The Humanity Before Us

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The young mother was still breastfeeding when they took her from her baby. She was only 16, giving Immigration the right to put her in a detention facility for minors.

It didn’t seem to matter – what that meant, removing her from her husband and 5-month-old daughter with whom she was traveling. She was considered an “illegal.” She had no rights. The action taken didn’t have to make sense.

But I’m afraid this post isn’t about recounting a story from last summer, when ICE was separating parents from their children. Nope. It happened just four days ago.

Santiago, her 21-year-old husband, showed up at our shelter, carrying their fussing baby and a heaviness we couldn’t help him shake.

The volunteer doing intake held her emotions intact as he sputtered the details of his story. But the child, free to express herself, howled and squirmed in her father’s arms.

Santiago attempted to keep his voice level. But he could barely hold it together. How was he going to feed this child, he wanted to know? What would she eat without her mother’s milk and nourishment? Would she survive?

He peppered questions at Sr. Lil, my friend who was shift coordinator at Nazareth that day.

As his sad tale spread, the other mothers crowded around him. The women took turns holding the little girl close to their chest, snuggling against her neck, cooing sweetly in Spanish. A few offered to coax the little one to suckle the nipple of a plastic baby bottle we happened to have on hand. Someone filled it with bottled water and Nido powdered formula – a popular brand with our Central American families. Another one showed Santiago how to hold the baby as she was nursing so she’d feel secure.

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Sample stock photo; not our “real” baby

But who would help him feel secure, I wondered?

Luckily, a doctor who occasionally volunteers her time at Nazareth happened to show up that day. She checked the baby and reassured Santiago that not only was his daughter in good health, but she would adjust to the formula. She would survive. No need for him to worry about that.

Yes, she would survive. Children often do. No matter what they’ve experienced. Surviving and thriving are two different things, however.

And what about the baby’s mother? I think about her in a facility with other teenagers. I wonder if her nipples are leaking. If that heaviness she’s feeling in her breasts and in her heart closes in on her at night when she longs for her child. I wonder if she attempts to hide her breasts and her despair in her aloneness. Or if she’s found a friend in whom to confide.

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What it’s like for our young mother in detention

I’ve never met this mom. I didn’t meet Santiago either, or his little girl. Lil told me about them the day after it happened, her voice unable to hide the distress still lurking in her heart.

I wish I could tell you I’ve gotten used to these stories. That my heart doesn’t feel for this young family, especially the mother.

But then again, I’m glad I haven’t “gotten used to it,” that I haven’t numbed myself to what hurting people feel. That I can remember what it was like to be a mother to a little one, to hold my nursing baby in my arms, in awe of this wordless bond we’d created.

I don’t apologize for citing the preciousness of such a bond. Nor for calling out the cruelty of separating a mother and her breastfeeding baby.

I wonder, if God loves as a mother, how can we ignore the divinity in the human love of a mother for her child? And be the one to cause such suffering?

Yes, I hear about the numbers coming. I know it’s challenging for us. We’re doing the best we can here in El Paso. And that’s the question I ask of myself, and of all of us – Are we doing the best we can to address the humanity before us? To consider that maybe there are more positive solutions to what we’re calling a “humanitarian crisis”? And to ensure we do not have a hand in causing the suffering.

Virginia Is for Lovers

Virginia Jennifers home June 2018
View from my friends Jennifer & Rob’s yard

I love Virginia. I was so thrilled to be back visiting my former home that I pretty much wandered around with a continuous smile.

First there was the effects of all that spring rain. Virginia’s mountains and hillsides glowed with a vibrant green carpet. Trees and vegetation along the roadsides were so full, they seemed to reach out to embrace me.

I treasured hikes and gatherings with dear friends. Enjoyed surprise encounters with old friends at a special wedding. Spent time with Davis – always a treat – and got to see the wonderful adults some of his high school friends have become.

Virginia has given me so many precious memories and such special heart connections, who wouldn’t smile?

Even crossing the state line and seeing the familiar “Virginia is for lovers” slogan got me.

Virginia is for lovers

But I can’t say my entire trip was filled with goodness and happy thoughts.

Back home at the border things were heating up. Even before I left El Paso, we were seeing cases of asylum seekers being jailed and their children taken from them. In the week that followed my departure, a difficult and painful situation had deteriorated from bad to worse.

Not that I was watching TV news. But between emails from friends and contacts back home, along with snippets of Internet news, I couldn’t ignore what was happening.

Soon, along with the joy of being back in Virginia, I was carrying a heaviness on my heart. It accompanied me into bed at night and awoke with me every morning.

Seeing faces in the news similar to those of the families I accompany, knowing the pain and distortion they were being subjected to, I couldn’t rest easily. After all, I’ve listened to their stories, played with their shy children, prepared and eaten plate after plate of reheated rice and beans with them.

Maybe right about now you’re asking, how does this relate to the title of your blog post?

I admit that finding words to express all I’ve been experiencing these days is challenging.

But I’ll try.

Sunday while hiking in the Gila National Forest, I met a Navy veteran who’d lived in Virginia. When he discovered Virginia had been my home for 30 years, he shared his not-so-positive opinions about the commonwealth.

Far from the “Virginia is for lovers” motto, he saw Virginians as racists still living in the pre-Civil War era, honoring the Confederacy, stuck in time. (I should note he was Caucasian.)

Clearly, his “reality” differed greatly from mine.

Not that there aren’t people who act this way, but this is not the Virginia nor the Virginians I know.

This guy’s stereotype was not indicative of the special place where we raised our son.

Davis learned about love in Virginia. He learned compassion, not judgment. Acceptance, not racial profiling. He learned to meet people where they are and be generous with what he has.

My heart connection with Virginians has created a different reality.

It’s those heart connections – both in Virginia and on the border – that prevent me from lumping people into derogatory categories. Or labeling them “racists,” “animals,” “criminals” who are “infesting” us.

I could not malign and dismiss the people of Virginia any more than I could the families of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras who come to our hospitality houses.

Why? Because living on the cusp of what’s happening at the U.S.-Mexico border, I’ve experienced a different “reality.” Thankfully, a reality many of my Virginia friends wanted to hear about. And I’m so grateful for their listening open, loving hearts.

“Do you know what hurts so very much? It’s love. Love is the strongest force in the world, and when it is blocked that means pain. There are two things we can do when this happens. We can kill that love so that it stops hurting. But then of course part of us dies, too. Or we can ask God to open up another route for that love to travel.” 
― Corrie ten BoomThe Hiding Place: The Triumphant True Story of Corrie Ten Boom

I agree that love IS the strongest force in the world. Love can turn things – and people – around.

And something else about love.

Love is strong and fierce in defense of those it loves. Love is not cowardly. It takes risks. Lovers do not sit quietly by while those they love are maligned.

My Guatemalan Muse
Painting of a Guatemalan mother and child by Diego Sisay that hangs above my writing desk

I don’t intend to be silent in support of people I have come to love.

I make no apologies for the pain and anger I feel in my heart when I see a video of a Guatemalan mother, reunited with her 5-year-old son at the airport, sobbing into him as she tells him in Spanish that she loves him.

The pain that we have been inflicting on these children is a violent act. It is anything but love. It goes against the grain of what love is.

It goes against who I am.

This is not a time for silence or inertia. It’s a time for lovers – lovers in the true sense of the word – to speak up.

Spreading Hope

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Hope.

This post is dedicated to spreading hope.

It may seem like there’s not much of it around. Especially with all the disheartening and discouraging news out there. But good things are happening, too. People are mobilizing for positive change.

People like you and me.

And today you have an opportunity to join me in spreading hope.

In fact, I can’t do it without you.

That’s what this story is about. An opportunity to make a positive change in the life of one special mother and son. A mother who has already suffered so much.

Blanca is an asylum seeker who came to one of our ports of entry with her 12-year-old son, Luis, to save his life. After her husband, a military officer, in El Salvador, was assassinated, Blanca tried to stay in her country. She and her two sons moved 15 times in four years, hoping to stave off the gangs threatening them.

But without police protection, it was impossible to keep her family safe.

Her older son finally fled on his own. Eventually, Blanca and her youngest son also had to leave. And in October 2017, they arrived in El Paso, asking for asylum.

That’s when the unthinkable happened.

Rather than place them in a family detention center or release them on bond, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) separated Blanca and her child, putting her in detention and Luis in foster care.

This is a practice we never allowed before now. Until the Trump administration decided to use separation of parents from their children as a deterrent.

As you can imagine, it is heartbreaking to witness. Seeing a mother who has been separated from her child.

Blanca and son
Blanca and her son Luis

If you’re a parent, you can especially understand the unimaginable pain.

But here’s where you come in. With your dose of hope.

ALDEA – the People’s Justice Center, a non-profit committed to representing separated families, decided to take on Blanca’s case pro bono. And they’re located in Reading, PA!

They had to fly to El Paso to visit Blanca, research their case, and attend her hearing. And on the day of Blanca’s hearing, something amazing happened. The judge ruled she had “credible fear” and ordered her released on bond of $7,500!

This doesn’t happen often with El Paso judges. And he set her bond at a reasonable amount, to boot. Believe it or not, the average is $20,000 or more.

But Blanca has no money.  So, ALDEA set up a GoFundMe account for her.

In little over a week, we have raised nearly three-fourths of the money we need.

This gives me hope.

So many good-hearted people who want to do the right thing by a mom desperately wanting to be with her son again.

So many people who believe in what is possible.

Will you join us in spreading this wave of hope for Blanca and Luis? Any amount you donate is greatly appreciated.

And it adds to the flow of positive energy to counter and balance all that negativity out there.

Blanca in detention
Blanca in detention (photo taken from Houston Chronicle article)

Here’s the link to the GoFundMe page: https://www.gofundme.com/FamilyReunificationBondFund

 

If you’re interested, here’s Blanca’s full story, as reported in the Houston Chronicle: http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Her-husband-murdered-her-son-taken-away-a-12462658.php

Her husband murdered, her son taken away, a mother seeking asylum tells a judge, ‘I have lost everything’

 

Thank you for spreading hope.

 

Girl Imprisoned

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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.

Drawing the Face of God

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Imagination, innocence, and trust. Qualities I love about children.

On the days I’m fortunate enough to serve at the Nazareth Hospitality Center, I get to witness these qualities. Interacting with the children is the highlight of my day.

But when the migrant children first come through our doors, their faces reveal anything but trust.  Their eyes search me, as if for a sign. Some cling to their parent’s side or try to crawl in their mother’s lap. Others sit quietly on folding chairs as I explain to their parents where they are and ask the necessary questions to fill out our paperwork. Sometimes when I bend down to tell a child my name and ask his or hers, I get no answer. The little girl glances away shyly. The little boy pulls closer in to his mother. I wonder what they’ve experienced on their journey. And I’m aware of the place they just came from—an Immigration and Customs Enforcement holding facility.

I ask if they are hungry. And I smile. A lot.

After a while, they respond. They begin to trust that we really do care about them here and that this place is safe. Once a child joins in my game of peek-a-boo or lets me chase him like a make-believe dragon, I feel reassured that despite whatever they’ve experienced, their imagination and innocence are still intact.

Besides, once they see the toy room, they can’t hold back. Before long, I hear the sounds of giggles traveling down the hall and plastic wheels being dragged across the linoleum. Or I’ll walk by and catch a budding artist concentrating on her picture. Later she’ll ask me for tape so she can add it to our wall collection of drawings from the hundreds of children who’ve passed through this center. Most likely her colorful drawing will include words like “blessed” and “thank you” and “God.”  Always the children are thankful. No matter what they’ve experienced.

Luis, a young man who volunteers at Nazareth, knows a lot about the migrant children. About their innocence and imagination. Their trust. And their faith. In addition to taking classes, studying, and juggling a full schedule, for the past six years Luis has volunteered with his church’s immigrant ministry. On weeknights and some weekends he visits and works with the children and youth confined to detention centers.

These children are what our government calls UACs — unaccompanied alien children. That means they’ve come to the border without a parent. Unaccompanied children under 12 are put in a foster care-type system until they’re reunited with a parent or deported. Youth 12-17 are placed in a very structured and secured detention center.

When Luis asks the children why they’ve come, the top two reasons he hears over and over are:

#1 – “To be with my parents/my mother.”  Often the child’s parent came to this country years ago to work and support the family. Some haven’t seen their mother since they were toddlers.

#2 – “To escape the violence.” Now more than ever children tell Luis of being threatened by gangs. Girls often don’t even go to school for fear of being raped. They tell him no one can protect them.

Luis has many stories about the children and youth he’s encountered. Tough stories to hear. Stories about the pain of being separated from parents for years. Stories about things children shouldn’t have to endure.

But Luis has something else, too. A very special scrapbook filled with drawings and letters from the children. They say how blessed they are to have known Luis. In their neatly printed letters, they thank him and thank God for him.

child's drawing of Our Lady of Guadalupe
child’s drawing of Our Lady of Guadalupe

And then there are the drawings. So precious. A seven-year-old’s version of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A young teen’s intricate painting.

But there’s one unusual drawing that Luis especially likes to explain.

One day he’d asked the little kids at the center to draw a picture of what God looks like to them. Six-year-old José presented a colorful, oblong-shaped object up at the top of his page with his name above it.

Not having a clue as to what it was and not wanting to hurt José’s feelings by trying to guess, Luis simply asked him.

“An airplane,” the little guy answered.

Confused, Luis asked, “So, José, why is God an airplane?”

“Because God is fast like an airplane. And I know that if I have God in my heart, God will be the fast plane that will take me to my mom.”

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Trauma. Heartbreak. Disappointment. Uncertainty about what’s going to happen tomorrow.

This is what these children experience. Yet they remain innocent. They still have faith and trust in a God who is present no matter what. And their imagination soars. Just like José’s airplane.

It makes me wonder. If I’d been through what these kids have, how might I draw God?

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