Vol­un­teers of­fer a warm wel­come

At a Texas bus sta­tion, they guide im­mi­grants newly re­leased from detention cen­ters.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Molly Hen­nessy-Fiske molly.hen­nessy-fiske @la­times.com

SAN AN­TO­NIO — An im­mi­grant mother and her small son walked into the Grey­hound bus sta­tion last week, newly re­leased from fed­eral detention. She car­ried their few be­long­ings in a clear plas­tic bag la­beled “Home­land Se­cu­rity.”

Four more moth­ers fol­lowed, all from Cen­tral Amer­ica, all stunned, ex­hausted and clue­less in this city 240 miles north of the bor­der. Glendy Ro­das Al­varez, 22, f led gang vi­o­lence in Gu­atemala with her 2-yearold son, Jack­son, hop­ing to join her hus­band and sis­ter in San Rafael, Calif.

Half a dozen vol­un­teers came to the fam­i­lies’ aid, ex­plain­ing their bus tick­ets, show­ing them their des­ti­na­tions on a map, of­fer­ing cell­phones, food, clothes, toys and shel­ter beds.

At a nearby shel­ter, a worn note­book tes­ti­fies to the im­mi­grant moth­ers’ num­bers and reach. More than 500 have passed through since March, headed for Los An­ge­les, New York and Miami, but also for the Pa­cific North­west, Mid­west, North­east, Deep South and the na­tion’s cap­i­tal.

“Peo­ple don’t re­al­ize this is hap­pen­ing,” said vol­un­teer Me­lanie Chaf­fin, 38, a stay-at-home mother of two who came for a week from con­ser­va­tive Lubbock.

More than 68,000 im­mi­grant fam­i­lies, many from Cen­tral Amer­ica, crossed the south­ern bor­der last fis­cal year, spark­ing what Pres­i­dent Obama called “an ur­gent hu­man­i­tar­ian sit­u­a­tion.” His ad­min­is­tra­tion has been qui­etly ex­pand­ing fam­ily de­por­ta­tions and detention.

So far this fis­cal year, 20,850 fam­i­lies have crossed the bor­der, com­pared with 39,113 this time last year, a nearly 50% drop. The gov­ern­ment has ex­panded from one fam­ily detention cen­ter in Penn­syl­va­nia to four, the two new­est and largest both south of San An­to­nio. A fa­cil­ity in New Mex­ico closed in De­cem­ber.

More than 4,500 im­mi­grants have been de­tained since last sum­mer, and the cen­ters are ex­pand­ing to house 3,500 peo­ple at a time by year’s end.

Op­po­nents say the detention cen­ters, run by pri­vate cor­rec­tion com­pa­nies that con­tract with the gov­ern­ment, are prisons where women and chil­dren are sub­jected to abuse and ne­glect. Some frus­trated im­mi­grant moth­ers de­tained for months have staged hunger strikes and sued the gov­ern­ment. Their lead­ers were al­lowed to bond out last week be­fore a visit Mon­day by Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary Jeh John­son and, later this month, by a con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion op­posed to fam­ily detention.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials de­fend the sites, which they call “res­i­den­tial cen­ters,” as pro­vid­ing qual­ity food, hous­ing, ed­u­ca­tion and med­i­cal care.

Vol­un­teers in Texas pro­vide stop­gap legal and so­cial ser­vices. The San An­to­niobased non­profit Refugee and Im­mi­grant Cen­ter for Ed­u­ca­tion and Legal Ser­vices, or RAICES, and a lo­cal In­ter­faith Coali­tion car­pool to visit moth­ers at the detention cen­ters, write to them and raise money to pay their bonds. So far, they have raised $214,000 for 78 women and chil­dren.

At the bus sta­tion last week, vol­un­teer Ed­win De La Riva, 20, a pre-med stu­dent at Sam Hous­ton State Uni­ver­sity, in­ter­viewed one mother.

Cle­menta Pablo Geron­imo, 28, had fled ru­ral Gu­atemala with her 10-year-old son, Andy. They were trav­el­ing to join cousins in Oak­land.

“Do you have a lawyer?” De La Riva asked in Span­ish. Pablo nod­ded. “Do you know his name?” De La Riva asked. She shook her head. RAICES has been try­ing to com­pile in­for­ma­tion about where the fam­i­lies are from, how long they have been held, their bond amounts and des­ti­na­tions in the U.S. to bet­ter rep­re­sent them and en­sure they have pro bono at­tor­neys where they’re go­ing, said Jonathan Ryan, the group’s ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor.

“The gov­ern­ment uses their fail­ure to re­port to court as a rea­son to de­port them,” he said, not­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion has sped up im­mi­gra­tion court hear­ings for fam­i­lies and un­ac­com­pa­nied chil­dren, with faster so­called rocket dock­ets. This fis­cal year, im­mi­gra­tion judges have or­dered more than 11,000 fam­ily mem­bers re­moved as of April, 87% be­cause they never ap­peared in court.

Ryan noted that at least seven women who had be­come out­spo­ken ac­tivists at the Karnes City detention cen­ter were re­leased be­fore John­son’s visit.

“Th­ese are cases that have been re­viewed many times with the same facts and cir­cum­stances,” Ryan said. Be­fore mem­bers of Congress come, he added, “They’re try­ing to get peo­ple out so there’s no one for them to visit.”

Gil­lian Chris­tensen, a spokes­woman for Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment, said the cases were re­viewed as part of an ini­tia­tive an­nounced last month af­ter a fed­eral judge in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., ruled in fa­vor of the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union in a class-ac­tion law­suit and or­dered the ad­min­is­tra­tion to stop us­ing high bonds as pun­ish­ment.

Delmi Cruz and her son Alexis, 11, were among those re­leased from Karnes last week on $5,500 bond, cov­ered by RAICES dona­tions. They had been held for 11 months.

Af­ter­ward, at a vol­un­teer’s house, Cruz de­tailed de­te­ri­o­rat­ing con­di­tions in­side the detention cen­ter: A Hon­duran woman had been de­ported af­ter at­tempt­ing sui­cide, she said. ICE of­fi­cials in­sist the woman merely had a wrist abra­sion. A Gu­atemalan was de­ported af­ter suf­fer­ing a mis­car­riage, she said. ICE of­fi­cials also dis­pute this.

Be­fore her re­lease, Karnes of­fi­cials warned her that speak­ing out about fam­ily detention could hurt her im­mi­gra­tion court case, she said.

Cruz, 36, is head­ing to Los An­ge­les, where her 6-yearold son has been in rel­a­tives’ care. She plans to fly back to Texas to meet with the con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion later this month.

“We have to be brave,” she said. “There is a lot of injustice.”

At the bus sta­tion, vol­un­teer Car­los Afanador, 55, said he tries to re­as­sure women. “We al­ways tell them, ‘Wel­come to the United States,’ ” he said.

“We are not all like the jail peo­ple,” added his wife, Catalina, 52.

A Gu­atemalan mother had ar­rived with her 9-yearold son, headed for Los An­ge­les af­ter 15 days in detention.

Rosaura Perez, 27, was rail-thin, the arms emerg­ing from her black teddy bear Tshirt nearly as slen­der as her son’s. Freddy Guz­man Perez’s gray jeans and striped polo shirt hung on his thin frame as he clutched a bat­tery-op­er­ated key­board. He wel­comed the vol­un­teers with a gap-toothed grin.

“It’s a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis,” Chaf­fin said.

“That’s why we’re all here,” said Carla DeMore, 31, a law stu­dent who came from Tucson to vol­un­teer. “Be­cause it’s just not right.”

The vol­un­teers waited with the women, of­fer­ing re­as­sur­ance as well as back­packs of food, toi­letries, and toys. Then they helped them line up with their chil­dren shortly be­fore mid­night to board buses and roll out into the dark­ness of an un­cer­tain fu­ture.

Molly Hen­nessy-Fiske Los An­ge­les Times

VOL­UN­TEERS Car­los Afanador, left, and his wife, Catalina, right, at the Grey­hound sta­tion in San An­to­nio with a Gu­atemalan im­mi­grant and her son.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.