Former Commonweal Program Director Heather Sarantis is just returning from doing humanitarian relief work for asylum seekers near the Texas-Mexico border through Bay Area Border Relief. Heather shares her story here:
I had been accepted to do support at Annunciation House, a respite center in El Paso, and was waiting to hear the dates they needed me. But with President Trump’s changes in asylum laws (barring nearly all asylum seekers from entering the US to await their hearing) the respite center no longer needed volunteers, so my trip was cancelled. There was simply no one to serve in the US. Everyone was just sitting in Mexico waiting to get asylum appointments.
At the last minute I was invited to go with Bay Area Border Relief (BABR) (a project of Philanthropic Ventures Foundation) and University of San Francisco (USF) (School of Education as well as the School of Nursing, International and Multicultural Education and Migration Studies). Together they have done several trips to McAllen, TX where there is another well-established respite center, the Humanitarian Respite Center, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley (run by Sister Norma Seni Pimentel). Again, the change in asylum policies meant that this center that once served hundreds of people (maybe even up to a thousand) a day with food, shelter, clothing, a shower and a safe place was no longer able to provide these much needed services. They were getting about 7 people a day at the time of our trip.
So the BABR/USF team figured out a way to connect with local groups in McAllen and Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico, who provide support to people waiting in Mexico at the border. They helped us with ideas, logistics, providing use of kitchen space and on the ground support and information. These groups we connected with on this trip included: Humanitarian Respite Center, Team Brownsville, Good Neighbor Settlement House, Mateo 25:35, Resource Center for Asylum Seekers in Mexico, Lawyers for Good Government, and Pastor Abraham Barberi of the “hip hop” church. The Mexican government provides very minimal (essentially no) services to these people. So any “agreement” you may have heard about Mexico taking the asylum seekers that the US blocks in no way has led to the Mexican government doing anything for these people other than not kicking them out. These local partners provide invaluable services in a rapidly changing situation.
Right now there are about 2,000 asylum seekers camped out waiting for their hearings in Matamoros. I am not sure about the count in other border towns. These are some of the most marginalized, impoverished, threatened people in the world who have literally nothing. Almost all of them fled extreme violence with immediate and real threats to their lives and the lives of their family with the hope of being taken in by the US. Many people walked for over a month to get there. Almost all the people I spoke with had been there at least two months, many of them three, four or even more months.
The scene is basically a sea of tents spread out on pavement with about 4 inches between each tent, right by the immigration checkpoint. There is another area nearby with tents on dirt and grassy areas, not as closely packed, but still with little to no privacy. There are only handful of port-a-potties and a small number of showers (donated by a local volunteer group), though I hear that the Mexican government may eliminate most or all of the showers. The asylum seekers rely on volunteers to bring them food, water and donations as they have little to no money. They are only 100 yards from the Rio Grande, but are charged by local cartels to bathe in the water. Water, I might add, that is horribly polluted and just outright disgusting. But it is all they have.
Our team was there for a week. In that time we served more than 3,500 meals: chile verde, American chop suey (aka chili-mac) and hot dogs on three different nights. We handed out shoes, clothes, underpants, blankets, hats, socks, backpacks, water, diapers, toilet paper, sanitary napkins, etc. People need everything. Giving out food was pretty orderly, giving out donations was a little more chaotic, but never felt dangerous.
BABR had collected a truck full of donations and had people drive it across the country to Texas filled with all sorts of items. We bought thousands of dollars of new stuff at Walmart to bring over as well. At the McAllen, TX respite center there was a system to distribute goods to people, but now with everyone in Mexico it became much more difficult. The Mexican government won’t let people drive in with loads of stuff, so we had to load up wheelie carts and walk back and forth over the border to deliver everything. We also taught and played with children who were living there – I believe about 200 of them — who, of course, have no structure for learning or development in the camp. We sang songs, read books, taught them a little bit of English. They are desperate for opportunities to grow. As you can imagine, their parents are generally occupied with survival or are simply too stressed to offer much of their own learning opportunities for kids.
A few times when I was on the Mexico side I saw groups of 20-30 people walking through a gate into the plaza. These are people who were in detention centers in the US and were being deported. They get left in this plaza with nothing. Nothing. And there is no Mexican government system in place to send them anywhere or give them any basic necessities to figure out what is next. Volunteers, many of them church groups, try to find these people to give them toothbrushes, a bottle of water and, if they are lucky, a tent and sleeping bag. At the US detention centers officials take their belts and shoelaces to prevent suicides, so they don’t even have functional footwear when they arrive.
As for the asylum process, it works very poorly. Some of our group helped people with their applications – they need to be filled out in English, and of course, many of the asylum seekers do not speak or write in English. There is a large tent just over the border on the US side where if people are lucky enough to get an asylum appointment after months of waiting, they have a video-conference appointment to make their case. There are lots of details about how this process runs that I do not fully understand, but from everything I heard, the US makes it as logistically difficult as possible to have a productive meeting. We ran into some attorneys from Amnesty International who we learned were denied access to the hearings, which some people thought may be illegal, though I am not positive about the details on this.
Taking a step back, there is a lot I could say about the state of the world and the state of the US and our complicity in this suffering. I am on a quest to better understand what a responsible, ethical, humane immigration policy would look like for our country. I have not heard this fully articulated by anyone in leadership, right or left (please point me toward high quality analysis if you can–I am truly open to learning). It is not my area of expertise, but it is clear to me that what we are doing now is profoundly flawed and cruel. All people deserve dignity and safety. All people are sacred. We know that these challenges are not going away, and I hope that our next president can show real leadership on these issues.
Ultimately, as a parent, I do know that I would do anything in my power to protect my son from violence. I hope everyone would fight for their family and loved ones to have safety in their lives. The overwhelming majority of people who are seeking asylum come to their circumstances through no fault of their own. Many of the people we talked to who are waiting for their asylum appointments have family willing to sponsor them in the US. There are so many other ways to handle this crisis that do not deliberately de-humanize people.
I can’t talk about this experience without acknowledging the role of religion. The majority of groups doing this kind of work have some kind of religious grounding, and from what I know (which is only a small slice), it is largely the more progressive Catholics in the lead (Catholic Workers, Jesuits and the like). For our group, USF is a Jesuit school, BABR is not affiliated with any religion, and many of our local partner groups were Catholic organizations.
I left the Catholic church literally on the day I was confirmed (that’s a different story), but while there I did have many waves of gratitude toward the teachings I was given as a child in church and religious education: feed people, house people, clothe people, honor people. If there is a need, a basic need, a need that can be filled, open your heart to the person and their experience and provide what is needed. If we keep our hearts open, it is actually not that hard to do. In my experience, the act of being generous actually improves both parties’ lives.
What I saw in all the BABR and USF volunteers’ actions was the best of what humans have to offer. I am breathless at the dedication, generosity and integrity of the team I worked with and the local contacts who helped guide us through how to best be of service in a highly chaotic situation. I am humbled to have had the opportunity to be at the tormented edge of humanity and to be able to offer a tiny bit of solace to another human being. I have so much, and it really is not difficult to be generous or to care.
I want to thank Rob (my husband) and Dylan (my son) for being the kind of family that supports this kind of full engagement with the world. Not everyone with a nine year old can pull off a trip like this. We are a team in this regard, and Rob and I are fully committed to ensuring Dylan has a sense of other people’s realities. I hope that telling Dylan my first hand accounts of trips like this will help him further develop into an empathetic, responsible yet still humble man of action as he grows. There are no simple solutions, there are no easy answers, but if in any way I can contribute to him building a strong moral compass and an open heart to meet the fullness of the world, then I can feel like I have given him my best.
If anything I wrote here is inaccurate, please accept my apology. Know that I participated not as an expert, but simply as a human being who cares about other human beings. The situation changes quickly and there really isn’t a well-established way of tracking everything that is happening.
Since arriving home I have heard that nighttime temperatures are hitting the 40s. Most people have either nothing or very little to keep warm with. If you would like to help the asylum seekers, one immediate need is blankets. You can donate to a BABR fund and we will work with people near the border to make sure they get delivered.
At times like these, I think the most important things I can do are to make sure that I don’t lose my own humanity and that I don’t contribute to eroding other people’s humanity. From that place, better action can be taken and better solutions can be developed. This may be the real opportunity of our time. I hope we rise to the occasion.