazar Lamb had been following the news coverage of the border crisis, but was unsure whom to believe – people who say the migrants need asylum, or people who say they’re exploiting loopholes in immigration law.

“I just got tired of that,” she says. “I got tired of myself just posting angry emojis or little sad emojis [on Facebook]. It’s like, ‘This doesn’t do anything.’ So I just decided that I needed to come down here and help.”

She’s now part of an unofficial safety net, stitched together by nonprofits and volunteers. A year on from the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, volunteers in the Rio Grande Valley have settled into something of a manic groove. The zero tolerance policy is no more, but the flow of migrants – primarily families from the Northern Triangle of Central America – has only increased. 

Volunteers head for the border for many different reasons. But they share a common purpose. “We are united,” says a high school teacher from Mercedes, Texas. “What matters is in here,” he says, pressing a finger to his heart. 

Luis Guerrero has been going to the central bus station here for six years now. He still hasn’t bought himself a ticket.

It started when he saw a nun trying to help newly arrived migrants passing through the station and offered to translate for her. The migrants have kept coming, so he has kept making the ride to the station.

Of course, migrants are crossing into this part of Texas in numbers not seen in over a decade. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has already apprehended more migrants in the Rio Grande Valley sector this fiscal year than any other year this century besides 2014. Mr. Guerrero has responded to this latest surge with the calm enthusiasm of a retired firefighter who rescued children from a submerged school bus three decades ago.

More than a year on from the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy – which led to thousands of family separations and long lines across international bridges, and has overwhelmed courthouses, CBP facilities, and migrant detention centers across the southern border – volunteers in the valley like Mr. Guerrero have settled into something of a manic groove.

The zero tolerance policy is no more, but the flow of migrants – primarily families from the Northern Triangle of Central America – has only increased. News and government reports of migrant deaths, as well as “dangerous” and “squalid” conditions in government holding centers, have thrust the issues back into the national spotlight in recent weeks.

Immigration agencies on the border have been doing their best to handle an “extraordinarily challenging situation,” Kevin McAleenan, acting head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said Sunday on ABC’s “This week,” as he defended his agency’s treatment of migrants. Immigration lawyers, local officials, and volunteers across the border have also been feeling the strain.

Bus stations have been a consistent area of need, and that is where Juanita Salazar Lamb found herself this week after driving down to McAllen from Benton County in northwest Arkansas. She had been following the news coverage of the border crisis, unsure of whom to believe – people who say the migrants need asylum, or people who say they’re exploiting loopholes in immigration law; people who say they’re being treated horribly, or people who say they’re being treated well.

“I just got tired of that,” she says. “I got tired of myself just posting angry emojis or little sad emojis [on Facebook]. It’s like, ‘This doesn’t do anything.’ So I just decided that I needed to come down here and help.”

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
Susan Law (left) and Juanita Salazar Lamb talk with recently released migrants at the McAllen, Texas, central bus station. Volunteers in the Rio Grande Valley have been going to local bus stations every day to help advise migrants before they board buses to unite with family.

A classic example 

It’s hot enough to boil water, but Joyce Hamilton still can’t shake the cold she’s had for weeks.

Thirteen months ago she and four friends formed a group, Angry Tias and Abuelas, focused on helping migrants on international bridges and reuniting separated families. The group expanded to a core of eight regular volunteers, and six months ago got a fiscal sponsorship from an Austin-based nonprofit (so it can attract donors even though it’s not yet recognized as a tax-exempt organization). 

“By August [2018] I just really, I didn’t feel like I had a center. I was just shaky a lot,” she says of the toll her work has taken over the past year.

As government policies have changed, the group has had to shift where it devotes resources. Last summer the Trump administration began expanding “metering” at ports of entry on the southern border, a 2016 policy that limits the number of people who can request asylum each day. (Its legality is being questioned in court.) In addition, in January the administration began implementing Migrant Protection Protocols, a policy also being challenged in court in which migrants may be returned to Mexico while their immigration case is proceeding.

International bridges are now mostly empty, while shelters in Mexican border cities are overwhelmed with migrants. Ms. Hamilton’s group is now focused on helping at the bus stations and sending money and supplies to shelters in Mexico.

Through it all, the Rio Grande Valley has been the busiest sector of the southern border this year, with over 266,000 apprehensions this fiscal year. The El Paso sector, which covers West Texas and New Mexico, has been the second busiest with almost 156,000 apprehensions. The vast majority have been families from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

“We seem to be sustainable, but I think we’re going to need to do some reorganizing to keep ourselves healthy while we’re working,” Ms. Hamilton says.

Things have slowed down recently in her hometown of Harlingen, Texas. When she arrived at the local bus station on Monday morning – a station so busy on some days this summer she couldn’t hear herself talk – there was only one Guatemalan girl. It was her 18th birthday, so she had been released from the Norma Linda child detention center nearby and dropped off there.

The girl’s bus ticket – to Georgia, where she says her uncle lives – was for the next day, so Ms. Hamilton arranged for her to spend the night at Loaves & Fishes, a homeless shelter in Harlingen. The 18-year-old says she hopes to work in the U.S. and send back money to support her parents still living in rural Guatemala. After she had crossed the border into Arizona, she spent eight months in Norma Linda, an experience she had only a few complaints about.

“There were lots of rules,” she said in Spanish, fidgeting with a bracelet she had made at Norma Linda bearing the names of her grandparents.

“I made a couple of friends,” she added. “I’m going to miss them.”

The conditions that migrant children are being held in has been under intense scrutiny in recent weeks. In late June, doctors and lawyers reported that hundreds of children had been living for weeks without adequate food, water, and sanitation at a CBP station in Clint, Texas. A local pediatrician reported similarly dire conditions at a CBP station in McAllen, and this month the DHS inspector general reported “dangerous overcrowding and prolonged detention” of migrants in the Rio Grande Valley. Earlier this week, NBC News reported on allegations that migrant children had been sexually abused at a CBP station in Yuma, Arizona.

Border Patrol agents “are part of our community,” Ms. Hamilton notes, and she thinks that in some cases they’re being asked to do jobs they shouldn’t be. “If they started out with compassion,” she says, “they lost it somewhere along the line, because they’re overloaded.”

The immigration system needs to recognize immigrants as “our brothers and sisters, who come to us with a desire to be part of the community and a desire to work and contribute,” she adds. “I’ve met so many people like that in the bus stations and on the bridges.”

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
Grace Gutierrez (left), Estela Cavazos (center), and Joyce Hamilton talk in a clothing storage room at the Loaves & Fishes homeless shelter in Harlingen, Texas. Volunteers have been mobilizing across the Rio Grande Valley over the past year to help the hundreds of migrants entering the region every day.

The Angry Tias, meanwhile, has developed into a kind of umbrella group. Donations have been pouring into the organization in recent weeks especially, as outrage over conditions in holding facilities has intensified, and the group is using those donations to support local volunteers. A 100-quart cooler for a bridge camp was bought with the money, for example.

At the same time, the Angry Tias is looking into getting support from national organizations. The Hispanic Federation, a New York-based nonprofit focused on supporting Hispanic communities, met with the group during a visit to the Rio Grande Valley this week while touring shelters.

“Joyce’s group is a classic example,” says Brent Wilkes, a senior vice president at the Hispanic Federation. Local people get upset about something, band together to do something about it, “and then gradually start to build an infrastructure,” he adds. “That’s really the story of all of the organizations we work with. Some of them [just did] that 30 years ago.

“What’s great about what’s happening in this area is they have pulled together to try and fill the needs that the government seems to be completely fumbling, and almost intentionally so,” he continues. “I mean, [Loaves & Fishes] wasn’t designed to host migrants, and yet here we are.”

Sunset on a bridge

Before the water is poured and the fried chicken shared, before boxes of ice pops are opened up and new board games passed around, Alejandro Rosel wants to make a quick speech on the Progreso International Bridge.

Mr. Rosel is, in a sense, where Ms. Hamilton was last year – a local doing what he can to help. He started bringing supplies to asylum-seekers on the bridge in January. Ms. Hamilton met him in April, when she began making trips, too. A cart that Mr. Rosel uses for the work was bought with donations received by the Angry Tias.

The setting sun continues to send boiling hot temperatures down on the bridge, and the two-dozen Cuban and Venezuelan asylum-seekers camped out on the Mexican end of the bridge gather round to listen to the high school teacher from nearby Mercedes, Texas. My family were immigrants too, he tells them in Spanish. In fact, my father was deported to Mexico 87 times, he says. My mother was deported five times.

“We are united,” says Mr. Rosel, whose T-shirt reads “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop.” “What matters is in here,” he says, pressing a finger to his heart.

Correction: This article has been updated to clarify a statement by Brent Wilkes, a senior vice president at the Hispanic Federation.

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