Vol­un­teers open hearts and home to asy­lum-seek­ers

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Nation & World - BY MOLLY HEN­NESSY-FISKE Los An­ge­les Times

Tug­ging wag­ons loaded with chicken din­ners, blan­kets, coats and shoes, Mike Be­na­vides and his part­ner, Ser­gio Cor­dova, guided half a dozen vol­un­teers across the bridge from Texas into one of Mex­ico’s most dan­ger­ous states.

They walked past Mex­i­can cus­toms and headed to a group of about two dozen mi­grants camp­ing un­der tarps at the foot of the bridge. Days be­fore, the vol­un­teers had brought them the tarps.

It’s a rou­tine re­peated ev­ery evening as the vol­un­teers en­ter Mex­ico to feed and clothe the stranded asy­lum-seek­ers.

U.S. cus­toms of­fi­cers sta­tioned at the cen­ter of the bridge wave vol­un­teers through but keep asy­lum-seek­ers from en­ter­ing the coun­try. Mex­i­can im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials in­struct the mi­grants to add their names to a wait­ing list that has now stretched to 80 peo­ple. Some had been wait­ing for more than a month.

The lucky ones would be al­lowed to cross the bridge, be held in im­mi­gra­tion de­ten­tion and then re­leased at the bus sta­tion in Brownsville. There, some of the same vol­un­teers would greet them with do­nated back­packs of sup­plies, break­fast tacos and help de­ci­pher­ing their bus tick­ets and court pa­per­work.

In a sense, it’s the new El­lis Is­land, but run by lo­cal vol­un­teers.

“Ser­gio and I some­times feel like we’re spit­ting on a bon­fire. Shouldn’t they have the Red Cross or some­body over here?” said Be­na­vides, 49. “But if we don’t do it, they go hun­gry.”

Asy­lum-seek­ers surged into Matamoros and sur­round­ing Ta­mauli­pas state even be­fore a mi­grant car­a­van ar­rived in Ti­juana last week. With at­ten­tion fo­cused on the car­a­van, asy­lum-seek­ers here say they’ve lan­guished.

Ta­mauli­pas is a per­ilous place to get stuck wait­ing. Drug car­tel vi­o­lence – kid­nap­pings, dis­ap­pear­ances, killings – has turned it into one of the most dan­ger­ous states in Mex­ico. Some of the U.S. vol­un­teers like Cor­dova hadn’t crossed the bridge in more than a decade.

Now, Cor­dova said, it’s a daily mis­sion. “If we’re not go­ing to the bus sta­tion or the bridges, we’re sort­ing clothes. There’s no free time.”

He and Be­na­vides started cross­ing to help the mi­grants af­ter vol­un­teer­ing at the bus sta­tion in nearby McAllen in July. Sep­a­rated due to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “zero tol­er­ance” pol­icy, mi­grants were be­ing dropped off there by Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment with no­tices to ap­pear in im­mi­gra­tion court.

The next week, the cou­ple posted a do­na­tion drive on Face­book, gath­ered items at Sam’s Club and be­gan tak­ing them to mi­grants at the Brownsville bus sta­tion and across the bridge in Matamoros. If mi­grants were sick, Be­na­vides and Cor­dova picked up med­i­ca­tion and took it to them. Be­fore long, they rented an apart­ment near the bor­der bridge for $440 where fel­low vol­un­teer Bren­don Tucker, 23, started cook­ing the nightly din­ners they de­liver.

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