MCALLEN, TEXAS – What happens when the caravan gets here remains to be seen, but a recent fall day at a bus station near the border demonstrated more the resilience and determination of asylum-seekers and humanitarian volunteers – sort of new best-friends in crisis – than any glimpse of a well-designed federal system.
On two days that week, immigration officials dropped off roughly 500 asylum-seekers per day, nearly all of them families with children, at the bus station in McAllen, Texas. There was no advance notice of the big numbers – about 300 more immigrants than is typical showing up and needing food, water, and shelter.
So many came that the nearby Humanitarian Respite Center, operated by Catholic Charities under the leadership of Sister Norma Pimentel, ran out of space. That’s where families seeking legal asylum in the United States sleep, eat, and use the bathroom between when they are released from detention and their buses actually leave. It’s a small space operated with huge kindness, where people are given a hot meal and a shower (in a mobile unit donated by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance) and clothes for their children and sandwiches for the road ahead.
But the respite center filled up, and soon so did the overflow space at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan de Valle.
The bus station that late October week was full of children: babies held by their parents, toddlers, free-wheeling grade-schoolers, everyone exhausted and in transit.
Eli Fernandez, the Humanitarian Respite Center’s project manager, never stopped moving.
“Some of these people are changing buses five times,” said Lauren Vaccarello, a volunteer from California. “There was a kid here with no shirt and no shoes yesterday,” and a mother booked on a bus on a different day than her child. Many were heading north, with no jackets, hats or gloves.
When the hundreds hit at once, “it was like an apocalypse,” said Karyn Scott, another California volunteer. “We want to change the conversation, because right now the conversation appears to be a political one. It’s not. It’s a humanitarian one.”
A man from Guatemala told volunteers that a gang had kidnapped his brother, and were coming next for him. So he left, walking for 27 days. He carried his 18 month-old son across the Rio Grande, then turned himself in to the Border Patrol, seeking asylum.
“He was able to connect with his family and tell them he was alive,” Scott said. “He was crying.”
A woman in the bus station wore no socks, only bare feet in flip-flops. She was heading north. Another immigrant sitting near her stripped the socks off his own feet and, with a smile, handed them over.
The heart of the humanitarian response here is Catholic Charities and a handful of bus station volunteers – especially the McAllen regulars, Lizzie Cavazos and Susan Law, both from Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley, a network which sprang to life last summer after news broke of family separations along the border.
The regulars, plus some local reinforcements such as Joyce Hamilton, a Presbyterian ruling elder from Treasure Hills Presbyterian Church in Harlingen, Texas, who’s also with the Angry Tias, work as fast as they can to dilute chaos with compassion. Using whatever Spanish they can muster, they move from family to family – helping people to understand how long they’ll be on the bus (often for days), where they’re going and where they will transfer. Another important point: making sure they have information on how to seek legal assistance for their next asylum hearing.
These asylum seekers are in the United States legally. After crossing the border, they are processed by immigration authorities; usually put in detention for a time; then released – sometimes with an ankle monitor – with a court date to appear for an asylum hearing. Most ride a Greyhound bus across the country to meet someone they know – a cousin in New York, a friend in California, a sponsor who’s agreed to help – with a bus ticket that contact has purchased (the cost of which the asylum seeker typically will be expected to repay).
Cavazos began helping after some friends who are naturalists – they bird-watch together – started posting on social media about family separations. “I’m someone who didn’t watch the news and was pretty much disconnected from current events,” Cavazos said. “I just had a visceral reaction. I couldn’t believe what was happening.”
She said, “I’m not really an activist,” and at first struggled with how to support the work of Angry Tias and Abuelas. “The only way to do that anonymously is through money, and that’s what I don’t have,” Cavazos said. So she showed up at the McAllen bus station one day, and “they immediately put me to work. … It was a woman I had never met before,” who handed her cash and said, “Go buy snacks.”
At the bus station, “it’s all hands on deck,” Cavazos said. “We are dealing with such a huge problem, and we are just so few people who are actively trying to mitigate what is happening.”
Another regular: Luís Guerrero, a former firefighter who lost his left leg in a traffic accident 14 years ago, and who since 2014 has spent most days at the bus station helping with logistics – letting the asylum-seekers know what lies ahead.
“I’m an ex-firefighter,” Guerrero said. “I was used to helping people. After my accident, I couldn’t stay home.”
At the bus station, Guerrero dispenses advice, double-checks bus tickets, and “I just let them talk” if they want to. Some asylum-seekers tell stories of gang violence, threats to kill their families if small business owners don’t pay protection money. “The gang members want them to steal, sell drugs, prostitute,” he said. “They don’t want to do that. … I’ve seen kids 14, 15 years old with spots on their legs where they’ve burned them with a hot pipe,” he says of the gangs.
One father from El Salvador “made me cry. They went up to his door and asked him, the father, how old was his daughter, to put her to work on the street” in prostitution. “She was 12 years old. … When he got here, he was already beaten up. He had bruises on his arms, blood on his ear.”
To get to the border, “they suffer.” Guerrero said. “They come through woods with cactus all over the place,” have thorns embedded in their shoes. “Everything is supposed to be at night to travel,” sometimes by train, sometimes in trailers. “They’ll take anything you have” – phones, belts, shoes. “They leave you barefooted. The coyotes, that’s the way they are … leave them in the middle of nowhere.”
That morning, Guerrero was waiting for a Honduran woman who’d arrived the day before to return from Catholic Charities. She was using crutches and, like him, had lost a leg. He’d brought an extra wheelchair from home he was eager to give her.
Not everyone responds with compassion. A customer buying a ticket at the McAllen bus station watched as a Catholic Charities volunteer led in another group of asylum-seekers, including a woman near the end of her pregnancy.
“I’m very upset,” said the woman, wearing jeans and a camouflage jacket. “They have no right to be here. … I’m sure they want to get to a better place, but that’s not our problem. There are other places they can go. We have to pay for them. That’s not right.”
She pointed. “Look at that pregnant woman. She already knows what’s going to happen. And we have to pay for it. I’m really upset.”
The gold standard at the McAllen bus station: a phone connected to Skype, which the volunteers pass from person to person, so the asylum seekers can call friends and family.
At first, some immigrants shake their heads “no” – they have no money for a phone call.
The volunteers persist – saying “Gratis” – for free. Then they say: Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, using the universal hand gesture for making a phone call. When the immigrants realize what’s being offered, they line up to use the phone – brief, sometimes emotional calls to let their families back home know they are safe, to make sure someone will come to meet them when they arrive in a new, unknown city.
Some stand by the wall, seeking a little privacy for the conversation in a crowded room – talking to parents, spouses, siblings. They have the numbers memorized, or written on strips of paper stuffed deep in their pockets.
A boy of 12 or 13 bowed his head, speaking softly into the phone, tears sliding down his cheeks.
His father watched from a few steps away. “Mama, mama,” the father said.
A young boy, far from home, calling his mom.
HOW TO HELP:
Bus station volunteers: Contact Angry Tias and Abuelas of RGV.
Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen:
Amazon Wish List here .
Volunteer contact information here.
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance:
First Presbyterian Church in McAllen can host volunteer work teams. Contact the PDA Call Center at (866) 732-6121 or at [email protected] for more information.
Click here for information from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Immigration Issues.