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.

Ground of All Being_Quotes_Creator_20180910_111517

.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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Spreading Hope

choose-hope-

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.

 

Where Have All the People Gone?

common-humanity

Fear. Uncertainty. Sadness. Deep Concern.

These are just some of the feelings I and many others have been experiencing lately.

Yesterday ICE conducted immigration raids in Las Cruces, New Mexico, the town right next to El Paso. We’ve heard such raids will be happening here next.

At the Nazareth migrant and refugee hospitality center, our numbers have dropped dramatically over the past few weeks. ICE brought us only seven people yesterday. This afternoon we closed down for the rest of the weekend. Where have all the people gone?

Although I can only speculate as to what’s happening, I can tell you for certain that it’s not because the violence has decreased in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Are those who are presenting themselves to Border Patrol at the bridge asking for asylum being turned away? If so, it’s a certain death sentence for many if they return to their country.

Or are they possibly being sent directly to detention facilities?

Hoping to get some answers, I attended a meeting of the Borderland Immigration Council last night. Instead, my eyes were opened to the increase in blatant cases of denial of fundamental human rights and dignity that is happening right here in El Paso.

Family separation. Due process violations. Unaccountable and arbitrary denial of attorneys’ requests for migrants’ stays of removal. Even for a person with the most urgent humanitarian claims.

In some cases, mothers have even been separated from their children and put in detention. That’s not something I’d heard of happening before.

Yet, sadly, it is.

One woman who had been separated from her five-year-old daughter suffered so much stress, she gave up her case for asylum after being detained for five months with no contact with her daughter. The child had been placed in foster care, and at some point, grown so distraught, she had stopped eating. As a mother, that’s heartbreaking to me.

A Mexican woman who had been beaten and tortured by her boyfriend in her country and then threatened by the Mexican government for exposing their ineptness in helping her, came to the U.S. seeking asylum. Instead she was thrown in detention and treated like a criminal. “I was living in hell there, and I came to another hell here,” she said in an interview.

Case after case I heard of people being treated inhumanely.

It seems we have turned immigrants into “the other.” Criminals. Job stealers. Leeches.

Easily labeled as “bad.” “Wrong.”

Even worse, we have made them disposable, invisible, valueless.

And allowed ourselves to believe that their lives don’t matter. Or somehow matter less than ours.

Compassionate leadership. American values. Humane treatment of other human beings. Wise and thoughtful decision-making.

This is what I seek from my elected officials. And if not, then they need to be held accountable. No matter what their political affiliation.jimmy-carter

Creating greater division among people based on politics, religion, race, country of origin, even differences of opinion, will not heal us. It will not make America great again.

Nabbing undocumented people who have no criminal record and are positively contributing to our society will not make us safer or richer. It will only instill greater fear in our society.

It already has.

As people on this planet we share a common humanity. A oneness with the divine Creator. Knowing that divine spark lives in each of us enables me to have faith in what is possible.

And to hope that the people will come back. Both those who seek safe refuge and those who allow themselves to “see” the other.

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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