Out Here on Our Own

alone Girl on mountain

The press has gone.

Photographers no longer shadow us down the hallways as we tend to our guests. No more wanna-be volunteers show up at our door unannounced after having driven for hours from places like Denver or Phoenix. No more “angry moms” spend their mornings preparing breakfast and lunch for our migrant families as a positive response to their outrage.

Not anymore.

Gone are the headlines about crying toddlers torn from the arms of their mothers and fathers. Gone are the news reports about abuses at detention centers.

Our lives are back to normal. Whatever “normal” is these days.

For those of us on the border, it may feel like we’re on our own again. It may seem as though people don’t care.

But I know that’s not true. I know you are listening, dear reader. I know that you do care. Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this.

So, I’d like to make you aware.  Better inform you about the “norm” for so many who do feel as if no one cares. About the maltreatment asylum seekers face, especially when they hail from African countries. About the abuses that occur. About the loneliness and isolation.

Once you know, my hope is that you will not forget. And that you will take some small, positive action from where you are. Make a difference in at least one other lonely or abused person’s life that will add to the growing wave of merciful acts done in the name of humanity.

So that others will know they are not alone.

As you may know, I have been visiting asylum seekers detained at the ICE El Paso Processing Center through a nonprofit called CIVIC. CIVIC stands for Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, and Jan, our local program administrator, has done a super job of connecting volunteer visitors with lonely people holed up in these prisons.dont_forget_me

Some detainees have not had a visitor in over a year. They wait for Jan to connect them with an available volunteer. They feel so alone. Forgotten. Powerless.

Until last month when African asylum seekers at our detention facility became empowered.

They risked creating and signing a petition against the El Paso DHS ICE Field Office for “improperly and impartially” denying their parole and treating them unfairly. They claim they escaped persecution in their home countries and came here for safety, only to be persecuted at the hands of ICE officers and detention guards.

The majority of them have been in ICE custody for more than a year.  They all arrived legally as asylum seekers at one of our EP ports of entry and had positive credible fear interviews, yet they remain in “immigration proceedings.” Proceedings that seem to have no end to them.

They have a right to parole through the Damus decision. And they have watched as parole is granted to Latin American detainees, especially to Cubans, awaiting their hearing, while their parole is unjustifiably denied.

At an alarming number.

A little background on the Damus decision. A teacher from Haiti, Ansly Damus has been confined in Ohio for more than a year-and-a-half. He fled his homeland fearing violence and political persecution and asked for asylum. An immigration judge granted him asylum not just once, but twice. But the government appealed those decisions and Damus remains locked up indefinitely even though he poses no threat and is eligible for parole. The judge has ruled that ICE violated its own procedures by not granting Damus release under what’s known as humanitarian parole.

That’s what our African detainees are petitioning for. Humanitarian parole.

On a personal note, I’ve been seeing my young Ethiopian friend, whom I call Mathias, for nearly nine months now. He’s been locked up for over a year. His birthday is coming up in early October. He’s told me he doesn’t want to spend another birthday behind these walls. Celebrate another year of his young life on hold.hands-tied

It feels like such a small thing. To visit someone only once a week or a few times a month. It never feels like enough.  And then he sends a letter saying how I make him strong and comfort him, how he is happy to have someone “on the outside” who cares. He says it’s not easy to be in detention, but he is “learning about life” and learning that there are “good-hearted people in this world like CIVIC.”

He is learning…and so am I.

I am learning that sometimes it feels like our hands are tied. That it feels like we are alone to face the wall or the tempest before us. But we are not.

Sometimes God shows up as the person accompanying us. Or the one accompanied.

Don’t forget this. Be the one who cares.

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.NOTE: I am creating a new blog – same theme, different look. I hope to link it to this one, and I hope you will continue to follow me on this journey.

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We Are All Grieving

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View from my apartment looking out across Mexico

We are grieving our loss. My fellow volunteers and I – the women and men who worked alongside me at the Nazareth hospitality center.

We know we’ve lost something special.

Several weeks ago, our center for migrants and refugees closed. We were told it was due to staff transitions in the main health center that owns the wing we were using. We thought it was temporary. So far, it hasn’t reopened.

But even before the center closed, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) had been bringing us fewer and fewer refugees. In mid-January, our daily numbers began dropping to single digits.

The interesting thing is, all of this happened soon after I’d closed on my house, packed up all my belongings and moved here – lock, stock, and barrel. Suddenly, what I loved doing most and fed me spiritually had disappeared.

You gotta wonder what the Universe has planned.

Still, I know without a doubt this is where I am meant to be. Living close to the border. Living, as I call it, “close to the bone.”

I’m not questioning my heart’s guidance.

But I am grieving. And I’m not the only one.

I realized this last week when I unexpectedly ran into several of my fellow volunteers at a Taize service.

Volunteers like Martha. Every Tuesday, she and her friend Cuki would come to Nazareth to prepare breakfast and lunch for our “guests.” When our daily numbers jumped to well over 100, they enlisted other friends to help.  They spent their entire day there, every Tuesday.

And they’ve been doing this for nearly three years.

Martha and I were so happy to see each other that night. With moist eyes, we shared how much we missed Nazareth and “the people.”grief-loss-therapy

Without really having words to express why, we both knew the fullness of this experience had touched our lives.

Other volunteers joined our conversation. And that’s when I realized, we all were grieving.

Grieving because we missed interacting with the people who had clearly given us a gift by their presence.

Grieving because we know the tragic and violent situations that existed in these people’s lives – the reasons they fled their home countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – have not changed. They’re still subjected to death threats, extortion, and gang violence. But where are they are fleeing to, we wondered?

Grieving because we know that human rights abuses are increasing – at detention facilities, at ports of entry, and elsewhere. And we don’t expect it to get better soon.

Some Customs and Border Patrol agents are turning away asylum seekers without consideration of their claims. Cases have been documented of people with credible fear being turned away at the border, like the mother who fled Guatemala after gang members killed her two sons and threatened her life. Turned away, even though those who are fleeing violence have a legal right to seek asylum in the U.S.

Or, in some cases, ICE is locking up asylum seekers. Sticking them in detention for the duration of their case, even though they pose no threat to our society. Even though they have passed their “credible fear” interview. Causing them more pain, more harm, more trauma to their children.

Here’s a recent example. Martín Méndez Pineda, a 25-year-old journalist from Acapulco, Guerrero, was detained and denied parole after seeking asylum here in El Paso. Pineda had received death threats and police beatings for his critical reports of the Mexican federal police. Only a week earlier, a female journalist had been murdered in Mexico.  Rather than assist this young man, we threw him in detention like a criminal.

Yes, we are definitely grieving over the direction our country is taking towards migrants and refugees.

Because for us, this is not just a controversial issue on the 6 o’clock news.

We have come to know “the people.” We have listened to their stories. We have accompanied them and been transformed by the encounter.

And we know they are human beings. Worthy of being treated with dignity and compassion.

El Paso Columban Missions

Please, no matter where you stand on the issue of immigration and refugees, let’s remember that these are human beings. That human rights abuses should not be part of our protocol.

And it is absolutely inhumane to separate mothers from their children as a deterrent to immigration.

All that we will accomplish by such inhumane treatment is more grief. And the loss will be much more extensive and personal than we can anticipate.

For more practical and humane suggestions for curbing the flow of illegal immigration, listen to award-winning journalist and author of Enrique’s Journey, Sonia Nazario’s TED talk at https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#search/sonia+navarro+ted/15ada9caf1939193?projector=1