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Guest column by Katie Joyce: ‘You are welcome here’

  • Cars and trucks line up to enter Mexico from the U.S. at a border crossing in El Paso, Texas, Friday, March 29, 2019. AP

Published: 8/30/2019 7:00:16 PM

I recently returned home from El Paso, Texas, where I spent two weeks volunteering at the Annunciation House Center for Refugees, a volunteer-run organization that welcomes asylum seekers who have just been released from detention center.

I tried to better understand the situation at the border by meeting as many people as possible: asylum seekers, other volunteers, and El Paso locals. I also observed immigration court hearings, crossed the bridge to Ciudad Juarez, and experienced the city mourning the deaths of those killed in the shooting. I felt overwhelmed by the optimism, generosity, and unity of so many while also feeling crushed by the racist immigration policies that are causing so much suffering.

We greeted families arriving at the shelter by shaking their hands and saying, “Ustedes estan bienvenidos aquí” (You are welcome here). The families are resilient and optimistic people who told quintessential stories of American immigration. They had traveled with young children to escape violence, low wages and crumbling education systems with the goal of working hard to create a better life for their families.

Their first experience in the United States was being detained in jail cells for between three and 13 days. They described being fed only broth and noodles. Children were crying because they were so hungry. There were no showers. No one told them when they would be allowed to leave or where they would go next. Guards yelled at them, bullied them, confiscated their belongings, and refused to give them medicine.

When they were finally released, parents were separated from their 18- and 19-year-old children with no way to find them. Several women were released with their children, but without their husbands.

Even though families had just been released from terrible conditions, their eagerness to contribute was humbling. One man who had traveled with his two sons stopped me in the hallway to ask for the address so that he could send a donation to pay for the meals he’d eaten, once he found a job.

I talked with a Hondoran woman about how she taught first grade for 13 years and loved helping children learn to read. Violence in her community led her to leave her home and career to seek asylum in Kansas City. While traveling through Juarez, Mexico, a gang kidnapped her and her two children, beat her up and stole her cellphone. She told me that she wants to learn English well enough to teach again and that she plans to volunteer at an elementary school while she waits for her asylum hearing.

The families arriving at The Annunciation House represent the small percentage of people whom Customs and Border Protection releases into the U.S. The majority of asylum seekers are now being detained and then returned to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, under the Migrant Protection Protocol, or “remain in Mexico” policy, to wait for their asylum hearing in El Paso’s immigration court.

I observed an initial removal hearing for 17 immigrants, none of whom had an attorney. Many decided to defend themselves because they didn’t have the resources to hire a lawyer. Everyone who defended themselves was found eligible for removal and given an asylum application with a second court date in a month. No one was allowed to wait in the United States despite accounts of harassment and violence in Juarez.

I approached some of the people as we were leaving the courtroom, but a guard told me I could not speak with them, even though there is no law preventing the public from talking to people in the Migrant Protection Protocol program.

The following day a group of volunteers and I walked with a local nun across the bridge to Mexico. We joined Mexican Immigration workers in white tents under the bridge to provide food, water, showers and hygiene products to people being released from U.S. detention centers into Mexico.

The shelters and churches in Juarez are crowded with up to 1,500 people. As we handed out diapers and water bottles, people asked how to go back to their own country. An older Guatemalan woman used a piece of her silver emergency blanket to make a hair ribbon. It was probably the only way to tie her hair back, but it struck me as a resourceful way to make something beautiful.

I met many wonderful people in El Paso who are working hard to help people and to change the way the United States is treating immigrants. It is hard for me to understand how racist immigration policies still continue when there is so much hope and determination from both asylum seekers and average American citizens.

I believe that the most powerful force is community and people working together for a shared vision of a welcoming, diverse country where we all want to live. Please share your thoughts and ideas for moving forward.

Katie Joyce lives in Northampton and teaches in Williamsburg.

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