Girl Imprisoned

girl-holding-butterfly-494x328

Just four days. That’s all I had on my recent trip back to El Paso. Four short days in which I experienced so many emotions. And witnessed more heartbreak.

On the very first night my friend Beth asked if I wanted to go to the detention facility with her. The one for adult undocumented immigrants. She planned to visit a 19-year-old woman from Guatemala named Yennifer.

I didn’t get all the details, but somehow when Yennifer and her mom and younger sister presented themselves to Border Patrol seeking asylum, a misunderstanding ensued. And Yennifer stepped too far into an area where she shouldn’t have gone. Border Patrol arrested her. Got her to admit she had committed a felony by entering this country without documents.

Now she wears an orange jumpsuit. And waits for her fate to be determined. Her mom and sister have moved on to New York. They couldn’t stay in El Paso. After ICE processed their papers, they had to go to their designated relative where they’ll have their court date. But without Yennifer. She remains alone, confined, and scared.

Beth warned me how distraught this young woman has been. I could only imagine. I thought of myself at 19. Certainly not ready emotionally to be separated from my mom in a foreign country. Not to mention being placed in a prison.

Because a detention facility is a prison.

The night Beth and I visit we have to leave everything behind except our licenses. And we hand those over to the guard at the front desk. Then we wait for the heavy locked door to open and the guard to call our names. He escorts us down a narrow hallway lined with small cubicles until we come to the one where we’ll meet Yennifer. Soon a pretty young Latina woman appears on the other side of a glass pane. Her dark hair piled atop her head in a neat bun. She smiles as soon as she sees Beth.

Yennifer sits down and picks up the phone to talk. Just like you see in the movies. I watch her sweet face from behind the glass, so animated as she tells Beth about the spicy food that she can’t eat. (Contrary to what you might think, not all Latinos like spicy food like the Mexicans do.)

At times her expression makes her look so much like a little girl, I want to cry. I try not to think about what’s going to happen. Chances are Yennifer will be deported. Sent home without her mother and sister. I wonder how she’ll get back to Guatemala. What will happen to her while traveling alone? If I were her mother, I don’t know how I’d stand it. Not knowing what will happen to my daughter.

After we leave, Beth tells me what a complete changeover in Yennifer’s spirits we’ve just seen. How the past couple of weeks when she’s visited her,Yennifer’s cried and looked depressed. But this girl’s got faith. The night Border Patrol arrested her— pulled her away from her mother and sister—they put Yennifer in a holding cell. In isolation. Panicked and sobbing, the girl fell to her knees and prayed. Begged God to help her. Within less than an hour, the guard came to get her. Said she didn’t belong in isolation. They’d made a mistake.

Truth is, Yennifer’s situation is not unusual. I saw families separated a lot when I volunteered at the migrant hospitality center.

In fact, a recent study I read on immigration abuse reported that, in addition to experiencing physical abuse, family members that were apprehended together by Border Patrol were systematically separated from each other. Two out of three migrants surveyed who crossed into the U.S. with immediate family members were separated from at least one of those family members by the Border Patrol during the process of detention and deportation.

There’s little I can do to help Yennifer. But I can bring her situation to light. And I can hope that others will care. Care about the immigrant children and youth who are being locked up for indiscriminate amounts of time. Care enough to learn more about the reasons why people are migrating. And care about one beautiful butterfly with deep brown eyes longing to be released from her cage.

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The Risk of Being a Family

michoacan panorama
Michoacan panorama

 

A home on the coast of Michoacán, Mexico. Views of the ocean. Sea breezes waft through the windows as a loving family with three handsome teenaged sons gathers for dinner. This characterized the life of one of the families I met this week at the Nazareth hospitality center.

A life that no longer exists.

Threatened by the drug cartel’s out-of-control violence in the state of Michoacán, the entire family fled their idyllic life and presented themselves at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking political asylum. Unfortunately, only four members of their family made it to our center. Immigration and Customs Enforcement decided to detain their husband and father.

It’s something I’ve been noticing more lately. Males 18 years and older being detained indiscriminately. Sometimes there is a reason. Maybe they tried to enter the country previously. Maybe there’s something questionable on their record. But often it seems to be a random decision, depending on the ICE agent handling their case.

Some suggest ICE is attempting to send a message back to Latin America: if you come, your family will be separated. This disturbs and infuriates me. Are we really using separation of family as a deterrent? Is there justification to cause such pain to a family that has already endured so much?

I think of this family. They did not want to come to the U.S. They told us of their beautiful home. How they hated to leave. And that they hope to return some day.

Michoacan park
A street in the center of Michoacan

For now, that’s not possible. At least not without putting their sons in danger.

Other volunteers have heard alarming stories from those who’ve fled Michoacán. How the cartels force people off land that has been in their family for generations. How they threaten to kill or “disappear” their sons. How they instill fear in the community by hanging corpses from bridges. The people can’t trust the police. Often they’re involved themselves. Some communities have tried to set up their own vigilante groups. Others, like this family, flee.

Repulsive image, but a common occurrence in Michoacan
Repulsive image of a pregnant woman and others hung from a welcome sign, but a common occurrence in Michoacan

Fortunately, all the sons in this family are under 18. Otherwise, ICE could have detained one of them as well.

That happened to another mom who showed up this week with only two of her three children. Her 18-year-old son had been detained. They’d made it all the way from Guatemala, crossing treacherous Mexico, only to be separated in the U.S.

So, what’s next for these families?

Now they must make the agonizing decision of moving on to their designated relative’s home without their brother, husband, or son, who will remain in detention and be processed separately. Possibly he will remain here a year or more. Most likely, he will be deported.

I see the anxiety in this mother’s face when she comes to the office to ask when she can see her son. One of our volunteers will drive her to the detention facility on her designated visiting night.

I feel my heart for this woman. I know the joy of giving birth to a son. And the sorrow of being separated from him.

But this is what I cannot imagine: leaving my son behind in a detention facility in a foreign country not knowing when I will see him again. If he is deported, what will he do when he arrives back in the country alone? Will he be safe?

I feel helpless in what I have to offer her. Yet I want to offer something.

Later I go retrieve blankets for our new arrivals. I pass the room of the family from Michoacán. The mom is seated on her bed facing the doorway. The boys perch on the edge of a cot, their backs to me, fully attentive to their mother. Her face is somber. But her eyes are soft with something I easily recognize — her deep love for her sons, right alongside the pain of what she has to tell them.

Tonight, they will visit their father in detention. Tomorrow they will head for their relatives on the west coast as originally planned. Without their dad.

There are more stories like this. More ways my heart has been tested. I’ve come to see that the more I open my heart to strangers, the more I risk. Because there’s a definite risk when you look into the face of another.

You see yourself.

And you realize that we truly are connected as one family. We share the same feelings. The same sorrows and joys. The same desires for ourselves and our children. The same Spirit.

I can no longer NOT care. That’s the risk of being a family. What about you? Will you join us?

Logo from the nonprofit One Family
Logo from the nonprofit One Family

The Comfort of Mother’s Cupboard vs. the Uncomfortable Issue of Unaccompanied Minors

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A week ago Sunday I was having breakfast with my son — our last meal together for a long time. Davis chose to take me to Mother’s Cupboard, a “hole in the wall” diner popular with the locals in Syracuse. This little shack didn’t look like much on the outside, but inside the place was packed with families, loud chatter, ambiance, and memories. The latter seemed odd since I’d never stepped foot in the place before. But its familiarity struck me as soon as we entered.

behind the grill at Mother's Cupboard
behind the grill at Mother’s Cupboard

 

In the early years of our marriage, David and I would travel regularly to his hometown of Oswego to visit his failing grandmother. Our favorite breakfast eatery was Wade’s Diner, which, other than being larger than Mother’s Cupboard, was exactly like it in every way. Right down to the toasted, freshly made raisin bread I noticed as the waitress whizzed by us, balancing plates laden with cholesterol-producing delights.

Davis and I sat at the counter behind the grill where I got a great view of the action. Two middle-aged men with tattoos running the length of their arms worked in tandem as they shoveled home fried potatoes, flipped pancakes the size of dinner plates, and poured omelets onto the sizzling black surface that stretched out before us. I sat there taking it all in and smiling inside, as if I’d just been given a priceless gift. And I had.

Davis could not have known how this place would affect me. Even now it’s hard to describe. More than a fun similarity, eating this familiar food in this very familiar place, my son beside me, gave me a sense of comfort and reassurance, as if David’s spirit was letting me know that our son was going to be OK here. No need to worry. He’s being watched over. It’s something I’ve experienced before — this spiritual awareness. And it increases my faith just a little bit each time. That faith is what has allowed me to let go of my son, again and again.

I have to say, though, it wasn’t easy leaving him behind that Sunday. Because unlike when I brought Davis up to Syracuse University to begin his freshman year, this time I was leaving him, and our home, and our life as we have known it. Closing up shop, so to speak, and taking off for another adventure of sorts, this time to serve for at least a year, and asking Davis to be okay with that, to take care of himself. See ya, son. I’m heading to Texas.

During the 8-plus-hour drive back to Virginia I struggled with lots of emotions, some guilt, a little regret over not bringing him more supplies for the house he’s sharing, and lots of sadness over the separation. I cried much of the way home. But at some point in the midst of my sobbing, I suddenly considered how my letting go of my son was nothing like the letting go that the mothers of these unaccompanied children traveling from Central America through Mexico have had to endure. As a mother, my heart opened to these women’s pain and worry, and my own sorrow lessened.

I believe that every loving mother understands that no one lets go of her child easily. Even when we know our children are going someplace safe and necessary to start their own life, our hearts ache when the time of separation has come. But what would it take to send your child out the door to travel across several countries, through dangerous situations, not knowing whether they will be abused along the way or even make it alive?

For me, the answer is simple. A mother would have to believe that the risks her child would take on this journey were worth it compared to life at home. And, just as I experienced with Davis, she must have faith that her child would be taken care of. The Hispanic women I’ve met have tremendous faith, and a strong sense of family. They would do anything for their children. Even at the cost of an indefinite, or permanent, separation.

Time and again people I spoke with in El Paso who worked with children in detention centers spoke of the violence and poverty of their young lives. Yet I’ve not seen one political leader meet with and listen to the stories of these children who are streaming over the border now. Journalists use the word “humanitarian crisis,” but our politicians are not treating it as such.

APS photo
APS photo of immigrant children

I heard one governor on the news this morning say, “I empathize with the children, but…” Really? Does he even know what the word “empathy” means? The dictionary says it’s “the ability to share in another’s emotions, thoughts, or feelings.” How can you share in something you don’t know anything about? Before we can “empathize” with anyone, we have to listen to their story.

I hope I sound as impassioned as I feel about this issue. I have come to see just how privileged my life is. Because I can make choices every day. I can choose where I want to take my son out to eat. I can choose what I want to eat every day. I can also choose to move 1,500 miles because the responsibility of caring for others is greater than my desire for being comfortable.

This week I spoke with Sr. Arlene, one of the sisters I stayed with while in Juarez, Mexico. In her ministry, she risks her life every day. I asked her why she stays in Juarez, amid the violence, the abject poverty, and the desolate landscape. Her response moved me to tears:

“In my experience when I walk with others in compassion, I have been led to places not of my choosing. I have learned that compassion does not allow one to be at peace with the comfortable.”

And those tears, for me, are a clue. A clue that I do, in fact, have a calling to serve those who won’t ever have the choices that I do. Those who will never experience the comfort of places like Mother’s Cupboard. But they can experience the spiritual comfort of a loving God. I can at least bring them that.

compassion

A Tribute to My Son

mother and son image

Here’s the real reason I’m able to follow my heart. My son. Without his full support, I couldn’t leave my home and my life behind in Virginia. All it would take would be four words from Davis: “Mom, please don’t go.”

It’s not like he needs me. He’s 20 years old, after all, and quite capable and responsible. Since Davis left home to attend college, he’s asked very little of me. I know he can survive, and thrive, without me. But a powerful and tender chord tugs at my decision. A chord connected to an unspoken bond that has deepened over the five years since his dad died into something both precious and precarious. Precious because both of us know how much we mean to each other. Precarious because we also know anything can happen to the other. At any time. With no warning.

No one — absolutely no one — comes close to how important my son is to me. I can’t imagine loving anyone more. So, before I committed to this decision to apply to serve with the Incarnate Word Missionaries in Texas, I asked Davis what he thought of the idea. I genuinely wanted to know his concerns. He didn’t hesitate to support me. If he had any concerns, he didn’t express them. Davis simply wants me to be happy. Just like his dad would have wanted. No one supported my choices, my independence, as much as my husband David did. Now Davis is doing the same. How I could be twice blessed to have such men in my life is beyond my comprehension.

But here’s what I think. Davis is an “old soul.” If you believe, as I do, that some of us come to this earth more evolved, then you’ll understand. Since the age of four he’s been saying things that have made me pause and wonder, “Where did that come from?” Occasionally I find myself asking, “Who’s the adult here?” Maybe you have a child like this. One whose words can sometimes stop you in your tracks. I mean in a good way.

My little "old soul" and his dad
My little “old soul” and his dad

Several months after my husband died I finally entered that stage of grief called anger. If you’ve experienced a painful loss, you may be familiar with this stage: lots of complaining, resenting all the responsibilities I had to handle alone, second guessing my decisions regarding my young teenaged son, huffing and puffing at the supermarket shoppers who parked their grocery carts in the middle of the aisle (David used to do all the grocery shopping), shouting and swearing when dinner didn’t turn out quite the way I’d expected (David had been a superb cook and I regretted not standing behind him taking notes at the stove).

I remember one particular incident when my voice had lost all control. I was in my bedroom ranting and raving about something I had to do — although I can’t recall now what it was about. You know those moments when you hear the pitch of your voice and you know that whatever comes out of your mouth is not going to be good, but you’ve gone too far.

Davis stepped into the room, sat down on my bed, looked at me, and calmly said, “Mom, Dad’s gone. We can’t bring him back. You might as well stop fighting it.”

His words silenced me. That wise, sweet voice struck my heart. In that moment, I got it. I understood what I was doing to myself. And to him. He’d put an invisible mirror in front of my face, and I didn’t like what I was seeing. Grief, and guilt, consumed me.

There have been many other moments since where Davis has witnessed my faults and limitations. It’s unavoidable when you’re part of a family. But it doesn’t seem to matter what side of myself I show my son. He still loves and accepts me. And he always forgives me.

To know Davis is to know what a special gift he is. In so many ways. Not the least of which is his miraculous birth. After 12 years of trying to conceive. Three miscarriages along the way. Lots of tears, prayers, and spiritual seeking, ending with a child more perfect for me than I could have imagined.

As one of our family friends said recently, “You guys make a great team.”

Yes, we do.

Thank you, Davis. Thank you for being who you are. And for allowing me to be who I am.

I know that is all God asks of me. Of any of us. To be who we really are. And I realize it takes an immense act of humility to give back what God has given to me, warts and all. Thanks to Davis, I just might be able to believe that my warts aren’t so bad.

Mother and son
Mother and son